Recently, I was chatting with some friends when one posed the question “If you could have dinner to celebrate an important occasion at any restaurant (with money not being part of the decision) where would you have the meal?” One friend selected an expensive restaurant in St. Catharines while another chose an Italian restaurant with a great reputation in Niagara Falls. When it was my turn I answered “Swiss Chalet”. They were not impressed. (Full disclosure: I have no financial interest in that particular restaurant chain).
The reason for my response was simple. As I mentioned in a previous post, I think the most important thing about any meal is the people with whom you eat it. You can spend several hundred dollars in a restaurant with exquisite decor, marvellous cuisine and wonderful wine. Such an experience would be a treat for the senses which would certainly leave a lasting impression on those who ate the meal. Yet, there is no guarantee you would be any closer to those individuals at the end of the evening. You could accomplish the same goal in a Swiss Chalet (or even at Tim Horton’s). I know because I have been to lavish dinners where at the end of the night I knew nothing more about my companions than when we started eating. There is nothing wrong with having dinner at an expensive restaurant as long as you are aware of what you are trying to accomplish.
According to Luke’s Gospel, Jesus took part in simple meals (Lk. 10:38-42) and formal dinners where everyone had to know their place at the table (Lk. 14:7-11). In both cases he used the opportunity to teach an important lesson about getting one’s priorities straight. He was concerned about the people involved with the meal rather than its content or the social conventions which accompanied it.
These texts also provide some insights into the meal which is at the core of our faith: the Mass. I have celebrated Mass in an ornate shrine while on pilgrimage and on a picnic table on a family camping weekend. I have worn vestments worth several thousand dollars and those purchased for a modest sum. I have used a gold chalice encrusted with jewels (it wasn’t mine) and a metal one decorated with only a simple cross. On all those occasions those gathered heard the words of Jesus in the Gospel. They witnessed ordinary bread and wine consecrated into the body and blood of Christ and later received it in Communion. During the Mass, the rich and poor, educated and ignorant, socially refined and rough were all the body of Christ. While the esthetic experience may have been different, the spiritual result was the same. It was the same Gospel, Eucharist and Church.
A while ago I was talking with someone who had just returned from a trip to Rome where they went to Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica. She commented on how it was more beautiful than their local Eucharistic celebration. Yet, what makes the Mass beautiful? Is it the setting, choir, vestments or vessels? Or is it the presence of Christ and the people who gather to be with him. It got me thinking about my priorities in the celebration of Mass.
Those in ordained ministry or undergoing formation for it are rightly taught how Mass should be celebrated properly. Included in this instruction is the importance of creating a prayerful atmosphere by how the Church is designed and furnished, the quality of the books, vestments and vessels used and how one conducts oneself on the altar. Yet, some clergy may take these concerns too far. While beauty is important, so is humility and simplicity. A place where people feel welcome and encounter Christ indicates the most important thing about any meal (including the Eucharist) are the people with whom you share it.
Finding the right balance is a pastoral challenge. In any parish, everyone has an opinion on Church furnishings and vestments. They should because it is their parish. However, their comments usually reveal their true priorities.
Meals are about people. The Mass is about making Christ present to the faithful in a way that builds relationships.