Pointless and Useless… But Not Meaningless

A thought came to me while I was at mass this morning.

This really is a particularly useless activity. In fact, what we are doing in this place, this morning, may be the most useless and pointless thing human beings will ever do.

Think about it. Worship produces no wealth. It achieves no political goal. It advances no material or even social progress. Nothing is made, or built, or brewed, or brought into being. Hunger is not sated in this “meal.” Thirst is not quenched. Justice isn’t achieved.

We have nothing to show for the time spent hearing the priest invoke the presence of God in our midst, nothing concrete, nothing material, for all the times we reply “and with thy spirit” and “amen.”

And yet, look at what wealth that has been poured into this. A church, hewed out of stone and sent spiraling into the heavens in 1894. Light filters in through stained glass carefully constructed by artisans most-assuredly now long-dead. I sit in a pew made of wood crafted from trees likely felled a half-continent away and maybe more than a century ago. The priest raises a chalice of brass or gold painfully extracted from the earth — likely by men and women ill-paid for their labor, if they were paid at all — and wears a costly garment, a chasuble, made, used, and worn solely for this purpose. This very brief moment.

He speaks words he did not write, words that he half-reads and half-remembers, words that have been carefully preserved, curated, and translated, from nearly two thousand years ago.

[T]he Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:23-26 ESV)

It might be one thing, all of this, if we were somehow appeasing God, taking this time out of our lives in order to prevent disaster from befalling us. If, in doing this, we truly believed we were keeping the sun in the sky one more day, or making sure the rain would indeed fall, or that winter would not last forever, or the grain would grow.

Or, that if I put just one more nickel in God, I would forever be healthy, wealthy, and wise.

But I’m not doing that. We’re not doing that. We’re not throwing a virgin into a volcano here, or ripping beating hearts out of sacrificial victims in order to guarantee the fertility of the land for another year. We’re sitting watching a man raise a poorly made and awful tasting thin wafer of wheat, claim that it’s somehow now become the body of God, and then hand out bits of wafer to all present.

“The body of Christ, given for you.”

Outside, cars zoom past. People walk by. The sun will set tonight and rise again tomorrow. The seasons will come and they will go. Whether we do this or not, human beings will love, hate, build, and break. They will beget and they will die. All the while the world will spin its way through the heavens, unconcerned, oblivious.

Pointless, all of it.

There’s something glorious in that. In the uselessness of all this. Sure, tell me my day is spiritually better for having been in this place. It’s true. But let me be honest — I’m still anxious and desperate and poor and unemployed, and that didn’t change merely because I spent a half an hour in a church and took a bit of food some words had been said over. Nothing materially changed. There’s no magic here.

Just people. Faithfully doing something useless, unreasonable, and absurd. Every day.

Once, this activity commanded respect. It brought commercial and social life to a halt. Bells rang. Whole cities were gathered together. Perfect round wafers of bread were hoisted high and processed through towns, or placed at the of heads of advancing armies, and people groveled and trembled in respect and adoration. If it could not be partaken of, at least it could be seen. Glimpsed. Beheld.

A man who wanted to be the King of France once said a throne was worth this, these words, this act.

But today, who would surrender or sacrifice anything for this? It has no power, no potency, no respectability anymore. So, we the foolish sit and listen. The world makes its way around us — time has not come to a halt, love and war and commerce have not stopped. But we have come to a halt. We worship.

The world doesn’t care. That should be okay with us.

It is right that, this honoring of a dead-but-risen God, the proclaiming of his flesh in bread and wine and the eating of that flesh, should be so useless and so irrelevant. It is right that the world finds us inconvenient and even pointless, something that makes no sense, something that stands in the way, something that must be gone around.

It is not right that his life, and his death, and his rising, should be so intertwined with law and power and order. He stood up to those things, questioned them, challenged them, even denounced them. He died at the hands of law and power and order — a fact we should never forget.

In living, and in rising, he redeemed the unredeemable, forgave the unforgivable, called those no one valued to follow.

But after nearly two millennia, an age in which the church rose to create one of the most splendid and powerful civilizations humanity has ever seen, we still do not know what to do with the forgiveness and redemption our Lord proclaimed. We still do not know what to do with our crucified and risen Lord’s words:

It is I; do not be afraid.

I am afraid. I am afraid I shall never work again. Or have a home of my own. Or that anyone will ever take what I say or do seriously. I am terrified of this.

But I am not afraid of looking foolish. I am not afraid of the world having to step around or over me because I take seriously this useless thing we do with bread and wine. I am not afraid of the promises of God. I trust those promises.

And so, I come to this pointless place — church — built by people no one but God wanted, to do this useless thing — worship God. Because I was called to follow. Because I can do no other.

I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.

6 thoughts on “Pointless and Useless… But Not Meaningless

  1. It is one of my pet ideas that no one knows what the word “worship” means any more. Including me. There is a nag in the back of my head telling me that I won’t know until I write a novel about it, somewhat in the style of Stephen King. I do believe that worship must have something spontaneous about it – which doesn’t mean that it can’t also be liturgical and formal in some way. Worship should have that spontaneous quality of tears of joy and terror which come after a near brush with death. Or with life.

    You are right that it should be okay with us that the world doesn’t care. Except for that other spontaneous response of joy and terror – speaking, acting and being the gospel.

    You shouldn’t worry that no one will ever take what you say and do seriously. Some people already do; I don’t think that there is a threshold beyond which one is gratified by serious attention. Even if your book wins a Pulitzer, then you worry you’ll never write another one as good, etc.

    I worry more that people WILL take me seriously in my holy tomfoolery. Then I will be held responsible for every careless word….

  2. BTW, I don’t think you have Henry IV construed right (or is that deliberate). When he said that Paris is worth a mass, he was being cynical – that in order to be King of France, he could override his conscience, cease to be the leader of the Protestant faction and convert to the Roman church, which was the precondition presented to him. However, he did as King extend official tolerance to Protestants, which got him assassinated by a Catholic fanatic a few years later. And the wars of religion raged on and on……..

  3. There is a great French film from the 90’s called La Reine Margot [Queen Margot] which begins with the marriage of Henry (who is King Henry III of Navarre at the time) and Marguerite, sister of the French king. Loads of Protestants have come to Paris for the event, and tensions explode into the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Thousands were killed, spreading to other parts of France as well. At the time, the royal residence was The Louvre, which was apparently riddled with intricate corridors and secret passages. Henry had to pretend a conversion then to stay alive, which he later denounced when back among his own people. I’m not surprised he was willing to feign a new set of beliefs if it would finally make him the all-powerful ruler in a city where he was once in effect a prisoner. I expect the film is loose with the historical details. It’s based on a novel, by Victor Hugo I think. But it gives some of the flavor of the times (the 1570’s) and the origins of the intense Catholic-Protestant animosities of the next couple of centuries.

    France finally suppressed the Reformation faction, but as a result the final backlash came from atheists two centuries later, so that secularism is now practically the official state religion. Similarly in Spain, where the Inquisition held the lid on until the 1930s, and Franco kept up a semblance of continuity for a few more decades. Where is the faith in Europe now? A liberal Catholic Austrian historian, Friedrich Heer, wrote just after WWII that for a thousand years religious authorities in central and western Europe suppressed all heresies with ferocious violence, but without quashing a single heretical idea, which still exist now in the same locations, though sometimes in a more secular version. Governments can spread a great deal of misery if they want, but they can’t force people to change the way they think.

  4. Hi Charles,

    This really resonates with me on one level, even on a Christian level. Do others in our churches see what we see, feel what we feel, know what we know ? In a church divided at almost every level, do we really experience being a part of His body in unity with His broken body ?

    Even within families, our experience of God my be dis-jointed with our spouse. Within society, this feeling prevails as it becomes more secular and as the church continues to lose relevance.

    However, on another level, this Eucharist is the most important thing. If one engages the heart and tries on a daily basis to remember Christ in some way, this becomes the focal point of each week where our spiritual life is renewed and strengthened. It can be the point where our spirit can transcend the problems of life for a moment & re-focus on the “realty” of life and bypass the illusion of the senses.

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