During the COVID-19 pandemic, many bishops have canceled the public celebration of the Mass. Live-streamed Mass on the internet has become the new normal worship. There are t dangers to habitually “attending” Mass in the virtual reality of the internet. Catholics can very gradually lose the desire to receive Holy Communion, invoking their internet Mass “attendance” as good enough. Simply put, virtual worship is not real, as the Real Presence is something we physically touch and experience.
We are fearfully and wonderfully made by God, and His crafting of us is undeniably intricate. Our senses help us experience the fullness of God’s creation, and are vital in our worship of God. Traditionally, this is sometimes called the ‘smells and bells’ of liturgy. These smells and bells, in addition to other manifestations of our senses, are of greater importance in our worship than we often acknowledge.
As Catholics, we take our whole body to prayer, and we use more than words. We stand, we sit, we kneel, hear bells, smell incense, feel holy water, cross ourselves, and genuflect. Everything we do has meaning and says something about our faith. The use of all these symbols may seem strange or unnecessary to some, even to some Catholics, and many often dismiss them as unnecessary pageantry that gets in the way of experiencing God.
At Mass we stand when the Gospel is read, out of respect for the very words of Jesus, and we sit to listen attentively to the other scriptural readings. At the consecration we kneel, kneeling being the posture of adoration. What we are doing is praying with our bodies, not just with our minds, and praying in this manner makes perfect sense for a creature composed of body and soul. The postures we use during Mass show us, and those around us, what we believe and what we take seriously.
The Catholic Mass does not need the approval of our culture to be relevant or essential, as it pertains to a completely different reality from our world. The liturgy transcends our time and space, and it invites us into the reality of a Trinitarian God and His kingdom. One of the features of smells and bells is to communicate sacred space, time, and a transcendent experience though our senses. Smells and bells transport a person into an alternative place, in some cases Heaven itself, or the divine presence. These practices are abundant in scripture Isaiah 6, Ezekiel, Leviticus, Revelation, and are consciously imitating ancient Israelite temple rites.
All of this may come across as pious snobbery. Does it really matter if the vestments and the candles and the gestures are just so? Is not Christ just as present if Mass is celebrated on the beach as the finest cathedral? Certainly. Christ is present, but these things matter because our bodies and our spirits are one. Catholic rituals give a sense of authenticity to worship, and they teach us that worship is serious business in which the living Lord comes into our presence, and gives Himself to us. The Catholic principle is not that we need to have all the right accoutrements and do all the right things, or else Jesus will not show up. Rather, it is that we give our very best to God, wherever we happen to be worshipping, because He does always give His very best to us.
Catholicism is a sacramental religion, and is the natural consequence of the Incarnation. God took on flesh (matter) to save us, and he left behind actions that use matter (such as water, oil, and wine) to continue to give us His saving grace. While smells and bells are not essential, they are not superfluous. Smells and bells are signs of honor, and are designed to bring dignity to worship. During Mass, something profound, even mysterious is happening, and we must engage all our senses if we are to fully enter in. Online Masses and spiritual communion do not represent the Church; while important, they are not enough. Our relationship with Jesus is intimate, it is personal, it is physical, and it is in a Church community. Do not become satisfied with this virtual presence, and continue to seek the Real Presence of Jesus in the Mass.