I still remember being terrified as the day of my Confirmation approached. Back then part of the rite was being slapped on the face as a sign that Confirmation made us soldiers of Christ. It turns out the slap was more of a velvet touch, but it did make me take the Sacrament seriously.
Deacon Greg thinks that the omission of the Confirmation slap might have something to do with our loss of awe. I think that he is on to something. Too many Confirmands and their parents see Confirmation as a graduation from the Church and not an insertion into the Body of Christ. Oh and never mind joining up as a soldier for Christ!
I once jokingly said to my pastor, “Once they stopped slapping us, that was when things slid downhill.” It sounded funny at the time. But as I think of it now—like that symbolic slap from long ago—that crack carries the sting of truth.
Somewhere along the way, the church lost a sense of severity, of seriousness. Of, well, sin. Our pulpits became lecterns, our pews became chairs, and a slap evolved into a handshake. We replaced “Come Holy Ghost” with “Whatsoever You Do,” and decided to stand instead of kneel. The ominous chords of organs were replaced by the plucking strings of guitars. We designed our churches to have round corners and low altars. We scrapped the habits and unbuttoned the collars and made everything endearingly approachable and utterly bland.
What happened? I’m sure it seemed healthy and constructive at the time. But I can’t escape the feeling that, in the midst of it all we surrendered something vital and valuable: we lost a sense of sacred awe.
We lost that sense of being a part of something greater than ourselves, something with weight and volume, something with shadow as well as light. Something that entailed suffering and hardship and the occasional stinging slap. As a result, we tend to take nothing as seriously anymore. Our sacraments have become sideshows. (Been to a baptism lately? A wedding? A First Communion or Confirmation? It ain’t pretty. Tellingly, the priest who facilitated the confirmation in my parish ordered altar servers to stand watch. They blocked each of the four the aisles and kept parents with cameras from running up to take pictures during the ceremony. It kept some modicum of order. But the fact that it was even necessary is a sad commentary of the state of our sacraments.)
I realize I’m sounding (once again) like the insufferable old fart that I vowed never to become. But attention must be paid. Something is missing in our liturgies—and in our hearts. If we are to experience a renewal in our church, we need to renew, as well, our appreciation of wonder. We need to reclaim a sense of mystery. That includes, I think, a certain seriousness and austerity in our liturgy, in our sacraments, in our lives. We need to know that what we are undertaking is not just a thing of joy, but something more vast and more intimidating than anything we’ve ever encountered.
To be in church, to receive the sacraments, is to stand before the presence of God.
We need to be awestruck.
And maybe that includes, quite frankly, just being struck.