The Holy Eucharist is supposed to be boring. So claims the Catholic theologian James Alison. He says, “When people tell me that they find Mass boring, I want to say to them: it’s supposed to be boring, or at least seriously underwhelming. It’s a long term education in becoming un-excited.”
He’s right, I think. Let me explain.
Alison’s claim about the Mass being boring or unexciting comes in the course of his contrasting false worship with True Worship. Alison has a broad understanding about what counts as worship. In a manner similar to James K.A. Smith’s arguments about liturgy, Alison finds instances of worship in many cultural practices: “football matches, celebrity cults, raves, initiation hazings, newspaper sales techniques and so on,” pretty much any cultural practice that involves the formation of a group of people. For Alison, all these forms of worship are part of the warp and woof of the violence of this devastated world. So, while Christian worship is analogically related to these forms of false worship, it is more dissimilar than similar. To drive home the distinction, Alison uses the Nuremberg Rallies as the example par excellence of (false) worship: worship unqualified is death-dealing and dehumanizing. In stark contrast, Christian worship is “the un-Nuremberg.” The thrust of Alison’s talk is to delineate the difference.
One important dissimilarity is that while Nuremberg-like worship produces a homogenizing unanimity, the un-Nuremberg worship of Christians is one of “respectful unity.” In “the Nuremberg,” as Alison puts it, differences between individuals are drowned in the collective persona of the mob. But True Worship is not totalizing. Christians gathered for worship retain their individual stories in all their historical particularities, “and yet, each story comes, over time, to bear a remarkable resemblance to the story of one who ‘for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame’ (Heb 12:2).” One thinks of St. Paul’s disquisition on the distinctiveness of the manifold members united in the Body of Christ.
It’s at this point in the argument that Alison says that Mass is about “becoming un-excited.” The power of the Nuremberg lies in the mastery of its liturgical organizers to stimulate in the crowd a unanimity of feeling, to whip up the Volk into an ecstasy of love for their Führer, into a frenzy of expectation for sacrifice, and with deadly effect: Ms. Mustermann leaves the rally that much closer to looking the other way when her neighbor Mr. Levy disappears. In short, the Nuremberg is dangerous to the degree it is able to excite.
In contrast, Christian worship is “a long term education in becoming un-excited.” The un-Nuremberg is a detoxification from the lies and violence of the Nuremberg. The paradigmatic act of Christian worship, the Holy Eucharist, does not turn on the exciting anticipation of a sacrifice. Rather, says Alison, the Eucharist is “the dwelling in gratitude that the sacrifice has already happened, and that we’ve been forgiven for and through it.” In the Eucharist, the Lord Jesus (Alison titles him “the forgiving victim”) draws to himself all those gathered from diverse starting positions, giving himself to us, so that, as the Prayer Book has it, “we may dwell in him, and he in us.” Receiving the Body and Blood of the Lord Jesus and being “made one body with him” likely does not feel like much at all, and we will be disappointed if we come to the Lord’s Table in expectation of the sort of frisson produced by the Nuremberg. But then Christian worship is not about the subjectivity of those gathered; it is about the One who gives himself for the life of the world.
Another way to say all this is to say that Christian worship is concerned with contemplation. Christian worship is about gazing on the light of God in Christ Jesus, about being transformed to reflect the glory of God (cf. 2 Cor. 3:18). Contemplation is not exciting, but it is certainly transformative. I’ll give the last word to Rowan Williams who powerfully describes contemplation as:
the key to the essence of a renewed humanity that is capable of seeing the world and other subjects in the world with freedom — freedom from self-oriented, acquisitive habits and the distorted understanding that comes from them. To put it boldly, contemplation is the only ultimate answer to the unreal and insane world that our financial systems and our advertising culture and our chaotic and unexamined emotions encourage us to inhabit. To learn contemplative practice is to learn what we need so as to live truthfully and honestly and lovingly. It is a deeply revolutionary matter.