This past Epiphany, I blessed chalk during the Mass. It was the first time our parish had engaged in this particular practice. Each person who attended was given a piece of chalk to take home with them, along with a set of instructions for scrawling the formula for a blessing over the doors of their homes: “20+C+M+B+17.” It was a strange thing to do. People in the neighborhood would later stare at our doors and wonder. It made no sense to the world. Many people thought it was weird.
To that I say, good. It is good that Christians are weird. The weirder we can be, the better.
We in the West live in a culture in which Christianity is increasingly alien. Despite the fact that much of our cultural understanding of things like human rights and social responsibility is still loosely based on a Judeo-Christian ethic, our societies in America and Europe have become increasingly secular and hostile to Christian faith. Our culture’s priests today are celebrities and scientists (and the celebrity scientist is the most prized figure of all — witness the recent controversy over Bill Nye’s new show). Our houses of worship are football stadiums. Our creeds are sound-bite versions of political platforms delivered over social media and cable news.
Yet many people retain a vestigial sense that we were made for something more. Particularly among the young, there is a hunger for an authentic experience of life that will take us beyond the boundaries of consumerism and politics. As the Alpha Course ads from several years back emphasized, many people today want to know that life is more than just a conveyor belt of meaningless milestones inevitably leading to the grave.
The weirdness of the Christian faith is a potent weapon against indifference among the faithful and a strong tool for fanning the flames of curiosity among the unchurched. Strange practices abound in the tradition — Rogation processions, the burying of the Alleluia before the start of Lent, eucharistic adoration, the marking of the forehead with ashes on Ash Wednesday, the washing of the feet on Maundy Thursday, the entire drama of the Great Vigil of Easter. And these are just the liturgical bits. Something as simple as making the sign of the cross in a public place, offering a blessing over a meal, or even carrying a Bible or a prayer book under your arm is enough to get you strange looks in many places today. These things are strange to people who do not understand them. They may even seem frightening.
As Christianity has become increasingly domesticated in its practice in the West, our tendency has been to let these strange practices go or to try to do them in secret so as not to draw attention to ourselves. This has been a mistake. What the current moment calls for is an even greater commitment to our distinctiveness from the world. While emphasizing these practices may turn some people off, many of them were never going to darken the door of a church anyway. Embracing the oddness of our faith reinforces the power of the Christian narrative for those of us already committed to it and sends a strong signal to others that there is something different about the Christian Church, that Christianity is not just one more club or party but a radically unique way of living and being in the world.
This is not to say that we should just seek out weirdness for the sake of weirdness. Not every strange practice is salutary. Whatever we are doing ought to be congruent with the faith proclaimed in Holy Scripture and taught by the great saints of the Church for 2,000 years. In that same vein, while newer practices can be very useful and meaningful, we ought to give a preference to those activities that have a long, rich history in the life of the Church. This is especially true when we are attempting to recover something that has been lost or obscured. The washing of feet at Maundy Thursday, for instance, has been discontinued or played down in many parishes, but it goes back to the New Testament and has been practiced liturgically since at least the post-apostolic age.
These more ancient practices of the faith — and those less ancient but that are aesthetically and doctrinally congruent with more ancient practices — have a ring of authenticity to them that few things do in our age of cultural fluff. This is precisely why many people seek them out, particularly younger people who grew up long after such things had been swept away. Unlike their baby boomer parents and grandparents, they never rebelled against such things. Many younger people therefore are more open to them, feeling like they missed something that had been the heritage of their ancestors. (See Beth Maynard’s post on changing patterns in “contact points” with newcomers.)
The die is cast in the world’s eyes. Christianity is a slowly decomposing relic as far as the chattering classes are concerned. There is no longer anything left to be gained for Christians by playing it safe and hiding our light under a basket. The time has arrived for Christians to be Christians.
Go weird or go home.