In a book published two years ago Alain de Botton, an atheist philosopher, suggested a secular, irreligious equivalent of Christian worship, mainly based on the Catholic ritual of the Mass but deprived of any religious meaning. He constructed this idea on the assumption that non-believers can have a similar communal experience to that of believers. Similar ideas have been put into practice, and recently very eager British followers have decided to plant them in the USA. It’s interesting to see if this will develop into something big and stable, lasting beyond the initial excitement and novelty. Personally I have doubts that this kind of gathering has any long future. The main weakness comes from a misunderstanding of what religion is for its believers. Atheist thinkers can see moral, ethical, ritual and communal aspects of organized religions, but they miss the most important element: personal relationship with God.
Even a very superficial look at religions of the world, despite their significant and distinctive differences, shows that their main aspect involves more or less direct contact with deity; it’s gained, developed and sustained through prayer, meditation or ritual – but all those serve the main purpose: interaction with the supernatural. The most developed, monotheistic religions like Judaism, Christianity or Islam have as their objective a divine, loving and compassionate God. Whatever rituals we perform, whatever prayers we say, we do this because of the very existence of God who listens to us and responds: that’s what we believe. The massive crisis in religious life that has been emptying our churches over the last 20-30 years is a result of neglecting that personal relationship with God, and focusing overly on rituals and moral aspects. But the latter make little sense without the former.
Today’s gospel is John the Baptist’s testimony about Jesus. It’s a bit strange in its form, because is addressed to nobody in particular – but therefore to everybody who listens to it. John is pointing at Jesus as the only objective of his own ministry, as he says: ‘it was to reveal him to Israel that I came baptising with water.’ In a certain way, John diminishes what he himself has done; the baptisms he’d performed on the banks of the Jordan served one ultimate purpose: revealing the Messiah, the Chosen One, sent by God to his people. When that purpose is fulfilled, John’s ministry is completed, and he steps aside. His own disciples follow Jesus and become his first followers.
When we read the New Testament we can be astonished how very little it says about moral and ritual aspects of Christianity. In fact even when it does, it’s in a very close and tight connection with believing in Christ. The person of Jesus is at the centre of the message being passed on by the apostles. St Paul was fighting fiercely against keeping Old Testament rituals for their own sake; for him they were worthless without Christ, and believing in Christ rendered them redundant. Nowadays Pope Francis has been trying to pass on a similar message: that the centre of our religion is the person of Christ Jesus, and that everything else in the Church must serve the building of personal relationships with him. The Church has nothing else to offer but Christ – any other ministry must find its source in him.
Many of us might wonder how to encourage our family or friends to go to church. It’s a waste of time, because they can find very little or nothing interesting in the church. What they need is to meet Jesus Christ, the God incarnate, who lives and can change people’s lives. It can be done in the same way as it has been done over the centuries: by personal testimony about him by me and by you.