In the first reading this morning at Mass there was the familiar story of Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush on Mount Horeb. Approaching the Theophany, and thus the presence of God Moses received the following instruction:
Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground. I am the God of your father,” he continued, “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob. (Ex 3:4-5)
And here we see an ancient form of reverence. It is interesting that, to my knowledge, Jews no longer use this sign of reverence. But Muslims still do. I remember being outside the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and seeing hundred of pairs of shoes lined up on the patio outside. A Muslim would not think to enter the Mosque without first removing his shoes.
The Jews however are very strict in insisting that men, Jewish or not should not go before the Western Wall or pray with heads uncovered, and there are men nearby, at the Wall who enforce the rule strictly and provide carboard-like yarmulkes for men who did not bring one or some other head covering.
Here in America, the thought of taking off ones shoes or being in Church without shoes would be thought of as highly irreverent! And for a man to go into a Church without removing his hat is often scolded by an usher. It would also seem that the Gentile world had this norm since St Paul, though himself a Jew, wrote Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head…A man ought not to cover his head, (1 Cor 11:4,7). He further indicates in the same place that a woman ought to cover her head.
And thus we see that culture has influence on signs of reverence and, while there have been different forms of it here and there, some equivalent of “Remove the sandals from your feet…” has been observed. Until now.
Until now? Yes, it would seem that there is really no observable and/or agreed upon way in our modern American culture that we “take off our sandals” and show some sort of reverence and acknowledgemnt that we are on holy ground, when we come before the Lord in our parish churches.
It is not just that women have shed veils (sadly I would opine – more on that HERE and HERE). But beyond that, almost no one dresses in any special way for Church these days. “Extreme casual” would seem to be the norm of the day, to look in most parishes. Most people don’t even think to change their clothes for church, there is a “go as you are” mentality. Further, other signs of entering the Church such as sacred silence, and genuflecting are increasingly absent.
It was not always this way. Even in my own short life I remember when going to Mass on Sunday was a formal affair, at least before 1970. As a young boy and teenager I had special Sunday shoes, hard black ones, and would not dream of going to church in jeans or a t-shirt. We were expected to wear pressed trousers, a button down shirt and tie, along with a jacket in the cooler months. The ladies all wore dresses and veils. (See picture of a youth Mass from 1968 above right). Church was a special place, Mass was a sacred occasion. On entering Church we were expected to maintain a sacred silence, and, upon entering, to bless ourselves with Holy Water and genuflect on entering our pew. Silent prayer was expected of one prior to Mass.
These were ways we “removed our sandals” and acknowledged we were on holy ground and before the Presence of the Lord.
Today this seems all but gone. A few “old folks” keep the traditions, and, interestingly, some younger twenty-somes as well! But for the vast majority of Catholics today, at least here in America, there is little visible or tangible equivalent of removing the sandals from our feet.
I will not even argue that ALL the old traditions should return, (even though I would like that). But at least we ought to recover SOME way of signifiying that we are on holy ground and before the presence of the Holy One of Israel, the Lord of glory.
I am aware that I will get some who say all this “stuffiness” will “turn people off.” But of course Mass isn’t just about pleasing people, it is about adoring the Lord who is worthy of our praise and our reverence. I am also aware that some will take the critique I offer here further than I personally think we need to go.
All that is fine. Where exactly to reset the line is debatable, but the bottom line seems to be that there ought to be some culturally appropriate that we fulfill the admonition of God to “Remove your sandals for the ground on which you stand is holy, I am the God of your fathers.”
How say you? Perhaps we can together start a trend (old) trend.
Video: Mass in the 1940s, as artistically remembered. It is a wedding Mass, albeit, but people usually dressed close to this way on Sundays too (perhaps minus the corsages 😉 ), according to old pictures: