During my elementary school days, I rarely missed an episode of “Reading Rainbow” at 4:00 and “Square One” at 4:30 on PBS. For my siblings and me, this was an important, if informal, ritual of time and place, drawing us into the comfortable milieu of the living room and offering an hour of respite between homework and dinner. In the summer, we would stay up late to watch Nick at Nite, and Saturday mornings were for cartoons. Truly, we were children of the ‘90s.
With my own children, I am struck that they don’t understand the concept of TV shows happening at a specific time. This is a profound generational difference. Thanks to subscription services, YouTube, and DVR technology, their favorite shows and movies are available “on demand” at any time of day or night. And with tablets and mobile devices, they can watch them almost anywhere – outside, in the car, in the doctor’s waiting room, and so on. My two children don’t even have to agree to watch the same thing, which is lucky; at ages 12 and 4, their tastes are very different. On the rare occasions that we find ourselves watching live television, my children get frustrated that we cannot “skip” the commercials.
Various technologies have vastly improved our access to entertainment. Arguably, this makes our lives better. Nevertheless, it robs us of those rituals of time and place. My children have other rituals that I hope will create fond memories, but they don’t include the kind of communal gatherings around the TV and anticipation of new episodes that I remember from my childhood.
As people of faith, one of our most treasured rituals is the Sunday liturgy. It happens at a familiar time and in a familiar place, consistently week after week. The liturgical year brings the reliable cycle of solemn days and seasons. Even beyond the sacramental significance of the celebration of Mass, there are smaller things — markers of time and place — that bring comfort. A favorite parking spot, “your” pew, a favorite restaurant that you often visit after Mass. All of these become part of the routine that imprints on our memory. As Catholics, we know that the “things we do” are not arbitrary but intentional. They say something about who we are and what we believe.
In some ways, access to “virtual” liturgies has prolonged the time/space disruption that resulted from the pandemic. Convenience erodes ritual. This is as true for Saturday morning cartoons as for Sunday morning Mass. As we come out of the pandemic, it will take some effort to restore a sense of liturgical time and to make it part of the ebb and flow of our lives again.
If you can, go to your beloved church. Say hello to your favorite people. Reclaim your favorite parking spot. Sit in your favorite pew. Touch it and thank it for being there to support you. After Mass, visit your favorite diner and order the usual. Restore the rituals of time and place.