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The Book of Exodus and why coming back to Mass matters

The moral law directs our wills to the divine goodness, but the liturgical law directs our minds, our hearts, our emotions, and yes even our bodies to the divine splendor.

(Image: Josh Applegate |

In connection with an academic project of mine, I’ve recently been poring over the book of Exodus and numerous commentaries thereupon. The second most famous book of the Old Testament is concerned primarily with the manner in which God shapes his people so that they might become a radiant beacon, a city set on a hill. On the biblical reading, Israel is indeed chosen, but it is never chosen for its own sake, but rather for all the nations of the world.

I would say that this formation takes place in three principal stages: first, God teaches Israel to trust in his power; secondly, he gives Israel a moral law; and thirdly, he instructs his people in holiness through right praise. The lesson in trust happens, of course, through God’s great act of liberation. Utterly powerless slaves find freedom, not by relying on their own resources, but rather upon the gracious intervention of God. The moral instruction takes place through the Ten Commandments and their attendant legislation. Finally, the formation in holiness happens through a submission to an elaborate set of liturgical and ceremonial laws. It is this last move that perhaps strikes us today as most peculiar, but that has, I will argue, particular resonance in our strange COVID period.

That education in religion involves moral instruction probably seems self-evident to most of us. And this is because we are, willy-nilly, Kantians. In the eighteenth century, the philosopher Immanuel Kant contended that all of religion is reducible to ethics. What the religious thing is finally all about, Kant argued, is making us more just, loving, kind, and compassionate. In contemporary language, Kantianism in religion sounds like this: “As long as you’re a good person, it doesn’t really matter what you believe or how you worship.”

Now, there is no question that the book of Exodus and the Bible in general agree that morality is essential to the proper formation of the people of God. Those who would seek to follow the Lord, who is justice and love, must be conformed to justice and love. And this is precisely why we find, in the great Sinai covenant, injunctions not to steal, not to commit adultery, not to covet, not to kill, etc. So far, so Kantian.

But what probably surprises most contemporary readers of the book of Exodus is that, immediately following the laying out of the moral commandments, the author spends practically the rest of the text, chapters 25 through 40, delineating the liturgical prescriptions that the people are to follow.

So for example, we find a lengthy section on the construction of the ark of the covenant: “They shall make an ark of acacia wood; it shall be two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. You shall overlay it with pure gold, inside and outside you shall overlay it.” And as an ornament on the top of the ark, “You shall make two cherubim of gold. . . . Make one cherub at the one end, and one cherub at the other. . . . The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat.”

Next, we find instructions regarding the elaborate furnishings inside of the tabernacle, including a lampstand, a table for the so-called “bread of the presence,” pillars and various hangings. Finally, an enormous amount of space is given over to the description of the vestments to be worn by the priests of Israel. Here is just a sampling: “These are the vestments that they shall make: a breastpiece, an ephod, a robe, a checkered tunic, a turban, and a sash. When they make these sacred vestments. . . . They shall use gold, blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and fine linen.”

No indication whatsoever is given that the moral prescriptions are somehow more important than the liturgical prescriptions. If anything, the contrary seems to be the case, since Exodus is followed immediately by the book of Leviticus, which consists of twenty-eight chapters of dietary and liturgical law. So what are we post-Kantians to make of this? First, we should observe that the biblical authors do not think for a moment that God somehow requires liturgical rectitude, as though the correctness of our worship adds anything to his perfection or satisfies some psychological need of his. If you harbor any doubt on this score, I would recommend a careful reading of the first chapter of the prophet Isaiah and of the fiftieth psalm.

God doesn’t need the ark and the tabernacle and priestly vestments and regular worship, but we do. Through the gestures and symbols of its liturgical praise, Israel is brought on line with God, ordered to him. The moral law directs our wills to the divine goodness, but the liturgical law directs our minds, our hearts, our emotions, and yes even our bodies to the divine splendor. Notice how thoroughly the ceremonial instructions of Exodus involve color, sound, and smell (there is an awful lot about incense), and how they conduce toward the production of beauty.

I said above that Exodus’ stress on the liturgical and ceremonial has a profound relevance to our time, and here’s why. For very good reasons, we abstained completely from public worship, and even now our ability to worship together is very limited. In most dioceses in our country, the obligation to attend Sunday Mass is, again for valid reasons, suspended. My fear is that when the propitious moment arrives, when we are again able to return to Mass, many Catholics will stay away, since they’ve grown accustomed to absenting themselves from worship. And my concern takes a more specifically Kantian form: Will many Catholics say to themselves, “You know, as long as I’m basically a good person, what’s the point of all of this formal worship of God?”

Could I recommend that you take out your Bible, open to the book of Exodus, especially chapters 25 through 40, and consider just how crucially important to God is the correct worship offered by his holy people? Liturgy has always mattered. The Mass—involving vestments, ritual gesture, smells and bells, song and silence—still matters, big time. Isn’t it enough that you’re a good person? Not to put too fine a point on it: no.

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About Bishop Robert Barron 203 Articles
Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. He is the creator of the award winning documentary series, "Catholicism" and "Catholicism:The New Evangelization." Learn more at


  1. With all due respect, Bishop, people will not be staying away because they have “grown accustomed to it”. They will stay away because they feel their church hierarchy made them understand that their souls were far less important then their bodies. That their Bishops and Cardinals agreed to government demands of closure with NO END DATE given. And if a vaccine is not found and this current situation goes on for YEARS…… Then what? Your remark that the closure happened ” for good reason” reveals your position. Its becoming clearer every day that the death rate, while sad at any level, is not high enough to justify the draconian measures taken, and agreed to by our church. Churches could have remained open with proper precautions taken for the elderly and social distancing. That option was not apparently considered. . What IS the answer to your parishioners Sir, if the periodic shut-down DOES go on for years?? And if people are deprived of the Mass , the Eucharist, etc for YEARS, is that still WORTH the “good reason”? When does LIVING like a human being and the care of the soul take priority over constant caution? The AIDS virus for example, has NEVER found a vaccine. There is no guarantee of a vaccine for Covid either , optimism notwithstanding.For that we can only pray. Or, can we? Mass was not only canceled, Churches were LOCKED in many places. People lay dying in hospitals alone and without benefit of the last rites. The final indignity was being refused a church funeral.In many BLUE states, churches are still closed or restricted in function. Do you not imagine THESE issues are on the people’s mind? I can guarantee they are.

    • lj,
      To be fair, back in March and April we were hearing predictions of 1.5 to 2 million US deaths. Everything the news outlets showed us from abroad looked terrifying. It seemed fair to put life on hold for a short time. Churches were closed during the Spanish Flu epidemic also.
      At this point in time we know a little more about the virus and can see how fear is being used as a political tool to extend lock downs beyond what’s reasonable. Christians need to stand up for their rights but we’re in a better place to do that than 4-5 months ago.

      • We are in a somewhat better informed place, but all we hear from the church is crickets. Catholic churches in California are still closed and Mass being celebrated in parking lots. The church stands as the moral enemy of the proponents of abortion in those states and its a certain bet those governors are thrilled with the damage, both moral and financial ,being done to the church during this shut down. Many parishes will not survive the blow. Catholic schools are closing ( over 20 in NYC alone). It is PAST time for the Bishops to speak up and give the govt a deadline. Failing that, many parishioners would be willing to engage in civil disobedience and come to church ANYWAY, no matter what the atheist politicians say. Sadly, Justice Roberts sided with those justices who care nothing for religion and allowed the govt to close the churches . How is this possible? Given our written constitution, even a kindergarten student would have ruled differently. Our next move then is to have underground churches as they do in China. Our Bishops have allowed our govt to do what our early Roman persecutors could not–close our churches. If the Bishops cannot lead us, they need to get out of the way and make room for those who can.

        • lj,
          I can’t speak for the churches in California but our churches have been open for sometime now and Mass attendance is good. There’s some seating restrictions to space folks apart but the overflow congregation attends outside and listens to the Mass on the PA system. Father or a deacon brings Holy Communion outside also. I think that’s resourceful and commonsense.
          I certainly agree that churches have been especially targeted during the lockdowns but I don’t believe that’s been the case in our state.

          • You are fortunate. You sound like you have a tiny church?? Our church seats 800 and you could fly a kite in there now, it’s so empty. People are both afraid and angry, and many, especially the elderly, have stayed away. We are operating ( even with social distancing) at less than half of our previous number. Many in the church support ministries( servers, Eucharistic Ministers) have not returned either. Those are generally your most stalwart members. Besides those who were anxious to go back to Mass and Communion, we have had Catholic weddings “postponed”. In some cases those couples have finally settled for civil ceremonies and will likely not be back. Ditto those who had babies who have not yet been Baptized.Confession is another compromised sacrament. Not everyone wants to shout their sins at a priest 10 feet away in a parking lot. This shut down will have a negative domino effect which will be felt for a very long time. The longer it goes on anyplace, the worse the damage will be.

    • I agree. My first response was to take exception to…“For very good reasons, we abstained completely from public worship“. Why is it that we have all become so afraid for our lives? Do we really need to protect our lives at the expense of worshipping God? Bishop Barron, I think you are right about people not coming back to mass, But, why should they think worshipping a God is all important when we are told to listen to the government tell us worshipping God is not important, but protesting is? I have heard that during the Black Plague the clergy was decimated because they were giving up their lives to come to the aid of the sick—rather than telling everyone to stay home.

      Remember, Jesus said, “And do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.“. He was talking about persecution, but it seems that we should all want to get to heaven more than anything. Are we Christians or materialists?

  2. “First, God teaches Israel to trust in his power.” Yes, so where is God’s display of power in our day so that people may come to trust in him? I speak for many who are saying to God and to the Church’s clerics, “Time to prove faith is worth something. You show me, and then I’ll believe more fervently. But with all the crap that’s happening and God apparently doing nothing to help and the Church looking and acting like a pathetic, impotent, ineffectual, obsolete group of fairy-tale believing nobodies, time for a display of power. Then we will have reason take the moral code and the liturgical demands more seriously.” It doesn’t help that the consecration of the country to Mary in May hasn’t done any good. If prayer works, where are the benefits? Show your power. Show it.

    • Interesting. You say the same thing to our Lord and His suffering Mystical Body as they did when He was on the cross, “if you are God, then…”

      • Interesting, the apostles whom Jesus personally chose and who knew him better than anyone else for three years fled during the crucifixion. Only after evidence for the resurrection and Jesus’ personal appearances to them did they believe; they didn’t believe Mary Magdalene’s report on her word. Only after the display of God’s power did they have renewed faith. You want to go biblical? I can do it too. Where’s God’s power? Even the apostles disbelieved until they saw God’s power at work.

        • Of course they believed. When Jesus asked, ” Who do YOU say I am ?” Peter answered that he had come to believe that He was the Christ, the son of the living God. Being a believer doesnt mean you are not afraid at times. And John at least did not flee. Levels of belief come at different moments for all. Thomas, even after hearing from the others about Christ’s resurrection, still said he needed to put his fingers in the nail holes. Jesus said to him, “Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” A line from a favorite ( non-religious) movie: “Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to.” Faith and proof are two very different things.

    • Kevin,
      I believe prayer sent Hurricane Laura first through the Louisiana salt marsh wetlands where there’s virtually no population.
      If the storm had wobbled 10 miles to the west, Lake Charles would have been completely inundated from the shipping channel.
      The damage is still there but it’s absolutely nothing like what was predicted. Praise God.

    • I take it you know better than God how things should happen.

      Amazing how human being of piddly brains think they know better.

      • When God’s people suffer and God doesn’t help them, that’s not having a piddling (what you meant to type) brain, it’s using your brain to wonder why God doesn’t do anything to help. The Prophet Jeremiah also complained to God in quite explicit terms for his absence and lack of help for his people. “Why is my pain continuous, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed? To me you are like a deceptive brook, whose waters cannot be relied upon.” (Jeremiah 15:18) Did Jeremiah have a piddling brain? He is one of the major prophets, and his words are Revelation.

        • Humans always want instant answers but unfortunately God does not work that way in general. He works through his people. WE are his hands and his feet and the ones to help each other. I read a book which said, “Jesus wears our face” when we do works of mercy.Some have suggested the current pandemic and riots are a judgement on the country. I am not necessarily in agreement with that idea but that is how some see it. You recall the Israelites going into the Babylonian Captivity for 600 years , their nation destroyed, due to their unfaithfulness to God. God is not a bakery where you take a number and then request what YOU want, and get it. Hence the phrase in the Our Father ” THY will be done.” Easy so say, not so easy to do. All we can do is pray he has mercy on us and the Country. What happens then is up to HIM.

      • In some states the churches are closed. Or attendance highly restricted. At this point it is clearly suppression of religion and political partisanship. If you want to know where this is happening, check where the riots are going on under Dem control and you will have your answer. Why did our religious leaders cede this right to the govt??

  3. Regarding delivery of the TEN COMMANDMENTS, what about this from St. Irenaeus: “From the beginning, God had implanted in the heart of man the precepts of the natural law. Then he was content to remind him of them. This was the Decalogue” (Cited in Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, On the Way to Jesus Christ, Ignatius, 2005).
    A possible parallel exists between Islam and original Lutheran theology (and even Manichaeism!) which see the human person as a fatally-determined duality between good and evil. BUT, the Catholic teaching is that man from the beginning is splendrously good—yet now taken down a peg by the original sin of self-referential pride (in the form of evil inclinations or “concupiscence”).

    We fall sinfully, including slothful forgetfulness of our interior life and the Lord’s Day.

    But, by the SACRAMENTAL LIFE and each (non-sacrilegious) reception of the Eucharist, we are restored fully (!) to the spiritual condition of our Baptism. And the Council of Trent even declared that the baptized are “…made innocent, without stain, pure, no longer hateful, but beloved sons of God, heirs, indeed, of God and joint heirs with Christ (see Rom 8:17) so that absolutely nothing delays their entrance into heaven….” (Canon 5).

    Today, might Catholics remain away NOT SIMPLY because they become used to it, but because they have not been reminded (evangelized) of who they really are, and of the extravagantly-gifted sacramental life conferred by the incarnate Second Person of the Triune Oneness? Of the testimony of earlier successors of the apostles, G.K. Chesterton had this to say:

    “Those runners gather impetus as they run. Ages afterwards they still speak as if something had just happened. They have not lost the speed and momentum of messengers; they have hardly lost, as it were, the WILD EYES OF WITNESSES [….] We might sometimes fancy that the Church grows younger [still?] as the world grows old” (The Everlasting Man, CAPS added).

  4. Bishop, you have wonderful writing on liturgy and art and your accompanying pictures are always very traditional. You do not, however, seem to appreciate that what you describe – and what Vatican II called for – does not correspond to what we have and promote in the Church today. Your final conclusions always seem to be that there is currently no problem with liturgy. You describe all the parts but don’t recognize the whole. I am not talking about the Tridentine Mass; we don’t even have the Mass, piety and theology that Vatican II called for and yet I always get the sense from your writings that the Spirit of the Council is gone with the 1970s and everything ‘for very good and valid reasons’ is really ok now. Things are just as beautiful as ever. What you wonderfully describe does not match the reality in the Church today. Fr. Fessio has a great article in the out of print Catholic Dossier (Sep 2000), The Mass of Vatican II. I know someone in Rome said the Reform of the Reform is over but I hope that wasn’t Ex Cathedra because we still don’t have the Mass that Vatican II called for. I wish you would recognize that because you are greatly needed. (Also see the Mass of Vatican II at Ignatius Press.)

  5. Dear Kevin, When Christ hung for 3 hours on the Cross, did He show His power? When He was scourged and spit on, dragged and beaten and ridiculed by the high priests of the day, did He show His power? No, He did not show anything but the greatest love known to mankind, just as He is doing now. But we have allowed ourselves to be a ‘no God people’. He may be giving us exactly what we want.

    • Mary Kiely – your 7:37. Actually he did show his power – he said to Didymus the thief on the cross who had asked him “remember me when you come into your kingdom” – “today you will be with Me in paradise.”

      THAT’S power. One cannot even begin to imagine what Didymus felt when hearing that.

    • Sure doesn’t feel like love. And this has been dragging on for months. Years, if you count all the decline and corruption in the church. It’s looking like God is absent.

  6. Dear Bishop Barron –

    If Christianity and the Catholic faith are nothing more than “a privileged way” to salvation, then by this impoverished reasoning, it follows that going to Mass every Sunday is optional.

    This impoverished and misunderstood notion of Christianity is the engine of “The Non-Evangelization.”

    It indicates a grave disorientation, toward a merely “natural religion,” the kind confected for 50 years by The McCarrick Establishment.”

    It markets itself as irrelevant to those who hunger and thirst for Christ.

  7. An article about the corresponding issue in the Protestant churches:

    A Protestant Apocalypse, by Carl R. Trueman


    In conversation with many ministers, I have noticed one key concern again and again: How many Christians will return to church once COVID has stabilized? It is anecdotal at best at this point, but the figure often cited in my presence is 30 percent: Three out of every ten pre-COVID worshipers might stay away for good. One friend told me that his denomination’s leadership has informed its ministers that a third of its congregations might close within the next few months.

    That figure may prove to be as hyperbolic as many of the other figures that have been bandied about regarding COVID. But it has a chillingly credible feel to it. Many of us have heard people commenting on how watching a church service online at leisure on a Sunday—or whatever other day of the week is most convenient to the consumer—has proved rather attractive. And this raises a number of obvious questions: Why not? Is anything lost thereby? How might those of us who think physical presence at worship is essential respond?

    • Perhaps another reason why the Amish are the fastest growing denomination in North America. They can’t tune in church services on TVs or phones so it’s not even an option.
      Ditto for conservative Mennonites.
      I keep seeing books and articles written about lifestyle options for Christians who want to live apart from the spirit of the world. It’s grand that Christian authors and publishers have this venue to explore but I always wonder why they don’t venture into their own backyards and observe the Amish and Mennonites?
      A trip to Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Georgia,
      Indiana, or Ohio is a whole lot cheaper than a flight to a European monastery. New York and other states have thriving Amish communities also.
      We don’t need to become Anabaptists anymore than we are required to become Benedictine monks but we can certainly learn something from their communities.

  8. lj,
    Yes, we do have a small church because we’re in a rural area but our Mass attendance is pretty much back to normal. The parking lot is full to overflowing Sunday mornings.
    Some older folks or those with health issues stay in their vehicles or bring lawn chairs to sit outside.
    We have a bell tower that plays hymns and chimes the hours and Father broadcasts the Mass from it. You can hear the Mass throughout most of the village. It’s pretty loud.

  9. While there were laws that Moses received as part of the Covenant he received on Mt. Sinai, the Levitical law was restrictive due to the sin of the people in worshipping the Golden Calf.

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