In the following two chapters, I will share some thoughts that I find useful in helping understand the Mass, and its place in the life of a community. I will also discuss some of the difficulties that people have shared with me over the years, and see how we can deal with those. I don't at all pretend that I have all the answers, but I consider the subject important enough to give it my best shot.
Firstly, let's have a quick look at where the Mass came from, as we know it. I am using the word 'Mass' now, even though I may use the word Eucharist later on, or Eucharistic celebration at another juncture. These are just different names for the same thing. Anyhow, to go back into the origins of the Mass, we have to go back to the time of Moses.
Sacrifices, or offerings made to God have always been part of what people did from the beginning of time. This applied equally whether the offering was made to a pagan god, to many gods, or to the God of Israel. Moses was bringing the people back through the desert into the promised land. In one way, we could say that they believed in one God, and, then again, they were just as liable to make a god out of brass, and adore that.
On one occasion, when Moses returned from speaking to God on the top of the mountain, he discovered that they had made themselves a golden calf, and were adoring that. Anyhow, God made an offer to them, through Moses. God said that he would be their God, if they would be his people. He was offering an agreement, and they were asked to consider it, before making a decision. The big word for this sort of agreement is covenant, because, like a marriage, which is very serious, it is more than just a contract.
I go into a shop, I give the lady a certain amount of money, and she gives me a newspaper. That's a contract ; we owe each other nothing, the job is over and done with. If a couple getting married entered a contract, rather than a covenant, they would find themselves taking turns washing the dishes every second meal, and each would be responsible for cleaning one half the house. Very soon this would become ridiculous, and would be based on law, and not on love.
And so, God offered a covenant. A contract can be broken, whenever I choose, but a covenant is lasting, even when I am unfaithful to it, and it can, and must always be renewed. God said that if the people accepted his offer, they would have to change their behaviour in several ways, not least that there must only be one God from now on. In fact, to give them definite guide-lines, God offered Moses the Ten Commandments, so that, in keeping these, the people would be living within what God expected from them. Again, if they accepted this, God suggested that this covenant should be solemnly celebrated with a meal, at which the covenant would be renewed, and everyone would be reminded of the offer that God had made.
Throughout the centuries, the Hebrews had this solemn annual meal, during which the words of the covenant were read, and agreed to, and they celebrated their special relationship with God. It was at such an annual gathering that Jesus announced the greatest good news of all time. In effect, he said that God was offering a new, and never-ending or eternal covenant, when he would be our Father, if we agreed to be his children. If we accepted that, he was offering two rules, or commandments, and by keeping these, we would behave as he wished, where the emphasis was on loving God, and loving neighbour, and seeing one of those as every bit as important as the other. If we accepted that offer, he would give us a meal, during which we could renew our commitment to this new covenant, while reminding ourselves of the details.
Part of this meal, which Jesus celebrated with his apostles, was the fact that he gave them a wonderful teaching about God's plan, his own love for them, and what would happen when the Spirit came. He then took a basin of water and a towel, got on his knees at their feet, and began to wash their feet. This was all part of the attitude that would go with this new and eternal covenant. It was by their love for each other that people would know they were his disciples. It was by their unity that people would know that he had come from God, because division and conflict are the trademarks of Satan.
It was an empowering awesome meeting of a humble, loving, and serving God with a pitiful, immature, and uncertain group of people, who would soon deny him, betray him, or desert him. He had offered them a covenant, however, rather than a contract, and this could always be renewed. Jesus knew the human heart, and he had personally experienced many human weaknesses, as he lived in our mortal flesh for the previous thirty-three years.
If I may digress for a while, and say that I think it was a pity to have made the connection between Confession and Communion that was part of what I experienced, growing up. There was great stress on making sure that I was good enough, worthy enough, before I dared approach the altar for Holy Communion. I believe in reverence, of course, but the idea that I could make myself worthy, or good enough, is a carry-over from the times of the Pharisees.
I think it is a pity that Eucharist, or Holy Communion, has never been seen as potentially just as forgiving an encounter between Jesus and the sinner, as Confession, or the sacrament of Reconciliation. Naturally, I still see a need for sacramental reconciliation with God, but I also believe that opening my heart, like the publican at the back of the temple, and asking Jesus to come in there as my personal saviour, and bring a whip of cords, if needed; I believe that to be a powerful moment of reconciliation.
The strict puritanical teaching of former times, kept people away from Communion for the slightest failing, and that, I think, was a failure to understand and appreciate the vast scope of love and acceptance being offered us in this new and eternal covenant, that Jesus unveiled at the Last Supper.
Meals have always had a special ritual meaning in our lives. Nowadays, this has gone away beyond the wedding breakfast, or the silver jubilee celebration. Families go for meals now on First Communion and Confirmation days. They spend hours over a meal, returning from a funeral, where many memories are exchanged of the loved one, who has just passed away. I meet an old friend, after many years, and we agree to meet for a meal, so that we can celebrate the memories together.
Meals have taken on a whole new ritualistic importance in our lives today. Of course, we must admit that these rituals could be total charades, and be totally insincere and superficial. It's like everything else we do, when the level of sincerity and genuineness is determined by the spirit that inspires the action.
Because of the necessity for balance between the two commandments about loving God and neighbour, Jesus warns us that coming to the altar is not something we should take lightly. He says that if I bring my gift to the altar, and there I remember that someone is hurting because of me, I should leave my gift right there, go away, become reconciled with that person, and then return to offer my gift.
Once again, I stress that there is nothing automatic about God, nor is there any magic formula for quick-fix, without doing things his way. I could well have more to answer before the judgement seat of God for the Masses that I attended than the ones I missed. It might be common enough to hearing 'missing Mass' being listed as a sin, while seldom hearing that attending Mass, when such was a meaningless charade, was also a sin.
Christianity is about a group of people who come together to provide the hands, feet, voice, and, indeed, body, so that, through them Jesus can continue his work on earth. These people form the body of Christ, and it is important to remember that Jesus is most present among such a group. In other words, Jesus is present in Communion, but he is more present, if I could put it that way, among the worshipping community. In the community, he can touch, and be touched, he can speak, and minister, as well as be ministered to. He can be hurt, rejected, or ejected.
I remember saying Mass one time for a gathering of people, and in the middle of the homily, this poor woman, the town drunk, came up the middle of the church, talking to herself. She climbed in over everybody, and took her place in the front seat. She began to interrupt some of my words of wisdom, and the eyes of everyone in the church were on her, and if looks could kill, she would have died on the spot. Thankfully, no one attempted to remove her, and she fell asleep.
I myself was holding my breath, hoping that she might be accepted as she was, because if I ever come across the body of Christ without the wounds, I know it is a phoney. And here was one of the wounds, and it would have been very wrong to be so religious and pious, that she was not welcome among us. Do you see what I mean by the wonderful way in which Jesus has put us all on the spot!
As a Christian community, our principal assembly point is around the altar, because we are a Eucharistic people, above and beyond everything else. It is there that we are most challenged to become what we are called to. It is there that any lack of sincerity or genuineness in our Christian commitment is most evident. Jesus chose bread and wine as his way of being present among us, as food and drink. He could have chosen any of a thousand other ways, but this was the one he saw as having most meaning. The grains of wheat are gathered, and, after a process, are converted into a single unit, bread. The grapes are gathered, and, again, after a process, are converted into a unit, wine. A group of people assemble, and once again, after a process, are converted into a unit, community.
Now we crushed the wheat and the grapes as part of the process, but how do we form community? Certainly, not by crushing! Imagine, if you can, that I stand up on a table, and begin to speak to an assembled gathering. My voice is low, and is not carrying to the folks at a distance, so they gather closer to me, in their efforts to hear what I am saying. As this happens, they may become aware that, the closer they come to me, the closer they have come to each other. As they gather around me, they notice that they are touching each other. That is how community is formed. By coming closer to Jesus as individuals, we discover that we also come closer to each other.
Imagine that I inflate a large balloon. I use a black marker, with which I put one large mark, and many smaller marks here and there around the outside of the balloon. I then let the air out of the balloon very slowly, and, as I do so, I notice that, as the balloon contracts, the smaller marks all come closer and closer to the larger one, and, in doing so, are coming closer to each other.
The central purpose of Eucharist is to give honour to God, and to build up the community present. It is all about community. I heard of a lady who was very involved in a lively worshipping community. One weekend, she was down the country, where she attended Mass. The whole thing was so boring, and uninspiring, and even the priest looked thoroughly bored. She could hold back no longer, and she prayed out loud, "Praise the Lord!" upon which the priest came down to her, told her this was the House of God, and said, "We don't praise the Lord here!" How perfectly, but, pathetically true!
That is why it was such a distortion, when I was a boy, and the priest stood with his back to me, muttering in a language I did not understand! I remember writing an article some years ago, asking the question "Are there too many Masses in Ireland?" and I concluded that a Mass that does not build up the community present, would be better omitted, because, again, I stress, that there is nothing automatic about this, and it is wrong to think that a Mass is a Mass, whether there is any community present, or whether the community present is involved or not.
I would strongly contend that the Mass is not a private spiritual exercise for the priest, or for anyone else. If I am confined to bed, taking part in a Mass on television or on the radio can help to put me in touch with God, but is but a temporary substitute for being part of the worshipping community, and being actively involved in what is going on. Carrying things to a ridiculous extreme, what do you think of having Mass on a video, that I can play when I feel like doing something religious?!
Jesus bowed his head on Calvary, and said 'Yes' to the Father. He said he had come to do the Father's will. He died once, and once only. I heard a woman giving out about people leaving Mass before it ended, and she said, "Did they ever go to school, did they ever learn their catechism? Surely they know that poor Jesus dies at the Mass, and you'd think they'd wait till he's dead!"
No, Jesus does not die at the Mass. His death on Calvary, his 'Yes' to the Father, like any other 'yes', can be repeated again and again. The prayer of Jesus on Calvary can be offered to the Father, but, unless it involves our 'yes' to Jesus, then we are not part of it. At Baptism, we had water poured on us, as a symbol of our willingness to die. Water represented death for the Hebrews, and they had to pass through the waters of the Red Sea to enter the Promised Land. In baptism, I am committed to do my dying during my life, through the millions of little dyings that are part and parcel of Christian living - through forgiving, sharing, caring, listening, assisting. I bring the water of my baptism back to church, drop by drop, and as the priest holds up the chalice, with the wine in it, which represents the death of Jesus, he puts a drop of water into the wine, to represent our contribution to the offering.
Once again, I can be caught in a total charade and mockery, if those dyings are not a reality in my life. Being present at Mass is powerfully challenging, and it presupposes a maturity that may not always be present. At this stage, I must say that Christianity, from the very beginning, was for adults, and that can account for the fact that young people often cannot see the richness of meaning and symbol that is part of its rituals and rites.
There are two parts to the Mass, the liturgy of the word, and the liturgy of Eucharist. The word liturgy, loosely translated, means a particular work, that has an underlying meaning. It is an external task, that gets its richness from the depth of meaning this is behind the action. If I am being welcomed to a function by a rabbi in Jerusalem, I could very well be offered a pinch of salt to take. This is a symbol of my sharing in the bitterness of their exiles, and the struggles of their people throughout history.
In the first part of the Mass, we are nourished with the word of God. On Sundays and special feasts, this usually is one reading from the earlier part of the Bible, called the Old Testament, one from one of the Letters of St. Paul, or one of the other writers, and finally, a reading from one of the gospels. There is an infinity of difference between the words in a Bible, and something I might read from the daily papers. The word of God is inspired by the Spirit of God, and has within it, the power and presence of God. As the centurion said to Jesus, "Say but the word, and my servant will be healed," or as Peter said to Jesus, "At your word, I will let down the net."
The priest then usually gives some teaching based on the readings. Without wishing to comment on the ability of the priest to give a teaching, I must say that the ministry of teaching played a major part in Jesus' dealings with his apostles. We can use words like sermon, homily, preaching, or any word we wish, but, in the final analysis, it is about teaching, and applying the message to my daily life. The Mass is a meal, where God invites us to share a meal with him, to sit at table with him, and share in the life of his own Son. The word of God is part of the meal, because, as Jesus said "Not on bread alone do people live, but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God." We are nourished by his word.
In the early Christian church, when the people gathered to celebrate Eucharist, which they called the breaking of the bread, it was always preceded by what was called the breaking of the word. The word of God was also thought of as food - food for the soul, the mind, and the spirit.
Then there is the liturgy of Eucharist, which, roughly, has three parts, all linked to each other. Firstly we offer the gifts, God accepts and transforms them, and offers them back to us. This is the Offertory, the Consecration, and the Communion. In the early church, those who were not yet baptised, and fully enrolled members of the community, were allowed attend the liturgy of the word, but had to leave before liturgy of Eucharist. Each had a special significance, and the people were very aware of this.
It is important that we have some understanding of what we do, and why we do it. Worship of God is as old as the human race, and ritual offerings have always been part of that worship. The main difference between Mass and any other form of worship that preceded it, is that Jesus himself is offered to the Father, and the community present is called to be of one mind and one heart in offering the sacrifice. This is both privilege and responsibility, and I cannot have one without the other.
Over the centuries God has made himself present to his people in many different ways. He spoke to his prophets in the whispering wind, he spoke out of a burning bush, and he came among us as one of ourselves, in the form of a helpless baby. Jesus said that where three or more were gathered in his name, he would be there in the midst of them. In Eucharist, he makes himself present to us in the form of food and drink.
When the Israelites wandered through the desert for forty years, God provided food for them, in the form of bread, called manna, which they gathered each morning. It was life-giving, and sustaining. Moses, at God's instructions, struck a rock, and water gushed forth, to quench the thirst of his people. God was seen by the Israelites as someone who was always caring for them. For us, his presence in Eucharist is a constant presence, reminding us of his continual concern for our well-being.
In summary, then, we have a constant reminder of his new covenant with us, and our obligation to continually re-commit ourselves to our side of that offer. God is faithful, and he never reneges on his promises. Through the prophet, he told us "I will never forget you, my people. I have carved you on the palm of my hand. I will never forget you, I will not leave you orphan, I will never forget my own. Should a mother forget her baby, or a woman the child of her womb? Yet even if they forget, I will never forget my own."
At the Last Supper, when the first Mass was celebrated, Jesus said that we are his friends. He was condemned by the religious leaders of his day, because he was a friend of sinners and outcasts, and he even ate with them. Eucharist is where the sinner is invited by the Saviour to join him in a meal, as a special friend, and to cement that friendship in the breaking of bread. The Indian tribes passed around a pipe of peace, as a symbol of acceptance among the tribe. Jesus shares his own life with us, and greater love than this no person can have.