A time ago, a daily Mass communicant I know was standing outside of a local parish church shortly before daily Mass began. As I was walking toward the church she was walking away toward the parking lot. I said to her, “Aren’t you able to go to Mass today?” She replied, “No, I ate a late breakfast and so broke the Communion fast; and there’s no sense in going if I can’t receive.”
I kept walking, but was totally thrown off by that comment and was torn by a mixture of, “I know what she’s getting at,” and “That’s the only reason she goes to Mass?” So I turned around and said to her, “Hey, you can at least make a spiritual Communion, right?” She stopped, turned back and said, “Yeah, you’re right. Thanks for mentioning that. I’ll go.”
Over the next several weeks I thought long and hard about that comment, about what it presupposes and what more there is to it. So I thought I would share a few thoughts from those scattered thoughts.
Mass as liturgy
In Catholic lingo, the Mass is “liturgy.” The Catechism beautifully defines liturgy for us as “an action of the whole Christ (Christus totus).” So, when we participate in the celebration of the Mass we are participating in the action of the whole Christ, i.e. the Risen Christ and his Body, the Church, acting in unison.
When I hear that I say, I want in on that action! But then I have to ask myself, what exactly is that action?
Well, the Church captures the entirely of Christ’s action in a pithy phrase you’ll hear now and again in the texts of the Mass: the paschal mystery. The paschal mystery is the comprehension-exceeding mystery of Christ’s “Passover” from death to life, his death and resurrection. But in truth it encompasses the entire saving work of God in Christ, from his humble conception in the womb of the Virgin to his glorious coming in power at the end of the ages to judge the living and the dead and reveal the new creation. The liturgy, therefore, contains all of this like a cup overflowing.
Let me share with you the journal entry I wrote after this incident in which I tried to capture some of the immense dynamism of this divine liturgy we mere mortals are called to enter.
In the liturgy, Christ draws the totality of humanity into the fullness of a God who is a “consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29), forgiving us, healing us, sanctifying us, illumining us, giving us a share in the divine life and inviting us to cooperate with him in “storing up treasure in heaven” by gathering up – through faith, hope and love – the materials of the first creation into the new creation. In the liturgy, our small labors, kindled by love for God and enemy, feed the fire that streams from the Throne of God (Daniel 7:10); that fire that will one Day consume the whole cosmos in God’s absolute and saving judgment on all of history. In the liturgy, we mingle our voices with all the Powers of heaven who ceaselessly sing before God and the Lamb; and we fore-taste already now the coming Sabbath of time’s blessed demise. In the liturgy, we are immersed in a sensual sea of signs and symbols that tremble beneath the weight of Glory and blaze with the joys of Paradise. In the liturgy, the in-breaking of God into history transgresses the bounds of time and space and crashes into our unsuspecting present – oh my! In the liturgy, our sins are drowned in God’s mercy, our weaknesses suffused with Christ’s power. In the liturgy, we are, in the words of St. Hildegard of Bingen, “drenched in the speech of God” as God’s Word-made-text overspills the Scriptures into hearts of flesh, uplifted in wafting melodies while at once shattering hearts of stone. In the liturgy, our bodies, bound to the fleshy Word by the Heavenly Spirit, are offered up in Christ’s bloody at-one-ing sacrifice to the everlasting Father; and along with our bodies is taken up, into the Ascending Wounds, all that our faithfully hoping sacrificial love has consecrated in each moment of each hour of each day. In the liturgy, our thanks for the gifts of creation and redemption are united to the thanksgiving of Christ; and our supplications on behalf of the living and the dead are inserted into the ceaseless pleading of Christ before the Face of the Father for us and for our salvation. In the liturgy, the church becomes, in the words of St. Germanus of Constantinople, “an earthly heaven in which the super-celestial God dwells and walks about.” In the liturgy, every ritual gesture, every sacred song, everything consecrated for worship that is seen and heard and touched and smelled and tasted transacts the divine-human communion that burns deep in the Heart of Christ. Pope Paul VI called these the “presences” of Christ in the liturgy, affirming that from the moment we enter the church and douse ourselves in holy water to the moment – impelled by the command, Ite, “Go!” – we sprint to our car to speed off and proclaim the Gospel with our lives in the City of Man, gathering fresh materials for the next Mass, Christ assails us from every which way. No escape. Blessed captivity!
I don’t know about you, but that suffices to get me to Mass, Communion or not.
Enter the whole paschal mystery
Yes, worthy reception of Holy Communion is a solemn and supremely graced moment in the Mass when we “unite ourselves to Christ, who makes us sharers in his Body and Blood to form a single body” (CCC#1331). But, as I have argued above, the grace of the liturgy is far more than that one moment. The entirety of the celebration teems with divine life, is rife with singular opportunities to participate in the paschal “action” of Christ re-creating, redeeming, healing, transfiguring, transforming, sacrificing the whole universe in God, beginning with your heart. So never ever think that participating in the liturgy when you cannot receive the Body and Blood of Christ is somehow “not worth it,” and when you do receive, receive with “fear and trembling,” making the words prayed before reception of the holy Eucharist by Eastern Christians your own:
I believe, O Lord, and I confess that thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the living God, who didst come into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief. And I believe that this is truly thine own immaculate Body, and that this is truly thine own precious Blood. Wherefore I pray thee, have mercy upon me and forgive my transgressions both voluntary and involuntary, of word and of deed, of knowledge and of ignorance; and make me worthy to partake without condemnation of thine immaculate Mysteries, unto remission of my sins and unto life everlasting. Amen. Of thy Mystic Supper, O Son of God, accept me today as a communicant; for I will not speak of thy Mystery to thine enemies, neither will I give thee a kiss as did Judas; but like the thief will I confess thee: Remember me, O Lord, in thy Kingdom. Not unto judgement nor unto condemnation be my partaking of thy Holy Mysteries, O Lord, but unto the healing of soul and body.
Hymn of the Universe
Let me leave you with an extraordinary quote written by Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, (1881-1955), who was a French Jesuit theologian and scientist renowned for his pioneering field work in paleontology. Though some of his work was censured by Rome and he was prohibited from publishing theological works, he was obedient and he produced some extraordinarily creative insights. In quoting him here, I share the sentiments of St. Vincent of Lérins who, when quoting the condemned heretic Origen, famously said, “Who would not rather be wrong with Origen than right with anyone else?” This quote is taken from a long prayer Fr. Chardin wrote while working in a remote part of China. As he did not have what he needed to celebrate Mass one day, he instead offered himself and the world to God. Its profound sentiments have inspired my own ability to enter into the Mass with a greater capacity for offering than a mere tithe check or a few weakly collected sentiments.
Since once again, Lord — though this time not in the forests of the Aisne but in the steppes of Asia — I have neither bread, nor wine, nor altar, I will raise myself beyond these symbols, up to the pure majesty of the real itself; I, your priest, will make the whole earth my altar and on it will offer you all the labors and sufferings of the world.
Over there, on the horizon, the sun has just touched with light the outermost fringe of the eastern sky. Once again, beneath this moving sheet of fire, the living surface of the earth wakes and trembles, and once again begins its fearful travail. I will place on my paten, O God, the harvest to be won by this renewal of labor. Into my chalice I shall pour all the sap which is to be pressed out this day from the earth’s fruits.
One by one, Lord, I see and I love all those whom you have given me to sustain and charm my life. One by one also I number all those who make up that other beloved family which has gradually surrounded me, its unity fashioned out of the most disparate elements, with affinities of the heart, of scientific research and of thought. And again one by one — more vaguely it is true, yet all-inclusively — I call before me the whole vast anonymous army of living humanity; those who surround me and support me though I do not know them; those who come, and those who go; above all, those who in office, laboratory and factory, through their vision of truth or despite their error, truly believe in the progress of earthly reality and who today will take up again their impassioned pursuit of the light.
This restless multitude, confused or orderly, the immensity of which terrifies us; this ocean of humanity whose slow, monotonous wave-flows trouble the hearts even of those whose faith is most firm: it is to this deep that I thus desire all the fibers of my being should respond. All the things in the world to which this day will bring increase; all those that will diminish; all those too that will die: all of them, Lord, I try to gather into my arms, so as to hold them out to you in offering. This is the material of my sacrifice; the only material you desire.