Repost from 2019
On Friday, a seminarian I know texted me a photo of a page from Ven. Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s A Priest is Not His Own, and said beneath it, “I thought you’d like that.”
My God yes.
Sheen was describing to priests, as celebrants of the Mass, the meaning of the Offertory — the offering of gifts of bread, wine and alms as “my sacrifice and yours.” How eloquently Sheen expressed the mystery of a ritual action that is so often reduced, in most people’s minds, to fishing for money or dropping envelopes in the basket. Or maybe checking the watch to where we stand at Half Time.
Do the Faithful have any idea what they are really transacting in? Are saying “Amen” to? Giving over? Such ignorance profoundly weakens the Offering’s potential effect to change lives and transform the world. Literally. Annie Dillard captured my sentiments in a passage I seem to quote every other week:
Does any-one have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.
It’s why I get concerned when I see programs or schemes that over-focus on what people should “get out of Mass” by reducing Mass to emotional satisfaction or learning outcomes. By doing this, we strip Liturgy of its vast, mysterious, transcendent and terrifying power. The late Fr. Aidan Kavanagh makes this point:
Although the liturgy does indeed ‘teach,’ it teaches as any other ritual does – experientially, non-discursively, richly, ambiguously, and elementally. Liturgy, like the feast, exists not to educate but to seduce people into participating in common activity of the highest order, where one is freed to learn things which cannot be taught.
Okay, so here’s a nutty stream-of-consciousness scenario that runs through my head as I write:
Jerry: “Hey, what did you get out of Mass today, Tom?”
Tom: “Oh, well, hmm, let me think. Well, you know when they pass the collection plate around and then bring the gifts up?”
Jerry: “Sure, what about it? Did you realize you had an empty wallet when the basket came by?”
Tom: “Ha! No, thank God. Well, it was a little different for me. I found myself handing over to God’s uncreated Fire my body and soul; all of my prayers, works, joys and sufferings; my livelihood; my sins and failings; my marriage and family and friends, even strangers and enemies; the living and the dead; angels and demons; all of time and space. I mean, the whole freakin’ universe! But that was a little scary, because I realized I was giving absolutely everything back, handing it all over completely to God’s control and will. It was like saying, ‘Okay, it’s all yours now. All of it. Dispose of it wholly according to your will.’ I was unsettled at what I was agreeing to.”
Tom: “Yeah, well, it gets worse. After I did all of that…oh, wait, I forgot. As I handed all this over, it all Somehow got tangled up with everyone-from-everywhere else’s Stuff. I was like, ‘Hey wait, that’s my Stuff not theirs!’ But He wouldn’t listen. A little shocking.”
Jerry: “Then what?”
Tom: “Okay, so then all that Stuff got loaded onto the Altar, and then got totally Wrecked into the bread and wine we’d brought up. And it was done by those scary words, “This is my body given up, blood shed…” Those are hard words to hear, you know? But it was too late. Then without warning the eternal Spirit fell Down on all of it, like free-falling Fire and burned it all Up into the Heart of the risen Body of Jesus. Then it all became like a raging Furnace coming out of that totally-Ruined Bread and Wine. I could hardly breathe.”
Jerry: “I can image.”
Tom: “Then Jesus, Master Craftsman that He is, started building out of all of our tangled-up Burning Stuff a whole new section of the New Creation. Which, I heard someone whisper, never ever passes away. Jerry, it was amazing. He built it up in a way I never would have imagined doing, out of all my seeming-trash. Incredibly beautiful, and very strangely new. Everything.
Tom: “Okay, listen. Then Jesus, after Building all this at His Altar on High, carried the whole New World He’d made There back Down here toward us, borne on some gorgeous seraphim that flanked His fiery Spirit. Then, Somehow, all of that was the Ruined Bread and Wine, which came prodigally running over toward us out of the sanctuary. But here’s the wildest thing of all. It was I who got totally Ruined, as He commanding me to “Eat, drink.” Eat and drink Fire? Unworthy me? Was He crazy? Terrifying! But He said “do not be afraid,” and gave me courage. And now, my God Jerry. I ingested eternal life. I was undone. Speechless. Unable to move. It was all super-intense, more Real than reality. And then I was totally overwhelmed with a gratitude I’ve never felt before. Ever before.”
Jerry: “I don’t know how much more I can hear. Is that’s all that happened?”
Tom: “Oh no! There’s so much more. But that’s what comes to mind. Oh no, wait, I forgot! The priest said something at the end. Did you hear him? He seemed to yell it, something like ‘Go! Be Sent!’ But when I looked up at him, Father wasn’t there. Only Christ, but terrifying in Majesty, impossible to look directly at. He was commanding me again: ‘Go! and Ruin our ruined world, just here at Mass.’ And He said this: ‘Then bring those Ruined ruins back to Me next Sunday, and we’ll do this all again.'”
Jerry: “I mean, what can I say?”
Tom: “Oh man, I gotta run! I can’t stop now…”
Tom: “Yeah, I know. Who knew?”