[A reflection I wrote for someone in answer to his question, “What is the Mass about?”]
I often think of the set pieces of liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed. ― Annie Dillard
What in the world is it? So much to say, too much to say, and even what can be said is mostly beyond my reach. Anyone’s reach, as it contains the Uncontainable. But that never stopped me before from venturing some of my idiosyncratic thoughts! So kindly allow me, if you would, to splash a few colors and write a few images in your soul to help you to (re)consider this question: What exactly is the Mass?
The word “Mass” comes from the Latin word missa, which is used in the words of dismissal at the end of Mass, Ite, missa est “Go! Be sent.” So the word Mass is really not a noun but a verb, not a thing but an action — the action of God sending you out into the world like a missile from the liturgical celebration, to detonate Jesus and enact your mission. Though the exact historical reason the whole liturgical event came to be called “Mass” is a bit obscure, for me this accident of history makes a remarkable point. Mass bears both a centripetal and centrifugal force, drawing us in and sending us out.
Venite! Ite! We come dragging the world up the Mountain of Golgotha for mystic crucifixion and death, and then we are Thrice labored out of the Tomb into the world, drenched in risen Glory, to flood every nook and cranny of life with overflowing Crimson Waters upwelling from the open side of God.
This is the liturgy that is Mass.
Of course, this begs the question: What is liturgy? Well, first let’s begin with one of my favorite things, etymology! Liturgy = lēitos ‘public’ + ergos ‘working.’ In the ancient world, liturgy referred to the “department of public works,” government working on behalf of the public for the common good. So liturgy means not so much “work of the people” as it does “work on behalf of the people” by representative public servants. As the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom words it, liturgy is offered “on behalf of all and for all.” Jesus acted as liturgist inasmuch as he acted on our behalf for our salvation unto eternal well-being.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church #1136 gives us the theological sense of the word: “Liturgy is an action of the whole Christ” — and by “whole Christ” is meant both Christ himself and those of us who have been joined to him as his Body, the Church. When Christ acts in liturgy, he acts on behalf of both God and man, and invites his Body to do the same. Liturgy is theandric work, which means it is always the co-work of God (theós) and man (andrós).
With all this in mind, we can say that liturgy is humanity syncing with the work of the the dying and rising Christ, namely — redeeming, repairing, reforming, renewing, recycling the world’s glory and garbage into a new and imperishable creation from which all evil has been exorcised forever. Fr. Aidan Kavanagh catches all of this magnificently when he describes liturgy as “the Church doing the world as God means it to be done in Christ.” Do you want to know the way the world was supposed to work under man’s dominion? See Christ.
Christ is liturgy and liturgy is Christ, the whole Christ, God and humanity doing the world into its final destiny.
Let me try a few analogies.
All of Scripture unfolds the working draft of God’s master plan, culminating in the Incarnation of the Word, through whom all things were made (without us) and through whom all things are being re-made (with us). Liturgy is Emmanuel, the God-Man, God-with-us, shot into the world from the Father like an antidote being injected into a mortally sick organism. The baptized, grafted into Christ as his Body and infused with his Blood, serve as the chosen means by which the Father’s antidote, Christ, is continually renewed in the lives of the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.
Liturgy is Christ unleashed!
But at the core of liturgy is not simply some “generic” Christ in action. Liturgy is very concrete, originating in the sweat-drenched, blood-soaked, open-wounded crucified and risen Christ. Why? Because it was precisely in his gruesome execution and glorious resurrection that God and reality kissed, as Christ in his Pasch was working with his Father in the eternal Spirit to enter and penetrate down into the blackest heart of darkness to split the nucleus of death; and to unseal the wellspring of mercy that alone heals our fallen world from the inside out. An insider God, who has descended into our hells, alone is able to empower us to freely embrace the call to become missionaries of his mercy. We liturgists pour his healing balm into the countless strongholds of death that still remain.
Each of the celebrations of liturgy, like the seven Sacraments or Holy Mass, are the prime points of entry for Christ into history. Entry points he himself established. In each of these liturgical moments, the “here and now” is saturated in the sacred circulation Christ has opened up between heaven and earth. In these moments, it is Christ himself who concelebrates with us, joining both heavenly and earthly liturgies as one, unveiling their mysterious mingling transaction. I have often imagined each specific liturgical celebration to be like the point on the skin where a needle enters the body to inject heaven’s life-saving antidote, making us into wounded-healers in a field hospital Church.
While liturgical celebration opens up a unique point of entry for this free circulation between Christ and the world, the Mass …
my God …
… It’s everything.
Mass is the totality of Christ’s work become so extravagantly, completely, catastrophically real and present, that matter itself finally succumbs to divine longing, passing over from its present form into a super-radically new form of existence, i.e. the coming New World sprung from Christ’s glorified body is here, now. Though this transformation — outrageous! — takes place through the thinnest medium of edible signs, bread and wine, its reality is so absolute that past, present and future all conjoin and collapse into the eternity of God now made absolutely present here and now, by the eternal Spirit who hovers over our Gifts. And he makes this collapse ingestible, so eternal life is now.
This super-radical “passing over” of the bread and wine into the liturgizing Christ is what we mean when we Catholics use that wholly novel, bizarrely coined and strangely contorted metaphysical term stolen from Aristotle, which he himself, ignorant of God’s Incarnation, would have declared utter nonsense: “Transubstantiation.”
So next time when you participate in the liturgical celebration of Mass, the Divine Eucharistic Liturgy, you will get a taste of time’s demise by a total immersion in Christ’s infinite cosmic-celestial labors of love worked on Golgotha. And each ritual part of the Mass will work this love in you in a different way. Permit Christ to break open any blocks to the circulation of heaven and earth in you. Allow him to renovate your mind and freedom, memory and imagination, body and passions for a freer and fuller flow. By your choreography of processing, believing, praying, singing, signing, repenting, remembering, hearing, reflecting, responding, asking, standing, kneeling, bowing, kissing, smelling, tasting, seeing, feeling, hoping, forgiving, loving, dying, rising and running, you permit God freer access to dance on earth as he does in heaven.
All of this, and far more, happens when you go to, and go from Mass out into a sick world in desperate need of your antidote. Turn on the news! She has suffered an egregious trauma, and has developed gangrene from her poor circulation. Bring her to Christ the Healer so he can share with her his Body and Blood! He longs to heal her through, with and in you.
Mass is not just a weekly nice pick-me-up, a refueling at the God gas station, nor is it a mere pause from a busy life to catch an inspiring word. No! Mass is the celebration of God’s life-giving infection with our mortal dis-ease. Mass is a Magnificent Mess, as Fr. Kavanagh reminds us:
Genesis says that we began in a swamp teeming with life, but that something went vastly wrong one evening at dinner. Apocalypse says that the difficulty was finally resolved into something called the Banquet of the Lamb. Hebrews tells us how the resolution was accomplished, not in an orchard set in pleasant countryside but in a butcher shop located in the city’s center. The World’s story from beginning to end pivots upon this resolution, a resolution the faint of heart, the fastidious, and the squeamish find hard to bear.
I invite you, then, to see here an icon of the Divine Liturgy, to behold the first Mass of the Roman Rite…