Reflections on the Celebration of the Mass
by Fr. Barry O'Sullivan
Many Catholics who have gone to Mass all their lives still do not understand it. Part of the problem is that by the time people are old enough to appreciate and understand the sacred words and actions, it has become mere repetition. Hence, because of this repetition, we have all heard, and probably used the infamous phrase "Mass is boring!" and people stop going because "they do not get anything out of it." People complain about seeing the same priest at the same altar saying the same old prayers. It is a lack of understanding that induces boredom. So what do we do? How are we to find meaning
in the Mass?
If, as I am sure is true, so many people are bored during Mass then the implication is that there is something wrong with it, the model is flawed, it is outdated and irrelevant which is why it does not work. It seems to me that at the very heart of this problem is the lack of connection between the congregation and what is being professed and celebrated.
When we celebrate Mass there is something supernatural or miraculous and literally extraordinary happening and yet our reaction is boredom. So the assumption is that there must be something wrong with the product! Lots of people would like to change the Mass, make it more interesting and exciting, they would like to make it more modem and relevant. However, I would have to say that I could not disagree more. Any attempt to make the Mass more "relevant" and "interesting" and "modem" is a plan which has
a fundamental flaw. The flaw lies in the fact that this attitude misses the whole point; and the point, our starting point, is this: We do not need to change the Mass; we need to be changed by the Mass.
Many people who attend Mass have a very rudimentary understanding of the prayers and actions. My concern is that we Catholics will not be able to appreciate our "wonder-filled" Mass until we understand it better. There is nothing wrong with the Mass; the product is highly developed and has been finely tuned over hundreds of years.
The Mass is the celebration of a miracle. When we celebrate Mass, it is not the miracle that is lacking but our understanding of the miracle is lacking. You could say that sometimes Mass seems so long because our Faith is so short!
The Mass is bursting with symbolism. Every single action and phrase has a deeper meaning. St. Bonaventure once said "The Holy Mass is as full of mysteries as the ocean is as full of drops and the sky is full of stars."
For those who are bored with Mass, the time has come to get excited. The excitement we will be seeking is not an emotional high but the type of excitement that helps us delve deeper and deeper into the mystery of Christ made present in the Mass. We have a right not to be bored at Mass but we also have a duty to intellectually engage with something which will relieve that boredom.
It might be that some of the things written here are things that you consider to be obvious. For some it might merely serve as an important reminder of what we are doing when we gather to celebrate the Mass, and just as importantly why we do what we do. For others, it will serve to deepen their existing devotion to this most important act of worship. So I hope that there is something in this feature for everyone, no matter where they are on their journey of Faith.
The Mass is a mystery, but it is a mystery which we can begin to unlock if we know where to look for the clues. The clues are in every church. The place where we should start is our surroundings. Our church here at Saint Mary's, where I am parish priest, is full of clues as to why we are here. The place of worship, our church building, is hugely significant.
On the sanctuary we have symbols to remind us of our links, our connections with the very Early Church. On either side of the sanctuary at St Mary's is written the Greek word "Icthos". This is an acronym for "Jesus Christ Son Of God Saviour" and spells out the Greek word fish. So the fish is the earliest of Christian symbols and pre-dates the Cross as a symbol of Christianity. Even today people have the symbol of the fish as a car sticker or as a badge on the lapel.
Many churches, like St Mary's, have the symbol of the pelican. This is a medieval symbol based on the classical myth that pelicans feed their young with their own blood. It symbolizes the Eucharist, the Mass at which we are fed by Christ's Body and Blood. Reference is made to the pelican in the sixth verse of the hymn "0 Godhead hid". It was a favorite symbol of Saint Thomas Aquinas who is one of the most renowned theologians in the history of the Church.
Both the fish and the pelican serve to remind us of our Connectedness to 2,000 years of tradition. They are our roots; the place where we belong. We need to "plug into" these roots and be clear about what we are plugging into. Signs and symbols are the clues. So let us start at the very beginning of Mass.
Every Mass starts with the priest walking around the church, approaching the sanctuary down the middle aisle. Every time this happens the priest is also dressed in very distinctive clothes. These are our first clues.
The alb is the long white linen robe which dates right back to the Old Testament and symbolizes Baptism. It also symbolizes the cloak that Christ was dressed in by Herod just before his crucifixion.
The stole is a long narrow strip of cloth. It serves the same purpose as a mayor's chain of office. It symbolizes the priest's authority to preach and celebrate the sacraments. It is the stole, not the clerical collar, which symbolizes priesthood. The symbol of the stole predates Christianity; clerical collars are just over a hundred years old. The stole, perhaps more than any other symbol, is the mark of priesthood. A priest should not preach or celebrate the sacraments without the badge of office which is the stole.
The chasuble is basically a circle of cloth with a hole for the head. The word chasuble comes from the Latin "casula" meaning "little house". It is worn over all the other garments and its primary symbolism is to signify the love which a priest must put over all else.
When a priest celebrates Mass he stands "in persona Christi" meaning "in the person of Christ." This is an important clue because the priest, in the person of Christ, is why we have an entrance procession. During the entrance procession the priest is re-enacting Christ's walk to Calvary. In the Middle Ages it was customary in some places for the priest to actually carry a cross during the entrance procession.
The sidewalls of our church, and every Catholic church, are lined with the Stations of the Cross. These tell the story of Christ's journey to the Cross. When the priest reaches the steps of the sanctuary it symbolizes Christ arriving at Calvary to be sacrificed on the Cross. Hence our use of the term "The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass."
The priest's "journey" is finished when he reaches the altar; the place of sacrifice. Our altar is the most significant thing in the Church. It is a symbol of the Cross on which Christ was sacrificed.
When the priest approaches the altar he genuflects as a sign of reverence. The priest then kisses the altar, or more specifically the relic in the altar. In the Early Church the relic would simply be a splinter of wood, symbolizing the wood of the Cross. Remember
that the Cross and the altar are interchangeable symbols.
The relics in the altar are bones of the saints, especially the martyrs, people who sacrificed their lives for the Gospel. In the very Early Church Mass was celebrated in the catacombs on the tombs of the martyrs. Contrary to popular belief, the catacombs were not secret places where the early Christians met; they were burial grounds for which they needed planning permission. The practice of celebrating Mass on the tomb of a saint continues through the use of relics. The most famous example of this is Saint Peter's tomb in Rome. The altar in Saint Peter's Basilica is built directly over Saint Peter's tomb.
The altar should be central but often it is not. If you enter most churches the centerpiece is not the altar but the tabernacle. For many years the tabernacle became the focus because it contains the Real Presence. It was introduced into our churches for the sole purpose of reserving the Blessed Sacrament so that it could be taken to the sick. Whilst this is perfectly good practice, the problem is that it can take away from the principle symbol which is the altar. The centrality of the altar was re-established by Vatican II during the nineteen-sixties. The altar is the centerpiece in the central action of the church. By that I mean that the Mass is the centre of the Church's life and the altar is the centerpiece of the celebration because it is on the altar that Christ becomes present. In this way the altar symbolizes the very heart of the Church, which brings us to a deeper meaning of the veneration.
The scriptures give us a very rich imagery of Christ the Bridegroom in an eternal union with the Church, his Bride. The priest, standing "in persona Christi", symbolizes this union of Christ with the Church. Hence when the priest, in the person of Christ, kisses the altar, we have a very beautiful and moving symbol. It symbolizes Christ kissing his Bride, the Church. At Mass, Christ gives his Bride, the Church, a foretaste of heaven, the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. This is not just a metaphor; we stand or fall by what happens at the altar. It is not playacting. The symbols are not there to remind us of past events; their purpose is to lead us into the extraordinary and profound mystery in the present.
To understand the Mass it is imperative we take time to look at the Liturgy of the Word and how it is structured. We need to look at some of the signs and symbols which perhaps go unnoticed.
To understand the Liturgy of the Word we need to know what it is and something about its history. The Liturgy of the Word begins with the first reading and ends with the bidding prayers. This pattern flows from one of the reforms of Vatican II. The Council decided that the scriptures should be restored to their rightful place within the Liturgy. Catholics are not famous for their knowledge and love of scripture. We tend to be sacrament focussed, especially on the Eucharist. Yet there is a huge chunk missing if we do not properly celebrate the Liturgy of the Word.
There is a liturgical principle that refers to the "unity of elements." This is a principle, or liturgical norm, which requires the altar, lectern and chair to all be made of similar materials with a similar design. This underlines the symbolism of Christ's presence among the congregation in the Eucharist (the altar), the Word (the lectern) and the presiding priest (the chair). The lectern is the only place from which scripture should be read during Mass and only the scriptures should be read from it.
At every Mass we do two things, the meaning of which will come as a surprise to most of us. When the Gospel is about to be read, we stand up, and when it has been read we say, "Praise to you Lord Jesus Christ." The reason for standing up is because, in a sense,
someone has come into the room. That person is the person we address after the Gospel. The words "Praise to you Lord Jesus Christ" are addressed to Christ in the first person because the Church teaches that he is present in the scriptures at Mass.
Although we cannot pretend to fully understand how Christ is present in the Eucharist, it is a belief that is commonly accepted and almost taken for granted by Catholics. What is new for most Catholics is the notion of the real presence of Christ in his Scriptures and especially in the Gospel. This belief is based on what the Church teaches, namely that all the scriptures -Old and New Testaments -are about Christ. Their purpose is to announce his coming, that he has been and that he is still amongst us. There is an ancient Father of the Church from about the 3rd Century with the unusual name of Maximillian the Wonderworker who taught that "It is the same Holy Spirit who makes Christ present in the Eucharist, who makes him present in the Scriptures." The Liturgy o'fthe Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist are two equal parts of the same whole.
The presence of Christ in the Eucharist is almost taken for granted. When it comes to the real presence in the Word, this comes as news to most people. It is a difficult concept to grasp but it is important to spend some time wrestling with what it means.
The readings at Mass must not be understood and explained only in terms of their historical meaning. The readings are not ,intended to simply inform or remind us of past events. The readings at Mass are Christ's message to us for today. Saint Augustine talking about the scriptures at Mass says "We have learnt about past events. Now we must find the 'Hidden Secret' contained in this account."
There is a hidden secret because the readings at Mass are Sacred Scriptures. They are sacred because the Holy Spirit inspires them. All that is required of us is a willingness to listen but this requires a concerted effort. So, for example, when we hear a Gospel about
forgiveness, it is not simply recounting an historical event. Christ is present in his Word in so far as he might be challenging someone to think about the people in their lives who are not forgiven and ask why not. If the Gospel is listened to properly it will jolt us into
In general terms the "Hidden Treasure", the hidden message, can be understood only when we realize that the people in the readings are not merely historical characters. They are us; all of us! The blind, the lame, the deaf, all the miracles and parables are about us here and now! Because of this all the liturgical readings speak of the present and tell us what is happening here and now and what it is that we ought to do. Christ worked on the assumption that lots of people would not listen and he told his disciples that if people did not listen they should move on. So unless people are prepared to listen we will be wasting
The Liturgy of the Word is not merely to inform us but to form us. Those who think we do not have to go to church to be good Catholics need to remember that we must be present in order to be formed.
In an age of mass media we are almost blinded by images and deafened by messages trying to get our attention. The message which deserves particular attention is the Word of God addressing humanity; the Word which is the Sacred Scriptures. The Church is
clear in its teaching that God uses the Scriptures at Mass' to enlighten and empower us. For our part all that is required is an effort and willingness to listen!
Before we take a detailed look at how we celebrate the Eucharist we need to establish some simple "Eucharistic principles."
For many people the Church and religion are considered a refuge. Some people do not read newspapers because they are sick and tired of nothing but bad news. The Church and religion can serve as an escape; a welcome relief from what happens in the so called "real world!" The problem is that the Church and religion are not meant to be an alternative world and as such they should never be used to push reality under the carpet, no matter how brutal and unpalatable that reality may be.
In the Catholic Church we have a long standing tradition of Exposition of the Eucharist. The word "exposed" can be understood in two ways. The Eucharist is exposed for adoration and prayer but on a deeper level it is exposed to the world, face to face with its
brutality and imperfections.
The Eucharist should remind us of the truth of the Incarnation, the time when Christ entered our world in its entirety and encountered both love and hatred. Becoming human meant that Christ exposed himself to the worst that the world could do to him.
To understand how and why we celebrate the Eucharist we have to first of all understand that the Eucharist is fundamentally about "vulnerability". We celebrate the Eucharist not to be refreshed but to be nourished. There is a difference. The Eucharist is not a refuge;
it is nourishment. We consume Christ that we might become like him. There are countless ways to be like Christ. Even taking opposing positions on an issue could be acceptable. What is never Christ-like is to say "I do not care. It's not my problem."
Indifference is wholly incompatible with the celebration of the Eucharist. Indifference to the plight of others becomes indifference to each other, an indifference that fractures communities. There can be no Holy Communion without a holy community.
The Eucharistic Prayer is the central act of the Mass. It is important to take a detailed look at what happens in terms of actions and gestures. What happens is beyond comprehension, but that should not discourage us from deepening our awareness of what we are doing when celebrating the Eucharistic Prayer.
It is useful to have a simple and clear explanation of the Church's teaching about the Eucharist and in particular why the Church does not permit inter-communion except in very limited circumstances.
During the Eucharistic Prayer we celebrate the fact that the gifts of bread and wine become the gift of Christ's Body and Blood. This is an extraordinary thing to profess and should not be taken for granted.
The first part of the Liturgy of the Eucharist is what is commonly and mistakenly called the offertory. For most, the offertory is the collection, in the middle of which, whilst people are digging in their pockets for change, the bread and wine are brought from the back of church. The correct name for this part of the Mass is the Preparation of Gifts.
The real significance of the offertory procession can only be understood by being aware of the architecture of the church. Our liturgical roots as a Church are in Judaism. The Jewish Temple in Jerusalem was designed to look like heaven, or at least how people imagined heaven to be. The sanctuary of a synagogue represents heaven. It should not be a surprise then that our sanctuaries, like Jewish sanctuaries, represent heaven. That is why on sanctuary walls and ceilings you will often find paintings of angels and depictions of some aspect of heaven.
The body of the church, where the congregation sits, is called the nave. The nave represents the church on earth, which is why the Stations of the Cross are always in the nave. Pictures in the nave are "earthly" scenes which is why statues of saints are placed in the nave, amongst the people, as examples of how to live.
Understanding the layout of the church gives the Preparation of the Gifts a much deeper meaning. During the celebration of the Eucharistic Prayer earth unites with heaven in a most significant way.
The bread and wine express a "cycle of collaboration". The gift of creation is entrusted to humanity and we collaborate in the creation of bread and wine, both of which need to be nurtured. The bread and wine from creation are given back to God as an offering. They are taken and, through the Eucharistic Prayer, are changed into the Body and Blood of Christ. Then they are given back to us as food from heaven. It is through the Eucharistic Prayer that a "covenant of care" is established between God and his Church, between heaven and earth.
If you go into any primary school you will see words written on the walls pertaining to some project or part of the curriculum. It is curious that when it comes to complex ideas and concepts there is no hesitation in introducing children to them. For example, most
primary school children probably know more than a lot of us about Information Technology. They are familiar with words and terminology which mean nothing to many adults. The thing that never ceases to amaze me is that there seems to be a reluctance to '
have the confidence to introduce more complicated ideas when it comes to religion and communicating our Faith.
Every time we celebrate a service with our primary school children, I make a point of introducing them to a new word or new idea and the children take it in their stride. Children have opportunities and learn because they are expected to learn. There is an assumption that they do not know. With adults there is an expectation that they know already. The problem is that if they do not know how will they find out? Who will be responsible for helping adults to deepen their understanding and appreciation of the core realities of our Faith?
Part of the problem seems to be that there is sometimes confusion between "mystery" and "secrecy." A mystery, while it can never be totally comprehended, can at least be partly understood. The fact is that for many the mystery of the Eucharist has not been treated like a mystery but has been treated like a secret known only to a chosen few. This is not what Christ intended.
When we explore the mystery of the Eucharist, there will be words and concepts which will be new to many. Unless these words and concepts are understood then they become more elusive.
For many people the experience of the Eucharistic Prayer is that time when the sermon is over, the collection has been taken and we are on the home straight. Contrast that reality with the Faith we profess that the mystery of the Eucharist is a most profound reality.
The gap between what is happening and what people are experiencing is a cause for concern. There is no magic solution but much of the gap can be bridged if people have information and insight. Even a glimpse into the mystery of the Eucharist will significantly affect our experience of Mass. We need to understand that in the Eucharistic Prayer there are four basic elements -
These are the foundations stones on which it is all built. These words or actions recall that Christ:
took the bread and wine
said the prayer of blessing
broke the bread
gave the bread and wine to his disciples.
Understand these four actions and we will begin to unlock the mystery of the Eucharist. It really is that simple. It is supposed to be simple!
The first of these actions is when the priest "in persona Christi" takes the gifts presented by members of the congregation who represent the whole of the parish. In the Early Church people brought gifts of bread and wine from home. Along with the bread and wine, other gifts were brought for support of the poor and for the general needs of the local church community. We should be clear about what is brought up at the offertory. The bread and wine are central but they symbolize many other things.
In our preparation for Mass, at the beginning we should each consider what it is we want to offer up. It might be some worry or concern or it might be a wonderful event to give thanks for. Whatever it is, we should be aware that during the offertory these things are presented to the Lord.
The collection should also be presented with the bread and wine. Our collection should be, at least in part, an offering for the poor. By offering part of it to the poor, we are obeying Christ's demand that we should have a fundamental option for the poor and promote social justice. This means that part of our offering is a recognition of our responsibility and intention to help those less fortunate than ourselves. This is an essential part of our Eucharistic celebration! Unless we have a mind for the poor and for social
justice then ironically, as a community, we become impoverished ourselves and the first essential action in our Eucharistic Prayer is seriously flawed. If we want to engage more fully in the Mass then we have to get this part right.
The Eucharistic Prayer is the greatest and most important prayer of the Church. We do not know the exact words that Christ used at the Last Supper. What we do know is that he would have used a form of words steeped in Jewish Tradition. These Jewish prayers praised God for the whole of Creation, for all his gifts, for life itself, as we do at Mass. We should be clear that while the Mass is based on the Passover Feast, the celebration of Passover was not a single event but lasted a whole week.
By the same token it would be a mistake to think that the first Mass was celebrated on Maundy Thursday. The Mass is better understood as a combination of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday. We know this because the first Mass, and every Mass, is a celebration of the Meal, the Sacrifice on Calvary and the Resurrection. Holy Thursday could not have been the first Mass because at the Last Supper there was no Sacrifice and no Resurrection.
When we take time to ponder on the celebration of the Eucharist then there might well be things that we want to question. For example, how many hundreds, if not thousands of times have we heard the words "When supper was ended he took the cup." If we think about it, it does not make sense. In our culture it is common
practice, if you are invited somewhere for a meal or a party, to bring a bottle of wine. That practice is relatively new in our culture but it is a tradition that goes back many thousands of years, a tradition which Christ and his followers would certainly have enjoyed. The fact is that it was the custom, and probably a requirement, especially
during the main meal of Passover, for those present to drink at least four cups of wine. If you think about it, it is obvious! Twelve of Christ's disciples met with him for the most important celebration of the year. Do you think for a minute that they sat around, had some food and at the end Christ gave them all one sip of his cup of wine?
When we use the words "When supper was ended he took the cup", the cup referred to is the third cup, the cup used for the blessing.
The next thing to explore is the part of the Eucharistic Prayer that is called the "Epiclesis". This is a Greek word which means "Calling down the Holy Spirit". It refers to that part of the Mass where the priest says "Let your Spirit come upon these gifts to make them holy." The calling down of the Holy Spirit refers to the same Spirit that is mentioned in Genesis when it refers to the Spirit hovering over creation. It is that Spirit which is present amongst us at Mass and makes possible the miracle of the Consecration. Remember that at Mass Christ is present in the congregation, in the priest and in the scriptures but he is present in the fullest sense when the bread and wine become his Body and Blood. This is the pinnacle of the entire Mass.
The change from bread to body and wine to blood is called "Transubstantiation." which literally means "change of substance. It is worth considering when this takes place. Some mistakenly think it takes place in an instant, almost like magic. Transubstantiation and Consecration should be understood not as an instantaneous event, but as a process, which means that Christ's Body and Blood become a reality through the process of the Eucharistic Prayer in its entirety.
While the Church has always taught that Christ is truly present in the Eucharist, it was not until the Thirteenth Century that it proclaimed "The Body and Blood of Christ are truly contained, the bread having been transubstantiated into His Body and the wine into
His Blood." (Fourth Lateran Council -1215). The interesting thing about the Church's explicit proclamation of that doctrine is that, after 1215, people were so in awe of the mystery of the Eucharist that they stopped going to Communion. That is how the practice of Benediction came about. People were so much in awe, that it was all they could do simply to look and adore the Eucharist. People began to literally worship from afar.
Whilst it is important to note that the people in the Thirteenth Century had such respect and reverence for Holy Communion, it is interesting to contrast that with our attitude. Perhaps the appropriate respect and reverence lies somewhere between the two!
If the "Epiclesis" was more fully understood and appreciated then perhaps people could move from a sense of relief when Mass is finished to a mood of wonder and awe and a realization of the miracle we both witness and partake in every time we celebrate
Some consideration should be given to the thorny issue of Inter-Communion and we should spend some time trying to understand the position of our own Church and why we can sometimes seem to be intransigent.
Often, when a baptism, wedding or funeral is celebrated in a Catholic church there are a number of non-Catholics present. Sometimes they will approach the priest and say "Your services are just the same as ours; there is no difference." Again, we will have heard people say, or might even have said ourselves "Isn't it good that all the churches are together again." Both of those standpoints are well intentioned, but when it comes to the issue of Christian Unity they are the most unhelpful of all attitudes. They are unhelpful because they are simply not true! Our services are not the same, and all the churches are not the same. At best we can say, and should celebrate the fact, that people from different denominations are at least civil and friendly towards each other.
The area of inter-communion is especially difficult. Perhaps the best place to start is not from a theological standpoint but from a personal one. In other words we should all ask ourselves the question "Do I want inter-communion and if so how much? Am I really bothered?"
We need to look and try to understand why we are in the situation where inter-communion is not permissible. The answer is contained in the Eucharistic Prayer. During the Eucharistic Prayer the priest says the words "Do this in memory of me". This is called the "Anamnesis" and it is this which will help us understand the difficulties with inter-communion. "Anamnesis" is a Greek word which means the formal "memorial" or act of recalling. For the Roman Catholic Church this is to be understood as much more than remembering a past event. It is referring to a living reality here and now. This is a major difference between Christian denominations because for many of our sister churches the Eucharistic celebration is nothing more than a re-enactment, a recalling of what happened at the Last Supper.
It is the doctrine of our Church that the offering that Christ made at the Last Supper happens in the present at Mass. Most of our sister churches cannot and will not subscribe to that doctrine. There may well be individuals from other denominations who do hold that view but for non-Catholic churches it is not an article of faith.
It is not just that doctrine which matters. Inter-communion only makes sense if we can agree, not just about transubstantiation, but with the Eucharistic Prayer in its entirety. The Eucharistic Prayer is not just about Holy Communion. It is a celebration put in the
context of a series of beliefs. In the Eucharistic Prayer we make explicit mention of the role of Mary, salvation history, the authority of the Pope and Bishop, the communion of saints, prayers for the faithful departed, all of which are stumbling blocks which make Christian unity so difficult to achieve.
The first step towards inter-communion is to take on board the fact that we are not the same. Although it is not politically correct to say so, the reality is that the Catholic Church, whilst recognizing the ministry of clergy from other denominations, does not recognize their priesthood. This is because of the variety of understandings of ministry in other denominations. In our Church it is clear that if you do not have a priest you cannot have the Eucharist. In taking this stance, the Roman Catholic Church might rightly be accused of intransigence. However, it is an intransigence that will have no truck with pretending things are what they clearly are not. We are not the same; we are as far away from inter-communion as we have ever been. That does not stop us praying for unity and occasionally revisiting the reasons why Christians cannot sit down around the same table to celebrate the same EucharIst. This will never happen until people believe that it is worth fighting for, until people believe and feel that it's something that matters. If it did not matter then Christ would not have prayed for unity as much as he did!
Remember that we said the Eucharistic Prayer is divided into four parts:
When we talk of Christ being "broken" then we have to understand what is meant by the Sacrifice of the Mass. We cannot understand that unless we know why we refer to Christ as "Agnus Dei The Lamb of God!" To appreciate why Christ is the Lamb of God, we have to travel back thousands of years to a culture which is very foreign and strange for us. This culture not only pre-dates Christianity, it pre-dates Judaism.
The symbol of the lamb has its roots in the nomadic tribes of the Middle East. Thousands of years ago when these tribes forged a treaty or a trading agreement they used to seal the arrangement in a very peculiar and gruesome fashion. They would take an unblemished lamb, cut it in half and layout the entrails. Then each member of each tribe would walk through the two halves of the slaughtered lamb. The symbolism was that, should anyone break this agreement then may what has happened to this lamb happen to them.
The scriptures are littered with references to the Lamb of God. They begin with Abraham who, because he was a nomad and a man of his time, sealed his Covenant with God in this same way. Take a leap in history and the next main reference to the lamb is the Passover. The Jews were to slaughter an unblemished lamb, daub its blood on the door lintel, and .the angel of death would pass over them; hence the Feast of "Passover."
Leap another thousand years and we come to the birth of Christ and to the Temple when Mary and Joseph presented their newborn child. It was customary to offer up a newborn lamb in thanksgiving, but Mary and Joseph did not. They offered up two turtledoves. They did not offer a lamb because Christ was the lamb and his time had not yet come.
When his time did come, the gospels relate that Christ was sacrificed on the Cross. Remember the ancient custom; whenever a covenant was broken the terms demanded that the party who broke the agreement should pay the price. Throughout history humanity
has broken the covenants made with God. Although Christ did not personally break the covenant, he sacrificed himself on our behalf. That is why he is the Lamb of God. That is why the Mass is referred to as a Holy Sacrifice.
It is important to notice that at Mass, just before Communion, the priest holds the Host up and declares, "This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world." Note also that when the Host is held up, it is always broken, just as the unblemished lambs of old were also broken.
The final reference to the Lamb is the heavenly banquet, the lamb's high feast in heaven, to which we are all invited because Christ's sacrifice has restored our covenant with God.
The Mass has its roots in a culture thousands of miles away and thousands of years ago. If you remember nothing else about the purpose of the Mass, remember that it is Christ, in the Eucharist, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. The Mass is
primarily about healing and reconciliation.
The word "communion" comes from the Latin communire and originally referred to a common concern or common possession. The Church began to use it to describe the community of believers gathered in common worship.
Reception of the Eucharist is an essential part of the whole celebration. We should be reminded that Christ specifically commanded us to "Take and eat" and to "Take and drink." Some Catholics still struggle with the notion of Communion under both kinds and will perhaps dismiss it as a new fangled idea; it is not! The instructions from Christ could not be clearer. Participation is assumed unless a person has good reason to choose not to. The meaning and purpose of the Eucharistic celebration is our communion with Christ and with each other.
We have to live with the sad reality that the Christian Church is fractured and is therefore lacking the unity for which Christ prayed. The most serious consequence of this is the fact that Christians cannot sit around the same table to share the same Eucharist. Inter
communion with our sister churches is still a distant dream and the effects of this will be felt by many families every time we gather to celebrate the Eucharist. Every effort should be made to make non-Catholics welcome at our celebrations. Whilst Eucharistic
hospitality is not yet within our gift, non-Catholics should be welcomed and encouraged to approach the altar and ask for a blessing during the distribution of the Eucharist. This simple act will remind them and us that we have not yet achieved full Communion
with one another.
At the end of Mass the Priest says "Go the Mass. is ended." Those who remember the Latin Mass will recall the Words "lte, Missa est." This literally means, "Go, you are dismissed." The word "Mass" comes from the Latin term for dismissal. However, another
meaning suggested for "lte, Missa est. " is "Go, your Mission now begins." This interpretation is based on the fact that every gift that God gives us he expects us to use to bear fruit. The Eucharist is God's most precious gift to his Church. Reception of Communion brings with it an obligation to be Disciples of Christ who live and
proclaim his Gospel.
This feature is intended to answer a question which many adults are reluctant to ask, namely "What is the Mass?" The answer to such an important question cannot be contained in such a brief publication. However, these reflections should at least give people a rudimentary appreciation for the profound mystery we call "The Mass."
For those who would prefer a clear, concise and orthodox explanation of the Mass, I refer you to the Vatican II Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy which states:
"Our saviour at the Last Supper on the night when he was betrayed instituted the eucharistic sacrifice of his Body and Blood so that he might perpetuate the sacrifice of the cross throughout the centuries till his coming. He thus entrusted to the Church, his beloved spouse, a memorial of his death and resurrection: a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, a paschal meal in which Christ is eaten, the mind filled with grace and a pledge of future glory given us.
Hence the Mass, the Lord's supper, is at the same time and inseparably: a sacrifice in which the sacrifice of the cross is perpetuated; a memorial of the death and resurrection of the Lord, who said "do this in memory of me" (Luke 22: 19),. a sacred banquet in which, through the communion of the Body and Blood of the Lord, the People of God share the benefits of the Paschal Sacrifice, renew the New Covenant which God has made with man once for all through the Blood of Christ, and in faith and hope foreshadow and anticipate the eschatological banquet in the kingdom of the Father, proclaiming the Lord's death till his coming."
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Fr. Barry O'Sullivan is the parish priest of St. Mary's Chipping. All rights reserved.