by Fr. Jack McArdle
In this chapter, I hope to be as practical as I possibly can, and, hopefully more helpful in ensuring that we understand the place the Mass plays in the life of the Christian community. It is important to remember that, just as no person is an island, but is part of the mainland, so no one is a Christian apart from the Christian community. The Spirit of God is offered to the community, rather than to the individual, and it is only to the extent that I am attached to the community, and draw my life from there, that God's Spirit can effect the good in me. Jesus used the example of the vine and its branches, and unless we, as branches, are attached to the vine, we cannot have access to the source of life.
As I said in the previous chapter, Christianity is intended for adults, and in the early church, those who joined the Christian community were mature adults, who had plenty of experience of life, with all its struggles and pit-falls. It is difficult for the young, who have been protected, and who have not yet come to grips with the many tensions of life, it is difficult for them to have enough maturity to admit to failure, brokenness, and powerlessness. It is difficult to speak seriously about life to anyone under 35 years of age! Part of being young is a feeling of self-sufficiency, and a desire for independence from the restraints of home, school, and even God.
The Prodigal Son left home, full of confidence in his own ability to survive, and to overcome. It was only when he had hit skid row, that he took stock of his situation, and came to his senses. A teacher I had one time used tell us that experience is a very good school, but the fees are often very high. I would defend the right of youth to learn from their own mistakes, just as many of us adults learned important lessons. However, I would argue that maturity is not always a matter of age, as I have come across some young people who show a marvellous level of maturity, and I have come across some adults who seem to be very immature.
When I hear young people say that "I get nothing out of Mass", I smile, because I believe they do not see the full implication of what they are saying. Doing things just because I get something out of it is not always a good thing, obviously, and could lead to very selfish behaviour. Poor granny will get no more visits from me, if I continue to get nothing out of her for visiting her! I'm saying this with tongue in cheek, of course, but it might be no harm to give it a thought.
I am most open to a Higher Power when I come to experience my own powerlessness. The Eucharist is a power-house, where my spirit is recharged. Right at the beginning, we remind ourselves that we are sinners. We confess that fact, and ask for forgiveness. If that reminder sinks in, and I go out the door with a desire to seek forgiveness, or to grant forgiveness, then my presence there has been worthwhile. The acid test of Mass in my life is what happens when I go back out the door, at the end.
I remember, one time, as I watched people leaving Mass before it was over, I went to the microphone, and with a straight face, I said a prayer for the faithful departed! I was trying to make a point, and I believe I did, because the exodus did not take place the following Sunday. At the end of Mass, we get a blessing, and are sent out the door "to love and serve the Lord, and each other". In other words, the real power of Eucharist begins after I go back out the door. A couple kneel in front of me to get married, and each makes all sorts of lovely promises to the other. That is totally meaningless, unless, after going out the door, they give meaning and life to those promises for the rest of their lives. What happens after they leave the church gives meaning to what happened in the church.
Similarly, I baptise a baby, and we all hope that twenty or thirty years from now, this adult of the future will give meaning to the words we now say on his or her behalf. Otherwise, we are wasting our time. I do not believe that sacraments work automatically, of themselves, right there, independently of other elements in our lives. Going to the sacrament of Reconciliation does not obtain forgiveness of sin, if there is unforgiveness in my heart for another, or if I have no intention of making an effort to get it right. Going to Mass places a responsibility upon my shoulders.
Personally, I would love if we were invited to sit down for a few minutes at the beginning of Mass to reflect on what we are about, and if there is anyone out there hurting because of us. Then, before we leave, to sit down for another few minutes, to reflect on what must happen now, when we go out the door, and how we can carry Jesus to those we meet today. In scripture, Jesus says "I stand at the door and knock. If anyone open the door, I will come in, and will make my home with that person." I sometimes think that, later on that same day, I hear a knock on the door, and when I ask Jesus what he wants now, he tells me that he wants out again....out again in my words and actions, to touch the hearts of those I meet, so that I can be his touch-person in their lives. As I go out the door, I can become a channel of his peace, love, hope, and light.
I often joke about what I call the transforming power of holy water! I see people entering the church grounds and the car park. They wave or shout across to each other, and they seem quite friendly. However, as soon as some of them put their fingers in the holy water font at the door, all life seems to leave them, and they look towards the altar with a lifeless stare, and when they are invited to give a sign of peace, they extend a hand that feels more like the tail of a fish!
Once again, I am saying this with tongue in cheek, because most people continue to be friendly, and continue to look alive, even after passing by the holy water font! I also smile when I hear people proclaim, after the Consecration "Lord, by your cross and resurrection, you have set us free. You are the Saviour of the world." The reason I smile is that some of them don't look too free! I keep stressing that, if I'm saved, I have a responsibility to look saved, otherwise my witness value to Jesus is nil.
There is one custom or expectation that can accompany our Masses that, quite frankly, irritates me. As I offer the Mass I often have a piece of paper on the altar in front of me, with the name of the person for whom this Mass is being offered. This name is mentioned publicly at the beginning, and at least one more time in the course of the Mass. There could be serious trouble, if I decided to include someone else in this same Mass! We say that the sacrifice of Jesus is infinite, but try telling that to the family who are here for this anniversary! This Mass is for one intention, and for one intention only!
I heard of a woman who had twin boys, and they were delicate. The weather was beautiful, and the doctor suggested that an hour in the sun each day would do them a great deal of good. Nothing was too good for her babies, so at midday, she put one little lad out in the front garden. She brought him indoors at one o'clock, and put the other little lad out until two o'clock. She did not put both out at the same time, because she wanted each to get the full benefit of the sun, to have the sun all to himself! This is surely ridiculous, but not nearly as ridiculous as someone insisting that a relative or friend is to get the full benefit of this Mass, and it cannot be shared with another.
The most important part of the Mass, believe it or not, is the great Amen at the end of the Eucharistic prayer, just before the Our Father. We have had an offering, a consecration, prayers for the living and the dead, and for the church at large. The priest then holds up the host and chalice, and says that all of this is made possible by Jesus, and that all glory and honour belong to the Father because of what Jesus has done. It is then that we proclaim, with one voice AMEN, as if to say right-on, OK, we agree. When we thus have proclaimed Jesus' role in making all of this possible, we can stand up, and together call God Father, and, with a sign of peace, we call each other brother and sister. Now we are ready to share in the meal.
In most cases, our method of sharing is far from ideal, but, I believe that change is on the way. What a wonderful thing if the bread looked like bread, and, like the early church, we broke from it, and then passed it to the next person. This way, we are seen to share Christ with each other. Then, by receiving from the chalice, we are seen to drink from the same cup, another powerful symbol of Christian unity. This is the big barrier that blocks a crossing of boundaries in common reception of Communion with other Christian churches, because there is a divergence of beliefs in exactly what is meant by receiving Communion, and, it is argued without union, there can be no Communion, which literally means a common union. Please God, some day, and the sooner the better.
I remember having a group of young adults in a secondary school on retreat. I spent a full day offering one Mass. In the morning we reflected on, and discussed our sinfulness, and our need for reconciliation. Some of the pupils felt a need to go to the staff-room to apologise to a teacher for behaviour unbecoming. Others acknowledged the fact that they were being really unfair towards parents or other family members. This part took up most of the morning. We broke for coffee, and from then till lunch-time, we had liturgy of the word. We read several passages, which were discussed, and reflected on. Many of them wrote out insights gleaned from the readings, and these were shared. It was an experience of great power, as the Spirit was evidently active among them.
After lunch, we began with an Offertory procession, and the variety of gifts, and the many explanations for the choice of gift, was really inspiring. The bread had been made during a domestic economy class in the school, and the wine was supplied by a teacher who was expert at wine-making. The celebration continued all afternoon. The following day was also very powerful, as we began by sharing how we brought yesterday's Mass back out the door with us, as we left, and what we had done since, because of being present at the celebration.
I myself have celebrated Eucharist by a lake-side, on the bank of a river, and even on the very top of the Cliffs of Moher. All of those times were attempts to stir up reflection, and to move the celebration out of the normal cosmetic atmosphere of a church. Of course, the location doesn't make the celebration any greater, even if it helps heighten the involvement, or the attention. All I am saying here is that it can help to understand Eucharist better if I think of it as something that involves people, and the place or time or conditions are purely secondary.
Many of the changes effected in recent years are but an attempt to return to the way things were. When I was a boy, the priest stood at the altar, with his back to me. This was because God was away out there, somewhere. Then we remembered that Jesus said he would be found in the midst of us, so we turned the altar around, and the priest and people faced each other. There was nothing more profound or theological about the change than that simple reason.
In former times, before several priests could concelebrate the one Mass, our larger churches had many small altars around the sides, and several Masses would be going on at the one time. This caused some pious souls to move from altar to altar, receiving Communion at each, without actually attending a full Mass at any one. This caused a rule to be introduced, limiting Communion to once a day. Now, with the abuse being corrected, people may receive more than once in the same day. What I'm saying here is that these changes are just intended to return to what was there before abuses made it necessary to introduce some new rule.
For example, people always received Communion in the hand, until, in evil times, some people brought the host home with them for black masses, or for ritual desecration. This lead to the introduction of a rule confining reception of Communion to the tongue, when the priest stood over the person until the host was consumed. Again, now that the abuse has been removed, so can the rule, and so we can again receive on the out-stretched hand, if we so choose. These changes, including the return to the native language from the universal use of Latin, are nothing more than enlightened common sense. Change is slow and tedious, and it can be hindered when people have not been given a reason why the change is being introduced.
For example, if a minister of Eucharist is seen as just someone helping the priest, then those who never settle for second best, will walk all around the church to receive Communion from the priest! This expression of immaturity might be avoided, if someone took time out to explain what is behind the change. Mass is so central to our lives, that there is need for on-going education, to ensure a deepening appreciation and understanding.
No matter which way I turn in matters of the Spirit, sacraments, church, or community, I always end back with Jesus Christ. If I have accepted the fact of Incarnation, that God actually has come to walk among us, then nothing can ever be the same again. I believe that Jesus wants to be part of all we do, and everything we undertake. This applies equally to our worship of God, and our building up of community. He makes himself available to us, so that in gathering around him, and coming closer to him, we may come closer to each other. It is absolutely necessary that I have an openness to knowing Jesus Christ, that I open the door, and he will certainly enter my life.
There is a story told about the classic painting of Jesus standing at a door, and his right handing is raised to knock on the door. When the painter first put this on display, his attention was drawn to an obvious mistake he had made - there was no handle on the door. The artist explained that this was not a mistake, because the door is the door of the human heart, and there is only one handle, and that is on the inside.
Jesus in the gospel was Saviour, he was in search of sinners, and anyone who was lost in any way. He compared himself to the good shepherd, who would leave ninety-nine sheep to go searching for one that is lost. For those who were in touch with their brokenness, their blindness, their powerlessness, Jesus found people who were willing to listen, and to accept what he offered. This is the normal way to meet Jesus. When I am aware of my limitations, my fears, my mortality, I become more open to the fact that I, too, need a saviour. Not much point in speaking about a saviour to someone who is most certainly in control of everything, and has no feeling of being lost in any way.
I believe that, as life goes on, I come more and more in touch with my humanity, and with my helplessness. It is like as if my little boat is gradually drifting out of the harbour - out into the deep. I can experience fear, anxiety, and occasional panic. It is at such times that Jesus is closest, hoping that I turn to him. I look at people in church at a funeral, and I often think how much they need this Mass, more than the person who has died. I have celebrated a Mass for healing on Friday nights for some years now, and, when I see a young mother coming in the door with her baby, or a man being helped along who is obviously wasting with cancer, I am confirmed in my conviction about the truth of what Jesus said "Only those who are sick need a doctor".
If I am honest, I will have to admit that being a member of the church is like going into a hospital where everybody is sick, including the matron! We all are in great need of the healing touch of Jesus. "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you; say but the word, and I shall be healed." Notice that I said a Mass for healing, not a healing Mass, because every Mass is a healing Mass. What happens there depends on the hearts of the people present. I learned to talk by talking, to swim by getting in the water, and to love and appreciate the Mass by being present. I do not pretend that this is easy, because sometimes the presiding priest can be anything but inspiring. However, while not excusing such, I believe that I must not look outside myself for excuses for doing things, because most of the reasons are within, and the other person is just giving me an excuse for doing what I really wanted to do, anyhow.
In many ways, yes, the Mass can be boring. It can be boring because it is not intended to be entertaining, and I am one who may need stimulation and excitement to get me involved in something. Once again, I may have to look within my own heart. I admit that the presiding priest can have a strong influence for inspiration or desperation, and I agree with people who find that they have to travel to a church in some other area, to feel nourished, or to experience a sense of community.
I myself have made a habit, over the years, of attending Mass in various churches, just on speck, where I was able to mingle with the crowd a few rows from the back. I would have to admit that several of those celebrations were anything but inspiring, and I wouldn't be in any great rush to return. Obviously, this didn't stop me going to Mass, no more than a bad experience with my local doctor would cause me to have nothing more to do with the medical profession. Anyhow, as I finish this chapter, I hope I have given you food for thought, some useful insights, and, above all, a greater understanding and appreciation of the greatest prayer at our disposal.
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Come 'Ere Till I Tell You copyright © Fr. Jack McArdle. All rights reserved.