I would like to offer the following reflections and practices that have helped me better participate at Mass. My hope is that reflections might help someone else enter more deeply into the mystery and beauty of the Eucharist. This column will have served its purpose if the reader realizes by its end how barely we have scratched the surface of Mass and wants to learn more in order to participate even better.
Is It Possible to Attend Mass and Not See What Is So Great about It?
I have a friend who is one of the best high school soccer coaches in the country. When he and I watch the same soccer game together, who do you think sees more? I have another friend who has a graduate degree in art history from the University of London and who has published numerous articles on art. When she and I see the same work of art together in the museum, who sees more?
Without further examples, it is clear that seeing includes knowing what to look for. So it is with Mass. If someone attends Mass and does not see what is so great about it, he probably does not see it because he does not know what to look for.
That is another way of saying that in order to appreciate the profound reality of the Mass, we must continue growing in our understanding of it. The more we understand the Mass, the more we see its profound reality.
What Is So Great about the Eucharist?
The Eucharist is the sacrament in which bread and wine are consecrated by the words and actions of a bishop or priest and become the real Body and Blood of Jesus.
The English word consecrate comes from the Latin sacer, which means “holy” and from which comes the English word sacred. The prefix con, in this case, intensifies the root word. So the consecration of the bread and wine is the act of “making them holy.” It is actually the Holy Spirit Who makes the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ; the bishop or priest is the instrument of the Holy Spirit.
I learned a meaningful practice from my 8th grade teacher, Sister Mary Carola, that I continue to this day. At the elevation of both the Host and the Chalice during the consecration, I bow my head and silently say the words of Thomas the Apostle when he stopped being doubtful about the Resurrection: “My Lord and My God” (John 20:28). I then look from the elevated Host and Chalice to the Crucifix if the church has one behind the altar. It is moving to look from the elevated Host to the Crucifix and back to the Host, and then do the same with the Chalice. I am grateful when the priest gives me time to do this, all of which takes 4-5 seconds.
The Eucharist is the center of the other sacraments. It is the only sacrament that is Jesus Himself. The other sacraments lead to and flow from the Eucharist. Those receiving Confirmation and Matrimony properly do so if they intend for those sacraments to lead them to Mass every Sunday. While all sacraments are connected, only one is the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus.
As Vatican II taught and the Catechism of the Catholic Church repeats, the Eucharist is the “source and the summit” of the entire Christian life (n. 1324), which is to say that following Christ leads to and flows from the Eucharist. This is not true sociologically because, of course, not every Christian attends Mass. But it is true metaphysically, that is, in reality – whether someone knows it or not, agrees or not. Following Christ is incomplete without the Eucharist.
Human life metaphysically leads to and flows from the Eucharist. We human beings are designed by God for friendship with Him in His eternal kingdom; and before the Second Coming of Christ or personal death, there is no greater union with God and no greater foretaste of the heavenly banquet than Holy Communion.
Participating in the Eucharist is, quite simply, the best thing that anyone can do.
Jesus commanded us to celebrate the Eucharist; it was not a suggestion. It was about eating His Body and drinking His Blood that Jesus said, “Do this in memory of me” (Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24-25). Less familiar are Jesus’ striking words in John’s Gospel that “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him” (John 6:22-69).
The Liturgy of the Eucharist Is a “Time Machine”
I find it helpful to think of the Liturgy of the Eucharist as a veritable “time machine,” but one that operates in reverse. We usually think of a time machine as taking us to the past. The Liturgy of the Eucharist, however, brings the past to us. It makes present to us Jesus’ Last Supper and His Crucifixion. By going to Mass, we are able to be with Christ when He ate the Last Supper and when He was crucified. What friend of Christ, or even what person becoming interested in Him would not want to be there with Him?
We do not fully understand the Last Supper unless we understand its connection to the Crucifixion, and vice versa. This connection was brilliantly brought to the screen in The Passion of the Christ. The several flashbacks to the Last Supper during the Crucifixion scene powerfully express the Eucharistic nature of the Crucifixion.
So the Liturgy of the Eucharist is both a meal (due to the Last Supper) and a sacrifice (due to the Crucifixion).
A Meal and a Sacrifice
The Eucharist is a meal at which we eat the sacred Body and drink the Precious Blood of Jesus. At the consecration, the priest repeats the words of Jesus at the Last Supper: “Take this, all of you, and eat of it, for this is My Body” and “Take this, all of you, and drink from it, for this is the chalice of My Blood” (Matthew 26:26; Luke 22:19).
The essence of the ritual of the Eucharist thus comes from Jesus Himself. Over the centuries, men have changed certain inessential aspects of the Rite of Mass, such as the language that is used for the ritual. In the course of Church history, however, the essential has sometimes been confused with the inessential.
Jesus chose to make the Passover meal His Last Supper. Passover is an annual Jewish feast, which includes a meal that commemorates that event when God passed over the houses of the Jews during their last night of enslavement in Egypt because they had spread the blood of a lamb on their doorframes. The blood of a lamb saved them from the death of their first-born. God did not pass over the Egyptian houses, which lacked the lamb’s blood on their doorframes, and so the first-born of each Egyptian household died. This prompted Pharaoh to free the Jews from their slavery to the Egyptians.
During the Last Supper, and then at the Crucifixion, Jesus revealed that He Himself is the sacrificial Lamb whose blood saves us from slavery to sin and death.
Mass is rightfully also called the “Holy Sacrifice of the Mass” because a sacrifice occurs during the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The same three elements of ritual sacrifice in any religion are in the Liturgy of the Eucharist: (1) an altar of sacrifice; (2) that which is sacrificed upon the altar: a victim or offering; and (3) the one performing the sacrifice: a priest.
The victim at Mass is Christ Himself. The bread that is consecrated into His Body is called the “Host” because the English word Host comes from the Latin word hostia, meaning “sacrificial victim.” The real priest at Mass is also Christ Himself, Who acts through the human priest. The Liturgy of the Eucharist is thus an unbloody sacrifice that makes present – not repeats – the bloody sacrifice of Christ on the cross at Calvary to save us from our sins.
The popularity of the “Antiques Roadshow” program on PBS shows how many of us value old things. There are many ancient parts of Mass that we have inherited from our Christian ancestors. An under-appreciated part of Mass might be words we use which were originally said thousands of years ago by characters in the Bible.
When we say, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of God will,” we quote the multitude of the heavenly host in Luke 2:14 that suddenly appeared after the angel of the Lord proclaimed the good news of the Messiah’s birth to the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks outside Bethlehem.
In the Nicene Creed, when we say, “…and his kingdom will have no end,” we again quote an angel. Here it is Gabriel in Luke 1:33 as he announces to Mary that she will conceive and bear a son to whom the Lord God will give the throne of David and who will rule over the house of Jacob forever.
In the Sanctus, when we say “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts, heaven and earth are full of your glory,” we quote yet more angels. This time it is the Seraphim in Isaiah 6:3 who are crying out to each other as Isaiah sees the Lord in the Temple and receives his prophetic commission. In this case, the English word hosts means “armies of angels” and comes from the Latin hostis.
In the remainder of the Sanctus, when we say “Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest,” we are quoting the crowds in Matthew 21:9, Mark 11:9-10, and John 12:13 who cry out as Jesus enters Jerusalem to begin His Passion and who themselves are echoing Psalm 118:25-26. Hosanna means “Grant salvation, Lord!” It is fitting that we quote those crowds as Jesus is about to “enter” Mass in sacramental form at the consecration.
There are numerous times in the Mass when Jesus Himself is our source for the wording. As mentioned, the words of consecration are His, as of course are the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) and the Sign of Peace (John 14:27).
Likewise, when the priest says, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” at both the beginning and the end of Mass, he is quoting Christ as He gives the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19. We do the same whenever we make the Sign of the Cross.
Furthermore, the priest quotes John the Baptists when he says, “Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29) and the people paraphrase those words right before that when we say, “Lamb of God, You take away the sins of the world.” We have already seen why Jesus is the Lamb of God.
Finally, right before Communion we say, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” In this we are paraphrasing the centurion in Matthew 8:8 who amazed Jesus with his great faith as he asked Jesus to heal his servant.
As the Youth Catechism of the Catholic Church (YOUCAT) puts it, we know we have matured in the faith when “Sunday obligation” makes as much sense as the phrase “kiss duty” would make to those who are in love.
If we truly understand and know what to look for in the Mass, we will participate with the deepest love for its eternal beauty.