When I was in the Studium, our preaching professor said to us, “You have ten seconds to convince me I should listen to this.” By this logic, I must persuade you in these two pages to stick with me for a walk through the familiar terrain of the Mass, cloaked suddenly in a forest of new language. This essay will repay my writing and your reading if we grasp how the mass repays our celebration of it. So we come to the bottom line; why go to Mass at all? Entering into a new translation will not compel our interest if the Eucharist itself does not.
What brings you to Mass now that the social pressure to go has evaporated? Granted, attendance at Sunday and Holy Day Masses is a law of the Church, but I wonder how many people sustain weekly Eucharistic practice on sheer obedience when religious practice no longer rates as sine qua non of respectability. The “regulars” come to Mass because it meets a need or more. Hunger for communion, love of preaching, passion for music, ache for beautiful surroundings, and desire for fellowship figure among the stated reasons people overcome the inertia of the weekend and show up. Religious professionals juggle and re-juggle these factors in “planning liturgies.” They hope to come up with the right religious experience just as another set of professionals is busy conjuring the right dining experience for later in the day.
Unfortunately, as fabricated experiences go, the Mass is not reliably a good one. Most Catholic churches, indeed most traditional congregations, lack the financial resources and technological capacity to dazzle worshippers on a weekly basis. By contrast, “mega-churches” have perfected media lush, emotionally satisfying worship and thousands flock to it. Meanwhile, beneath our liturgy’s surface human concerns lurk and prevent it from being a simple oasis of serenity. Clergy are pompous, adults won’t sing, and babies won’t stop. It is tiring to contemplate how often those at Mass must speak, hear, and think about money. Sometimes I feel like a waiter who presents a check after every course.
However, the supreme enemy of exciting, blissful, or soaring liturgy is Jesus. He set it up to be boring. Think about it: at the heart of the Mass is bread that is not artisanal, and wine that is somewhat below Grand Cru. Further, these are prayed over by the same few men, using repetitive formulas, every week, no, every day. You can dress it up with gold plate, incense, triumphal hymns, St. Vincent Ferrer Church, and, if you are lucky, a decent sermon, but at its core, the Mass is implacably simple, and the same.
Thousands of people raised with this ritual at the heart of their lives now do without it quite contentedly.
Yet on the morning of every storm this winter, we had a significant crowd for the 8AM mass. Why?
I think the answer lies way down deep in us. Ponder some questions with me. Why do people keep visiting parents and spouses with Alzheimer’s who no longer recognize them? What keeps exhausted parents faithful to 3AM feedings? Why do people vote in elections when they cannot stand either candidate? Why did our entire parish staff show up every blizzard morning when the anxious pastor begged them to stay home? Something drives their perseverance besides the obvious love and loyalty.
The answer lies in the gut, where we perceive the appointed task. Here we recognize a work entrusted specifically to us. On its faithful performance depends the well-being of someone else, but seeing it through is must for us, FOR US. In this assignment lies the way to our potential. More than anything else in life these missions shape our character because they press us beyond self-interest, and their duration kills the romantic, look-at-me-being-wonderful, attraction of good deeds. This is duty, and more than duty. Yes, its one more thing you do not need in a crowded life: Yes, you wouldn’t have it otherwise.
In this part of our soul we recognize the memorial command of Jesus, “Do this in memory of me,” and we perceive what it means to go to Mass. This mystery will not reduce to one thing. We are not in the pews simply to hear a sermon, or sing our hearts out, or have fellowship with good people, or even to receive communion. We are there to fulfill an appointed task. It is not really imposed by external regulation but confided to us in the heart of us. It penetrated our core as surely as our skin absorbed half a drop of the baptismal water.
Around the simplicity of bread and wine offered and received back, Christ has arranged a work for us as complex as it is comprehensive. We are assigned to remember, thank, praise, implore, apologize to, sing to, listen to, eat and drink him as fully human and fully divine. We also do all this with him, for our appointed task is but part of Christ’s own “bounden duty” before the Father in the Holy Spirit. Herein lies the real secret of the Mass: its quotidian actions really correspond, really connect to what is happening in the realms of endless light, inside God himself. Way way down, below the F train, Catholics know this, so they abandon common sense and come to Mass in blizzards.
So we come at last, by the back way, to what liturgy is. We get it from the Greek word leitourgeia, the work, ergon, of the people, laos. (The New Dictionary of Theology, Michaael Glazier, Wilmington, DE. 1987, Article by Mary Collins, OSB, p. 592.) The Mass may or may not be an uplifting, beautiful, challenging, or relevant service, Father, but it is the appointed task of the Church and of each Catholic according to his or her state of life (clergy or laity). Christ lays it upon us as the fitting and acceptable response to the graciousness of the Triune God, but its fulfillment will be the making of us as Christians in this life, and citizens of heaven in the next.
Peace – Fr. Walter