Mass Is More than Mass

Does not everything transcend itself? That is part of the Teilhardian vision of everything moving toward the Omega point. Pascal said something similar, referring to humanity: “L’homme passe infiniment l’homme.”(Man infinitely transcends man). A corollary follows: everything human transcends itself; and, a fortiori, everything spiritual. It is one of the experiences that stare us in the face only to slip by. But recently I had a sense of it serendipitously in relation to an ordinary, if annual, spiritual event.

It was an unusually pleasant morning when I was traveling by car on the dusty, bumpy trail in the savannah of Guyana to celebrate Palm Sunday at Nappi, an Amerindian village. As I enjoyed myself by contemplating nature, I sensed slowly that my natural enjoyment was turning spiritual, which quite astonished me, setting off an uplifting train of thought.

As always, Palm Sunday struck me as being more than Palm Sunday. If it starts with the procession of palms with singing of psalms to the Blessed One who comes in the Lord’s name, it does not stop there but leads on to the procession of His Passion in the enactment of the Gospel reading. That juxtaposition of exultation and humiliation would certainly effuse the rest of the Mass that day. A spontaneous response will be pathos, as the telescoping celebration on Palm Sunday becomes hopefully a memorial awakening and reliving of the salvific, if tragic, events of Jesus’ last week on earth, climaxing in His death on Calvary.

This passing reflection of Mass on Palm Sunday left me wondering about Mass in general. Those who have some theology may, with reverence and elation, speak of Mass as sacrament or sacrifice or covenant or banquet, etc., each one of the terms having its own inspiration for them.

And, of course, there are those who may not know to say what Mass is but sense that it is a mystery. They believe that Jesus is in the Mass, and so pray the Mass in union with Jesus, and even live the Mass, though perhaps missing its larger social dimension.

Most such views have a validity for believing participants which may be pinpointed in a word or phrase in the Mass itself; so they certainly bring to light an element of truth regarding Mass. The whole truth of the Mass, however, goes beyond any single or singular grasp of it for all its seeming centrality in a particular situation or age group or era.

With its many dimensions, Mass is, in the context of human life and history, a complex reality, indeed a mystery of faith, “as all-embracing and immeasurable as the whole reality and truth of salvation itself. . . (and so) a concentrated essence of the whole of Christianity” (Karl Rahner, Mission and Grace, 1963). So obviously, then, Mass is more than Mass. It is “a metaphor open to transcendence,” as Joseph Campbell said; only it is unlike any other.

I believe that Mass is a Christ-event as is every sacrament, drawing Christians to an encounter with Him. It is an event of the risen Christ engaging Christians and acting in them in the guise of human symbols. It is, in a way, even an appearance of Him, though not easily discernible. It is not unlike the initial apparitions of the risen Jesus to those attached to him, at least from His perspective.

Whereas, in their case, they did not suspect anything of Jesus’ resurrection, knowing Christians believe in His altogether new aliveness and expect His active, if hidden, presence in the Mass event. Truly he does appear to them at Mass (as at every resurrection appearance) though not in a visible or tangible manner. His appearance during Mass is remarkably comparable to His apparition to His dispirited disciples traveling to Emmaus. What happened to them happens to us, as Luke drives home the point.

First, as for them, He is there before us in a form which we see but which does not disclose His person to our senses. Second, as they come to recognize Him for what He is in the form they have seen and related to all along, we too recognize Him, though of course differently — given the form of Eucharistic elements in which He presents himself.

Unlike them, surely, we are expectant enough, from the beginning of the Mass, to “see” Him in or through or behind the appearance of signs that He has designed for us. If, however, our recognizing Him is quick and so very much unlike theirs, because of our foreseeing in faith without any ocular seeing, it is very much like what Jesus did expect from them (Lk 24:25-26)!

Encounter Jesus in Mystery

This is not to say that our recognition of Him at Mass is such that it leaves nothing more to be desired. In order that there may be a surer, deeper and fuller recognition, we need to encounter Jesus as He encounters us — in mystery. We need to transcend ourselves as He descends to us, making himself irrevocably present to us in our existential situation: individual and social, historical and eschatological, cosmic and mystical.

A pivotal principle of His presence is the truth of the personal identity of Jesus in time and beyond, and that as the Son who goes on working as His Father does (Jn 5:17). If, as a penetrative author put it, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb 13:8), He is — it is worth repeating — like his Abba, ever dynamic; for even in His death, the final proof of His human condition, He transcended His state, rising alive, and so came to exercise His power newly to raise us with Him.

The Christ of today is the risen Jesus, and yet, for all the surprising differences in His post-resurrection picture, He is one and the same savior as He was on earth, only metamorphosed gloriously active now. It was a truth that He instilled in His disciples, who, could learn it only slowly.

As Luke wrote: “After His suffering, He presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days” (Acts 1:3). Once they realized in the risen Christ the marvelous identity of the mortal Christ they had known and began to know Him as even more than immortal, they passed on their newfound faith in Jesus to others; and it soon became a living and life-giving principle of the nascent Christian community.

As the group grew in number and quality of discipleship, they grappled with and gained insight more and more into the mystery of the person of Jesus and His work. They believed not only that Jesus of the resurrection was the same Jesus who was dead and buried but also vice versa! They saw His future beyond the grave as not only linked with the past but also saw His past enlightened by the future — according to the Scriptures, a phrase they used to explain the strange events that overtook them.

Imbued by the transcendence of the whole experience, the writers of the New Testament gave spontaneous expression to it, learning from the Scriptures. Their writings, inspired by the Spirit and addressed to the like-minded as well as open-minded, could therefore not be a detached report of the life of Jesus in a temporal, narrowly historical perspective, but meta-historical and transcendent.

They wrote witnessing to Jesus, whom they had not only seen with their eyes but heard with their ears and touched with their hands and thus known intimately: He was the very eternal life that had been with the Father in the beginning and now was revealed to them and through them to others (Jn 1:14; 1 Jn 1:1-3; 2 Pt 1:16-18). This transcendent Jesus, both of history and beyond history, the early Christians found present in their common, if exclusive, worship as they carried out what He had asked them to do in remembrance of Him!

A millennium later Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) witnessed to the same tradition as preserved in his times: “The Mass is arranged upon a plan so well conceived that everything done by Jesus Christ or concerning Him, from His Incarnation to His Ascension, is there largely contained either in words or in actions, wonderfully presented.”

It is this simple perspective that can lead us to appreciate Mass beyond not only what we see in its exterior performance, but also what we usually grasp of its interior significance. If only we exercised our theological virtues better and learned to transcend ourselves! Then, perhaps, insight and constancy of faith will make us see the invisible, and hear the inaudible; strength of hope will activate our sense of smelling the spiritual; and the ardor of love will enable us to touch the intangible and even taste the impalpable! (Hugo Rahner, Ignatius the Theologian, 1968). In this spirit, the more and more we intuit the truth of the person of Jesus and realize that the earthly Jesus was the same as risen Jesus, mutatis mutandis of course, and vice versa, the more we shall sense and become alive to the active, all-embracing presence of Jesus at Mass!

The Promise of Jesus

To this basic, living faith, Vatican Council II gave witness. It recalled the promise of Jesus that He would be wherever two or three gathered in his name. It declared that, from the beginning, Christians so gathered together and enacted the paschal mystery (the mysterious passage of Jesus to His Abba) by liturgical action in which the triumph of His death is again made present. It pointed out too that, when the Scriptures are read, it is Jesus himself who speaks. It taught further His presence in the sacrifice of Mass in the person of His minister, “the same now offering, through the ministry of priests, who formerly offered himself on the cross” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, Nos. 6-7), and above all, especially in the Eucharistic species.

I wonder if the Council’s pronouncements on the varied presence of Christ at Mass could not be visualized in the vivifying images of Jesus in the Gospels? As a canonical writer reviewed Christ’s first advent in the light of all He was to achieve at the end of His life (Heb 10:5-10), so we can view the risen Christ at Mass echoing and energizing all His typical words and deeds during His days on earth and after.

For eager and serious worshippers there are significant words and gestures during Mass that unveil the veiled reality of Jesus present and active at Mass. They are evocative, for the discerning heart, of the way that Jesus adopted while encountering Nathanael or Mary Magdalene to reveal himself to them in His unsuspected heavenly form.

In His first public words to the crowds, Jesus proclaimed the reign of God; He made the same proclamation in His exclusive words to His disciples during His appearances to them after His resurrection (Acts 1:3). The same Jesus makes himself present at Mass and continues to herald His Abba’s kingdom from the lectern; further, He brings it about ever more at the altar, drawing us ever deeper into it. That is why we make our responses: “Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ” and “Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again!” If we appropriated these responses of import in vibrant faith impinging on our personal and social living, we would not be far from the spirit with which St. Anthony heard Christ’s bidding in the Gospel at Mass and followed it through at once, becoming His follower according to his enlightenment.

Jesus joined His announcement of the Kingdom with His call to repentance. Having kept the company of the repentant as one of them, he offered peace to all who would welcome Him or those sent by Him. The penitential rite at Mass places us by the side of Jesus, ever the pioneer of our salvation, who considered it only proper that He himself should be baptized for our sake and for righteousness’ sake, not only in the Jordan but on Calvary!

Even after the resurrection Jesus showed himself the Good Shepherd, going in search of the lost, and surprising them with His greeting of peace, a sign of His forgiving love. Further, He led them to grant the same to others necessarily in need of it (Lk 24:44-47; Jn 20:21-22, 27). Likewise He continues to bless us at Mass as He renews His words of pardon and peace at the beginning and end.

The Secret of Abba

Many of those who enter into the kingdom, inchoately visible in the Church, want to see it in glory like the apostles asking the risen Lord when He would restore His kingdom universally. They may want to have all their questions answered, their doubts cleared and all evil overcome so that they may enjoy His lasting reign.

As in His final appearance to the apostles, He would reveal no more to us than that the glorious future was to be at the end which, however, is the secret of Abba Almighty. Meanwhile, living in hope derived from His parables of the darnel and the dragnet, we put our faith in Him as the one who is to come again precisely for the purpose of handing over the kingdom to His Abba (1 Cor 15:24-26). We hail Him, therefore, daily as the blessed one who is to come. As He came initiating the kingdom, and presented himself as the kingdom, we believe He will come again to be the heavenly kingdom with His Father.

He who inaugurated God’s reign in the midst of His hearers and revealed its noiseless growth by His proclamation outdoors, brought it to a climax at the table of His Last Supper. For it was then that He assured His apostles: “I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom” (Lk 22:29-30). The way Jesus fulfilled His words of promise was surely strange and strangely sure: namely, by His overwhelming death and overpowering resurrection. And so He could grant the wish of the good thief straightaway (Lk 23:43).

The central portion of the Mass celebrated at our altar-tables is precisely the memorial proclamation (kataggellete) of His death (1 Cor 11:23-26) inseparable from His resurrection (Lk 23:43) — something so clearly brought to focus by the proclamation of the mystery of our faith soon after the consecration. This insight into Mass as the representation of the paschal mystery of Christ — starting in His symbolic self-offering at the Last Supper and ending in His actual offering in His death and His transfiguring in His unseen resurrection — has been perhaps the most familiar inspiration for almost all Mass-lovers sensitive to make up what is lacking in the Passion (Col 1:24).

An inspiration needs to be vivified by entering with Jesus into the world of conflicts and enduring them with His energies, knowing that out of it will develop our own power to apprehend and experience His Passion and resurrection (Phil 3:10-11).

The joyous reality of the kingdom was revealed by Jesus both before and after His resurrection as sitting at table for a meal or enjoying a banquet in which He himself is either the host or the meal itself (Jn 6:1-15, 22-71; Lk 14:15-24; Mk 8:15-21). At Mass He continues to share himself thus regularly and unfailingly so that we may have life abundant here and hereafter! If only we could grasp, too, in all this how He reveals himself so surprisingly, humbly, sacrificially, and joyously like the master wanting to serve (Lk 12:37), and so heal us individually and socially! Our prayer before communion, “Lord, I am not worthy. . .but only say the word, and I shall be healed!” must therefore vibrate with a daring longing for liberation from all ills: personal, social, and even global (Rom 8:19-23).

To this urgency we may be awakened by the story of a devout South American. She reportedly confessed once that she had received communion without making her confession and, when asked why, she went on to share that it was because she had not eaten for three days or so!

Jesus appeared from the beginning till the end as the giver of peace, His sure, if peculiar, peace so radically answering dire human situation. Perhaps His imparting of shalom to His disciples who were fearful after His death was the first of the signs that helped them to recognize Him who had comforted them even earlier at the Last Supper, assuring them: “My peace I give to you.”

And Jesus gives His conquering peace today as He did always, and especially in His resurrection appearances: peace through forgiveness in unconditional love. This authoritative peace far from the socializing kind could be missed when the kiss of peace at Mass is not perceived to pass from the priest of Christ (in its double sense: of Christ the priest and also of the priest representing Christ) at the altar to all those surrounding the altar.

‘Go in Peace’

In the gamut of proactivity Jesus exhibits in imitation of His Father, the last action during Mass is the mission He bestows on us every time at the ending. When the priest bids the congregation at the end, “Go in peace,” it is Christ himself who invites us to go on and prolong His mission. There is no Christ without mission, as the very name signifies His anointing for mission of His Abba who himself (more a verb than a noun, as St Thomas Aquinas said!) keeps ever working in the first place.

In His earthly time, Jesus sent His disciples, 12 or more, to the lost sheep among His own people; and, later in His heavenly time, He urged all those women and men disciples, graced to see Him in His risen glory and power, to be His witnesses all over the world. And now He continues to set every one of us on our mission that prolongs his own! Incidentally, the very name Mass comes from the Latin word missa whose root meaning is to send.

One may, then, rightly glow in the aura of Mass, proceeding from Christ the risen life, the life that is the light of all peoples (Jn 1:4). Recognizing the risen, if unseen, Christ in His rainbow garb of glorious light, we could grow — and keep growing — in blessedness, taking on all the hues of life: the violet of penance, indigo of kingdom, blue of eschatology, green of peace, yellow of mission, orange of meal and red of sacrifice. In this spirit we could pray with Teilhard: “The deeper the level at which one encounters you, Master, the more one realizes the universality of your influence” (Hymn of the Universe. Harper & Row, 1961).

As a postscript, I would like to raise a question glibly asked: “If, concretely, priesthood means nothing more than saying Mass, cannot any person officiate?” Apart from the premise being tendentious, such an idea of priesthood betrays a reified notion. It is as much as to say that Mass is only Mass — a minimized perspective, the very opposite of the vision of truth.

But surely Mass is more than Mass, as far greater minds like Teilhard de Chardin have enlarged upon (The Prayer of the Universe. Collins Fontana, 1973). Whoever could be equal to the task of saying Mass in such a way that the earthlings would enter into its heavenly mystery of risen Jesus and find themselves transformed, if not transported, by it ever more, for life here and hereafter? No one can presume to make that experience available to the humble believer, unless it is granted from above. Further, it takes far more than mere natural gifts of speech and action to stand in the place of the heavenly Christ and make His dynamic presence available in the Eucharistic assembly of the faithful (synaxis) as He himself did, led by the Spirit (Lumen Gentium, No. 28).

FATHER DOMINIC, S.J., writes from St. Ignatius Mission, Lethem, Rupununi, Guyana, South America.