Friday, November 04, 2011

The New Rite - A Mass for Mission

"Go and preach
  Jesus Christ
  and, if you must,
  use words."

Sixth and Last Article of a Series

The fifth essay in this series marking the arrival of the New Roman Missal on the first Sunday of Advent came to a close with the theme of transformation in Christ. The point being made was that the Liturgy of the Eucharist is not a mere memorial, a mere re-enactment of Jesus’ actions and words at his last supper. It is an act in which remembering calls into present time the saving action, the redemptive action, of that event which took place over two thousand years ago. And in that present moment at any Mass not only are the elements of bread and wine transformed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ but we too, along with those gifts or offerings, are subject to transformation. We arrive with a desire for God. We make ourselves available at the liturgy. We open our hearts to receive, however troubled, however skeptical, however distracted, and the transforming Jesus enters in. Yes, it is all very mystical. Karl Rahner, the great theologian said, “The Christian of the future will be a mystic, or not at all.

Anyone as old as I am will remember the Baltimore Catechism definition of a sacrament: an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace. What was just described here is the action of that grace. And we take it with us when we walk out the door of the church back into our lives, all a complicated mix of joys and sorrows, pain and ecstacy, disappointment and fulfillment. It is the power of our Trinitarian, relational, energetic God working in us.

The language of the New Roman Missal translation of the Latin Mass often emphasizes the sacrificial nature of the Mass, the fact that the Mass is designed to call to mind the entire Paschal Mystery, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ last supper is thought to have been a Passover meal, itself a remembering into the present of the preservation of the Hebrews by blood of slaughtered lambs splashed onto the door posts. Jesus knew he was going to die, that he would be sacrificed like the Passover lamb. To remember him fully is to remember his passion and death on the cross. Yet, at that last meal the gestures or actions he expressly asked his disciples to imitate were neither violent nor bloody. Before breaking the bread at table, he rose, put on an apron and washed the feet of those present, friends and enemies. Afterward he asked them, “Do you realize what I have done for you? This is what you too must do.” Knowing this would be a huge challenge, especially after experiencing his gruesome death, he left them his consolation. “Take this, all of you, and eat of it, for this is my body, which will be given up for you…for this is the chalice of my blood…poured out for you…for the forgiveness of sins. Do this in memory of me.”

The Eucharist shared at the memorial meal, our Mass, is to spiritually empower us for the hard work of washing each others feet, of being other Christs, of preaching the love of Jesus Christ without using words. William C. Spohn has written, “If the disciples had taken Jesus literally, Christians would be washing feet every Sunday.” (Go and Do Likewise, 4) Jesus was not asking for literal imitation. He was asking them to love each other whoever "the other" happens to be. This was his last plea to them; an instruction so radical that only washing their feet as if he was a slave could adequately make his point.

We bring everything we are with us when we participate in a Mass. Perhaps we sit in the back because we know only too well all that we bring. We also carry a sack of emotions full of our joys, challenges and trials. In the hearing of the Word and the breaking of the bread we transcend time and space. We enter as mystics into the life of the Trinity. We trust in the transformative power of that life and carry away with us the effect of its rays, a heart burning once again, renewed by grace. And this is just the beginning.

May all of us find it in us to respond to the invitation of this occasion, the challenge of liturgical renovation. It is an invitation to go beyond words, to go deeper, to return to the Source. And it is an invitation to a level of participation in grace that is fully aware, fully conscious and ready for interior transformation. May this be a blessing for our Advent season.

Note: For another riff on the challenge of translation see "Making Sense of It", NYTimes Book Review, Sunday, October 30, 2011, p. 22.

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