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What happens at Mass is more than meets the eye.

Lincoln, Nebraska and Saginaw, Michigan are textbook examples of a "conservative" and a "liberal" diocese. In an article for Commonweal magazine, author Charles Morris sees the contrast between the two most graphically illustrated in their approaches to the Eucharist.

Lincoln's liturgical strategy, Morris writes, is to distance the priest from the congregation, stressing the sacral rather than the communal aspects of the Eucharist. In Saginaw, the intention is to reduce the distance between priest and people and emphasize the community-meal aspect of the Mass. Lincoln uses the traditional white Host and lays great importance on the exposition and adoration of the Eucharist. Saginaw uses a kind of Syrian flat bread that is not conducive to either of these devotions. In both Saginaw and Lincoln, Catholics attend Mass in relatively the same numbers (about 30 percent of the total, which is somewhat higher than the national average). Lincoln strives to develop a sense of awe for the mystery that is the Mass. Saginaw searches for ways to involve the people as Vatican II insisted it should.

The reasons for the liturgical differences between Lincoln and Saginaw are numerous, but some of them touch on the basic dynamics of the Mass itself. Why do we Catholics come together on the weekend? Are we here to tell a story, share a meal, and reinforce our sense of community? Or are we here to worship, offer sacrifice, and enter into the mystery of the holy God?

The answer, I suspect, is: all of the above. The answer makes sense, however, only if we set it in the context of "the transcendent God" and some of our experience in dealing with this elusive idea.

So close, yet so far

God is necessarily shrouded in mystery. Saint Thomas Aquinas never tired of telling us that God is not one being among others, not even the supreme being. He is Being itself, the necessary source and underpinning of everything else that is. Because of this gulf between Being and beings, we have no experiential way of grasping who or what God is. We can only say what God is not. Thus we say that God is not limited in knowledge, power, goodness, or love. As the First Vatican Council (1869-1870) reminded us, "God is immense, incomprehensible, beyond the power of the human mind to grasp."

Revelation, God's self-disclosure, shows God to be dramatically other ("My thoughts are not your thoughts") yet surprisingly close ("I would gather you under my wings"). This bipolarity of distance/nearness, transcendence/ immanence, says theologian Robert Barron in his book Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master (Crossroad, 1996), is God's way of keeping us off balance and thus avoiding our tendencies either to "control" or to hide from God. If we overstress transcendence or otherness, God ceases to have any effective place in our lives. If we overemphasize closeness, we may believe we can manipulate God.

This primal dilemma grew still more complicated with the Incarnation. Here God's self-disclosure took a unique turn. In Christ, God became a creature, and human nature took on a divine dimension. Jesus revealed God by his life but above all by his death, resurrection, and sending of the Spirit. Assuming our creaturehood in our world, he consecrated and transformed them both, making them sacraments of the sacred. In Christ, God became visible and accessible. Yet even in Christ we find the mystery and otherness of the divine.

Balancing between the realities of closeness/ distance and transcendence/immanence is not easy, and through the centuries people and churches have tended to embrace the one or the other. Traditionally, Catholicism, with its analogical imagination and strong sacramental sense, has stressed the presence of God in the world. Protestantism has emphasized the awful otherness of God, not God's self-disclosure in creation but the divine, overwhelming Word crashing into our midst, like a heavy rock thrown into a quiet pool. Classical Protestantism saw our Latin liturgy as a feeble attempt to diminish and manage the all-holy and incomprehensible God--something they felt we carried to absurd lengths with our offerings for indulgences and Masses.

Within Catholicism itself there have been wide swings in our views of God and Christ, particularly in our attitude toward the Eucharist. The table fellowship and the house churches of the first centuries yielded to basilicas and cathedrals. When Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire, our liturgies took on some of the splendor of the imperial court. Tables became altars and the distance grew between people and priest. The Eucharist was enthroned and men and women went down on both knees to adore but not to approach it.

When I was growing up in a small rural church, only a handful of men and women went to Communion on Sunday, and then only after Confession on Saturday night. The Eucharist was too sacred for any but the holy and the recently shrived. Today, obviously, we have moved to another place, one marked by informality and intimacy, and once again we face the challenge of balancing our response to a God who has become one of us and yet remains totally other. Lincoln and Saginaw are the most recent chapters in this ancient story.

In America magazine, liturgist Francis Mannion suggests Catholics cease their attempts to restructure the Mass and spend their energies mining the riches of the liturgy we have. His is an open invitation to the Catholic community, not just to liturgical scholars. So I offer the following pages with the hope of engaging more of us in the ongoing exploration of the Eucharist. My reflections will focus on two closely connected themes. The first of these is trinitarian. The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes much of the Trinity in its view of the Mass. The second theme is that of divine initiative; it reminds us that in the Eucharist, as everywhere else in our Christian lives, God acts and we respond (the word Eucharist means "thank you"). We begin then with our belief that the Spirit of God calls us and gathers us around Christ. The Son in turn leads us into the presence of the Father. There, together with the Son and aided by the Spirit, we offer Christ's great prayer of praise and surrender. Finally we are drawn into the intimacy of the Lord's own table. It all begins with gathering.

Gather us in

The gathering area or narthex of a church is a striking feature of the new architecture that has grown out of the liturgical reforms of Vatican II. The vestibule of our older churches, often narrow and purely functional, has yielded to a spacious area where the faithful gather in preparation for Mass. The space celebrates the people and the wonder of their being there at all. For their presence is an instance of the most ancient of Christian maxims: "You have not chosen me; I have chosen you." In other words, it is God who initiates our salvation. Saturday night or Sunday morning the Spirit is abroad in the land calling the people to gather, and they come. Across the country and around the globe they come: in their hundreds and thousands and millions. The marvel is not the number of those who decline the call but those who hear and heed it. They come as they have been coming for millennia, just as they once slipped out of their homes in the streets of old Rome or Athens or Corinth and found their ways to the houses of Timothy or Priscilla, so they come today.

In one new church I know well (St. Patrick's in Wadsworth, Illinois) people enter through the east and west doors of the narthex, pass under a relatively low ceiling, and meet in the vaulted center of the gathering area. The architecture suggests that in the gathering individual lives yield to something more, something distinct and unique. They have become church--the assembly of the chosen ones (the Greek word for church-ekklesia--means "those who have been summoned"). The Spirit chose them and beckoned them. They answered and gathered around their risen Lord. "Where two or three of you have gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of you."

Vatican II taught us that there are four ways in which Christ is present in the liturgy. Christ is present in the people as they gather. He is present in the word of Scripture. He is present in the priest. And, finally, uniquely, he is present in the Eucharist. Here we see the first of them: his presence in the assembly, and what an assembly it is! The view from the presider's chair is awesome. James Joyce once said the Catholic Church means, "Here comes everybody!" We are the rich and the poor, every ethnic group and race. We are saints and sinners, the unbelievably generous and incredibly self-centered--so very like the pious and the publicans, the money lenders, prostitutes, and tax collectors who gathered so gleefully around a welcoming Jesus on the shores of Galilee, the streets of Jerusalem, or the dinner table! We are today's anawim ("Poor ones"): the wounded, the crippled, the blind and lame and deaf who come bearing the tattered banners of our hope and faith. And he is in our midst, welcoming, embracing, surrounding us with affection and love.

The Spirit has gathered these people about the Incarnate Son of God. Now the Son will lead them into the presence of the Father.

God wants a word with us

After a brief introduction (Greeting, Penitential Rite, Gloria, Opening Prayer) God speaks to us through the scripture, the sacred books of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.

What part of the Mass is the more sacred, the more solemn--the reading of scripture or the consecration? The answer, of course, is that they are equally solemn, equally sacred. That, at least, is what we are told by the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965): "The church has always held the Sacred Scriptures in no less reverence than it accords the Lord's body itself" (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, no. 21).

The Bible is a gift from the individuals and communities who heard God's word, inscribed it, and passed it on. The books of the Old and New Testament have been preserved, venerated, and studied for millennia. As we hear the Word proclaimed at Mass, we enter into a privileged communication between God and God's people. Vatican II said it best: "In the sacred books the Father who is in heaven comes to meet his children and speaks lovingly to them" (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, no. 23).

God speaks to us above all through the gospel, the Good News that Jesus proclaimed. As one of us, Christ learned the power and wonder of language. He used words in a startling way, weaving them into images and metaphors and parables. He spoke on the mountainside and on the lake. He spoke in villages and towns and cities. God's word spoke, and the people remembered.

Words are the vessels of memory--our own and those of God's people. The words of scripture, the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, bear those memories. They tell of the creator God who fashioned a people, became one with them, died, and rose for them. If we let it, this Word of God will touch the word in each of us, the word of our memories, our histories, healing them, bringing them alive, setting them alight with the power of Christ.

God's Spirit summons each of us to bring our stories to the table, and what stories they are! They mirror the rich tapestry of the Bible itself and its 1,000 tales of the heights and depths of human possibility. If we look about us, we will see them. There, in the back pew, is a woman who sat day after day by the bedside of her dying husband. Whenever I walked into the hospital room, early in the morning or late at night, she was there. "It isn't hard," she told me, "I love him so very much."

Stories like hers abound among the people who gather around the table. Not all their memories are selfless, of course. Paul reminds us that we are all sinners. How do sinners approach the table of the word? If the gospels are any indication, the answer is gleefully. If one thing is clear, Jesus sought out sinners for his fellowship: in Luke 19:5-7, he calls to the tax collector Zacchaeus in the tree, Come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house. And the authorities were shocked. He had gone to stay at the house of a sinner.

When we draw near the table of God's word, we focus our attention not on our tattered histories but on the boundless patience and compassion of God. He has gathered us here to fill us with his Spirit and send us back into our world bearing the Good News.

"Good News!" That was the victory cry that the messengers of Jesus' time brought back from the battlefield to a beleaguered city. Good News meant that the fide has turned, victory has been won. And indeed it has. The triune God is in the field and on our side. The divine fight is sparkling in the night sky of our dark world and the darkness dare not deny it. Evil, sin, and death will not have the final word in our world or in our lives! What then is our response to this Good News? If Luke's angels are to be believed, the response is joy. And joy was a distinctive mark of the early Christian communities.

There is hope and joy in the Liturgy of the Word. There is mystery too. Even as the former draw us to the table, the latter should fill us with wonder and awe. Does it? Sometimes but not always. Like nearly everything else we do, we manage to mix high drama and low comedy. The reader is unprepared. People drift in halfway through the readings, proud grandparents show off the new baby to friends in the next pew, and young women directly in front of the reader wave to friends in the rear of the church to join them. But there are those graced moments too when we truly hear and welcome the Good News.

We conclude the Liturgy of the Word with a profession of faith, a claiming of those memories that bind us together and make us one people. We offer our prayers too for the people, all people--everywhere across the world. Then we bring up our gifts in preparation for the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

Thanks for the memories

Memories can make our palms sweat, our hearts pound. They become more important to us as we grow older. We cling to them, review them, and retell them as though we were trying to get them just right. Why? We are weaving them into our story, the story that tells who we are and where we have been. We want our story remembered, and we should. It is important to the larger family story, the story of the society itself. All that and more is the stuff of the Lord's command: do this in memory of me.

The Hebrew word for remember means more than an intellectual exercise. In a liturgical context, it means "to make present again." Remembering the mighty deeds of God, the Hebrew people believed that his saving, liberating power was present to them. Jesus asks his people to remember the moment in which he emptied himself in the giving of his body, the shedding of his blood. And when the people remember, that reality is present in all its liberating, healing power.

The church designates the priest as the repositor of this memory of the Lord. In this role, he calls upon God's Spirit to transform our gifts of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. The Spirit of God makes present to us the sacrifice, the self-emptying of God's incarnate Son. We remember: "This is my body which is given for you. This is the cup of my blood which is shed for you."

The presence of Christ in the priest and his presence in the Eucharist are closely connected. Pope John Paul II, following Aquinas, speaks of the priest acting in persona Christi ("in the person of Christ"). As theologian Kenan Osborne has observed, Aquinas meant that the priest is transparent; in other words, he is "the sacrament of the one priest, Jesus." The priest consecrates the Eucharist, but the risen Lord is the priest and the victim of this sacrifice. Christ is also head of his body, the church, his chosen ones. He gathers us all about him, his brothers and sisters, living and dead to offer his sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to the Father. We are not mere observers but share intimately in this drama. Gathered about their Lord, the people offer and celebrate together with him--an exercise of the common priesthood of all believers. "For their part the faithful join in the offering of the Eucharist by virtue of their royal priesthood" (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, no. 10).

We saw earlier that Lincoln underscores the Mass as sacrifice while Saginaw stresses the Mass as meal. The Catechism (no. 1832) makes it clear that sacrifice and banquet belong together. Our communion is not just a personal visit with the Lord. It is the way in which Jesus draws us more completely into the sacrifice of head and members.

The gospels are filled with memories of the meals Jesus ate with his friends and enemies. As much as anything else, Osborne believes this "table ministry" of Jesus cost him his life. The reason was that he ate with the anawim. The anawim were not only the impoverished but those whom Jewish authorities had pushed to the margins of Jewish society: tax collectors, moneylenders, prostitutes, shepherds. In welcoming these outcasts, Jesus threw down the gauntlet to the authorities who had cut them off. In the parable of the prodigal son, the younger son (the sinner) goes into the banquet while the older one (the Jewish authorities) stands outside. The authorities knew what Jesus meant; so did the Jewish people. The challenge was public; the penalty would be public and extreme. Jesus made it clear at his final supper that he was willing to pay the price. It is easy then to see how cross and sacrifice quickly became associated with this meal in the thinking of the early Christian community. "For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes" (1 Cor. 11:26).

As often as we are beckoned to his table, we are compelled to remember the compassion and pardon that marked the ministry of the Lord. Our table fellowship, like his, must extend to all, particularly to the poorest, the most marginalized among us. In other words we are called to join the Lord in emptying ourselves, moving out of the valleys of our own egos into the world of our brothers and sisters, particularly the neediest.

We prepare ourselves for this intimate moment by the Lord's Prayer, the Sign of Peace, and the Agnus Dei. We acknowledge our sinfulness and beg for the forgiveness we have shown others. Above all we pray for the gift of shalom ("peace")--harmony within ourselves, with one another, our world, and our God.

We receive Communion: "The body of Christ. The blood of Christ." We respond: "Amen!" The Amen spoken by the people affirms their belief that the risen Lord is really present in the Eucharist. It is important to remember that this is a statement of faith. We have seen that Christ is present in the assembly, in the word, in the priest. Saying that he is really present in the Eucharist does not detract from the other presences. It means that the presence here is unique. How? The church speaks of a "substantial" presence--in other words, whatever it is that makes the Risen Lord present in the bread and wine. In fact, we have no completely adequate explanation of this eucharistic presence (not even transubstantiation).

It may help to recall that our experience of "presence" goes beyond the merely spatial; it is also a relational and a mutual reality (a close friend or spouse can be more "present" to me than someone seated next to me on a plane). If mutuality and response are an element of presence, then we may see that each presence of Christ is different; each calls for a different response. My response to Christ in the Eucharist (surrender) is different than it is to Christ present in my neighbor (service). Here, however, we are in the realm of theological explanation, not faith, and once again we find ourselves balancing between two polarities: intimacy and distance, faith and mystery.

The Catechism makes it clear that sacrifice and banquet are intimately related. In our Communion, Christ gathers up our story and the stories of the community, penetrates the darkness that is there with the blinding light of his own self-emptying, and presents it all to the Father.

We have seen a great light

Two thousand years have passed since Christ gave the Eucharist and the Spirit to his people. The darkness is still there in our lives and in our world, but the darkness is not total. Shot through with light, our lives and our world have become a chiaroscuro reality, a study of light and shadow. Christ penetrates the darkness, transforms it into something as beautiful and varied as the stories that make it up. Our incarnate God has consecrated these stories, all of them. Filled with his Spirit, they are now capable of drawing us to him.

The world we return to is still in chaos, but the Spirit, who gathered us, is at home in chaos. He will bring beauty out of it as he did at the day of creation, and we shall be his instruments. We are the people he gathered to say "thank you" for the Good News. Now he sends us out to tell the next generation that the victory has been won. The light is breaking open the darkness. And there is beauty.

By Father George Dyer, the founder and editor of Chicago Studies, who also writes and edits Androgogy, The Three-Minute Theologian, and Catholic Educator.
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Author:Dyer, George
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Mar 1, 1998
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