So often as I greet people after Mass, people will often say, “Nice Service, Father!” At least they don’t say, “Long Service” or “Boring Service!” The Mass is indeed a service but it is so much more. We can conduct prayer services nearly anywhere, but not every service is a Mass.
A growing trend, rather disturbing, is that families will forego having a funeral Mass for their loved ones, even if their loved one went to Mass daily. Many Catholic brides and grooms, even when they choose to be married “in the Church,” often say they prefer not to have a Nuptial Mass but only “a simple, quick service.” Add to these trends, that fewer people come to Mass (in the Diocese of Trenton only 18% percent of Catholics attend Mass weekly. Many no longer see Mass as a “value” or even an obligation.
These trends reveal that we have lost our understanding and appreciation of the Holy Mass…of its purpose and its power. Let’s consider this as we come to the third and final weekend of homilies on the Holy Eucharist. Every Saint in history has cultivated an awe of what happens at the altar, whether it is celebrated in St. Peter’s Basilica by the Vicar of Christ or in the hut by a missionary in Papua New Guinea.
The Mass is a mystical reality in two ways: It is a Sacred Banquet, a meal at which we are nourished by God’s Word and the Lord’s Body and Blood. I think we can grasp this aspect of the Mass rather easily. But that piece of furniture in the center of our sanctuary is more than a table. It is also an altar upon which a sacrifice is offered.
The notion of sacrifice is rather strange to us today. But it was of paramount importance to the ancients and to the people of the Old Testament. Sacrifice was the preeminent way of relating to God. There is in man a desire to offer God some sign of obedience, service, love, and a desire for pardon and mercy. Consider in ancient times the ways God commanded sacrifices be offered. First fruits were offered, animals were slaughtered, and blood was poured out in place of a sinner’s blood.
Think of Abel, Noah, Moses and the temple sacrifices that were carried out continuously. Scripture also attests that God’s covenant with his people was sealed by the blood of sacrificed animals. In fact, Moses sprinkled blood upon the people. This was the way the bond was created between God and His People.
Can you imagine if this was commanded of us today? Who would agree to be sprinkled with blood? God was faithful to the covenant but Israel so often failed and so animal sacrifices continued, but there was always this longing on the part of God and his People that someday this covenant would be fulfilled.
This finally took place on Good Friday. In Jesus Crucified we find the union of God and man…divinity and humanity meet. From the cross the blood of God and Man was poured out. Jesus takes upon himself the sins of the world; he is the Lamb of God who is offered to the Father as the perfect sacrifice for all time. On the night before he died, the Lord established that the Last Supper, the first Mass, be the memorial of Calvary. The Mass must always be understood in connection to the Cross.
Every Mass recalls, in the mystical way, the Lord’s death. The Mass reaches back to Calvary and allows us to stand at the foot of the Cross. Bishop Sheen put it simply: “The Mass is the application and projection through space and time of the redemptive love of Christ on the Cross.” It brings Calvary to the present moment.
The Mass replaces the sacrifices of the Old Law. We have a privilege the ancients did not have---we ingest, the very Victim, we consume divine, heavenly food.
At Mass we are never alone. We are united with the Church on earth, with the saints in heaven and with the souls in purgatory. St. John Chrysostom wrote: “When the Eucharist is being celebrated, the sanctuary is filled with countless angels who adore the divine victim immolated on the altar.” And I am awed and consoled by what St. Augustine wrote: “The angels surround and help the priest when he is celebrating Mass.”
You see…the Mass is heaven on earth. We need the Mass because through it we have the fullest and most perfect way to offer to the Lord our adoration, our thanksgiving, our petitions, and reparation for our sins—not only for ourselves but our loved ones who have died. Pope Benedict reminded us, “Those who go before us to the other shore, never stop needing our love.” And the greatest love we can offer them comes through the Mass.
St. John Vianney said, “If we really understood the Mass, we would die of joy.” St. Pio of Pietrelcina made perhaps the most bold profession of love for the Mass when he said, “If would be easier for the world to survive without the sun than to do without the Holy Mass.
My brothers and sisters, what a treasure we possess, what power and strength we have in the Mass! Let us now continue our Mass realizing that “As heaven descends to earth, we lift up our earth to meet it halfway...heaven awaits us…to bring our home to heaven and heaven home to us.”
A nice service? No…something even more: “Now heaven touches earth and awaits you. Jesus Himself says to you: ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come to him and eat with him and he with me.” (Rev.: 3:20)
J.R. Tolkien, the author of Lord of the Rings wrote this to his sons: “Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament. There you will find romance, glory, honor, fidelity and the true way of all your loves on earth.”
He was able to say this because of what we Catholic believe about the Holy Eucharist. Tolkien had a true sense of what St. John Paul II called, “Eucharistic amazement.” It is something we must rekindle in our own spiritual life. This was the concern that your priests and deacons raised at a recent meeting. How can we rekindle this sense in our own parish?
Routine can indeed be the death of our reverence. The most serious risk we run as disciples is to grow so accustomed to the Eucharist that we take it for granted or even trivialize it. So today is the first of three weekends that our homilies will be devoted to the Holy Eucharist.
While the Lord is present to us in many ways—Sacred Scripture, his Church, and in the beauty of creation, the Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is the way the Lord is present in the most unique and fullest sense. This is why of the seven Sacraments, we call the Eucharist, “the Blessed Sacrament.” This is because it is not merely a sign or symbol, but Christ Himself—present in his body, blood, soul and divinity, under the form of bread and wine. We can surely say, the Eucharist is not something but someone.
In the Gospels we see this sacrament prefigured by the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves, in the teaching of Jesus in the 6th chapter of St. John—the Bread of Life discourse—and then, of course, instituted by the Lord at the Last Supper. The Passover table that Holy Thursday night became the Christian altar around which the Church gathers. It was then that Jesus pronounced over the bread and wine words that would wondrously change them into his body and blood. This is an action that is continued by the priest who continues to “do this in memory” of Jesus.
The Church has called this change, “transubstantiation.” This means that while the bread and wine, appear the same, that is to say, their accidents—their color, weight, taste and shape—remain the same, after the consecration, their substance is changed. This “Real Presence” remains even after Mass. This is why the tabernacle has an important place in our church. This is why the lighted sanctuary lamp is not a décor for the church but a sign and reminder that Jesus is present there.
It was because of His immense love for us that Our Lord instituted this sacrament. In a prayer to the Lord, St. Catherine of Siena, said, “You have left Yourself entirely to us, as food, so that we will not fall through weariness during our pilgrimage in this life, but will be fortified by You—heavenly nourishment.”
As the early Christians grew in their appreciation of the Real Presence of Our Lord, the Eucharist was reserved in the tabernacle so that it might be brought to the sick and dying. People also began to experience the great consolation of having the opportunity to pray, to spend time in the Presence of the Lord.
Blessed Paul VI wrote: "How great is the value of conversation with Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, for there is nothing more consoling on earth, nothing more efficacious for advancing along the road of holiness. He dwells with us full of grace and truth. He restores morality, nourishes virtue, consoles the afflicted, and strengthens the weak."
Catholics demonstrate their belief in the Real Presence in various ways. We will consider these over the next two Sundays. Today, I would point out three ways: The first is the custom of making a genuflection or at least a profound bow whenever we pass in front of the tabernacle. Besides being a personal act of reverence, it also gives a great witness to others.
The second is to correct the bad habit so many have of walking out after receiving communion without so much as a moment to say “Thank you Lord.” I highly doubt that people make their thanksgiving in the car on their way home! Stay! Those few extra minutes can be life changing… and don’t we have so much for which to pray?
The third is the need for silence. We can be so loud in church, standing around our sanctuary, chatting about all kinds of things, mostly not so spiritual. It can be disruptive to keeping our church as a place of prayer and encounter with the Lord. We can and should greet one another but in a manner that respects the holiness of this place. We should also remember that many people like to remain and extend their prayer after Mass. It is hard to pray in the midst of noise.
Dear brothers and sisters….your priests and deacons want to send this message: “The Eucharist is the center of our life…because Jesus is the center of our life.” Over the next few weeks, let’s together seek to rediscover, let’s rekindle our sense of Eucharistic amazement.