Friday, December 19, 2008

The Mass as Mission (Part III)

The mission of the Church is nothing other than the mission of Jesus Christ. The Church's mission is as much a part of her life during the Mass as it is outside the Mass. In order to understand how the mission of Jesus (which becomes our mission) is related to the Mass, let us interpret the parts of the Mass as if they were the events at the end of the earthly life of Jesus as recorded primarily in the Gospel according to Matthew.

1a. Jesus enters Jerusalem (Matthew 21:1-11)

On what we now commemorate as Palm Sunday, Jesus entered into Jerusalem humbly but triumphantly: while he rode upon an ass, a beast of burden, the crowd that gathered to great him spread their garments before him and waved palm branches while singing from Psalm 118:25-26, "Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD!"

1b. The Entrance Procession

As the Mass begins, the priest approaches the altar, a symbol of the altar before God in the heavenly temple, the celestial Jerusalem. The priest, by the sacrament of Holy Orders he has received, is in persona Christi — in the person of Christ — as he prays the Mass and ultimately consecrates and offers to God the Father the sacrifice of the Eucharist. As the priest enters, the church sings as the people of Jerusalem did.

The significance of an entrance procession — rather than the priest simply being in the sanctuary at the beginning of Mass — is that the Christian life is a continuing journey: it is not complete yet; we are still walking with our Lord. It is a sign of the pilgrimage we are all making to the true sanctuary, the Holy of Holies where the heavenly hosts praise God without ceasing. (Revelation 4:8)

2a. The Cleansing of the Temple (Matthew 21:12-17)

What Jesus did next greatly disturbed many people, such as the chief priests and the scribes. Jesus drove out the people doing business in the temple, overturning the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold the animals for the sacrifices. Why?
Jesus came to Jerusalem just before the Passover, when many animals would be sacrificed according to the Mosaic Law (mostly lambs). Animals offered in sacrifice had to be flawless, the best you could offer. That meant that a Jew who was making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem from a distance would most likely have to buy his animals in Jerusalem, since any livestock he brought with him on his pilgrimage would get dirty along the way, diminishing its worthiness for sacrifice. So there would be people selling animals in the temple area. However, the temple had its own system of currency: since Jews from all over the region would come, bringing foreign currencies with them, they would convert their money into the temple currency and then buy their animals. But the money-changers operated at an unfair exchange rate.
What justification did Jesus use for this act? He quotes Isaiah 56:7 to them — "My house shall be called a house of prayer" — and then laments that they "make it a den of robbers". (Matthew 21:13) John's gospel records the disciples as remembering afterwards what was written in the Psalms: "Zeal for thy house will consume me." (Psalm 69:9)

Matthew also records that after Jesus had done this, "the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them". (Matthew 21:14) When does all this happen at Mass?

2b. The Penitential Rite

The business of the temple in Jerusalem was disrupted by Jesus, and four decades later it was destroyed. But even before its destruction the temple was becoming obsolete. Paul, in writing to the Corinthians, reminds them of the great responsibility they have as men and women baptized into Christ:
Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you? ... Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. (1 Cor 3:16; 6:19-20)

For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, "I will live in them and move among them..." (2 Cor 6:16)
The priest introduces the Penitential Rite with these words: "Brethren, let us acknowledge our sins, that we may prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries." (OM 4) When we acknowledge our sins before God, we ask Him to forgive them and cleanse us of them.

Our bodies should be houses of prayer, but we have made them dens for thieves. Sin does not belong in the temple. Every sin we commit is an act of profanation. The word "profane" comes from the Latin profano which means "outside the temple"; something which is "profane" is not proper to -- does not belong in -- the temple. The "profane" is the opposite of the "sacred".

It is in this Penitential Rite, when we make a general confession of our sins (which does not take the place of the sacrament of Confession), that Jesus comes to his temple -- your body -- and drives out that which dirties and profanes it. And in that same moment, he heals and cures us, he makes us whole again. He repairs these fragile temples, and makes us fitting temples for his Holy Spirit once more. It is only then that we are prepared to participate in the sacred mysteries, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and to offer ourselves as living sacrifices as well.

3a. Jesus Preaches and Teaches (Matthew 21:18-25:46)

Over the next several days, Jesus was in Jerusalem preaching and teaching. He used parables and interpreted the Scriptures — writings of the prophets, the Psalms of David, and even the Torah of Moses — for people, especially Sadduccees and Pharisees. He spoke of the future, the tribulation to come, and the return of the King of Kings at the end of the world.

3b. The Liturgy of the Word

As Scripture is read to you, and as the priest or deacon reads the Gospel and conveys to you the truths of the faith in the homily, you are encountering the continuation of Christ's ministry. The Old Testament is explained and revealed in the New, as so many Church Fathers (such as St. Augustine) loved to say.

4a. His Passion, Death, and Resurrection (Matthew 26:1-28:10)

Next came the three most important days of Christ's work on earth: the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper (and the institution of the ministerial priesthood), the agony in Gethsemane, his sorrowful Passion — being put on trial, scourged, humiliated, condemned to die, and crowned with thorns, followed by his march to Calvary —, his crucifixion and death, his burial, the day of silence in the tomb, and his glorious Resurrection.

At the Last Supper, when Christ inaugurated the new and everlasting covenant in his blood, he made it clear why he was doing what he was doing, and just what it was exactly he was doing. He said that the bread and the wine was his body and blood (and not just a symbol of it), and he said that his blood was being poured out "for many for the forgiveness of sins" (Matthew 26:28).

4b. The Liturgy of the Eucharist

From the evening of Holy Thursday through to the evening of Easter Sunday, the Church celebrates the Paschal Triduum, the "three days of Easter". These days commemorate the events listed above. We encounter them altogether in the Liturgy of the Eucharist. It is most important to remember that in the Eucharistic Prayer, when the priest, in virtue of the holy ordination he received, calls upon the Holy Spirit and recites the words of Jesus Christ, the bread and the wine change in substance (transubstantiate) into the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ. This change is not apparent to our senses, but then again, neither is the change we undergo in baptism.

After the consecration, the bread and wine have become the Eucharist. Immediately afterwards, in the Eucharistic Prayer, the priest offers the Eucharist to God the Father. In doing so, he is re-presenting the sacrifice of Christ, the same sacrifice Christ pre-presented to the Father at the Last Supper and presented bodily on the cross. Pay close attention to the language he uses:
Therefore, O Lord, as we celebrate the memorial of the saving Passion of your Son, his wondrous Resurrection and Ascension into heaven, and as we look forward to his second coming, we offer you in thanksgiving this holy and living sacrifice.

Look, we pray, upon the oblation of your Church and, recognizing the sacrificial Victim by whose death you willed to reconcile us to yourself, grant that we, who are nourished by the Body and Blood of your Son and filled with his Holy Spirit, may become one body, one spirit in Christ. (Eucharistic Prayer III, OM 113)
When we receive Holy Communion — and we should only do so if we have confessed any and all mortal sins we have committed since our last confession, have fasted for an hour, and are not otherwise prohibited from receiving — we are blessed to receive our Lord as food. But this is not a "fraternal meal", it is the Most Blessed Sacrament, because it contains the Author of all the graces we can receive. This is, as the priest says, "the Lamb of God ... who takes away the sins of the world", and we are partaking in "the [marriage] supper of the Lamb". (The Communion Rite, OM 132; cf. John 1:29; Revelation 19:9)

While John's gospel does not record the institution of the Eucharist, John 17 reads as a form of "Eucharistic Prayer" (a prayer of thanksgiving and glorifying God).

5a. His Ascension into Heaven (Matthew 28:16-20)

After his resurrection, Jesus called the apostles together on a mountain in Galilee (Matthew 28:16) and gave them the greatest charge of all. "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age." (Matthew 28:19-20) This mission, which had been and continues to be Christ's, he gave to his Apostles, to the Church.

Some time after he gave them this commission, he blessed them as he ascended into heaven from the Mount of Olives, as Luke's writings attest to. (Luke 24:50-53; Acts 1:7-13)

5b. The Dismissal

The priest blesses us in the name of the Most Holy Trinity at the end of Mass, and then follows the dismissal. When we hear the words "Ite, missa est", we are hearing the words of Christ to his disciples: "Go, I am sending you into the world to continue my mission." The dismissal of the Mass is our entering into (and accepting of) the Great Commission before the Lord's glorious Ascension into heaven.


Now we can see how the mission of Christ has become the mission of the Church, and how, just as the Eucharist is the re-presentation of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the dismissal of the Mass is the re-presentation of that Great Commission whereby the Church was formally invested with that charge.

How can the Church, how can we today carry on so great and serious a mission? What is our sustenance? Whence do we draw our strength? Where do we find refreshment? To answer those questions, we need look no further than the Mass itself; for in the Mass, the first and most important end of which is the glorification and proper worship of God, God gives us the grace needed to fulfill this mission.

We have seen how the Mass follows the model of Christ's life from Palm Sunday through Ascension Thursday. We will see how the Mass is a conversation, a dialog, an exchange between God and man, between heaven and earth; we will see how in every Mass, we experience Pentecost in our own lives... in the next installment.

May the Lord bless us +, protect us from all evil, and bring us to everlasting life. Amen.

  • OM - Ordo Missae I (English Translation) [USCCB]

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