During Lent I want to share with you some thoughts about the heart of the Mass. This is the section from when you hear the Priest say the words of Jesus “This is my Body” up to the point where we receive Communion.
To get there, I want us to look first at how Jesus deals with his Temptations in the Wilderness. (Luke 4:1-13) Surely he could have just said words of his own, and evil would have crumbled? But he chooses instead to do it by actively recalling and reciting words of power from the Old Testament. “You must worship the Lord your God and serve him alone…. You must not put the Lord God to the test.” This recalling of what God had taught his people is at the heart of Jewish faith and practice. In our 1st Reading. (Deut 26:4-10) we hear that everyone making an offering in the Temple has to speak of what God has done. They have to speak certain set words to remind themselves that they were slaves in Egypt but that the Lord brought them out “with mighty hand and outstretched arm”. And all of them knew these words by heart!
In the same way Jesus creates the Mass on the night before he died by taking the Jewish Passover ceremonies – which also rehearse the story of the escape from Egypt – and telling us, as the new Israel, to bring to mind the new and greater Passover – God’s defeat of evil and death when Jesus gives his Body and Blood on the cross for the salvation of us all.
We human beings always tend to think that we can manage most of the time without God, don’t we? Perhaps it’s because we think of God as too far away to be bothered, unless it’s really necessary. How many times have I agonised with students (and others) who have sort of forgotten about their faith because they have been so busy with other things? Now, faced with a crisis, they are suddenly desperate, trying to reconnect with God, and finding it terribly difficult.
This is surely why Jesus gave us the Mass, and said “Do this in memory of me” – not every now and then but regularly, again and again and again – like a heartbeat quietly and yet insistently keeping us going. As someone whose heart almost stopped and is now kept going by a Pacemaker, I can tell you now the importance of that regular beat that we hardly notice!
Now you might think that the crucial words here are the words of Jesus – “This is my Body.. This is the cup of my blood” – and in one sense yes they are. But equally important are the words that the Priest says a moment later, because there he says “Father, calling to mind the death your Son endured… etc” This “calling to mind” is more than just a vague remembering of what Jesus did so long ago. It is rather a bringing into the present of these actions from the past. So, just as the priest has affirmed the actual presence of Jesus in the bread and wine, so now he affirms that all that Jesus “endured for our salvation, his glorious resurrection .etc” is also present for us now. Not present as a static entity – just sort of sitting there – but as a dynamic and active force. God’s saving work in the death and resurrection of Jesus is made present for us, and that is why people kneel (or stand reverently) throughout this prayer, and do not sit unless they are disabled.
This “calling to mind” is not just something for the priest to do. Everyone is meant to do this, to pray the Mass, not just to listen to it. The mistake some people make is to think that there are some bits they are meant to join in, like the “Holy, Holy” and other bits just for the Priest. But Jesus said “Do this in memory of me” – Do it. don’t just listen to it. So in some way we have to enter into the action and make it our own. Before I was a priest, I did this by saying the words silently, mouthing them, as the priest said them. That was my way of making those words my own, but for others it can simply be a silent absorption in what is being said and done. The important thing is not just to listen.
Paul tells us in our 2nd reading (Romans 10:8-13) to “believe in your heart” That word “heart” is so important here, for it shows us that mere belief in a series of statements is not enough. I may believe in all sorts of things, but belief in God is to trust, to put our faith actively, in someone who loves us for ever and is always acting decisively for us in confronting evil and death. It is his power that takes us through into his eternal kingdom of love and peace. He draws us into that kingdom now as we say “thy kingdom come”, as we “call to mind” his saving work. So God gives us eternal life with him now in the present, as well as beyond death, and it is this that makes all that we do make sense.