Saturday, July 23, 2011

Liturgy and Treasure

1 Kings 3:5,7-12
Psalm 119:57,72,76-77, 127-130
Romans 8:28-30
Matthew 13:44-46

This past Thursday I had the blessing of going down to Vacherie to the youth group’s mission work sites to hear confessions and visit for the afternoon and while I was there I was struck by the condition of one of the houses that was in pretty rough shape. Now, I’ve been on mission trips to Central America and seen some really bad housing there, but it really hit me that there were people in such bad shape so nearby. As I was reflecting on this reality, I began to contemplate the amount of things that going on around me that I never even know about. The people with untold problems and afflictions standing next to me in the checkout line at the grocery store or gas pump, the many opportunities that I miss to share the love of Christ with other, the countless graces that the Lord pours upon me that go unnoticed. Like the treasure and pearl that were passed over by so many before being found by certain ones, we too often miss the great gifts and opportunities that surround us constantly.

As you’ve likely gathered by now, one of the things that really excites me is the celebration of the liturgy because it is arguably the greatest treasure in the world. But the reality is that although it is the greatest treasure, it is also a treasure that remains for many still undiscovered. From a numbers standpoint, we know the largest religious group in America is Catholics. The second largest group is people who used to be Catholic. And of the Catholics still remaining, only 30% attend Mass weekly. From those numbers, it sure doesn’t sound like people have found the treasure worth selling everything to attain. Rather all too often we hear things like “I just don’t get anything out of Mass” or “It’s boring” or “I like to go to such and such place because they have [insert specific aspect here].” I myself have said some of those things in days past, but the reality is that if we don’t get anything out of Mass or if we are bored, then the problem is not with the Mass itself but with us! The treasure is there, we just have to make the effort to dig and unbury it, to seek it out like that pearl of great price in the gospel. Just as the gospel tells that the people went and sold what they had to attain the valuable things, so we too must give of ourselves in seeking after the treasure that the Lord has in store for us in the celebration of the Mass.

When people who have not discovered the treasure of the Mass begin to talk about it, they often knowingly or unknowingly lump it together with anything else they do in the week – it’s right alongside, or sometimes below, shopping trips to the mall, kids’ ballgames, visiting a friend, or spending quiet time with the family; just one more thing in the mix. The reality, though, is that the Mass is nothing at all like any of those things. In those events we all remain here doing the regular tasks of our daily lives. When we come to Mass, we literally get taken up into Heaven and to the foot of Calvary’s hill!

The prominent French liturgist Dom Prosper Guéranger reminds us, “The Sacrifice of the Mass is the Sacrifice of the Cross itself; and in it we must see Our Lord nailed to the Cross; and offering up His Blood for our sins, to His Eternal Father.” (The Holy Mass, 2) We do not simply come to worship and pray to God, we actually are taken, in a very mysterious way to the Crucifixion itself and when the priest elevates the Sacred Host and Saving Chalice, we are truly gazing upon the Lord giving Himself to the Father in that great act of love. So far is this beyond our understanding, but the reality is true. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that the Paschal mystery of Christ  - His Life, Passion, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension -  “cannot remain only in the past, because by his death he destroyed death and all that Christ is – all that he did and suffered for all men – participates in the divine eternity, and so transcends all times while being made present in them all.” (CCC,1085) Again, because Jesus Christ is divine, these historical events are also lifted up into Heaven and eternity, and when we come here to celebrate the Mass, we are taken up into that mystery. We stand alongside Mary at the Cross (CCC 1370) and we briefly join with all the angels and saints in worshiping the Lamb of God in the Heavenly Banquet. At the seminary it was once explained to me that the essence of the Mass – the worship of God – is constantly occurring in Heaven and that when we attend Mass we are briefly lifted up into and then brought back down. What a wonderful thing to contemplate!

In addition to this aspect of sacrifice, which is the primary mode of understanding what takes place in the Mass, there are two other aspects that are present, though in a lesser way. First, is that of the meal, where we are also brought mysteriously into the Upper Room at the Last Supper. By virtue of his ordination, the priest actually becomes a vessel of Christ and acts ‘in the person of Christ the Head’ in the liturgy and so when the priest is speaking those words “This is my body” and “This is the cup of my blood”, we recognize it truly as Jesus at the Last Supper speaking those words Himself. And so we also take part in that great Passover Meal and the Banquet of Heaven.

Those two are the more commonly known aspects of the Mass, but how many of you have heard about the spousal or nuptial aspect of the Mass? The truth is that in the Mass we also see a marital image of Christ the Bridegroom showing the greatest sign of love for His Bride, the Church, in offering Himself up on the Cross. Just as a man and woman give themselves to one another out of love, so too does Our Lord give Himself to us in the words of consecration and in receiving Him in the Eucharist. This image is often missed, but is actually encouraged by the use of a chalice veil, as I use here on Sundays. The veil that covers the chalice is likened to the veil that the bride wears at her wedding and in the Jewish context the veil was lifted when the man and wife were to come together in that intimate embrace of love. And so today when we begin the preparation of the altar, the veil is removed as a sign of the reality that the Lord is about to offer Himself in love to us and we are to receive Him and respond in love also.

What a wonderfully valuable treasure we have here in the Mass, where we are at once transported into Heaven, the Upper Room and the Foot of the Cross and are able to receive the flesh and blood of the Lord, that great sign of His love for each of us and all of us. The treasure is right here in front of us and the tools to dig it up are not hard to find. The question is are willing to give of our time and ourselves to zealously seek after the many gifts that lie hidden?