Thursday, October 11, 2012

Why Catholics Love the Mass

             On mother’s day the year my father died, I had a picture of my father turned into one of those painting-like portraits.  I don’t even remember what company did it, but it was done very professionally and arrived about 4 days before mother’s day.  The picture was a profile of him, taken at a Christmas party a few years earlier.  It perfectly captured his personality: pensive and thoughtful, looking off into the distance.  The background shows that it was a Christmas setting, with lights on the tree somewhat blurred, but that only adds to the rather mysterious quality of the image.

                When the picture arrived, I was so blown away by it that I couldn’t wait to give it to my mother.  I surprised her with it, and she was overcome with emotion. It was as if he had taken a step out of eternity to join us again.  It now hangs above the piano in her living room, and journeys with her in the summer to her lake refuge. It’s not my father, but it sure reminds us of him, as he presides over family gatherings as if he were there with us still.  He is remembered and loved, and his love is mysteriously made present to those who knew him well.

                Memory is an amazing thing, for it shows our connection to the past and makes present what happened then.  Memory can be a curse, if our view of the past is negative, or we bring up painful things that we endured.  Those who have gone through trauma can feel just as bad by memories of past sufferings as they did when they endured them.  On the other hand, memory is a blessing when we recall past joyful events, gifts given and received, the love of friends and family who may have passed away. 

                When the Lord Jesus instituted the Eucharist, He commanded the apostles “do this in memory of me.”  Of all the things that were done and said at the Last Supper, the blessing of the bread and wine are significantly pointed out by three evangelists and Saint Paul.  From after the Resurrection until this very moment, the Church has obeyed the command of Christ.  While the apostles probably did not understand the significance of what Jesus was doing at the time, they certainly learned later on with the gift of the Holy Spirit.  They also recalled His words in Capharnaum about eating His Body and drinking His Blood.  In the light of the Last Supper and by the gift of the Holy Spirit they came to know that what Jesus had given them was the means of receiving, eating and drinking His Body and Blood. 

                Those words of institution also led them to realize that what happened to Jesus on Good Friday was not a mere railroad job, but a deliberate act on His part.  He did not just acquiesce to the brutality of His enemies; He was literally giving His body and shedding His blood on purpose.  The Last Supper words and deeds of Jesus showed that His death was a true sacrifice, a giving over of His very self in obedience to the Father.

                Putting two and two together, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they realized that Jesus had designed a way to make Himself present to them in the here and now, even though He had ascended into heaven.  Jesus did not command what He would not make possible by grace. As He commanded that we must eat His body and drink His blood, and as He had told them to do with bread and wine what He did, so He had made possible the fulfillment of both. And that is the Mass.

                When the Mass is celebrated, the priest, ordained in the line of the apostles, does what Jesus said to do: Take and eat, This is my Body; take and drink, This is my Blood.  What Jesus did at the Last Supper is made present. And since the reality of the Real Body and Blood of Christ is made present, so Christ Himself, risen from the dead, is present, more than any picture or image.  Furthermore, the gift of His sacrifice, foreshadowed by His own words at the Last Supper, is also made present; not in a bloody manner, for “Christ, once raised from the dead can never die again”, but in the reality of His now Risen Body. 

                So what the Mass offers to us is the marvelous way that Jesus can be with us in the here and now, hidden behind the appearance of bread and wine, and bringing with Him the intimate celebration with His apostles in the Upper Room, the bloody and painful death of the Cross, and the glorious power of His risen Body.

                The memory of what Christ has done for us is supernaturalized by the Holy Spirit for us.  It does not just bring Him to mind; He really is there, and abides there afterwards in the Tabernacle, so that we can remember what He has done for us, and wants to do for us who believe in Him.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Take up your cross, the Savior said

“And He said to all, ‘If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.’”  Luke 9:23

Carrying one’s cross is a necessary component of being a Christian.  In the early Church, it was literal for many.  In fact, it took awhile for images of the Crucified to be accepted, since the reality of actual crucifixions was evident in the lives of real people nailed to crosses.  Nero, it is said, lined the highway with crucified Christians who were then lit on fire to light the way at night.  Strangely symbolic.

At any rate, we are so far from grasping the reality of what a crucifixion does to a person, and we are numbed to the image of Christ Himself on the cross, because this image is not just common, but also denigrated in many ways.

Nevertheless, bearing one’s cross is part of following Him. 

The key is to discover what the cross means for each of us individually.

For some, their cross is quite evident.  They have been wounded either physically or otherwise by the wickedness of someone else.  They bear the pain every day.  For some, the cross is a difficult family situation: a negligent spouse, a troubled child, an unsympathetic parent, an ogre of a boss.  Such crosses can be easily identified, and should be embraced not in the evil that exists in them, but in the attitude one has towards them, seeing them as means to virtue and union with Christ.

But what if we have no major sufferings, no dramatic or pressing difficulties, but just the ordinary stuff of life?  How does the cross appear?

It may appear in the form of dealing with illness, unknown to others; it could be in crushing financial difficulties; it could be in the form of our own conscience and the way we can be tempted to punish ourselves or others because we know our weaknesses and failures. 

I’ve always thought that each of us designs our own cross of ultimate suffering by the choices we make, and the consequences that occur because of those choices.  We take time to cut the wood, mold its shape, determine its size and shape, and then begin to mount that cross depending on how outside forces affect us. 

It occurs to me that Jesus always knew what form His own cross would take, and He “set His face” towards that end on purpose.  While we do not know how our ultimate end will be, one thing that God gives us is the choice to take up the cross that our choices and circumstances determine.  If we take the time to consider how life is going for us, we can find shadows and splinters of the cross every day: the frustrations with goals unmet, the struggles we have with our weaknesses and failures, the opposition we encounter from others from day to day, or on an ongoing basis. 

Faith is the ability to see God’s truth in the midst of every circumstance.  Sometimes, it requires that we give thanks for His blessings that we acknowledge; other times it requires that we release the angst we can feel in the face of suffering and difficulties, not in a some esoteric or mindless way, but into the hands of the Lord, hands that are pierced with nails.  It is not a passive acceptance of the uncontrollable, but a deliberate choice to say, “This is part of my cross, and I willingly embrace what is odious for the love of Jesus, Who willingly took up His cross for me!” 

This is not an easy task.  Our minds come up with reasons why we should flee; our bodies can feel repugnance to the pain involved; our emotions can go any which way.  But our will can focus, and say, “yes”, and be united with Jesus.  One reason He endured His suffering was that we would have a model, and a source of strength, to deal with what we hate, because of what, and Whom, we love.