Monday, April 17, 2017

Holy Thursday 2017

Before a word was written by Mark, or Luke, or Matthew, or John, or even Paul, before Peter set foot in Rome for the first time, before anyone had counted up seven Sacraments or fourteen Stations, before even the word “Christian” had been invented, they did this. Long before it was called the Mass. Before the prayers were honed and perfected, before the hymnody was grown. They did it because He had told them to. If your beloved friend - not to mention Lord and God - tells you with almost His last words to “do this in memory of me,” you’re going to do it.

Acts 2:42: They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

It was one of the pillars of their life together. Looking to the other Scriptures (John 6, Luke 24, 1 Corinthians 11), we can say it was the pillar of the life of Christians, before they were even called Christians. They obeyed His command. They did it in memory of Him. And like those disciples on the road to Emmaus, they recognized Him in the breaking of the bread.
Rembrandt, Supper at Emmaus



On the surface, things changed over time. The prayers developed and coalesced, traditions emerged and evolved, a richer store of music and literature grew up. The gathering took place in a spare room, or hidden underground, or in a permanent church, depending on circumstances. There was a complicated interplay between the diverse customs and atmosphere of different places, and the catholic unity of one Baptism and one Lord. But what is most remarkable is what never changed. If you read the oldest, earliest accounts of Christian worship, even back to 1 Corinthians in the New Testament itself, you can’t miss it. It’s the Mass. You know that much about it was different for them, superficially, and all the theology and implications might not have been thought through yet, but you read those accounts and… that’s Mass.

Tonight’s liturgy is called “The Mass of the Lord’s Supper,” which is pretty close to a redundancy. It’s the Mass of the Mass, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper focused on the night that it was give to us by Jesus himself. Every Mass is a renewal of what He did that night and the hours that followed. Every Mass is a Mass of the Lord’s Supper, really… but Holy Thursday, once a year, underlines and puts an exclamation point on it. We do this every Sunday. It is familiar. Tonight, if we need reminding, we remember why. The Eucharistic Prayer will have a special phrase inserted. Eucharistic Prayer 1, the ‘Roman Canon,’ always says ‘On the night before He was betrayed, He took bread…”. At this Mass, there is a slight insertion: ‘On the night before He was betrayed, that is today, He took bread.”

There’s a sense here that goes beyond just remembering. There’s a sense of… not exactly time travel, but maybe like time is irrelevant. Time collapses. There is only now, and this now is in an upper room in Jerusalem where our Lord breaks bread and hands it to us. “Take, and eat… this is my body… do this in memory of me.” That is today. That is the Mass.

People sometimes say Mass is boring. They are one hundred percent correct. Mass is boring to watch. Mass is boring to sit through. Mass is boring to attend as a spectator. With much effort, it can be made into a sort-of-okay celebration of community spirit, but it will never hold a candle to a good rock concert in that ambition. But all of this is irrelevant. Mass isn’t for watching and sitting through. Saying that Mass is boring to watch and sit through is like saying your favorite album is boring to look at. It isn’t for looking at. Mass is a prayer! And understanding that is the secret to never being bored at Mass again.

The Mass is the prayer of the Church, only because the Church is Christ’s Body and the Mass is, in the first instance, the prayer of Christ. Who offers Mass? Jesus Christ offers Mass. And we are His Body. I cannot overstate the importance of understanding this, for the sake of the rest of your life of Christian worship. The Mass is the offering by the Son, of Himself, to the Father, for the salvation of the world, and we are His body.

I went to a Mass this week that lasted three hours and fifteen minutes. Confession: the Chrism Mass typically requires regular attitude adjustments for me. I start to drift, I get annoyed and start thinking about how I would do things differently or how the pace could be quickened, and I have to keep reminding myself what it’s all about and refocusing in prayer. But not this year. I prayed, almost without ceasing… because I had a lot to talk to God about. And a lot that couldn’t ever be put into words, but only in a heart lifted up to the Lord, with all its joys and sorrows and longing and feelings. It was a good three hours; it was three hours that I needed.

But I always need that prayer, and so do you. Whether we feel it or not, whether we’re in the mood for it or not, we need this union with God. Sometimes we have to struggle a bit to remain in the Spirit. Sometimes, like for me on Tuesday, it comes so naturally and effortlessly. Either way, that isn’t the main thing. Either way, it’s fine. In seminary our daily Mass was in the middle of the day and for me it was the worst possible time. After four hours of sometimes brain-bending class, just when I was really starting to flag and fatigue, I very often just couldn’t focus on prayer. Sometimes I’d walk in and say “Sorry, Jesus, I don’t have much to offer here… but here I am, here’s me, and what little I’ve got to give is offered in this Mass.”

That’s okay too. Christ offers the Mass. And we are His body. And the Egyptian Coptic Christians who gather tonight in mourning for their murdered brethren are His body. And the prisoners in an Italian maximum-security prison having this same Mass with Pope Francis are His body. And the people who have come in and out of our lives who we may never again see this side of the Kingdom, wherever they are tonight, they are His body. And the people who have gone ahead of us, the ones we miss with all our hearts, they are His body. We are one in Christ. We meet in the Eucharist. We meet in the Mass.

Maybe we don’t have much to offer. No matter. The offering is His. We lay our own selves down on the altar, poor though we are, because He joins us to Himself.

We do this every Sunday. As an event that you sit through as a spectator, it’s pretty darn boring. As our participation in the offering by the Son of Himself to the Father for the salvation of the world, it is literally the most important thing in the universe. Repetition and familiarity will cause you sometimes to forget, to drift. Let’s face it, most of us can’t even keep watch with Him for one hour. But when you find yourself distracted and drifting, don’t beat yourself up, just re-engage and remember. Remember what we are doing. Remember Who is doing it. The Mass is the offering by Jesus Christ of Himself to the Father for the salvation of the world, and we are His body.

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