ROCKLEDGE | The Florida Catholic has received several questions about the Mass, specifically certain gestures, traditions and practices within the liturgy. We most certainly look forward to answering these questions. But, in order to do so adequately, we will need to understand the essence of the sacred liturgy and why Jesus gave us the Eucharist. Thus, in this first article on the Mass, we will focus more on the theological foundations of the Eucharist.
The Second Vatican Council defines the sacred liturgy, and particularly the Holy Mass, as the “source and summit” of our faith. But how? Why do Catholics celebrate the Mass? To answer these questions, we will need to ask an even more fundamental one: “Why did God become man?”
If you were to ask the average Christian why Jesus came into the world, they would most likely respond, “To save us from our sins.” Although this answer is not incorrect, it is incomplete. The forgiveness of ours sins is a consequence of Christ’s mission, not its sole objective. In order to arrive at the real reason for Jesus’ incarnation – meaning His “becoming flesh and dwelling among us” (Jn. 1:14) – we need to read St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old order has passed away; now all is new! All this has been done by God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 17-18).
Before all else, Jesus comes to reconcile humanity- and indeed all of creation- with the Father. The word “reconciliation” is comprised of three Latin words: re, con, and cilia. The combination of the first two words recon means “to come back together”. Cilia is the Latin word for “eyelash”. To be “reconciled”, therefore means to be eyelash-to-eyelash with God, to be brought into such a profound intimacy that your eyelashes are touching each other. This was the level of intimacy that God desired with Adam in the beginning. Yet, we know what happened. Adam sinned; humanity turned its back on God and looked towards the ego for consolation. Thus, Adam is banished from the Garden of Eden and an angel is placed to guard its entrance.
St. Ephraim the Syrian sees the Garden of Eden as a symbol of humanity’s closeness with God. True paradise is not so much a place as a relationship. To live in bliss is to dwell with the Lord. Sin makes such a relationship untenable. Yet, it is not hopeless. There is someone who can move the angel from his sentry, one who is spoken about in the first prophecy ever proclaimed in sacred scripture: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Gen. 3:15).
The Church Fathers recognized this prophecy as a proto-evangelium, a “prelude to the Gospel”. Jesus Christ is the fruit of the woman (aka the Blessed Virgin Mary) whose enmity will crush the head of sin and death. It is this connection between the prophecy of Genesis chapter 3 and the birth of Christ that led the ancient Church to refer to Jesus as the “New Adam”: “For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead came also through a human being. For just as in Adam all die, so too in Christ shall all be brought to life” (1 Cor. 15:21-22). Before all else, God becomes man in order to reconcile the fall of Adam and re-establish the communion he lost through sin. This can only be accomplished by death. The Savior must die; He must eat the rancid fruit of humanity’s sinfulness in order to redeem it from the inside out. In so doing, death loses its force and now becomes merely a passage to everlasting life. Finally, He must give His people a way to share in His passion, death and resurrection. He must leave us a means by which to enjoy the communion that was wrought by Calvary. Cue the Mass.
The Holy Mass is the way by which Christ maintains His saving grace and the fruits of His passion in history. Salvation is too important to be a memory. It must be experienced, consumed and adored. Christianity cannot be a memorial or a history lesson. It must be an encounter. Jesus is not a ghost (Lk 24:39). Our Messiah is one of flesh and bone. After His Resurrection, the Eucharist becomes the new place of encounter with Jesus. This is clearly illustrated in the famous story of the Road to Emmaus. They only recognize Jesus in the “breaking of the bread” after which Jesus disappears (Lk 24:35). But did He really disappear or was He just with them in a new way? In His bodily disappearance, Christ points towards the “bread” as His abiding presence in their midst. “This is my body…this is my blood…do this in memory of me”. Do not read a book in memory of me or sing a song in memory of me. I can only truly be remembered in this way, as One who is broken and shared, given and consumed, loved and adored. The Holy Mass is the way Jesus has established as our means of sharing body, blood, soul and divinity in His communion with the Father, by the grace of the Holy Spirit.
By Father Blake Britton