This text is published as Chapter 4 and 5 of How to Pray (Part One: Foundations), pages 31-38, entitled 'How to Pray the Mass'. An introduction to the life of prayer with much practical advice about how to deepen your prayer life.
4 HOW TO ‘PRAY THE MASS’
PREPARATION. WORSHIP. HOLY COMMUNION.
A sincere preparation.
Make up your mind to please Christ by being obedient to His Church. Abandon everything you know to be sinful; or if you can’t yet bring yourself to do so, go faithfully to Mass, and - each time - ask fervently for the grace to see things as Christ sees them and for the grace to be willing to change.
Decide to attend Mass without fail every Sunday and holy day, in order to praise God in the way that He’s decreed is best, and in order to meet Christ - Who offers that perfect praise for us - and to receive Christ and His gifts.
Go to Confession, if you’re aware of having grievously sinned. No-one can make you go. Even if you don’t do this, it’s still a wonderful thing in God’s sight that you go to Mass. But you can’t benefit from the Mass as you might, or go to Communion and so receive the rewards for a peaceful conscience, until you’ve put things right with God - Who is always longing for us to turn back to Him. He is thrilled by our acts of humility, as we speak to a priest in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, when we’re contrite, and when we’re also determined to change our life and to make a new start.
An immediate preparation.
Remember to fast for an hour, if you intend to go Holy Communion.
Set out for church in good time, so that you’ll arrive early. If you dash to prayer with your thoughts whirling, you’ll be like one of those children’s ‘snow-storms’ in which the snow-flakes take long minutes to settle down.
Use the Holy Water in the porch to make the sign of the Cross as you go into the church.
Don’t be afraid - if you’re a woman - to cover your hair if you want to do so in church, in the Presence of Christ. This isn’t compulsory, but it’s a customary way, in large parts of the world, of showing reverence before God during the Liturgy: and a way which is in accord with Holy Scripture and the Church’s tradition.
Find Christ Who is sacramentally, Really Present in the tabernacle. Silently greet Him, then genuflect - bow the knee - in His honour, and kneel in your place. Greet the Holy Angels who throng the church.
You’ve spoken to Christ. If you now ask the Holy Spirit to help you to pray well, and then ‘turn’ your heart to your Heavenly Father, you’ve spoken to the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity, even before the Mass has begun!
Say something like this to God the Father, as you wait in your place: and try to mean it: “Father: I unite myself with the whole Church today, as we offer You Christ’s Holy Sacrifice from our altar: offering It for Your Glory, in thanksgiving for all Your blessings, in reparation for sins, and in a confident plea that You’ll grant the prayers of the Church, and also the prayers of my own heart for myself and for all who are dear to me.”
Bring to God in prayer all your worries, with all your anxious thoughts about distressed or suffering people. Place them all before God. Ask Him to help them, and also to free you from distractions.
Say a little prayer for the priest who is presiding today, and for everyone else who is present, especially for those who are troubled, or who lack faith.
United in prayer.
Don’t be ashamed to pray sincerely. When the priest and the servers enter, and you begin to pray every prayer of the Mass with your whole heart, you can be sure that you’re taking a worthy part in the most sublime act of worship possible on Earth. It’s the worship of the whole Church: and the Church, remember, includes all the Saints of Heaven, with whom you are praying, at Mass, and also the Holy Souls who have gone before us, who are also intimately involved in our Celebration.
Remember: we are all united with Christ in one prayer whenever we take part in the worship and homage which Christ Himself offers to the Father, in a holy Celebration which has been enacted and offered throughout the past two thousand years; and that’s why, when we pray during the Mass, we pray best as we willingly unite ourselves to Christ’s sacred Offering, having in our hearts the very same intentions as Christ.
Some special parts of the Mass.
Make a reverent and dignified response whenever the priest addresses the congregation.
Remember that we’re all praying out loud as One Body; so, from courtesy, and from a community spirit, don’t gabble, if everyone is praying slowly together; and don’t drag, if everyone is speaking briskly.
‘Mean’ every word of every prayer that we all pray together. After all, it’s what’s in our hearts that ‘counts’ most, in our prayer.
‘Unite’ your heart and mind, interiorly, with every word of prayer which the priest speaks to God on our behalf. It’s easier to do this if you decide not to look at what people are wearing, or whether so-and-so is doing his task properly.
Listen carefully to every reading from Holy Scripture, asking the Holy Spirit, silently, to enlighten your heart and mind. He will do so.
Give generously to the collection, if you can, since by helping the Church you’re giving a gift to God; and our priests deserve support.
Remind yourself - before the most solemn part of the Mass: before the Consecration - that Jesus Christ our Lord will soon be Present, ‘hidden’ in sacramental form, but really here amongst us, just as He has come amongst our spiritual ancestors, at every Mass.
The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
Remember the reason for our confidence, hope and devotion, whenever we gather before the altar. We belong to Christ’s Church; and Christ’s whole Church of earth, Purgatory, and Heaven is praying here at the Holy Mass, offering one, marvellous Sacrifice to the Father.
Welcome Christ at the Consecration, as the priest holds up the Sacred Host. Speak to Christ in the silence of your heart.
Thank Jesus for having died for you, as the Chalice of His Precious Blood is held up to view, when the wine has been consecrated.
Remind yourself that when you’re present at the Offering of the Holy Sacrifice it’s as though you’re at the foot of the Cross. We can be sure that Jesus is Really Present, praying to the Father on our behalf, asking for forgiveness and Salvation.
Take heart from the Church’s teaching that this Mass and the sacrifice of Calvary are one and the same Sacrifice, offered here now, in our presence, in reparation for sin, as Christ prays to the Father on our behalf; and Christ’s prayer includes all our needs and all our good intentions.
‘Open’ your heart and soul very fervently to God the Father, as you unite yourself, interiorly, with Christ, as the priest holds up the chalice and paten which contain Christ’s Sacred Body and Precious Blood, and says: “Through Him, with Him, in Him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honour is yours, Almighty Father, for ever and ever.”
Add a fervent ‘Amen’ - by which you confirm that you yourself offer that honour and glory to the Father, through Christ, in the Eucharist.
Going to Holy Communion.
Pray the ‘Our Father’, in unison; and mean every word of it, especially about wanting God’s Will to be done, and about forgiving those who hurt you.
When the time arrives for Holy Communion, if you know you can’t receive, stay quietly praying where you are, and make a ‘spiritual Communion’ - by brief expressions of contrition and love to Christ, with a fervent request that He come to your heart to help and console you. He will do this, because He is good. Then you can make an act of faith in His love for you. You can thank Him, and speak with Him, and allow Him to change you.
If you’re going to Holy Communion, approach the sanctuary with reverent longing.
Remember Whom you’re going to receive: Jesus Christ Himself: your best and closest friend, yet also your Creator and Redeemer who comes from the glory of Heaven to our altar, and to your soul.
Go back quietly to your place, and kneel, if you can.
Speak to Our Lord in the silence of your heart in whatever way is most sincere, as well as reverent and grateful. Don’t be afraid to confide in Him - about your worst fears and failings, or your hopes or joys; or just sit in silence and enjoy the gifts which He can give you if you have a quiet conscience and are happy in His Presence.
The end is a new beginning.
When you leave the church, after the blessing and the dismissal - or when you’ve spent a further few minutes in thanksgiving - go out determined to be a good child of God and to be as kind and forgiving towards the people you meet as Christ is towards you.
Smile or greet someone, if you can, on your way outside. Even if you’re shy, or if you don’t think people seem very friendly, try to be pleasant - and try to grow familiar with the faces and names of those who make up the Body of Christ: your spiritual brothers and sisters in this wonderful family. Have you ever offered to help with the coffee, or the collections?
Remember to ‘pray the Mass’, every time you attend.
Ask God for faith, if you long to have it. Ask, daily, for more faith and hope and charity.
Attend Mass, if you want to understand it. Go to an extra Mass, during the week.
Don’t worry, if you don’t yet understand very much. Faith and love are what ‘count’. Understanding grows, the more we ‘grow’ in love.
Don’t waste time in criticising those taking part, or in thinking idle or unkind thoughts about the place, the people, the music or the temperature. If you do this you’ll be choosing to face away from God rather than towards Him.
Pray the Mass, every time, by uniting your thoughts and intentions with every word spoken by the priest, by praying every prayer with sincerity, and by carefully listening to the readings. You will be rewarded. God will deepen your faith. Trust Him. Ask for His help.
Love and respect everyone, but have a special love for your Christian brothers and sisters, who really are ‘family’ to you, in the spiritual life, which is ‘real’ life.
Priests: ‘Other Christs’ amongst us.
Be respectful and helpful to everyone, of course; but keep in mind that Our Lord is thrilled when we’re supportive towards the Clergy. He doesn’t want to hear anyone moaning about His priests. If we have a genuine complaint we should speak to a priest in private, and respectfully. But Christ has placed them as ‘other Christs’ amongst us. He wants to see us loving and reverent towards them, and grateful for their sacrifices, whatever their apparent failings.
Never destroy the faith of your spiritual brothers and sisters, whether carelessly by setting a bad example, or deliberately: by loud disagreement with some of the Church’s teachings or with scornful comments about the Holy Father or other Bishops.
Greater strength from God.
Never stop looking for ways by which you can better understand and strengthen your faith. There is nothing like the Mass: nothing more holy, nor any greater source of blessings. It’s the “source and summit” of the lives of all devoted Catholics; and yet we’re given astonishing gifts by God through all His sacraments, not just through the Holy Eucharist; and it’s because we’re in such need of every scrap of help we can find that I must mention the effects of the sacrament of Confirmation in our lives. We should be taking advantage, so to speak, of God’s marvellous generosity.
Realise that the spiritual life is ‘real’ life; and so it can really be fed, exercised and strengthened in all sorts of ways, as we increase in virtue - by God’s grace - and conquer our fears. No fears or weaknesses are conquered fully or permanently by will-power alone. Common-sense and intelligence can lessen our very real anxieties: indeed, God Himself gave us our brains and common-sense and wants us to use them; but His greatest gifts come through prayer and the sacraments. We can’t do anything good without His grace, and yet that grace is ours for the asking, if we’ll just take the trouble to come forward to receive it.
Grace upon grace.
Reflect upon the life of faith, and on your sometimes casual attitude towards it. We know that through conception we’re given life, and that through birth we’re given the opportunity to use some of our natural gifts and aptitudes during our time on earth. It’s through Baptism, however, that we’re given the supernatural gifts - of faith and hope and love - and are given “Life in Christ,” which includes the ability to pray as children of God, in the sure hope of being heard. It includes the right to call out confidently to God with Christ, and with our brothers and sisters, as Christians gather with Christ and with each other in the supreme act of prayer and praise and sacrifice which is the Holy Mass; and from this great prayer all our private prayers draw their ‘value’. But if we haven’t yet received the sacrament of Confirmation, we’re not having all the help that could be ours.
Be grateful for your Baptism. Through it, you’ve been made a member of the Church. When we’re confirmed, however, we receive further gifts from Christ’s Holy Spirit, Whom we received in Baptism to guide us. His graces are poured out in our souls much more strongly in Confirmation; and the gifts which we’re given at this time include Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Fortitude - which is courage of a special order - Knowledge, Piety, and the Fear of the Lord: which means true awe and reverence. That’s why I’d urge every Catholic who practices his or her Faith but who hasn’t yet been confirmed to discuss the possibility with a priest. God has so many ways of helping us; and it’s plain sad if we don’t hold out our hands, so to speak, for His free gifts. Besides, it’s by Baptism, Confirmation and the Eucharist that we are fully initiated into the life of Christ’s Church.
Feast and fasts.
Remember that, at every Mass, we celebrate the whole saving work of Christ: work achieved through His life, death, Resurrection and Ascension.
Let yourself be carried along on the great current of feasts and fasts which make up the Church’s year, and which lead us to celebrate every Mystery of Christ’s life, and every facet of the Faith.
Try to buy a Catholic Diary or a Liturgical Calendar, and notice the pattern which is repeated every year from Advent to Advent.
Look forward to major feasts, and prepare for them by some little sacrifice or some new efforts to be charitable. Learn more about each feast. Speak to Christ about what is being celebrated. Thank Him for what He’s done for us all.
Make a note of important things such as the start of Lent, and the anniversary of your Baptism or Reception, and the feast-day of the Saint whose name you bear. Speak to that Saint about your joys and difficulties. Celebrate your anniversaries - perhaps by having a Mass offered in thanksgiving; and pay as much - or more - attention to the Church’s calendar as you do to the dates of the football season or of the prémière of a new film.
Find out the times of Masses and Novenas at nearby churches. Read the bulletin. Do you find that you know the phone number and opening hours of your local pubs and leisure centres, but have no idea what time your church opens and closes or what number to dial to speak to your parish priest?
Finding out more about God.
Don’t be content to speak to God, or to read about Him. Listen and ponder more patiently. Everyone who prays will pray even more fruitfully if he finds out more about God, Who is so loving and loveable, and about the Faith by which He wants us to live.
Consider the fact that the better we know and understand our earthly friends, the more at ease we can be in our intimate conversations, and the more confidently we can set out to plan a particular treat, or to help them in some way. So it is with God: the more we know about Him, the better we shall pray to Him, love Him, know how to please Him, and confidently do what we know is His Will; and that’s why all ‘spiritual writers’ recommend spiritual reading. That’s why I urge people to set aside a few minutes, daily, to read even a paragraph of one of the following, to keep more in touch with and fed by spiritual reality: a biography of a Saint or a few verses from the Gospels or other parts of Holy Scripture, a religious poem or pamphlet, a prayer book or a catechism - or a book of short reflections or meditations.
Be careful about what you read. You’ll find, if you look carefully, that there are some instructive and encouraging books available; so don’t read anything at all; make sure it is ‘sound’. Unless someone’s faith is mature and tested, he should stick to orthodox works which don’t go against Church teaching. Good books will teach him much about God, and will also give plenty of ‘material’ for informal meditations and for prayer.
Staying ‘in contact’.
Take what you can use from this section, and ignore the rest. It’s my little effort to help in the only ways possible to me at the moment: through encouragement and advice; but no-one on earth can make you love God or pray to Him. Only you can freely choose, in your heart of hearts, to ‘search’ for the One, Holy God Who is already holding you.
If you have a scrap of faith, look plainly at your life. Admit that if God created you so that you can love and serve Him now, and live with Him in bliss when this earthly life is over, it’s worth making efforts to be ‘in contact,’ and to become one of His good friends, through prayer and through a life of love and forgiveness.
Don’t waste time by postponing your prayers. Start now, here. Friendship with God is held out to you, now; and it’s by deciding to pray, and by doing so - no matter how briefly - that we reach out to seize the friendship, and to say ‘Yes’ to the hope of an intimate union which, in the end, will fulfil every dream and yearning.
Several stages of prayer.
Pluck up courage to read, in a later section of this book, a plain outline of the spiritual life, which I call “The Journey of Faith”. It seems appropriate that I summarise the soul’s progress from birth to Union, and so remind the reader of the long and difficult journey which is contemplated when a sinful soul is willing to be purified, and so to be made fit for true union with God in Christ. The devout soul wants this, not because he wants suffering, but because he wants to love and serve God perfectly; and any encounter with holiness, when we are so imperfect, will inevitably involve suffering. Nevertheless, a generous person can hope to live in a true Communion with Christ, even in this life, united with the Father in and through Christ, within the life and love of the Most Holy Trinity - though all of this is by faith, and not yet by clear sight: and yet that mystical communion gives incomparable bliss, even amidst earthly sufferings, to everyone who perseveres.
Remember that the whole process of communion between God and the soul is a lengthy and gentle process, initiated and guided by God. For the full development or full ‘flowering’ of that communion and friendship, the devout soul needs to be committed, co-operative, generous-hearted and determined; but the rewards and joys of close friendship with God far outweigh everything which is endured on the journey to Heaven.
5 ABOUT THE HOLY SACRIFICE
OF THE MASS
PARTICIPATION. ORIGIN. FRUITFULNESS.
Full and active participation.
It’s quite impossible for me to write about prayer, without writing about the Holy Mass: also known as the Eucharist. It’s only because of the astonishing Sacrifice of Christ, once offered on Calvary, and now re-presented before us in the Mass, that we’ve been given the opportunity to become children of God who can pray with confidence to our Heavenly Father; and so I feel duty-bound to say a little about how to pray the Mass, in an effort to help any Catholic who - through ignorance or lapsation - just doesn’t know where to start. As you’ve seen, I’ve just mentioned what I think of as ‘the basics’; and I insist, once more, that these are just suggestions; but now it’s time to add some background material.
You’ll have gathered by now that there’s no better way of ‘praying the Mass’ than by doing what the Church recommends: which is to aim for full and active participation; but the fullest participation takes place not when someone makes a lot of noise or moves about a great deal, but when his heart and soul are as ‘fully’ involved in the Mass, in prayer, as his body is ‘involved’ in sitting, standing or processing as appropriate, in accordance with the rubrics.
At its heart, every Mass is simple, whether it’s celebrated with vigour and with joyful music, or with hushed reverence and silence pauses. In offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, today, Christ’s present-day disciples are obeying the command which Christ gave at the Last Supper, almost two thousand years ago.
On the night before he was put to death because of our sins, Christ changed bread and wine into His Body and His Blood, and - anticipating His self-offering on the Cross on Calvary, on the following day - He said: “THIS IS MY BODY WHICH WILL BE GIVEN FOR YOU; DO THIS AS A MEMORIAL OF ME” [Lk 22:19]. It seems to be true, however, that very many people today don’t realise what a staggering privilege it is to be able to be present at the very Sacrifice by which God and mankind have been re-united: nor are they awe-struck that Jesus Christ our Lord is Present amongst them in an astonishing, sacramental way. Consequently, many people complain about having to attend Mass, or about the Mass itself.
Bored or discontented in church.
It seems to me that people are unhappy at Mass for one of three reasons - and often through no fault of their own; and people who come into these categories won’t benefit much from the suggestions I’ve made about praying the Mass, unless they have a change of heart - or unless, in learning something about Christ or the Mass that they didn’t know before, they become interested enough to listen and then to pray.
First, I must mention the reluctant attenders, many of whom are young. I can’t deny that parents have a duty to encourage their children to go to Mass; but when people have been bullied into attending, their hearts and minds perhaps become bitter and resentful; and of course, no-one in that state prays very well, by which I mean prays with much hope or trust, and so rarely finds prayer joyful or fulfilling.
The second group consists of people who go to Mass - for whatever reason - but who don’t really believe in the spiritual realities which are indicated by words, symbols and gestures but which are invisible. Faith - a scrap of faith - is necessary for someone who wants to take a true part in the Holy Mysteries.
It seems to me that a third group consists of those Catholics who do believe in Christ and in prayer, who go bodily to church, and who enter the building but don’t pray. Although they mouth the words of the Gloria or the Creed, their hearts and minds aren’t actively engaged; God’s love cannot pour into their hearts, as it would if they’d opened them to His influence; and so when they eventually leave, they complain that they were bored; or they complain about the heating, the lighting, the homily or whatever else has annoyed them, although their inner discontent stems from their spiritual separation from God and from those who have prayed and taken part. Such unhappy souls are like people who stand outside a house and gaze at the lighted windows as a glorious gathering takes place - and yet who aren’t willing to enter into the spirit of the celebration, and cannot be made joyful by the marvellous Host and His Heavenly Company.
Only God knows why these people can’t pray from the heart: whether it’s through tiredness, sin or cynicism, or distractions - or depths of grief, or depression. It’s not for us to judge one another. But surely it’s a good idea for those who treasure Christ and the Mass to say a brief prayer for all the reluctant or incomprehending worshippers who are present at the same Celebration.
Now I must go into more detail about the Mass itself - which is marvellously described in the ‘Catechism of the Catholic Church’ - and then about our part in it.
The Holy Eucharist: Sacrament and Sacrifice.
There must be a dozen reasons why it’s worth rushing to Mass, such as to be obedient to God and so to please Him, or to offer the best possible prayer in praise of God - or to pray in the best possible way for someone who has died - or to be spiritually and visibly one with fellow-members of Christ’s Body. But rather than make a list of reasons, I’ll try to say what it is about the Mass - the Holy Eucharist - that is so stupendous that people who know about it, and understand a little, can hardly bear to stay away; and so I must get to the heart of this great mystery of our Faith: the Eucharist, to say not only what It is but to say why It is, and how It is.
You might say: “We already know that Christ died for us. We know that we’re supposed to repent of our sins, and be baptised. We know that we can be made children of God, members of the Church, and heirs to the Kingdom of Heaven. We know that Christ explained that we can lead a new, prayerful life, and can hope for Heaven. But where does the Eucharist come into this? Why do we have this extraordinary gift, this Eucharist: both sacrament and Sacrifice?”
Before I say anymore, I’d better define “Eucharist”. The Church teaches us that it is the Sacred Body and Blood of Christ - made present on the altar, and also to be found in the tabernacle; and since we’re taught that the Eucharist is a Sacrament we Catholics speak about the sacramental Presence of Christ. And by ‘Eucharist’ or ‘Holy Eucharist’ we also mean the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, of which I’ll say much more on the next page. First, we need to explore the reasons why we have received such astonishing gifts from God.
The Holy Eucharist: why it is.
Everything good is a gift of love from God; and His love isn’t something wishy-washy. It’s something which is fiery and tender, all at the same time: and it’s something active; and this One, Holy God Who loves us has gone to enormous trouble, so to speak, to work out a plan by which we could be saved from our sins, and saved from despair at the miseries of this life; and He’s also worked out an extraordinary plan, out of love, by which to give His Church a gift which would remain at its heart and give it great joy for century after century.
Let’s go back to the beginning, in order to understand this. But in saying the ‘beginning’, I’m speaking about our Salvation history.
We Christians believe that Creation was achieved by God out of love. His love and generosity are so great that they spilled out in a great Act of Creation: of the Universe, and of the people in it. But we also believe that at some stage, at the beginning of human history, the first man and woman rebelled against God. They had free will; they chose to do their own will rather than God’s - and that’s what we mean by sin. So we say that they sinned; and our Faith teaches us that we’ve all been tainted to some degree, ever since then, by this germ of rebellion within ourselves, by which we find it easier to do wrong than to do good. We call this original sin; and it’s ‘wiped out’ by Baptism, though some disharmony remains in our lives.
It was part of God’s loving plan, however, that He would rescue mankind from sin: that He’d offer us the possibility of finding real joy upon earth - even amidst life’s terrible difficulties - and also of finding Bliss with Him, forever, in Heaven; and it was God Himself - the Son of God, Jesus Christ our Lord - Who came down to earth to fulfil this plan of Salvation.
For century after century, God had chosen and prepared the ‘Chosen People’, from whom Christ would eventually be born. God had taught them about Himself, encouraged and tested them, guided them by Patriarchs, Kings and Prophets, and had led them to expect a Saviour - a ‘Messiah’ - to arise from amongst them, to save them, as indeed He did arise. It was Christ the Son of God Who, at the appointed time, ‘leapt down to Earth’ in the sense that, by the Spirit’s power, He took flesh from Mary - from a woman of the Chosen People. This happened just over two thousand years ago; and it’s what we celebrate each Christmas.
Christ lived amongst us and showed us how to live. He was perfectly sinless and yet He accepted the consequences of sin: accepted the realities of life in a sinful world - even as evil people wanted to shut Him up when He did good and always spoke the truth. He died on the Cross for us - although this is such a huge subject that I shan’t try to explain it here. But we believe that through that sacrifice of Himself on the Cross - which He had foretold, and which He underwent freely - He poured out His life-blood for the forgiveness of sins. He reconciled mankind to the Father and repaired the terrible breach which had occurred at the time of our first parents.
Christ was perfectly loving and obedient in every way; and He is also God’s only Son; and so it’s as though God the Father couldn’t possibly have left Him dead, but raised Him up to a new life which was vibrant and glorious, and which culminated in His Ascension into Heaven: an event witnessed by the faithful Apostles who were transformed by Christ. And the wonderful thing about this is that we too can hope to have that sort of wonderful life if we believe in Christ, and become united to Him, and remain faithful, accepting His gifts, and doing His Will. We who believe in Christ believe that He has made it possible for us to ‘ENTER THE SANCTUARY’ [Heb 10:19] of Heaven, just as He did at His Ascension, a few weeks after His death and Resurrection.
This is where we must consider what are the gifts we need to accept, and to consider what connection the Eucharist has with doing Christ’s Will.
Reasons for joy and gratitude.
I spoke of God’s love, earlier. Followers of Christ have always known that Jesus, the Son of God, gave His Apostles something extra special to do. It was at the Last Supper that Christ commanded them to “DO THIS” - in memory of Him. He was asking them to meet as one Body, on future occasions, to listen to the Word of God and to reproduce His words and gestures with the intention of changing bread and wine into the Blood and Blood of Christ, in memory of Him, in a ‘conversion’ which we now call transubstantiation; and the reason for all this was that Christ our God is so mad with love for us that when He knew that He was about to die and leave us - although He also knew that He’d be going to Heaven - He couldn’t bear to leave us without leaving behind what we now call a living memorial of His love: a means by which He would do extraordinary things for us; and the four especially-marvellous things which I list below are surely reasons for unending joy and gratitude on our part.
First, we in Christ’s Church can always have re-presented before us, through the Mass, the whole ‘Paschal Mystery’: the wonderful way in which He has saved us from sin and death.
Secondly, by the Will of God, we have a way of thanking and praising God forever: a way given by God Himself by which we can offer the most perfect praise that it’s possible for us to offer to Him from upon this earth: and I’m speaking of the offering to God, in each age, of the very sacrifice that Christ once offered from on earth, when He died to save us [CCC:1366].
Thirdly - through this Holy Sacrifice of the Mass - Christ also gave His Apostles some spiritual food: the sort which He’d promised them when He’d been speaking to them in Galilee, a little earlier [Jn 6:32]; and we who are His present-day disciples can now receive this same spiritual food for our souls, when we receive Christ in Holy Communion.
Fourthly, Christ guaranteed His own Presence amongst them always, though in an extraordinary manner: through His sacramental Presence. We know from Holy Scripture that this was His promise, before His Ascension into Heaven, when He said: “KNOW THAT I AM WITH YOU ALWAYS; YES, TO THE END OF TIME” [Mt 28:20]; and Christ’s sacramental Presence amongst us is one of the ways in which He has fulfilled that promise, and the greatest.
I want to tell you how this came about.
The Holy Eucharist: how it is.
Let’s go back to the night before Christ died: to the night when He was about to be betrayed by one of His disciples. He knew, with His Divine fore-knowledge, everything that He would suffer on the following day. But He made special arrangements for that night before He died, so that He could be with His Apostles in the upper room and could eat the Passover meal with them [Ex:Ch 12 and Ch 13]. This is the sacred meal which the Jews celebrated - and many celebrate today - annually, in thanksgiving to God for the rescue of their ancestors from Egypt and from danger: for the ‘passing-over-them’ of the Angel of death, and for their own pass-over from slavery to freedom.
But Christ took that Passover meal and gave it a new twist, in order to celebrate, in advance, the Passover which He would begin on the next day: the passing-over from death to life which He would achieve through His death and through His resurrection from the dead. And it was through His Passover that He was to make possible our own pass-over from the slavery of sin, through ‘A NEW WAY’ [Heb 10:20], to the freedom and joy which are experienced by those who live as children of God.
Here’s the passage from Saint Luke’s gospel which describes this ‘Last Supper:’ “THEN HE TOOK SOME BREAD, AND WHEN HE HAD GIVEN THANKS, BROKE IT AND GAVE IT TO THEM, SAYING, ‘THIS IS MY BODY WHICH WILL BE GIVEN FOR YOU; DO THIS AS A MEMORIAL OF ME.’ HE DID THE SAME WITH THE CUP AFTER SUPPER, AND SAID, ‘THIS CUP IS THE NEW COVENANT IN MY BLOOD WHICH WILL BE POURED OUT FOR YOU’” [Lk 22:19-20].
What happened at that last supper with His Apostles was that Christ took bread and gave thanks and shared it with those present; but as He did so, He broke the bread; and in this breaking was symbolised the way in which He Himself would be ‘broken’ by death, so to speak, on the following day. By His Divine power, Christ changed the bread and the wine into the sacred Body and Blood which He was going to offer up in sacrifice on the following day, as He died upon the Cross on Calvary.
This is why we call the Eucharist a sacrifice as well as a sacrament. A sacrifice is the highest form of adoration of God, in which a pure victim is offered in sacrifice as an offering to God by a particular community through its designated priest, in an act of worship which is a sign of their recognition of God’s dominion over them. This sounds rather complicated, perhaps; but if you can hold onto the idea that the Eucharist is both a sacrifice - an offering to God - and also a sacrament - a source of holiness - things might become clearer by the end of this section.
A holy and living Sacrifice.
Christ’s generosity was so great that He wanted to give us a living representation of the greatest proof of His Love for us, by which I mean, Calvary’s offering; and that’s why the Eucharist is called the ‘sacrament of our Salvation’.
The Church teaches us that when Christ said to His Apostles: “DO THIS ...” [Lk 20:19] He was giving the Church the power to achieve this extraordinary thing - and thus was making it possible for the same power to be given to our priests, through the centuries, in order to give those same benefits to Christ’s People in future eras.
So it is our belief that, in every generation, when the Church celebrates the Eucharist, and the priest at the altar does those same actions and says those same words over the bread and wine, the Sacrifice of Calvary is represented before us, though in a different manner. It is through the words of Christ and by His Spirit’s power that Christ’s Body and Blood are made present on the altar. And it’s by the offering of this “holy and living sacrifice” - as we read in the third Eucharistic prayer - that we offer to God the Father from our own time and our own lives, through Christ and Christ’s Sacrifice, the most pure and perfect worship and supplication that has ever been offered from earth or can be offered [CCC:1359-1362]: something so marvellous that the Church joyfully proclaims that the Mass is the heart and summit of the Church’s life, and brings blessings upon the living and the dead.
I’ve also mentioned spiritual food. I said that Christ had promised in Galilee, soon after His miracle of the loaves and fishes [Jn 6:1-15], that He’d give Himself as our spiritual food. We know that He said: “IF YOU DO NOT EAT THE FLESH OF THE SON OF MAN, AND DRINK HIS BLOOD, YOU WILL NOT HAVE LIFE IN YOU” [Jn 6:53].
Christ also said: “HE WHO EATS MY FLESH AND DRINKS MY BLOOD LIVES IN ME, AND I LIVE IN HIM. AS I, WHO AM SENT BY THE LIVING FATHER, MYSELF DRAW LIFE FROM THE FATHER, SO WHOEVER EATS ME WILL DRAW LIFE FROM ME. THIS IS THE BREAD COME DOWN FROM HEAVEN ... ANYONE WHO EATS THIS BREAD WILL LIVE FOREVER” [Jn 6:56-58]; and these words shocked people; but Christ didn’t try to hold back the people who then walked away. He’d given a promise. They didn’t understand it and left; yet the Apostles, even though not understanding it, believed in His wisdom and goodness; and so they were with Him at the Last Supper, as He made it possible for them to receive His Body and Blood as spiritual food and as a true Communion with Him; and we too can enjoy this astonishing privilege - when we receive Holy Communion.
A sacrament is a visible and touchable sign which has been instituted by Jesus Christ and given to the Church, as His means or method of giving to us His own power and grace and holiness. We have seven sacraments, and the Eucharist - the Sacrament of the Lord’s Body and Blood - is the greatest of them all, since it gives us not just Christ’s graces but Christ Himself, Really Present; and as we receive His Body and Blood under the appearance of bread and wine we receive food for our souls, and innumerable graces.
Christ: wholly and entirely Present.
It’s important that we all realise that we receive Christ and Christ’s graces whether we receive the Sacred Host in Holy Communion - the ‘BREAD FROM HEAVEN’ [Jn 6:32], or whether we drink from the chalice to receive His Precious Blood.
As I said above, we believe that Christ Himself is Present with us, because of what He taught the Apostles at the Last Supper, and because of what our priests do today, in obedience to Him. Christ said, just before His Ascension: “I AM WITH YOU ALWAYS, YES, TO THE END OF TIME” [Mt 28:20]. It’s true that we have, made Present here, His Body and Blood, under the appearance of bread and wine; yet He said: “I AM THE LIVING BREAD” [Jn 6:56]. Christ Himself is a living, joyful, Divine Person. He is the God-man Who can never die again and Who cannot be split up into bits; and so we know that wherever Christ’s Body and Blood are Present, He Himself is Present: the whole Person Who even now is risen from the dead and lives in Glory in Heaven. He is really with us - His Body, Blood, soul and Divinity [CCC:1374] - though under the appearance of bread and wine. He is present whole and entire in each of the species.
Of course, it’s faith that counts in our lives, not the ability to repeat complicated explanations; but for those who want to know, I’d add, of the Consecration, that when the bread is changed into Christ’s Body, there is present also - under the appearance of bread - His blood, soul and Divinity; and when the wine is changed into Christ’s Blood - under the continuing appearance of wine - there is also His Body and soul and Divinity: and this ‘being-together’ is called, by the Church, concomitance; so we believe that the whole living Christ is Present under each species; and the change itself is called, by the Church, transubstantiation.
The wonder of Holy Communion.
So where Christ is made Present before us we have the thrill of knowing that Christ our Lord and God, to Whom we look throughout our lives for hope and strength as we try to do His Will, is really here amongst us: not very far away at all; and we also have Him as our spiritual food, as I said. The culmination of our participation in the Sacrifice of the Mass is Holy Communion; and when we receive the Body and Blood of Christ we receive Christ whole and entire: a loving and Divine Person Who delights in being with His friends, and Whose friendship brings incomparable blessings.
Whenever we receive Christ our Lord we are united with Him in an extraordinary and intimate manner which cannot be surpassed, and which He has especially planned, so that He can do wonderful things for us. Through His Real and extraordinary Presence, Christ not only gives us peace and comfort but begins to change us and to make us ready for Heaven. And there’s something else. Through this intimate Communion with Christ, we are bound very closely to everyone else who receives Him: to everyone else who is fully “in Communion” with Him and so is spiritually in Communion with us too: with the whole Church [1 Co 10:16-17].
At the heart of our Faith.
When Christ lived on earth, He told a lot of stories; and one of them was about “A MERCHANT LOOKING FOR FINE PEARLS” [Mt 13:45-46]; and one day that merchant saw a pearl of such magnificence that he longed to have it. So he sold everything he had in order to buy it.
The reason I’m telling you this is that the Eucharist seems so staggering and glorious and beautiful to those of us who know about it and love it that we’ve found it’s well worth making sacrifices for it. Some people in past ages have even sacrificed their lives in order to attend the Holy Eucharist - the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass - or to protect priests, and so to ensure the continuation of the Church’s Eucharistic life. We haven’t all been called to shed our blood for the Faith. But this must give you some idea of the centrality of the Eucharist in the Catholic Faith.
It seems such a strange thing: to say that the Body and Blood of Christ are at the heart of our Faith as Catholics; and yet this Sacrament is a treasure handed on since the time of Christ; and when I say that it’s very precious, I wonder if you’ve ever known anyone to whom the Mass has been very precious: someone always keen to go to Mass and to Holy Communion? Have you ever been puzzled by their devotion - perhaps wondering why they continue to go if there are very few people there, or if the church is dreary, or if there’s a nervous young priest, or an inaudible old priest - or if they’ve lost friends and relatives and perhaps God doesn’t seem to be very near?
Why is it that some people keep the Mass at the heart of their lives even when other people take a brief interest and decide that, outwardly, it’s not very gripping? I suppose there are several reasons, but I’ll emphasise just one.
Christ’s Real and sacramental Presence.
Those of us who believe that Jesus Christ our Lord and God is there in the church, during the Mass, in the Eucharist, and who love Him, find the thought of His Presence so mind-boggling that we can hardly bear to stay away, whereas people who don’t believe in His Presence are only aware, perhaps, of a shabby building or a sparse congregation.
Imagine what would happen, if it was announced on the local radio that Jesus Christ was descending from Heaven to land on Harpenden Common in an hour’s time, and that hundreds of people had gathered to greet Him. Can’t you just imagine that many more people - Catholics amongst them - might dash to be there, partly out of curiosity, yet partly out of a longing to be near Him. And yet Christ comes to be amongst us at every single Mass in a way which is every bit as real as in that imagined episode, though in a manner which is different; and He is Really Present, all the time, in the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle.
How many of Christ’s friends today bother to come and greet Him and thank Him? So many people only half-believe. Yet if they prayed a little more, and asked for more faith - and plucked up courage to change - their lives would be transformed.
The Holy Mysteries.
I’ve said so much about the Eucharist, and I’ve used words which might be new to some of you; though it’s true that we expect to learn new words whenever we examine a new subject, whether in science, art, cookery or religion; but it seems important that I say once more that at every Mass, you see enacted what Christ Himself did at the Last Supper; and you see offered from the altar, at the hands of the priest, though in a different manner, the very Sacrifice which was offered once on Calvary, for our sins. That’s why it’s so important for us to know a few useful things about how we can approach this marvellous event which is, all-at-once, a memorial, a Sacrifice, a Thanksgiving and a Celebration.
Perhaps you can see why we’re not meant to be silent bystanders as the Holy Mysteries are celebrated. We who are privileged to be Catholics can prepare for the Mass, take an active part in it, and leave in order to give the blessings of the Mass to other people: to the people we meet; so it’s surely plain by now that it’s important that we try to take part worthily in this extraordinary Celebration.
Let’s encourage one another to attend Mass, and to treasure it - and also to remember that the Mass is holy, no matter how poor the attendance, nor how feeble the singing, nor how weak the homily. It is holy because it’s the worship being offered by Christ’s Mystical Body on earth. It is holy because Christ our God is Present with us, at the heart of this Celebration: this living memorial of His Passion.
Whose mind can remain distracted, critical or self-pitying for long, if he really believes that Christ is made Present at the Consecration? What can any sincere believer do, at that moment, except greet Christ with mixed gratitude, love and awe?