“This is my body which is given up for you.”
As a priest, I have a perspective of the Mass not often felt by most who attend. Every time I celebrate Mass I consummate my marriage to my bride, the Church. My words become the words of Christ, as I, an alter Christus, recite the words of institution: “This is my body which is given up for you.” This is not a symbolic gesture. It’s the reality of my spiritual fatherhood. My body belongs to the faithful, and in the reliving of the Lord’s passion, I give of myself as Christ did on the cross. This, of course, must translate into everything I do. My priesthood flows from the Mass and into the ordinary and sometimes mundane aspects of priestly life.
That being said, what is the significance of the Mass for the laity? The Mass is the prayer of the Church par excellence, meaning, there is no greater prayer other than the holy sacrifice of the Mass. From the opening prayer to the closing prayer, the Mass is one continual offering to God the Father by making present the passion of his Son. Almost all of the prayers are addressed exclusively to the Father. We, as a community of believers, participate in this awesome drama that is relived every time the Mass is offered. We are not merely spectators but active participants in the Lord’s passion.
We go to Mass not simply because it’s an obligation. Rather, we attend Mass because it’s our loving response to the God who has loved us first. It is an active choice of the will to give of our time, treasure, and talent – knowing full well it will never amount to the sacrifice endured by our Savior. Therefore, let us discuss what the Mass is not.
The Mass is not for our entertainment. Considering that we are reliving the Lord’s passion, we are participating in the sacrificial offering of Jesus on the cross, which is most reflected in the Eucharist. The music should accompany our prayer of thanksgiving (eukharistia) for what we have received and should enhance our communal participation. Would it seem appropriate to play rock music during someone’s funeral? Neither would it be appropriate to play music that draws attention to the congregation rather than on the sacrifice unfolding before our eyes.
There are two reasons why many seem to fall into this temptation: The first has to do with the Protestant influence that surrounds us. Our brothers and sisters from other Christian denominations don’t have all the sacraments as we do – specifically the Holy Eucharist. Their services, strictly speaking, are not sacrificial in the same sense as a Catholic Mass. They do not make present the Lord’s sacrifice on the marriage bed of the altar. The Eucharist is inseparable from the cross. We as Catholics truly believe the Eucharist is the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus, which is being mystically offered up to the Father, the very sacrifice of Calvary. In place of the Eucharist, Protestants have to find a different way to “receive” Jesus. This is why their services are heavily dependent on scripture and extravagant praise and worship music.
In Catholic liturgy, the music is not so much for our “reception,” but rather as an accompaniment to the prayer being offered through the holy sacrifice of the Mass. That is why most of the traditional Catholic hymns are in reality prayers put into music (e.g. Tantum Ergo, All Creatures of Our God and King, The Salve Regina, O Salutaris Hostia, etc.). Unfortunately, some Catholics have been influenced by this Protestant understanding of music with regards to the sacred liturgy. There is nothing wrong with praise and worship, but praise and worship music is more-often-than-not written not for Eucharistic celebration, but for venues more suitable for concerts. Whereas almost all Catholic hymns contain either some mention of the sacraments, the cross, or the Blessed Mother, Protestant hymns are very subjective by nature and are intended to make the participant feel good. Though we might feel good during Mass, it is not its goal.
This brings me to the second reason why we tend to fall into the temptation of thinking the Mass should be entertaining: Liturgy without the cross. In other words, a clean, comfortable, inoffensive, tell-me-what-I-want-to-hear celebration. The cross, by its very nature, is offensive. It was an instrument of torture and death, and yet, it became the means of our salvation. Each person is called to bring their own crosses as an offering alongside our Lord’s. When we downplay the necessity of our own crosses we likewise downplay and take for granted the weight and significance of the cross Jesus endured for us. We are called to follow in the Master’s footsteps. We were not made to be comfortable. Giving one hour a week to attend Mass, fasting an hour before communion, going to church during vacations, putting up with boring homilies (yes, they exist) – all these are nothing compared to what our Savior endured for us. We have inadvertently trained ourselves to see these small sacrifices as burdens rather than seeing them as paths to sanctification. There are people literally risking their lives to attend Mass in persecuted parts of the world and we often complain when we don’t “feel” like we’re receiving anything at Mass. Liturgy is work just like prayer is work (cf. CCC 2725). In fact, the word liturgy comes from the Greek word “Leitourgia,” which literally means, “work on behalf of the people.” The words of J.F. Kennedy can be applied here with a certain twist: “Ask not what the Mass can do for you – ask what you can do for the Mass.”
What we receive at Mass is infinitely more than just a passing good feeling or life lesson. We participate in the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ himself! We receive his body, blood, soul and divinity in the Holy Eucharist. We accompany him on the road to Calvary. We share in his sufferings and offer our own struggles before the altar of the slaughtered Lamb. There is no need to invent novelties if we are aware that, before our very presence, Heaven and Earth embrace each and every time the Eucharist is offered. This is the greatest of all dramas. This is why, for the Catholic, there is nothing more important than going to Mass.