2nd Sunday of Advent. What is the Mass

If you were with us last week, you will recall that Jesus made that promise that He would remain with us always.[1] And we saw how He fulfills that promise day in and day out through the Catholic Church. How in all four corners of the world, God coms to us and journeys with us as we seek to arrive at the kingdom of heaven.

Of course, this is primarily done through what you and I are doing right here, gathering to celebrate the Mass. The Mass is after all a mini-Christmas, isn’t it? What do we celebrate at Christmas? We celebrate the coming of Christ into the world. What happens every time we gather here at Mass? Jesus Christ comes right here on the altar and then in the Eucharist, He comes into our very bodies.

So, what is this thing that we call the Mass? Well, it is the central liturgical celebration that we have as Catholics. It encompasses hearing God’s word contained in the scriptures, then taking bread and wine and consecrating them so they become the Body and Blood of Christ, then receiving Christ into our bodies as our spiritual nourishment and being sent out into the world to bring Him to others. Said in another way, the Eucharist is the source and summit of our faith.[2] It is the means by which Jesus comes to touch each and every one of us. The Mass is the reason that this parish exists. Every action that happens in this parish should flow from what you and I are doing right here and then it should lead us all right back here to receive that nourishment.

To summarize, the Mass is the means by which you and I are saved. I dare say, if I asked any Christian how we are saved, they would point to the cross and they would say that we are saved by Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection. Of course, that is true, but that saving event happened 2,000 years ago halfway around the world. Are we just bystanders to our salvation? Are we just the privileged few that Jesus came into the world to save and we don’t have to participate in any way? No, of course, as Christians we profess that Jesus came into this world to suffer and die for us. It is what we are about to celebrate on Christmas. But Jesus came into this world in a way different than you and I. You and I were born into this world to live, but Jesus is the one person in human person who was born into this world to die, to suffer to die and to rise, so that you and I might have the hope of eternal life. But we do not get to be passive spectators. No, as Christians, we profess to be followers of Jesus Christ which means in our own way we have to participate in that saving action.

So how do we do it? Open your bible, choose which ever gospel you prefer and go to the Last Supper account and what do we discover? Well, we discover the first Mass. As St. Paul recounts for us in His first letter to the Corinthians, in that meal with His disciples, before His death, Jesus takes bread, says the blessing, breaks it and gives it to His disciples saying “do this in remembrance of me.”[3] Then He takes the chalice, He blesses it, He shares it with His disciples and gives the same command, “do this in remembrance of me.”[4]

Remembrance, a memorial. It is not just sitting on your couch recalling that something has happened in the past. It is a way to participate in it. I don’t know if you have ever had the chance to attend the war memorials in Washington DC. You go for example to Vietnam memorial and as you stand at the wall, you and I who were not there and did not participate in that war, think back on history and kind of remember the story of what has happened, but then you look around and you see someone at the wall who lived that war, who actually fought in those battles, they have a totally different experience. As they stand at that wall, it is almost as if the war comes back to them. They relive what they went through in the midst of that war. It is a true memorial for them, a reliving.

My friends, that is what the Mass is for us. It is the representation of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection, so that you and I can participate in it. And it is not just the last supper. A few years ago, a devout Jewish family who I am friends with, invited me to join them for the Seder meal, the celebration of Passover. By the way if you ever get the chance to go to a true Jewish Seder meal, don’t miss it. I have to admit, I was totally confused about what was going on, but as I sat there at this Seder meal, I remember thinking to myself, this is the Mass right in front of me. For those of you who are not aware, in a Jewish Seder meal there are 4 glasses of wine that are poured. The 3rd glass comes after a prayer of blessing is prayed over the meal but the meal is not finished until the Hallell psalms are sung and a 4 glass of wine is poured. Open your bibles and read the Last Supper accounts. Jesus pours the 3rd glass of wine He says the blessing and then they go out into the garden. Where is the 4th glass? Fast forward to Jesus hanging on the cross and as He is about to die, what does He say? He says “I thirst”[5] and they hand Him a sponge soaked in wine and then He says “it is finished.”[6]

The saving action of Christ, includes the Last Supper, His Passion and His Death as one action. You and I are invited to participate in it every time we gather here at the Mass. The Mass, yes is praise and worship of God, but it is primarily a sacrifice. [7] It is our participation in the sacrifice of Christ. Whether you realize it or not, you acknowledge every time you come to Mass, that we are offering a sacrifice. What happens after we prepare the bread and the wine? I say “pray brothers and sisters that my sacrifice and yours …” and you respond “may the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands…” It is right there in the text of the Mass.

This of course makes sense. Every religion in the western world, until the Protestant reformation, had sacrifice. The Native Americans had sacrifice, the Jewish faith has sacrifice, the early Church had sacrifice. Now we don’t have to sacrifice new animals. No Jesus died once and for all, the perfect sacrifice, but we are invited to participate in it. And the Mass is not just some ritual that the Church made up. No, this Mass was given to us by Jesus Himself. If you remember your history, it was illegal to be a Christian in the Roman empire until the year 313. If you are a Christian going to Mass in the first 300 years you are gathering in people’s homes, hoping you won’t have your head cut off. If you read the Didache, written between 80 and 90 AD,[8] you read St. Justin the Martyr around 155 AD,[9] and you read Hippolytus around 215 AD,[10] they describe for us the Mass and it is the same structure that we have today. Sure, they spoke different languages and some of their prayers had different words, but the exact same structure of the Mass was there. Fast forward to the year 313 when Christianity is legalized in the Roman Empire. The Christian faith had spread as far east as India and as far west as Spain and all these Christians are now coming out of hiding and celebrating Mass publicly and we discover they are all celebrating the Mass exactly the same way. The only historically solution to that is one person taught them how to say it, and it was so important that they made sure it was handed on without any deviations.

Friends, the Mass is where heaven meets earth. It is the place where day in and day out in all four corners of the world, Jesus literally comes into the world. The Mass is Christmas! If we are going to truly celebrate Christmas, if we are going to truly celebrate the birth of Christ then it starts by finding Him here week in and week out in the Mass.

[1] Matthew 28:20

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church # 1324

[3] 1 Cor 11:24

[4] 1 Cor 11:25

[5] John 19:28

[6] John 19:30

[7] CCC 1362

[8] Available at https://www.ewtn.com/catholicism/library/didache-12503

[9] Available at https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0126.htm

[10] Available at https://www.stjohnsarlingtonva.org/Customer-Content/saintjohnsarlington/CMS/files/EFM/Apostolic_Tradition_by_Hippolytus.pdf

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