05 April 2012

The Tug of War of the Liturgy

J.M.J.

This evening we celebrate the Mass of the Lord's Supper, in which our Lord instituted the Holy Eucharist. It was during His last meal with the Apostles that the chief of all Sacraments and the highest form of prayer was established and mandated to be done. The Apostles could not have fully comprehended the totality of meaning of this Sacrament. Even today perhaps we do not understand it fully, and that brings up an interesting and important point. The liturgy inherently represents the natural struggle that is the Christian Faith.

As we attend the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, we are participating in the true and living Sacrifice that was carried out on Calvary. That sacrifice is the sacrifice that frees us from the bonds of sin. Yet, this is not a passive process. We do not achieve these benefits simply by sitting in the pews and listing to chant, hymns, sermons, and prayers. If we sit passively, we might leave the church with a warm feeling or an emotional high, but it does not represent any progress in true, lasting change or conversion of heart. It does not represent an internal victory of good over evil. In order to achieve these things, we must take up our own cross and join ourselves with the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross being carried out upon the altar. If we do not, then we eat and drink our own damnation when we receive communion. Only by dying to ourselves and dying to the world may we live.

No one said this was easy. It is not. To die to the world and all its many temptations is often an uphill battle. Our fallen nature makes us want to resist our own sacrifice, yet such personal sacrifice is necessary. To conquer death, we must die.

In the liturgy of the mass, we see this struggle played out. We begin with the priest, ministers, servers, and hopefully the faithful as well praying the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar. They begin with the antiphon "I will go unto the altar of God." These words proclaim our intent. We seek to go to the altar of God, where the sacrifice leading to salvation will be carried out. This statement exercising our free will is the first step. This is the first element of the struggle. Do we choose to go to God, or do we choose to serve the ways of Satan? That is the choice being made at the very beginning of the mass.

Next, after the introit proper to the day, comes the Kyrie. We ask God's mercy as Peter asked our Lord's mercy for denying him thrice. Without this humble petition, how can we make reparations for our sins? How can we take up our own cross? How can we drink from the cup of salvation? This is the second struggle. To receive salvation, we must petition God for mercy.

The Gloria follows on non-penitential days, in which we proclaim glory to God on high, peace on earth, good will towards men. Here, on joyous occasions, we must choose to acknowledge the source of all goodness and that it is to Him and Him alone that all glory must be given. Glory does not belong to worldly things, to money, to governments, or to commerce, but to God.

Next we hear the Word of God, first from the Old Testament or the Epistles, and then from the Holy Gospel. We hear the Word of God. We now face a choice just as we do outside the liturgy. We may either accept or reject the Word of God. We may either embrace it fully and try to live our lives according to it, or we may make excuses, equivocate, and rationalize how the Bible and the doctrine of the Faith are irrelevant to us as our modernist society suggests. That is the fourth struggle, and certainly one that we face every day in our efforts to live as Christians.

Now, in Sunday masses and certain other masses, we proclaim our faith in the Nicene Creed. And how difficult is it today to proclaim our faith in secular society? For many, it is all too easy to consider their faith a private matter and even deny it in public as Peter denied our Lord. Yet, as we have, like Peter, implored God for mercy, we now boldly proclaim our faith. From there, we are ready to participate in the offering. The offering, though, is not about the money in the plates. It is about the bread and wine that will become the Body and Blood of our Lord. It is also where we offer ourselves alongside our Lord. This is the sixth struggle we face in life. Do we let our Lord carry the cross, or to we pick it up like Simon of Cyrene? Do we join in our Lord's struggle, even unto our own demise like Saint Stephen, or do we ignore our calling?

Next we proceed through the Preface and Sanctus to the Canon of the Mass, where the actual, true, and living Sacrifice takes place. It is here, having made the choice to go unto the altar of God, to implore the mercy of our Lord, to embrace his Holy Word, to proclaim the Faith, and to offer ourselves alongside Christ, that we die to the world and live through Christ. However, we still have a choice at this point. Even after all else we have passed through, we can still back out, stumble, and fall at the last moment. It is not proclamation of our faith in the Creed that saves us, but the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross carried out upon the altar of God that saves us. Even after all the positive choices we have made, it is still possible to fail. The Faith of Christ is a constant struggle that necessarily continues to our last breath on our last day. We see this in the mass, for we must participate in every aspect of the mass in order to receive the totality of its benefits and grace. If we do everything our Lord expects, but then deny him in the end, the rest of what we did is irrelevant. Yet, even if we deny our Lord, he will respond with even greater love and mercy to all those who ask for it and return to the Cross.

There is much to be learned from the Holy Mass about our spiritual journey, and this is no accident. When our Lord instituted the Holy Eucharist, it was with a purpose. The mass is at once a giant prayer, a source of instruction, and a saving grace. When we depart from the mass, we ought to remember what we learned and experienced in the mass, and also what the very nature and structure of the mass teaches us about the struggles of our spiritual journey. Taking these things into the world is our armor against the assaults of the devil. Through the mass, let us always embrace the Cross of Christ, take up our own Cross, and follow Him unto the joy of eternal life.