I suggested at the beginning of Lent that this season is a good time to get back to basics, and for Catholics it doesn’t get more basic than the celebration of the Eucharist. It’s well known that the Second Vatican Council called for the “full and active participation” of all the faithful in the Eucharist, but interpretations of what this phrase means have differed so widely that the Council’s vision hasn’t born the fruit we might have hoped for. On the most basic measure of full and active participation—Mass attendance—we’re actually far worse off today than we were when the Council began.
For me this Lent has coincided with work on a master’s thesis about sacrifice and the Mass (some of the ideas for which I test drove here on Whoseoever Desires), and my research has raised a question so basic we usually forget to ask it: what exactly do we do at Mass?
Answering that question depends on how we think about the Mass, what models we use to describe it. An incorrect model for thinking of the Mass is that of a show or play. Unfortunately, a lot of people fall into this kind of thinking. I’ll sometimes hear complaints that Mass is boring, which doesn’t make sense because Mass isn’t supposed to be entertainment. Even those who should know better sometimes fall into the trap of turning Mass into a kind of high school musical. I once attended an Easter Vigil in which the man delivering the third reading dressed up as Moses—complete with beard, robes, and staff. It almost made me root for Pharaoh.
Another model, which I’ve used here before, is that of a meal, but that can’t be the only model we use. In fact, if the only way we think about the Mass is as a symbolic communal meal, a lot of things don’t makes sense. Why, for example, do we have a priest instead of a maître d’?
Mass is not a play; it is a meal, even a foretaste of the heavenly banquet; but more than anything else—Church documents use the word “pre-eminently”—it is a sacrifice. So the primary answer to the question “What do we do at Mass?” is: we offer sacrifice.
Here we need to be careful, however, because we quickly run into problems if we don’t understand exactly who is offering what. The Letter to the Hebrews makes clear that there’s really only one sacrifice that matters and only one priest who offers it: Jesus Christ offering himself to the Father. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross expresses the infinitely self-giving love we talk about when we use the word “God” or “Trinity.” We can’t duplicate that love or one-up it. This realization is why Pope Benedict so clearly emphasizes that the Mass is not a work of human creativity whenever he teaches about the liturgy.
The Mass is so important because it is the one sacrifice that matters, the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. It’s not a play about the Last Supper; the Last Supper can’t be understood apart from what follows on Good Friday. Mass makes us present to God’s self-gift, his sacrifice, on that day.
A problem now arises if you’re following what I’m saying: if Mass is really about God’s action, not ours, how do we “actively participate” in it? Being present is already a good start: at the crucifixion only a handful of disciples managed even that—Mary, John, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene—so showing up is nothing to be scoffed at.
But showing up is not all that’s asked of us. St. Paul also talks about sacrifice, instructing the Romans: “I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of god, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Rom 12:1). The Second Vatican Council asks the same thing of us, teaching that the lay faithful are to “offer themselves” so that “they should be drawn day by day into ever more perfect union with God and with each other, so that finally God may be all in all” (SC, 48).
Here the Council hits upon something really profound, something unique to the laity, the key, I would suggest, to understanding how we actively participate in Mass. We offer ourselves. It is the vocation of the laity to sanctify the world, to bring Christ’s sacrifice, encountered in the Mass, into their daily lives, and to bring all their labors, fears, hopes, shortcomings, joys, and relationships to be offered to God along with that first and final sacrifice of Jesus.
I emphasize that this is the unique role of the laity because it’s something the priest doesn’t really do. The priest offers, not himself, but Christ’s sacrifice; we say he acts in persona Christi, in the person of Christ. As someone studying for ordination, I have to admit, this thought terrified me as its full significance dawned on me because it means that the priest as an individual man disappears. He becomes a placeholder for Christ. He has nothing of his own left to offer.
Understanding these two ways of offering sacrifice—God, through the priest, making Christ’s sacrifice present on the altar, the laity offering themselves in sacrifice—frees us from the well-intentioned but shallow understandings of “active participation” which see the phrase as mandating busyness, as if one is more fully participating if one has some little task to do at the liturgy, or, as a certain Cardinal Ratzinger once put it, “as if as many people as possible, as often as possible, should be visibly engaged in action.”
The understanding I’m offering allows the actions of the priest and the laity to be distinct but complementary. Without the priest, there is no real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, but without the lay faithful that presence does not extend outward into the world; it does not become fruitful, the source of the Church’s evangelizing mission. Both roles are crucial and both must be respected; a priest is not simply a layman with funny clothes; nor is a layperson a priest, but with fewer powers. Maintaining these distinctions is important for everyone’s self-understanding. As the Council teaches: “In liturgical celebrations each person, minister or layman, who has an office to perform, should do all of, but only, those parts which pertain to his office by nature of the rite and the principles of the liturgy” (SC, 28). Or, as Paul puts it, “As in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ” (Rom 12:4-5).
As always, I’d welcome any critique of this simplification of my thesis—especially any brilliant insights that come to you before I have to turn it in!
More important than papers or grades, however, I’ve found that reflecting on these questions has helped me to participate more deeply in Mass, asking myself what sacrifice I bring to offer when I come to worship. This question is also humbling, as I’ve found that what I bring is often emptiness—my own sins, inadequacies, the gaps in my life. But perhaps this is not such a bad offering. If the only thing we bring to Mass is an empty space for the perfect Victim to enter into, we are participating—fully and actively—in this world’s transformation.
Eucharist: So much is said and discussed, and yet take a real historical look at where Eucharist has played a major role in Christianity thru the ages.
Locally; prior to Vatican II we had 5 to 10 masses and Euchristic services in hospitals, rest homes, even in local homes. priest would say 3 or 4 services daily, even distributing Eucharist at Benediction, funerals, weddings, graduation, and special occasions. today, once a day if then, Last week I went to cathedral in Los Angeles (city of 9 million people), you only can receive very early in morning or at noon. And on weekends only 5 masses. In small village outside of Mexico City, mass is celebrated by a priest 11 times on week day and you can ask to recieve Eucharist any time at rectory door.
Maybe US and Canada ought to review its Eucharistic avilability and not use (as condition) or withold Eucharist from their folks, A good shephard would feed his sheep often and more than once a day.
What??? How DARE you question the “spirit of Vatican II” and the RIGHT for every priest to run his parish like his own personal fiefdom, commanding that everyone participate by doing the chicken-dance during the consecration!!! Seriously, Anton, you are bringing up some very VERY dangerous points here, and I hope those grading your papers and advising you spiritually are batting for the home team here.
And of course, you know I am in absolute agreement with everything you wrote here (even and especially the parts between the lines). And thank you so much for your analogy of those at the foot of the cross and the eucharistic sacrifice. Brilliant! For me, the participation comes in the act of awareness. It’s not like, “only if you guys in the audience believe hard enough will this miracle occur…now close your eyes real hard…” Meaning, if the priest acting in persona christi follows the formulae, it will happen whether I participate or not. But it is for my benefit to participate.
As always, excellent post. God bless you now and always. And may almighty God, who bestowed upon us the very dubious gift of a sophisticated pallate bless us with a bountiful and yummo Easter Dinner (very very soon).
The analogy to the disciples at the foot of the cross originally comes from Ratzinger, if memory serves me. He wrote something along those lines in “The Spirit of the Liturgy.”
Stay strong till Easter!
But, Father, surely (even) a unattended mass is fruitful? How may we measure its graces? I appreciate that you are making a point here about the nature of the experience of the people of God at mass but…
I’m also interested to see the picture you selected. I maintain that unidirectional worship enhances the sacrificial element of worship and that from a pastoral point of view an altar close to the people in an ad orientem context is ideal. I wonder if you agree?
It’s not “Father” yet… still at least another six years or so.
There’s no question that even an unattended Mass is valid, but whether a sacrament is fruitful depends on a whole range of things, such as the disposition of the people who receive it. Grace isn’t something easily quantifiable, so it’s impossible to give a measure of how fruitful a sacrament is. But I do think when things are omitted that ought to be included, and I’d include the presence of the lay faithful at Mass, something is really lost.
I’ve been intrigued by the question of the orientation of the altar you bring up since I read Ratzinger’s “The Spirit of the Liturgy.” He certainly does make a strong case for what you suggest. I can see how with everyone facing the same direction during the Eucharistic prayer, the feeling of being involved in a common sacrifice is enhanced; and I can also see how irresistible the unwitting temptation to think of the Mass as a play can be when the priest is facing the people… so perhaps it’s something we should take a second look at.
I think ad orientem worship will return gradually, but perhaps not by writ. For what it’s worth, it was re-introduced in my parish 10 years ago for all masses, both new rite, forming vastly the majority, and old. Perfectly ordinary middle of the road parish. One or two got a little upset, the greater number perfectly happy.
I’d also recommend you take a look at Uwe Lang’s Turning Towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer for the archeolgical argument for the historical continuity of this posture.
Yes, ad Orientem takes the “look at ME!” away in favor of the “look at HIM!”
Yeah…we should probably take a “second look” here : P
I guess at some level I just took offering myself for granted. I mean, since I’m united with Christ & live in Him, then what else could be happening during Mass? I can even attend ‘unattended’ Masses said anywhere and do the same thing. But I think there’s a huge need for good teaching on this point & i hope the Lord gives you many years to carry it out!