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.