by Father Bryan Babick, SL.L.
Over the course of the last several months, I have been reflecting on the essence of what we do each time we gather at the altar. At this point I would like to summarize all that has been said in order to set the stage for where we are going. As one young woman said to me in the parish I serve, “Why are you writing all this about the Mass, as if we don’t know what it is?!?!”
I argued that the Mass is at the same time Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. When Jesus celebrated His Last Supper with the Apostles, He asked them to do as He had done in His memory. The words, “this is my Body,” and “this is my Blood, which will be given up for you,” are illogical without the Crucifixion on Good Friday. This would have been a senseless death if not for the joy of Easter Sunday! Hence, the Mass is inseparably linked to all three of these holy days.
Once the people of God could reflect more deeply on the nature of the Mass, they observed that the Scriptures speak about divine worship. In the Book of Leviticus God instructs mankind to offer slain lambs as sin-forgiving sacrifices. In the Book of Revelation He shares a vision of heaven with Saint John. John records that in God’s Kingdom those present are so enthralled to be in His company that they constantly sing His praises in the presence of the Lamb of God sacrificed for the sins of humanity. Since in the Mass we offer what Jesus told us would be a sin-forgiving sacrifice and because our worship is modeled after Saint John’s revelation, it follows that the Mass is really a manifestation of heaven here on earth.
This understanding could be explained away as a piously held belief if not for the Christian understanding of memory inherited from our Jewish forefathers. To “do this in memory” of Jesus means not to repeat, or imitate an action of the past, but rather indicates that each time we sacrifice a little of our bread & wine we are taken back to the original Last Supper. A memory of God’s saving action in history is not stuck there as an isolated event, but is continually made present in each era whenever it is repeated, lived and celebrated by His people. This is so only because God is infinite, outside of time, and thus nothing He does Himself or through others can be situated exclusively in the past.
Why, then, have I been reflecting on these issues? My first aim was to encourage us all – priests, deacons, sisters, brothers, and lay faithful alike – to come to the altar with a greater sense of awe. In this day of quickly changing norms and instant gratification, it is tempting to make the Mass a celebration of ourselves, using the most current references and technologies.
If the Mass is a participation in something greater than ourselves, however, if it is heaven on earth, if it is timeless, and if it presents the events of the Last Supper, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection to us, then are we free to surreptitiously change words, gestures, vestments, and dress based upon our moods or whims? Just as we develop a more formal vocabulary, dress, and posture when in the presence of those we regard as important, then should we not take the same attitude at Mass, which, as we have seen, we believe brings us into the presence of God?
On Friday, August 20th, Francis Cardinal George of Chicago, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, announced that Pope Benedict has approved a revised translation of the prayers, greetings, and acclamations used at Mass in order to better reflect a more formal atmosphere merited by the essence of the Mass as argued through my columns. This process of re-translation is the culmination of a decade of work. Those of you familiar with the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite, (“Latin Mass”) which makes use of the Roman Missal that traces its origins all the way back to the fourth century, will see a strong similarity between the translation it uses in the pew Missals and that of the newly revised texts we will begin to use in the ordinary form of the (“English”) Mass as of Advent, 2011.
Over the course of the next several months I will begin to introduce the changes to you here in this paper. This is a wonderful opportunity for us to grow into deeper communion with our God by elevating our senses to match the solemn essence that is proper to divine worship. Nothing is changing but the words and, perhaps, our attitudes.