Often people who stop coming to Mass claim that they are bored by the irrelevance of our liturgies and homilies. The real issues, they say, are about what happens in their daily lives, and how the Eucharist might support and nourish them in their often desperate struggles. So how do we set this beautiful sacrament free of all that would diminish it? How do we provide fresh, sweet water for thirsty people? And where do we begin?
I remember a story about an American football coach called Guy Lombardi. His team had plummeted from the top of the league. The previous season they had dazzled he country with the magic and sophistication of their passing strategies and scoring techniques. Now they had lost the plot completely. He called them together and settled them down. “Let us begin at the beginning. This”, he explained, “is a football. And these”, he said, “are your legs and arms. The aim is to get the ball, using your legs and arms, from one side of the field to the other.”
Where do we find a simple but profound strategy for bringing the mass to life? How do I reveal new depth to its mystery? A deeper understanding is reached, I feel sure, when we connect what we do around the altar with what we are doing each day of our lives. We celebrate the Eucharist so as never to forget its implications for our ordinary routines and chores. I see the mass as the colouring in of the pale outlines of the lives we bring to it. I see it is revealing the true worth of all that is going on within us and around us – disclosing and celebrating the hidden presence of God in the midst of the most common things.
Put more poetically, I’d like to feel that the bits and pieces of each day’s jigsaw puzzle are put together at the altar; that the separate, often discordant notes to each day’s living are fused into one flowing Sunday symphony; that the hurts, fears and shame of our lives are all held and embraced in this weekly ritual of bread and wine; that the Eucharist creates stories and poems out of the mixed up alphabet of what happens to us each day; that, on Sunday, the scattered and broken bits of our fragmented existence are again refashioned into a necklace of pearls; that at Mass, we are astonished by the nearness of God who comes to us disguised as our lives.
Many dedicated pastors will want people to feel affirmed at mass, to be more aware of the holiness of even the most menial part of their lives, to appreciate the beauty and power they carry, to see the stumbling blocks of ill health, breakdown in relationships, anxiety over money, as potential stepping stones to a new life.
On a Sunday morning, I long for our parishioners to walk out of our church with a new spring in their step, and a new look of confidence in their eyes, a new determination to start all over again. I see them sitting there, permeated by a strange and often heart wrenching innocence. There is loss in their faces, hope and light, too, apprehension and guilt. I remember Marie’s intense loss when her baby was stillborn, Eleanor’s joy at achieving her A-level hopes, the shock of Harry when his wife walked out. “You are all heroes and heroines exactly as you are,” I say to them, “if only you knew how unconditionally you are loved, how cherished you are, how safe you are. Today’s Eucharist guarantees that everything in your life is sacred. That nothing is lost. That no bitter tear or heartfelt wish is ever wasted. That nothing is ever left unredeemed. But everything, in the end, is harvest. “
Full of these thoughts I carefully hold the bread and wine. They are the fruits of the earth and work of human hands, symbols of the history of mother Earth, signs of the often tumultuous struggle that rages within the human hearts of our congregation. Then, with all the graced intensity granted to me, I utter over all this astounding reality, the shattering words of God, “This is my body: This is my blood.” Nothing is “merely human” anymore. Everything is now revealed as divinely human, shining with God’s own light.
In these ways I try to transcend an over emphasis on the rubrics and liturgical niceties of the daily or weekly ritual. Life is incredibly raw and violent. Passions ignite in a moment. Fierce hidden emotions wage silent civil wars in the hidden places of our hearts. This is the raw material of a Sunday Mass. If it is not about our volatile, erratic and deeply powerful drives and emotions, then the Word has become flesh in vain. Where else can redemption happen if not at the point of our pain? From what else, other than the ever-present fear, jealousy, anger and despair, can we be saved? If the hard-won Eucharist of the Passover is to have any relevance to our lives, it must be felt at the very guts and marrow of our being, at those precarious places within us where our demons and angels meet. This is where our need is strong and urgent.
Before he died, having exhausted what he could do with words, Jesus went to beyond them. He gave us the Eucharist, his physical presence, his kiss, a ritual within which he holds us to his heart. Touch, not words, is what we often need. God has to pick us up, like a mother her child. Skin needs to be touched. Our bodies have the senses to be nourished. There are times when even holy words are not enough. That is why God became a baby and why that baby grow up to become our Eucharist.
Saint John Paul’s poetic and mystical soul delights in opening up all kinds of windows into the richness of this mystery. In his most beautiful encyclical ‘Ecclesia de Eucharistia’, he writes: “I have been able to celebrate Mass in chapel built along a mountain pass, on a lakeshore and a seacoast; I have celebrated it on altars built on stadiums and in city squares. This varied scenario of celebrations of the Eucharist has given me a powerful experience of its universal and so to speak cosmic character. Yes, cosmic! Because even when it is celebrated on a humble alter of a country church, the Eucharist is always, in some way, celebrated on the altar of the world. It unites heaven and earth. It embraces and permeates all creation. In the Eucharist, Christ gives back to the Creator and Father all, creation redeemed.”
Resonating around the heavens, this magnificent and stirring vision of the mass as a sacred song of praise for a wild and dancing cosmos, full of wild and dancing hearts, can never be contained in fearful and constricting regulations.
(Tablet article July 2004)