At the beginning of this post, I want to thank two of my good friends, Father Anthony Barratt and Father David Wm. Mickiewicz whose insights I have borrowed in presenting the following thoughts.
At the end of every November here in the United States, we gather with family and friends to celebrate Thanksgiving Day. Picture yourself as the host of an annual Thanksgiving meal. What would it be like?
First, your guests (family and perhaps some friends) would arrive and they would be welcomed. Then you would sit around and share the family stories (what has happened since we last met; how are certain relatives doing; remember when...). The table would then be set for the banquet meal and all would gather at the table offering a prayer of thanksgiving for all the good things they are grateful for. The meal would be enjoyed, the dishes and bowls removed, and we would gather again before people would leave. Finally there would be a sending off or farewell to our guests, wishing them well and hoping to see them again soon.
This is what a typical Thanksgiving Day meal would look like. How does it resemble the ordinary, every day meals in your family? In our society today it seems very difficult to really sit down and enjoy a true family meal with everyone in the family having so many things on their schedules: the kids have soccer or band practice, Mom has a church meeting, Dad has to put in some time volunteering for a local charity, etc. All of these things are good but they do prevent us many times from sitting down as a family for a meal together.
How does this Thanksgiving Day meal resemble our Eucharistic celebration? It is very much the same. First, we gather and welcome those who come together for Eucharist (a very important role in our Church today is the role of "greeter'). What is the welcoming like in your parish? Let us remember all the various people Jesus dined with in his lifetime:
- a young nameless couple in the village of Cana; Jesus attended their wedding and partied with the guests and made the celebration lively by providing more wine for the feast;
- tax collectors (a very hated group in Jesus' time because they were seen as being in league with the domineering Romans) and known sinners; for these get-togethers Jesus received much criticism from the Pharisees (how can you dine with those people?), and Jesus would tell them that he came to call sinners and not the just;
- vast crowds of people; one of the miracles recorded in all of the four gospels is that of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes (Matthew 15; Mark 6; Luke 9; and John 6);
- some who were critical of Jesus (Pharisees) who would invite him to dine often to try to catch him up either saying or doing something they disapproved of;
- Peter's mother-in-law whom he healed;
- his good friends Martha, Mary and Lazarus where he would go to just be with good friends;
- little Zacchaeus who had to climb a tree in order to see Jesus and would then be asked to host him at his home (much to the consternation of the Pharisees because Zacchaeus was a hated tax-collector);
- after his resurrection joining two disciples on the road to a village called Emmaus where they would recognize him in the breaking of the bread; and
- on the shores of the Sea of Galilee where he would make breakfast for his disciples.
Jesus dined with many people and was not fussy about who or what they were. These are the various people who come to our liturgies; are we as welcoming to them as Jesus was to those he met? In the rule of St. Benedict (the founder of monasticism) we read:
All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ for he himself will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me. Proper honor must be shown to all...Great care and concern are to be shown in receiving poor people and pilgrims, because in them more particularly Christ is received; our very awe of the rich guarantees them special respect.
One of the hymns we sing at our liturgy is called Gather Us In and it speaks of all those whom we welcome: the "lost, forsaken, blind, lame, young, old, rich, haughty, proud, strong..." - in other words "everybody." When Mohandus Gandhi was a young lawyer living in South Africa he began studying about Christianity and was impressed about what he learned about Jesus. He went to a Christian church one weekend to observe their worship but was told at the door that he was not welcome because of the color of his skin. Later Gandhi would state: I like your Christ - I do not like your Christians - your Christians are so unlike your Christ.
How do we welcome people as we gather to worship each week?
The second part of our celebration is the hearing of God's story in the Scriptures; not our story but God's. How well do we proclaim it? Do our lectors/readers prepare well to proclaim what is God's word? There is power in the word of God; it was by God's word that the world was created; it was God's divine Word that took on flesh and came among us in the person of Jesus Christ, and it would be Jesus' words that would bring healing to the sick, life to the dead, and still the waters of the sea. This is why it is important for us to hear the Word when we come to liturgy.
When I was growing up there was much attention paid to when one would commit a "mortal" rather than a "venial" sin as far as attendance at liturgy was concerned. The command of the Church was that we should gather for worship each week (on Sunday) and on special days (holy days of obligation) during the year. But how late could you arrive at Mass at still not have committed a mortal sin? It was said that if we were there by the time of the Offertory of the Mass we would only have committed a venial sin. How sad it is when we try to compartmentalize our worship and see what is the least amount we have to do in order to stay in God's good graces. We are only asked to give our God an hour of our time each week; given all that God has done for us, is this too much to ask without worrying about the extent of sin?
After we hear God's word we set the table for the banquet. We bring our gifts to the feast - the bread and wine that will be used as well as our personal gifts in the form of monetary donations to assist the parish. We pray and give thanks to our God for all his gifts and offer again his Son in the sacrifice of the Mass. We then partake of the Body and Blood of the Lord at communion time, joining with our brothers and sisters as one family.
At the dismissal time of the Mass, we are sent forth on a mission. This is not merely the end of "another week in church." In the new translation of the Roman Missal (to be implemented on the first Sunday of Advent in the United States) some of the dismissal rites speak to this. One says: Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord. We are called to go out into the world and bring Christ's message of love, peace and hope to a world desperately in need of it.
When we think back to our annual family Thanksgiving Day feast, would we come late? Would we fail to take part in sharing the family's stories? Would we not bring something to add to the feast? Would we jump up from the table when we had eaten and leave without a formal good-bye? I'm sure we would not and this behavior should be echoed when we come to liturgy each week.
The celebration of the Eucharist each week is the most important thing we as Catholic Christians can do in our lives. In Sacrosanctum Concilium, the document on the liturgy of the Second Vatican Council we read:
From this it follows that every liturgical celebration, because it is an action of Christ the priest and of his Body, which is the Church, is a sacred action surpassing all others. No other action of the Church can equal its efficacy by the same title and to the same degree.
It goes on to say: ...The liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; it is also the fount from which all her power flows. And again: With zeal and patience pastors of souls must promote the liturgical instruction of the faithful and also their active participation.
Our weekly liturgy, then, as I stated before, is the most important thing we can do in our Christian lives. The story is told about two college students - roommates - on a Sunday morning. One was Catholic, the other was not. The one who was not Catholic asked his roommate if he was going to church that morning; the roommate sleepily told him he was too tired after being out late the night before and therefore was not going. The first young man then said: If I believed as you do about Jesus being present in communion, I would crawl on my hands and knees to be there.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks about liturgy this way: We must consider the Eucharist as: thanksgiving and praise to the Father; the sacrificial memorial of Christ and his Body; and the presence of Christ by the power of his word and of his Spirit.
We are, therefore, a Eucharistic people. What does this mean? What are the characteristics of a Eucharistic people? They are people of joy and peace: the joy of knowing that God has given us the gift of his Son and the peace that the Son brings to us; openness: open to all who come to worship with us; wonder and awe at the great mystery of the Eucharist; freedom and vision: the freedom to be the people God wants us to be and the vision to act accordingly; and finally, authentic stewards of gifts: we need to be good stewards of all that has been given to us particularly our health and the environment in which we live.
Some years ago, I was challenged by a houng man after a Mass at which I preached about the Eucharist as family meal and how we join in communion. He chided me because I had not used the term "sacrifice" in my remarks. We do believe, of course, that the Mass is a true sacrifice - that of offering Jesus to the Father in an unbloody way using the gifts of bread and wine. But let us remember where the word sacrifice comes from: from two Latin words - sacrum and facere - meaning to "make holy." This is what Eucharist does for us - it makes us holy. It challenges us to be a Eucharistic people with the characteristics noted above; it calls us forth to bring the message of Jesus to the world. May the Eucharist always be for us the source and summit of our Christian life and may we always be people of joy, peace, wonder and awe as we give thanks to our God for his greatest gift to us - Jesus.