By Regis Martin
Because the content of the Church’s catechesis is rooted in her life of worship, that being the time and place where Catholics ordinarily encounter the mysteries of Christ, celebrations of liturgy ought especially to evoke a sense of wonder. What other event on planet Earth can equal the marvels of the Catholic Mass? It is, simply put, God’s greatest, most powerful act of self-giving love the world has ever seen. And not just seen, as if liturgy were a spectator sport, but ratified and received in the minds and hearts—and bodies!—of those who believe. And not mere mortals, either, who happen to fill the worship space on any given day. But also the angels, whose adoring attendance upon the Mystery provide the clearest seraphic testimony to the awe-full presence of God in the midst of men. Nothing less than a sudden irruption of eternity into time could justify their showing up for Mass. “For, who of the faithful can have any doubt,” observed Pope St. Gregory the Great fifteen hundred years ago, “that at the moment of the sacrifice, at the sound of the priest’s voice, the heavens stand open and choirs of angels are present at the mystery of Jesus Christ. There at the altar the lowliest is united with the most sublime, earth is joined to heaven, the visible and invisible somehow merge into one.”
How vast and deep must the sense of communion be when a myriad of saints and angels are invited to give thanks to God, to bow in worship alongside all the living and dead who belong to Christ. It is the whole company of the redeemed, no less, whom the Father has summoned to the Supper of the Lamb. Indeed, by virtue of our own participation in the priestly action of Jesus Christ, solemnly enacted upon church altars everywhere, we enter into the very reality of the God whom we receive. Joined thus to that heavenly oblation, which is nothing less than the perfect offering made to God, from whose inexhaustible riches the entire People of God stand to gain, we give back to God, in the words of St. Augustine, “the unspotted sacrifices of piety on the altar of the heart.” The Christian, therefore, “carries his holocaust within him and himself applies the flame to it.”
What else did the blessed apostle Peter have in mind when he exhorted us to become “like living stones . . . built into a spiritual house,” but that we should all “be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 2:5). Nevertheless, the real work of liturgy is wrought by God himself, who remains the architect of all the joy and delight that await the baptized on the shores of eternal life.
Every year the Church commemorates the cycle of feasts that mark the salient moments in the life of Christ. The rhythm of the narrative moves in stunning, dramatic succession from conception in his mother’s womb to deposition and descent into history’s tomb—where, amid the shame and the silence of Holy Saturday, Christ atones for the world’s sin. “There is a cry,” Balthasar has noted, “that penetrates all the cool pharisaism of our alleged religiosity: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ In the darkest night of the soul, while every fiber of his body is in pain, and he experiences extreme thirst for God, for lost love, Christ atones for our comfortable indifference.”
And then, at last, in Easter glory, the resurrected Son returns to the Father from whom all good things come. Is there any competing human drama that can hold a candle to this? That the eternal and unchanging God should enter the broken human estate in order to transfigure it all unto glory? “No love that in a family dwells,” writes the poet John Betjeman,
No caroling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare—
That God was Man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.
The Church’s memory begets a presence—an appearance under the visible forms of bread, water and wine—of Christ himself. “Memory,” to quote the Italian poet Cesare Pavese, “is a passion repeated.” How could it be otherwise in the long stretches of time that separate us from the events of two thousand years ago? Unless that far off and long ago historical time and place—think of the distance between ourselves and the people of first-century Palestine!—were not somehow made instantly contemporaneous with this present moment, all the baptized of this twenty-first-century world would be thoroughly and cruelly divested of Christ. Those who experienced an immediate physical proximity to Christ would thus have received an advantage fatal to the rest of us.
Is that tolerable? Is it even thinkable? No, it is not. Which is why, at the heart of liturgy, of sacramental life and catechesis, we find ourselves placed in living relation to Christ, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. And, to be sure, with all those joined to Christ, including the angels, the saints and, yes, even those in the household of the faith whom we have loved and lost. It is surely among the most comforting of the many certitudes of our faith that family and friends long gone to their graves are yet joined to us in the great family of God.
For years Regis Martin, STD, has been regaling audiences about the mysteries of God and Church, most especially his students at Franciscan University of Steubenville, where he teaches theology. He is the author of a half-dozen or more books, including Witness to Wonder: The World of Catholic Sacrament. Read this book, written by someone with an appreciation for the way language can bring us to wonder, and see the world in a new way.