Abbot Jeremy Driscoll of Mt. Angel Abby wrote a wonderful little book entitled What Happens at Mass. He tells us that “The Mass is about love. It is not an idea about love, but the supreme encounter with love. A Christian is defined entirely by this encounter. And so, I am not in the [world] of Descartes [who said] “I think therefore I am.” Rather because of what happens at Mass, I know what that makes me [who I am]: I am loved, therefore I am…”
Abbot Jeremy continues: “To say that the Mass is about love is to say that it is…an encounter with God, but not as God vaguely contrived. It is an encounter with God through Jesus…who was crucified under Pontius Pilate and who’s death is [manifested] during the course of the Mass…[and it must be said that] Christ is not only the victim—he is also the Great High Priest who presides at the sacrifice.” (pp vii-viii)
These are basic, simple words that speak of the most incredible mystery. From early on the Church incorporated the word “mystery” when describing the sacraments, especially the sacrament of the Eucharist. The roots of this lie in the theology of St. Paul; for him the word ‘mystery’ is key to his understanding of what happens in Christ. The central mystery is the cross; he calls it a mystery because something was hidden in the cross that we cannot understand without it being revealed. For example, he explains in the 2nd chapter of I Corinthians that when the ‘rulers of this age’ crucified Christ, they didn’t have a clue who he was for his true identity was hidden. But in fact these rulers crucified “the Lord of Glory.” St. Paul wrote, “None of the rulers of this age knew the mystery. If they had known it, they would never have crucified the Lord of Glory.” (I Cor. 2:8) Ironically it’s all part of the great mystery of the Mass.
Abbot Jeremy defines the mystery of divine activity at the Eucharist this way. He writes: “a mystery is a concrete something that when you bump into it, it puts you in contact with divine reality…The bread and the wine of the Eucharist are concrete things, in them are hidden the very body and blood of Christ…” (p. 3)
The Greek word “mysterion” means something that is hidden and secret. The Latin word “sacramentum” refers to something that is made holy. In the Eucharist things are made mysteriously holy, things that we can touch, consume, the sacrament of Christ’s blessed Body and Blood. This mysterious sacramental presence is concrete but the mystery is that it occurs in the bread and the wine which are available to us by means of the words and movements of the Mass.
Abbot Jeremy also reminds us that the “Mass begins long before it begins…There is deep theological significance hidden in the arrival of many people coming from many places into one place to celebrate the Eucharist…[it is] the mystery of the assembly… people just coming to the Church building is already a mystery. A divine reality is hidden in… [our] concrete [act of gathering.]” (pp. 7-8)
Each of us brings a personal story: our struggles, our pains, our joy, our experiences in prayer. Are you going through some kind of faith crisis? Are the kids acting up? Is there trouble in your marriage? Did you just get a wonderful letter from a grandchild? Is someone you love close to death? Have you been away from the Eucharist for a long time? Have you just made your confession and have you received the rejuvenating absolution by a priest and all things are sweet and new again? Is work a burden that borders on being unbearable and you aren’t sure what to do? Have you found new joy in a new job? Are you dealing with some chronic health issue? We bring so many things with us to Mass. These all are gathered into a common offering of this concrete assembly.
And hidden in this mystery of the concrete assembly is a much higher assembly, the whole Church of Christ has gathered, the Church in heaven and on earth, down through the centuries with the Blessed Virgin and all the saints and angels and archangels—cherubim and seraphim—chanting words beyond our hearing, giving voice to song that silently echoes through the centuries: “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God Sabaoth, Heaven and Earth are Full of Your Glory, Hosanna in the highest.” This is the Church.
St. Paul tells us at the end of the 1st chapter of Ephesians that Christ is the Head of His Body, the Church and therefore we must always keep in mind that Christ is the only priest and ultimately there is only one Mass and Christ presides, always. It is also important to remember that Christ shares his priesthood with all the Faithful. The presider at the head of the Eucharistic assembly is a sign of the one priesthood of Christ; all his words, all his actions during the rite are geared toward uniting the people of God with him; in this sense we all participate in Christ’s priesthood because we are united with him in this priestly act.
So, when in obedience to Our Lord’s command at the Last Supper, we “do this” with the bread and wine, we are united in Fellowship with the Father, in the love of his Son, who is present in the Eucharist by and through the power of the Holy Spirit. United in and through the Blessed Triune God, together with so many we cannot see, we comprise the Church which transcends time and space. At every Mass we are present in both the Upper Room gathered with Jesus and the disciples and at Calvary, beholding him who is spiked to that cross. However, there is one obvious impairment, we can’t see Jesus with physical, human eyes but we can with the eyes of faith. Whenever this Holy Sacrifice is celebrated, all the benefits of Christ’s one, unrepeatable sacrifice is re-lived and all these benefits become available to us as we are united in the great and wondrous mystery called the Mass.
In closing I want to relate a story told by Dr. Peter Kreeft, professor of Philosophy at Boston College and a former Presbyterian. One day he took one of his students, a Muslim, to Mass, something the student had never witnessed before. Afterwards they discussed what they had experienced. The Muslim student asked Dr. Kreeft “Do you really believe that the bread [and wine] become, through consecration, the body and blood of the crucified and risen Christ?” “Certainly,” Dr. Kreeft responded, “That’s exactly what we believe.”
“If I believed that,” the Muslim student told him, “I would never get off my knees.” Here is a non-believer who intuitively understands the phrase, “The Eucharist is the Source and Summit of the Faith.”