2 – Principles

Notes and Study Guide for the Second Liturgy Presentation
Fr. Tom Welbers, Church of the Good Shepherd, Beverly Hills
July 21 & 23. 2012

Principles: What Do We Need to Know to Celebrate Mass Well?

(You can download and print these notes here.)

This applies to both our participation in Mass as members of the Assembly and our roles as liturgical ministers, including presiders. As a presider at our parish Eucharist, I too need to continue learning about the Mass, as it is an infinitely rich treasure. In these presentations, I am speaking to you, not so much as a teacher, but as a fellow learner.

1. Lessons from History

In the last presentation we explored how we as Christians have celebrated the Eucharist throughout history, from our very beginnings in New Testament times. Today, I’d like to begin by reflecting on a few lessons that we can learn from that history.

The first lesson is embodied in a Latin phrase: Lex Orandi – Lex Credendi.

Literally, the “law/rule of praying – the law/rule of believing”; however, “lex” is better translated “way.” Notice there’s no verb, because the action goes in both directions: the way that we pray both reflects and influences the way we believe; similarly, the way we believe both reflects and influences the way we pray. (When I say “pray” here, I mean both the public liturgical prayer of the Church, centering on the Eucharist, as well as the prayer of the individual person of faith.

Theology has been described as “faith seeking understanding,” and what we do about our faith, in both prayer and action, comes from that understanding. At the same time, theologians have always seen liturgy as a source of theology. The study of liturgy throughout the ages, as we pointed out in the last session, both in the Christian East and the West, has provided us with insight and understanding of how Christians have believed through the centuries, down from the time of Jesus and the New Testament. This is what we mean by “tradition” as a source of God’s revealed Word — how have Christians, in an unbroken continuity of faith, listened to and acted upon the Word of God. We believe that the Holy Spirit has been constantly at work throughout history, in the process of bringing new insight into our understanding of how God works and how we should and do respond.

The second lesson is one of diversity across time and place. While there has remained a central core of Word and Meal, there has been little uniformity in the way Catholics have responded to the Last Supper command of Jesus, “Do this in memory of me.”

We’ve seen many ups and downs in history, and some periods when some very good developments were taking place in certain areas, and some very bad developments were happening at the same time. We are all sinners, and in need of patience and forgiveness, as well as discerning how and where the grace of the Holy Spirit is working, and asking God to make us instruments. The most often repeated command of Jesus is to love our enemies and forgive all who wrong us. That applies to our study and practice of prayer and worship as well.

The third lesson has to do with how the teaching of the Church reflects and carries on the Faith of the Church.

“Magisterium” is a word that has been used to describe the “teaching authority of the Church,” and is often used to refer to official pronouncements of the Pope or the Vatican. However, this “official” use of the word is really quite recent, only going back to the mid-nineteenth century, Pope Pius IX, and the First Vatican Council in defining papal infallibility. Here too, a historical perspective is important. If the Church is to be assured of remaining faithful to Christ as his people, papal infallibility has always been understood in a kind of “bottom-line” or “the-buck-stops-here” sense. When there is a dispute about essential matters of faith or morals, somebody has to have the “last word,” and the Bishop of Rome has been recognized since the earliest days as having that role. We could go into this at length, but that’s not the issue here. The point I want to make is that we have to be careful to take the voice of the teaching authority of the Church seriously as faithfully reflecting the heart of our faith tradition, but as a guide, not a dictator. Later, when we look at the official documents concerning liturgy, especially of Vatican II and later, that’s how we will try to understand them: the living voice of the Holy Spirit guiding all God’s people. Guiding, not coercing . . .

The fourth and last of these lessons from history looks at the twin goals of the Second Vatican Council: “aggiornamento” and “ressourcement.”

During the three years of preparation before the Second Vatican Council, as well as during the Council itself, two words — one Italian and the French — were increasingly used in speaking of both the goals of the Council and the method to be followed. Logically, they have to go hand in hand.

“Aggiornamento” literally means, bringing up to date. As a goal of Vatican II, it was not to “modernize” the Church nearly so much as to learn to speak the language of people today, so that the community of the Church, living in the real-life local and global situation of our times, can communicate in dialogue with the people around us who are in need of and hungering for the message of our faith in Christ, often without even realizing their hunger. The job of “aggiornamento” is seen not so much as being “relevant,” but being transparent in a way that people of today can see the presence and action of Christ among us.

Aggiornamento really refers more to what we might call “style” — the language we speak and the way we communicate — while “ressourcement” (which I will from now on pronounce in an ‘English way, “re-sourcement”) refers to content. It means, literally, going back to the sources. How we communicate is one thing, and a very important thing; what we communicate is another thing, even more important.

The whole point of Vatican II is that, during the century since the First Vatican Council, historical, archaeological, biblical and theological studies and discoveries have given us a vastly expanded view of the early world of Christianity, the life, thought, and liturgical practice of the first ten centuries of the Church. This expanded view simply was not available to the small group of decision-makers of the Council of Trent in the mid-1500s, who were reacting to the excesses and fragmentation of the Protestant reformation. Nor were these tools available in the mid-1800s to the bishops of Vatican I, who were reacting to the excesses and instability brought about, not only in Europe but worldwide, by revolutionary nationalism, colonial imperialism, and secular humanism which excluded any concept of accountability to God understood in any traditional sense. We touched on these problems of the last 500 years in the last presentation. A lot more could be said about that, but not now.

Long story short. Re-sourcement in a nutshell means that the more than 2,500 bishops from all over the world who met for four years in the middle of the 20th century, and thousands more theological experts who were their advisors, had available to them tools for incorporating a much broader and deeper understanding of the whole extent and meaning of tradition than were available to the theologians and Church authorities of the previous 500 years.

This combination of up-dating how we communicate in today’s world and how we learn from the whole spectrum of sources of our faith is, I think, where Vatican II was truly revolutionary. Not that it brought something new into the Church, but that it brought a new view of what was truly traditional, and a new perspective on how to communicate with the people of today’s world by listening first and then speaking. It was never the intent of Vatican II to go back to the “early Church” as opposed to the “Medieval Church,” nor to modernize the Church so it would conform better to the ways of the world. It was rather to see the whole content of our past — the whole 2000 years in every Christian culture throughout the world — as providing for us today lessons on how we might most authentically live and celebrate our faith here and now.

Right within the heart of the Mass, the Eucharist is described as “The Mystery of Faith.” In the next segment, we will explore something of the content of our faith.

This second segment of our presentation today concerns How God Relates to Us and How God Invites Us to Relate to God

Having looked at some of the lessons that our history can teach us, now let’s look at the very heart of the matter: God’s relationship to us.

Let’s start at the very beginning. There are two possibilities: either we are all the result of some cosmic game of chance, without meaning or purpose, or there is meaning and purpose in our existence, and that meaning and purpose ultimately leads to what we would call “God.” I think I can assume that you believe in God, otherwise you wouldn’t be here.

Our first point is that God always is the one who takes the initiative and we respond — everything we do is in some way a response to God.

Our understanding of God includes the belief that this God is not some remote, impersonal “force,” but the one who loves us into being. Love — which means other-centeredness: willing and wanting the good of the other over one’s own good — is at the center of our understanding of God.

It’s first and foremost important for us to realize that, in everything, God takes the initiative. God creates, God redeems, God communicates, God is infallibly present to us. We do not have to seek God; God seeks us. God even is the beginning of our prayer.

Our only role in relation to God is to respond. When we respond, God continues the dialogue, and continues to invite our response.

Secondly, the Bible and the life of the Church through the ages reflects this dialogue between God and his people.

It’s a complex interrelationship of revelation and response. The Bible is not just the Word of God telling us what to do to please him; it’s the inspired story of the ups and downs of this dialogue between God and us, in which God has taken the initiative, and we respond, always imperfectly, sometimes unfaithfully, and in this dialogue there is always some kind of lesson for us.

All of Salvation history is summed up in Christ, and the whole reality of Christ is summed up in the Eucharist. This is the meaning of the rather technical, theological word, “incarnation,” which literally means “enfleshment” or “embodiment.” If God wants to be present to us and communicate with us, God has to speak our language, and that language is humanity itself. What we understand as languages — English, or German, or Spanish, or Tagalog or Arabic, and so on — are reflections of the common language we all share, which is humanity itself. It is only within and by means of our humanity, which we share with all humankind, that we can hear and understand and think and speak . . . and love.

This is why the leaders and thinkers of the early Church had to put so much time and energy into the 4 or 5 centuries long process of trying to come to terms with the reality of Christ as both divine and human. It’s very easy to emphasize the one — humanity or divinity — at the expense of the other, and that’s exactly what the variety of heresies in the early Church did. The thread of true faith, that’s what ”orthodoxy” means, has to affirm both equally. How can Jesus be both truly and fully God and truly and fully human remains a mystery — we can explore it, and begin to understand, but never fully comprehend. That will be the mystery we spend an eternity lovingly exploring!

I think you can begin to see that the incarnation — the fullness of divinity and fullness of humanity in the person of Jesus Christ — is also the mystery of the Church, the Body of Christ, extended through all time and in all places, and also the mystery of the Eucharist, the concrete embodiment of Christ at this moment and in this place.

Now. having spoken about Christ. where does our belief in the Trinity fit into this?

Christian faith joins with all the monotheistic faiths throughout the world — especially Jews and Muslims — in holding fast to the conviction that God is absolutely one — there is but one Supreme Being, and that Supreme Being is not divided into parts. But Christian faith is unique in our belief that God has revealed not only the Unity of God, but also that there is a dynamic inner life within this unity of the One God. This is not something that we can come to on our own by thinking about it, no matter how brilliant and perceptive we may be. However, we do not believe that God’s revelation is merely a textbook in which God told us in simple statements what to believe, and in simple commands what to do about it. The record of the experience of Jesus, especially the Risen Jesus, in St. Paul and the Gospels speaks in a way that invites us into the inner life of God.

The heart of the meaning of Jesus is Christ is not simply that he tells us how to live or how to get to heaven. The heart of the meaning of Jesus is that in him we are invited to share in the life of God through our union with him. This means that God is in himself a dynamic relationship of persons, who are named in the New Testament for us as Father, Son and Spirit. Once again, our history shows us that the Church struggled over the first five or six centuries to come to terms with this mystery, to discover how best to understand and express it in human language. That’s how we “came up with” the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, and why we can say it was revealed by God, even though you have to dig. and sort through the scriptures to find it, just like you have to dig and sort through a lot of earth to find jewels or precious metals. In fact, while there’s only one place in the whole Bible where the three Persons are explicitly named in one sentence (the “baptismal formula” of the “Great Commission” at the very end of Matthew’s Gospel, Mt 28:19), it’s not hard to see the three Divine Persons, active in their mutual relationship, just under the surface of every part of the Bible, Old Testament as well as New Testament.

We now move our attention now back to to who we are: we are the Body of Christ.

St. Paul had the insight that all the disciples of Jesus live in such a close union with him that they can be best described as being members of his body. This insight was born in his conversion experience in which Jesus says “why are you persecuting me” instead of saying, “why are you persecuting my disciples,” Because of the divisions and problems among the early Christians at Corinth, St. Paul had to remind them in his letter what he had already taught them: that they relate to Jesus as the members of a body relate to its head, and that they relate to one another as members of a body relate to one another. They live with the same life and are engaged in the same work. If one suffers, all suffer; each part must recognize and live in accord with its unity with all others without exception if the whole body is to be healthy.

For St. Paul, this unity is expressed and sustained in the communal meal of the Lord’s sacrifice. Those who partake of it are partaking of the body and blood of Christ and thereby becoming what they eat and drink. This is why one bread broken and shared, and one common drinking vessel of wine is so important. It is inseparable from the unity of life in Christ that all Christians have and must therefore live.

This leads us to conclude this segment by considering the relationship of public, communal liturgical prayer and private, individual prayer.

In light of how God relates to us and how we relate to one another, we have to consider prayer, it’s meaning and purpose in this relationship. When teaching his disciples how to pray, Jesus told them, as recorded in Matthew’s Gospel (6:5-13) to go into their inner room and pray to the Father in secret. This is the occasion that he gave “the Lord’s Prayer,” not merely as the words we should use but the content and focus we should have in prayer. As a further example, he frequently went away to a deserted place to pray alone to his Father, and he invited his followers to do the same. Of course, this is what a lot of people bring up when they ask the question, “Why do I have to go Mass?”

As a pious Jew, Jesus himself frequently prayed publicly, in synagogues and at meals and other occasions. He observed the commands of the Law of Moses, the Torah, even though he always pointed to the inner spirit of the Law. He also emphasized that his disciples could not be “loners”: he sent them out in pairs, he said “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in their midst.” It’s clear that one cannot be a disciple of Jesus alone and by oneself.

Praying alone with God and praying together are not mutually exclusive. In fact, it is clear from both the word and example of Jesus, and Christian spirituality through the ages, that you cannot authentically have one without the other. In the Eucharist, we join our personal prayers to those of others, to become the one prayer of Christ, and in turn our personal relationship with God is nourished by the faith and prayer of others as well.

Since the meaning of the incarnation is that God as Trinity — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — communicates with us in and through Jesus Christ, and must do so in a way that we can receive, understand, and participate, we will now need to look at how we communicate and explore the tools for human communication as they relate to the celebration of the Eucharist.

Third Segment: How We Communicate

It is of the essence of human communication that we communicate only through Signs and Symbols. All words, gestures, images, and so on that are part and parcel of human communication are in some way, signs and symbols. If we are to understand the Eucharist, it is essential that we understand something of how symbols work.

Remember the definition of a sacrament? “A sacrament is an outward sign, instituted by Christ, to give grace.” A simpler version from ancient sources simply calls a sacrament, “an outward sign of inward grace.”

The first thing we have to understand about the Eucharist is that, like all the sacraments, it is a symbol. It doesn’t just use symbols; the Eucharist itself is a symbol, a complex, multifaceted symbol to be sure; but it is a symbol.

Notice I did not say “merely a symbol,” as if to deny that it is real. The reality of the Eucharist as symbol does not deny the real presence of Christ, but helps us understand how Christ is really present. We need to look at this more deeply,because a lot of people misunderstand the meaning of symbol, and think of “merely symbolic” as denying the reality behind it. To understand the Eucharist, one must try first to understand by a symbol works.

A symbol is a kind of sign, which, you recall, is the definition of a sacrament. “Sign” is the most important word in that definition; it answers the question, “what is it”? It’s a sign. What it does, “to give grace,” depends on what it is, a “sign.” To understand how it “gives grace,” in other words, what the Eucharist does, how it works, we first have to understand how it is “a sign.”

A symbol is a special kind of sign. A sign, by definition, is something that points to something else. Unlike most signs that point to something else outside themselves, a symbol is a kind of sign that points within itself to a deeper reality within itself. An example that might help to understand this is to look at my body. My body is the symbol of me. The reality of ”me” is much more than just my body, but the only way you can see me and relate to me is through my body. My body is the vehicle through which I relate to you and to everything else. Where my body is, there I am, and if my body is not there, I’m not there either. If you touch my body, you are touching me, so in a very real sense, my body is me. But there’s more to me than just what you see and touch. This is the sense in which my body is the symbol of me.

I hope from this analogy you can understand something of how a symbol works, and why there is no contradiction between understanding the Eucharist as a symbol of Christ and at the same time affirming that Jesus Christ is fully present in his full humanity and full divinity. There’s more to it — as we shall see, a lot more. But it’s important to see that the nature of the Eucharist as symbol does not contradict our belief in the Real Presence nor our use of the word “transsubtantiation” to describe how the bread and wine are transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ. Why then is it important to understand the Eucharist as symbol? Because the notion of transsubstantiation is too easily limited to just what happens to the bread and wine, and risks focusing exclusively on them, primarily as an object of adoration. Whereas the true notion of Real Presence includes the transformed bread and wine, but is a much broader and far more inclusive concept, which leads us to consider the four principal modes of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist.

Vatican II, drawing on ancient tradition, articulated four ways that Christ is present in the Eucharist, and so we cannot reduce his presence just to the consecrated bread and wine. To concentrate only on the presence of Christ “in the host” or “in the tabernacle” simply puts aside the richness of the Eucharist in relation to the whole of our Christian life. Subsequent teaching of the popes and the documents of the Church have expanded and developed this notion of the many ways Christ is present, and I would like to reflect on them.

The four ways, or modes, of Christ’s presence are:

  1. in the gathered assembly
  2. in ministry within the assembly
  3. in his word
  4. in the consecrated bread and wine

These need to be explained in detail because each point has a very rich depth of meaning.

First, we need to attend to the fact that when we gather for Mass, we are gathering as the Church, and therefore we are gathering as the Body of Christ, as described by St. Paul (1 Cor 11). Jesus Christ is first (and in some ways, foremost) present when we answer his call to gather in his name. By the very fact of our gathering, he is in our midst. We are members of his Body. Together and individually we are sacraments of his presence — outward signs of the inner reality of his presence.

An implication of this is that if we do not recognize his presence in one another, we are failing to recognize him where he has told us he is. How can we say that we respect him in the Eucharist if we fail to respect him in one another?

The Eucharistic assembly is not a gathering like any other. It’s not just a group of people who happen to be together but each doing their own thing. The Eucharistic assembly is not a time to engage in your own private prayer, and try to tune everyone else out. You do your own private prayer — and it’s necessary that you do it — on your own. Nor is it not just a “let’s all get together and have a good time” sort of thing. We are gathered in the name of Christ Jesus, and as members of his Body.

Note also that word “assembly” derives from some of the very earliest Christian writings, and and is now generally preferred over the word “congregation.” The word “church” in its origins (qahal in Hebrew and ekklesia/ecclesia in Greek and Latin, mean an assembly, a gathering of people, called together for a common purpose.

A word here about the tabernacle and Eucharistic reservation of the Blessed Sacrament in the church. As we explained in the previous presentation, the earliest tradition of the Church for its first 1,000 years, was that the consecrated bread was reserved following the celebration of the Mass only for Communion to the sick and dying. While nobody ever denied that it was truly the body of Christ, it never was seen as an object of adoration in its own right. Respect, yes; but the early Christian did not see the Host, the consecrated bread of the Eucharist, as a focus for adoration of Christ or of God. It was only in the 11th century, and only in the West, when groups of Christian began, for the first time in history, to deny the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, that it was thought necessary to emphasize the Real Presence by promoting adoration of his presence in the consecrated bread. At this time, devotion to “seeing the Host” in eucharistic exposition, as well as processions carrying the Host began to develop. There were also reports of “Eucharistic miracles,” such as bleeding Hosts as signs to unbelievers. At this time tabernacles, took on a central place in chapels and churches, sometimes even competing with the altar itself, so that in later churches the altar often looked like a shelf in front of the tabernacle. The Vatican II liturgical reform tried to restore the traditional understanding of Eucharistic reservation, and ordered that the tabernacle should not be placed on the altar where Mass is celebrated, and should not “compete” with it. If possible, the proper place for the reservation and adoration of the Eucharist should be in a separate chapel, particularly in a newer church or if the design of an older church allows for it.

The second way the Christ is present in the Eucharist is in the person and action of his ministers, focusing on the presider, but extending far beyond the ministry of the priest into the service rendered by each member of the assembly on behalf of all the others. In the next presentation we will examine in more detail all the ministries on the liturgy, including that of the priest-presider and, the one often forgotten, the ministry of every member of the assembly to one another. No one participates in the Eucharist solo. Everyone has a distinct relationship in Christ to everyone else.

For our purposes here, it’s enough to say that Christ is present among us as the “one who came not to be served but to serve” (Mark 10:45; Matthew 10:28).The verse concludes, “and to give his life as a ransom for many.” All service involves in some way the giving of one’s life.

The sacrament of holy orders — the ordination of bishops, priests and deacons — gives the person a particular relationship to Christ, but it’s to Christ as servant, not as Lord or Master.

More on all this in the next presentation.

The third way Christ is present in the Eucharist is in his Word. While the liturgical documents seem to refer only to Christ being present in the proclaimed Scripture, both Scripture and our faith tradition make it clear that the prayer of the Church is also the prayer of Christ. So, when the word of God is proclaimed by the lector, deacon, or priest, it is Christ who is speaking. But equally, when the Church responds in prayer, it is Christ who is praying. In this way, our Eucharist is not just a dialogue between God and us, it is a dialogue in which Christ, both God and human, embodies in himself both sides of that dialogue.

Remember that the Gospel of John, in the first chapter, begins by describing Jesus as the eternal Word of God, who “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). As the Word of God, he can fully represent God in speaking to us; as “become flesh,” he can fully represent us in speaking to God. Think about that for a moment. What more can you ask? Every possible gift is embodied in this dialogue which Jesus himself is.

This understanding of Christ present in his Word in this two-way communication, will be unfolded more in the last presentation when we travel step by step through the Mass.

The fourth way Christ is present in the Eucharist is in the consecrated bread and wine. However, this cannot be considered in isolation from the whole action of the Eucharist as the sacred meal of Christ’s sacrifice. Jesus did not leave us the Eucharist as an object, he left it as an action. That’s clear from his command, which we discussed at length in the last presentation: “Take . . . eat; take . . . drink; do this . . .” He did not say, “Take and adore”! As we also already discussed, the consecration does not take place merely through the repetition of the words of Jesus, but as a result of the whole Eucharistic prayer, in which the priest prays in the name of the whole Christ, meaning in our name as well, that the Holy Spirit come and transform both the bread and wine, and transform us into what we receive.

Understanding these four ways that Christ is present in the Eucharist is the key to understanding how the various symbolic elements of the Mass are actually put together and relate to one another in celebration. These “modes of Christ’s presence” are the four primary symbolic elements that make up “sacramental sign” of the Mass — remember our definition: a sacrament is first and foremost “an outward sign.” The “grace” of the sacrament, that is, the action and presence of Jesus Christ, derives from and is dependent upon the authenticity and integrity of the sign. At the beginning of the next presentation, we will explore how primary symbolic elements and secondary symbolic elements relate to one another to make up the whole celebration.

We have not yet spoken of the Mass as sacrifice, yet the Church does not hesitate to affirm forcefully the “Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.” Suffice it to say that where Christ is, his one sacrifice, expressed in fullness in his suffering and death on the cross, continues to be. Jesus’ perfect “yes” to the will of the Father, continues even in his risen presence. In other words, he continues to say the one and the same “yes,” for all eternity. Therefore, when Christ is present in the Eucharist, he is present specifically in his sacrifice — his sacrifice is inseparable from his Real Presence.

This is vitally important for us, because we cannot separate receiving Communion from communion with the whole Christ. In becoming one with him, we are becoming one with his sacrifice, and so in him we are not only united with one another as members of his Body, we are also one with his act of self-emptying to the Father, and to one another. Eucharistic communion in Christ can never be separated from our responsibility to the least of Christ’s sisters and brothers as our own.

When we describe the ritual of the Mass step-by-step in the last presentation, we’ll explore more the details of this Eucharistic action as it manifests the active presence of Christ and our response.

So far we have concentrated almost exclusively on the question, “Why do we celebrate the Eucharist?” In the final two presentations, we will concentrate mostly on the “how.”

In the next presentation, I am going to begin by exploring the various symbolic elements of the Eucharistic liturgy, and how they relate to one another, and secondly discuss the meaning of Vatican II’s call for “full, conscious, and active participation.” This will lead to our consideration of the various liturgical ministries at Mass: what is their nature, what do they do, how do they relate to one another and to the whole, and most importantly, how do they serve our relationship with God.

I’m looking forward to seeing you at our next presentation.

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