The Mass and Taking Up Our Cross

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B: Sept. 12, 2009
Isa 50:5-9; Ps 116:1-6, 8-9; James 2:14-18; Mark 8:27-35

What was it that brought you here today? Why did you come to Mass? If we listed off all our reasons, do you think I would be surprised?

One summer when I was in college, I was staying in the same town, with some roommates in an apartment. I had decided that I wanted to change what church I attended. And one day I was telling my roommates about the one I had visited that morning and why I was thinking of going there. And the girlfriend of one of the guys was there at the time, and she said, “Who is she?” And I said, “What?” She said, “Whenever a guy chooses a church, it is always because there is some good-looking girl there in the congregation. So, who is she?” Well, I didn’t admit it to her, but actually she was right! It wasn’t the only reason but, yes, one reason was that there was a beautiful young woman that I had spotted in the congregation that I hoped I would get to know if I went there. By the way, I never did get to meet her in the year I went to that church!

So… men? Guys? Are you here this morning because of a beautiful woman? Maybe sometime in your past, starting a chain of events that leads to you being here today?

But—why else? Because the Church tells us that we have to? That obeying the Third Commandment—Remember to keep holy the sabbath day—means attending Mass on every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation, unless you are unable to? Okay, sure. But why does the Church require this? Why does the Church want us to attend Mass?

And then we might start to get some of the answers that we might give:

  • To meet with our fellow Catholics and to strengthen each other with holy friendship.
  • To praise God, especially in song.
  • To pray to the Lord, alone and with others.
  • To listen to the Word of God, and hear a homily that applies it to our lives.
  • To be in Christ’s presence.
  • To receive his Body and Blood in Holy Communion.
  • To be strengthened to be sent forth to love and serve the Lord.
  • To eat lots of donuts at the Parish Social after Mass.

So have I missed anything? Is my list complete? And if you think it is—then I would ask: why the Mass? Why not just a parish social? A Bible study or class? A festival of praise singing? Praying morning prayer together? Having a Holy Hour, with Eucharistic adoration? Why not a Communion service? In fact, that’s the closest, so let’s focus in on it. What’s the difference between the Mass and a Communion service?

Now, to be sure, Holy Communion and Eucharistic adoration would not be possible without the consecration—when the Body, Blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ becomes really present under the appearance of bread and wine. But is this consecration just inert and static? Why can’t the priest just do the consecration by himself in the sacristy beforehand and speed things up? In fact, why have priests at all? Why not just have one bishop for the diocese to do the consecration, and a couple thousand deacons to conduct Communion services everywhere?

But the truth is that it isn’t an inert consecration; it is a dynamic consecration. Jesus makes himself present here to do something; indeed, for you to do something; so that he and you can do something together. So then the answer to my question, Why are you at Mass?, is: to do something, together with Christ. But what? What are you at Mass to do?

In our Gospel reading today, we hear the account in the Gospel of Mark of St. Peter’s great confession of faith in Jesus: “You are the Christ.” That is, you are the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Son of David the great king. And the disciples knew that this was a statement not only about Jesus, but also carrying great implications for them. Because, if they held the common view that the Messiah would be a great military conqueror sent to liberate the People of Israel and reestablish an earthly kingdom—then the disciples would be ruling with him.

And so Jesus has to set them straight, immediately, as soon as they first confess that he is the Christ. We read: He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days. He spoke this openly. This is not just a statement about something that will happen to him; it is a promise of what he will voluntarily do—as Isaiah prophesied in the first reading. For we see elsewhere in the Gospels that Jesus is perfectly capable of avoiding a place that has become hostile to him, and, if surrounded by a threatening crowd, of walking right out of the situation in what seems to be a supernatural escape. But, when his hour has come, he will walk straight into Jerusalem and not evade capture and trial and torture and crucifixion—as he voluntarily gives his life as a ransom for many [Mark 10:45].

So if that is what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah, then what will it mean for his disciples to be with him? His answer is straightforward: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” Jesus didn’t give his life on the cross so that we would not; but so that we also would give our lives—together with him, in the strength that he gives us.

The cross was the completion of Jesus’ life of perfect loving obedience to the Father. From all eternity, the Son was begotten of the Father: he received everything from the Father, and in thanksgiving gave the total gift of himself. When he emptied himself and took on human nature to become man, Jesus Christ continued to live out this sacrifice of love to the Father. In eternity, in the Godhead, this total gift of himself in love was gloriously beautiful; incarnate in this life, he lived out this same sacrificial gift of self amidst the details of daily life—step by step, with all its little details, with temptations, and even with the growing opposition of some around him. Jesus’ death on the cross was the completion of his sacrificial life, as even torture and a terrible death would not hold him back from giving everything in loving obedience to the Father. And the Father was infinitely pleased with the sacrificial gift of the Son; and he made Christ’s death not a dead end but a passageway through to his glorious resurrection.

And Christ draws us to be conformed to the image of the Son. Not separately, as if we are simply trying to imitate some long-dead hero; but together with him, with our lives more and more shaped like his sacrificial life, living in his relationship of Son to the Father, and headed toward sharing in his resurrection.

And this is why he makes himself present here at the Mass—really present under the appearance of bread and wine. He makes himself present in his sacrifice: his one perfect sacrifice, completed at the cross, made present right here on this altar, today. He makes himself present so that his infinitely pleasing sacrifice may be offered to the Father; so that we, like the Blessed Virgin Mary, may stand at the foot of his cross in agreement, willing his sacrifice to the Father; and so that we also may offer ourselves, in union with him, to the Father.

45 years ago, the Second Vatican Council taught, in its Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy [Sacrosanctum Concilium]:

48. The Church, therefore, earnestly desires that Christ’s faithful, when present at this mystery of faith, should not be there as strangers or silent spectators; on the contrary, through a good understanding of the rites and prayers they should take part in the sacred action conscious of what they are doing, with devotion and full collaboration. They should be instructed by God’s word and be nourished at the table of the Lord’s body; they should give thanks to God; by offering the Immaculate Victim, not only through the hands of the priest, but also with him, they should learn also to offer themselves; through Christ the Mediator, they should be drawn day by day into ever more perfect union with God and with each other, so that finally God may be all in all.

Now, this can all be pretty abstract, since it is an internal action of the heart and will. So let me describe how I do this, and suggest that you consider it as well.

  • First, we arrive at Mass 7 days, 168 hours, since we were here last week. And all during this time we have been living, acting, doing, or not doing. And so we carry in here all those works of the past week like a great pile of parcels in our arms. Which of them are fit to be placed on this altar as a gift to the Father, in union with Christ’s own sacrifice? Which are not, and instead are sinful and selfish? It is good to take a few minutes before Mass begins to examine ourselves and what we carry in. Then we can take care of the sins in the penitential rite at the beginning of Mass.
  • And those works that were done with love for God and for others, we can mentally place on the altar during the time that it is being prepared. Let me step over to the altar.
  • At the point that I elevate the host, I am conscious that this is Jesus here present and lifted up among us, and I am praying that he will be seen and will draw all men to himself [John 12:32].
  • And when I elevate the chalice, I am offering to the Father the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ. And, as a baptized person, I offer my whole self, together with Christ. And, as a ministerial priest, I offer all the self-offerings of everyone here present, in union with Christ’s own infinite sacrifice.
  • And then, when the deacon and I elevate both the host and the chalice, the words of the liturgy express aloud Christ’s own heart of total self gift to the Father: Through him, with him, in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is yours, almighty Father, for ever and ever. And by our response of “Amen,” we express our agreement with his sacrifice, and our own sacrifice in union with him.
  • Then, as we are sent forth to love and serve the Lord, we are strengthened by the grace we receive in Communion, so that we are gradually transformed—and so that, when we come to Mass a week from now, more of the parcels that we carry in will be offerings to the Father. Gradually, we take up our cross and follow him. Gradually, the sacrifice of the Mass permeates our entire lives.

This is what the Mass is for. This is why we come to Mass. This is what we come to Mass to do: to be present at Christ’s sacrifice; to offer him to the Father; and to offer ourselves together with him. And of course Christ is also offering us: as the Eucharistic prayer says, May he make us an everlasting gift to you.

In the words of St. Paul in the Letter to the Romans [Rom 12:1], I urge you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship.

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Published in: on September 13, 2009 at 7:12 pm  Leave a Comment  
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