So much of life is ruled by a set of daily rituals and routines. We wake up in the morning; we wash, comb our hair, then eat—or don’t eat—breakfast. If we have children at home, we get them ready for school, and then we either head off to work or begin our daily chores of housekeeping.
When we are out and about, we greet people in basically the same way. We usually visit the same shops or eat at the same restaurants. We could go on and on. Essentially, we are accustomed to doing a number of things a certain way each day.
While these rituals can help us define our days and bring order to our lives, they also bring the risk that we will go through our lives without any sense of meaning or purpose. We face a similar risk when it comes to the way we approach Mass. At every liturgy, we go through the same series of gestures and make the same responses. We know when to sit, when to kneel, and when to stand. There are very few surprises in the structure of the Mass. We all know what is coming next, and we are ready for it.
And yet in the midst of all these routines, something unique happens every time the Mass is celebrated. That’s because at every Mass Jesus comes to us, and he brings new grace and blessings each time. Just as it is with our deepest friends, every encounter with the Lord is refreshing, encouraging, and delightful in its own unique way.
Let’s look now behind the routines and “rituals” of the Mass. We want to explore the Mass in a way that opens our eyes to Jesus and the new blessings he wants to pour out for us.
The “Hidden Mass”
He was made known to them in the breaking of the bread (Luke 24:35). Luke’s story about the Road to Emmaus has been called the “hidden Mass.” It was Easter Sunday, and two of Jesus’ disciples were heading toward Emmaus, seven miles from Jerusalem. Jesus had just been crucified, and the pair were discussing all they had seen and heard. Just then Jesus joined them, but they didn’t recognize him. When they told him about their sadness at his death, Jesus rebuked them and began to explain how Scripture pointed to these events. He explained how Scripture promised that he would indeed rise from the dead. As they listened, these disciples’ hearts began to burn with excitement. Then at dinner, Jesus blessed some bread, broke it, and gave it to them. At that moment, they recognized who it was—but Jesus vanished from their sight.
The disciples never made it to Emmaus. They were so excited they turned around and went back to Jerusalem to tell everyone the good news.
This story tells us that at Mass we can all journey to a place where we see the Lord more clearly. We can all journey to a place where his word burns in our hearts more brightly. We can all journey to a place where our sadness is turned to joy.
By calling them “slow to believe,” Jesus led them to a change of heart—a repentance that we experience when we pray, “Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.” Then, just as Jesus used Scripture to open their hearts, he seeks to open our hearts as we hear the readings proclaimed in the Liturgy of the Word.
When Jesus broke the bread, the disciples’ eyes were opened, and they recognized Jesus—just as the eyes of our hearts can be opened when we receive Communion. Finally, just as the disciples rushed back to tell their friends about Jesus, we are sent forth after Mass and called to glorify God with our lives.
He Is Worthy of Our Praise
It is the Lord (John 21:7). The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council wrote, “At the Last Supper, on the night when he was betrayed, our Savior instituted the Eucharistic sacrifice of his body and blood. He did this in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the Cross throughout the centuries until he should come again” (On the Sacred Liturgy, 42).
The Mass is not just a retelling of the Last Supper. Through the grace of this sacrament, all of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday are wrapped into one precious, grace-filled hour. The Mass is nothing less than a doorway for us into the very mystery of Jesus’ cross and resurrection.
During a trip to the island of Cyprus, Pope Benedict XVI offered some words about this central mystery of our faith. He said that the cross “is an instrument of torture, suffering, and defeat, but at the same time it expresses the complete transformation, the definitive reversal of these evils: that is what makes it the most eloquent symbol of hope that the world has ever seen.”
Words like “complete transformation” and “the definitive reversal” of evil tell us that the cross we are celebrating at Mass is something God wants us to experience and not just think about. Seeing Jesus can fill us with joy, just as it did for Peter. After Jesus had risen, Peter and John were fishing on the Sea of Galilee. Suddenly, Jesus appeared on the shore, and just as it happened in Emmaus, the disciples didn’t recognize him at first. But then John exclaimed, “It is the Lord.” This announcement moved Peter to jump into the water immediately and wade to shore (John 21:1-14).
This is the kind of excitement God wants to give us at Mass. It’s the Lord! He is here, present with us on the altar. It’s the Lord! He is here offering himself to us so that we can share in his divine life. It’s the Lord! He is here putting his arms around each one of us and telling each one of us how much he loves us and how powerfully he wants to work in our lives.
It’s the Lord! So let’s come to him with grateful hearts, ready to worship him. Let’s come to him confessing our need to receive him, the Bread of Life. And let’s go out into the world, ready to live a life that is holy and pleasing to the Lord.
The Book of Glory
When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself (John 12:32). Many theologians divide the Gospel of John into a Prologue (chapter 1), the “Book of Signs” (chapters 2-13), and the “Book of Glory” (Chapters 13-21). The Book of Glory stands as the fulfillment of all the signs in the previous section, with the cross as the most visible sign of Jesus’ glory—a sign that will draw everyone to him.
How can a lifeless, tortured body be the image that most reveals the glory of the Lord? This is undoubtedly the central paradox of the gospel message. This cross reveals the depths of God’s love for us. It reveals Jesus’ determination to follow his Father’s plan, no matter the cost. It reveals the holiness and humility of One who considers each of us worth dying for. On this cross, Jesus emptied himself so that we could be filled with divine life. He was humiliated and degraded so that we could be glorified.
Nowhere do we see this glory through humility more clearly than in the Mass. On every altar, in every corner of the world, Jesus, the eternal Son of God, offers himself to us in the form of a small wafer of unleavened bread. He who is the Lord of all creation places himself in our hands. He who holds all things together allows himself to be handled and consumed by a sinful people.
Yes, Jesus subjects himself to us in such a complete way, all in the hope that we will receive him in faith and allow him to transform us. He knows that there is no guarantee. He knows that his self-giving may avail very little in many people’s lives. But still he comes to us.
Seeing such love, such generosity, such humility, how can we help but fall to our knees in gratitude and love? How can we help but give him our hearts and ask him to form them into his image—the image of the crucified-yet-glorified One?
Here I Am
While the season of Lent is focused on our pursuit of Jesus, it is just as much a season when Jesus seeks to draw us to himself more closely. He is there at every Mass in all of his generosity, constantly offering himself to us. He is there in all of his glory, longing for us to accept his invitation.
At every Mass, and especially during Lent, Jesus is telling us, “I love you, and I want to draw you to my side.” May we all answer, “Here I am, Lord. I want to come to you.” May we all come to see his glory—and glorify him in return.