The Mass reflects Christ’s supreme act of worship

Father John A. Kiley

The solemnity of Pentecost is often commemorated as the birthday of the church.

Such an anniversary is perfectly understandable. The timid apostolic band burst forth from Jerusalem’s upper room with a zeal that added 3,000 souls to the church that very day. Partheans, Medes, Elemites and other ancient nationalities found a Christian home that day. The universal church was born. Others view Good Friday as the birthday of the church. On that fateful afternoon, the historical activity of the man Jesus Christ came to an end and the sacramental activity of the church, symbolized by the blood and water (Eucharist and baptism) that flowed from the dead Christ’s side, commenced. Hence, the church was born from the wounded side of Christ.

Then again, Pope Benedict XVI, while still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, proposed that the most appropriate day to claim title to the church’s birthday is Holy Thursday. As the reader might suspect, the Cardinal’s suggestion makes a lot of sense. Pentecost celebrates the Catholicity of the church — the early Christian community’s first steps toward converting the Roman Empire. It is the birthday of the church’s missionary efforts. Good Friday marks Jesus’ personal act of obedience and atonement toward his Father which is the source of all saving grace. It is the birthday of the church’s reconciling ministry. But, while conversion and reconciliation are integral to the church, the cardinal submits that it is Holy Thursday that celebrates the church’s primary task, namely, the corporate and sacramental worship of God the Father. Holy Thursday commemorates the first ritual act of collective worship by the infant church. Holy Thursday was the first time that the church, with Christ as priest and the apostles as people, gathered to worship God the Father through the offering of the Savior’s eucharistic Body and Blood. Thus the quintessential church was born.

Without Pentecost’s outreach through the power of the Spirit, the church would still be locked in an upper room somewhere in Jerusalem; without Good Friday’s redemption through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, the church would still be in its sins. These saving events are not to be ignored. Yet, while these activities in the history of salvation are vitally important, they are still actions that focus on man. Outreach focuses on man; redemption centers on man. Worship, on the other hand, when proper and authentic, directs all attention toward God. And the church exists basically and fundamentally for the worship of God.

Alas, contemporary man has abandoned worship. He has turned altars into tables and praise into fellowship. At Mass modern man has refashioned the service of the Word from a proclamation of the “magnalia Dei,” the wondrous works of God, into practical lessons on communal life. The service of the bread exchanges a sacrifice offered to God for a neighborly meal. Modern liturgy is an exercise in self-affirmation rather than an occasion for adoration. The worship of God has been replaced by the celebration of life, individual human life.

Perhaps one reason why some Catholics recall the pre-Vatican II Mass fondly is that it was a clear exercise in worship. The service of the Word was largely lost in mumbled Latin, only the Gospel and the sermon intruding into the silent adoration of the devout. The service of the bread gave little indication of a meal, offered obscurely at a throne-like altar with gilt vestment and jeweled chalice. Every activity from silence to kneeling spoke of the worship of God. The congregation either worshiped or day-dreamed. There was no encouragement to build community or celebrate life. The ritual worship of God was the sole reason for these morning assemblies.

As the Quiet Corner has noted before, there is nothing wrong with the new Mass. But priest and people who offer the Mass simply as an exercise in fellowship rob their celebration of its primary intention. The Mass makes present Christ’s supreme act of worship, his total self-giving on the cross. Those who participate in the Mass are expected to join Christ in his act of worship, interiorly by their piety, externally by their praise and sacramentally through the Eucharist. The church was born so that a truly effective liturgy might evoke and sustain a heightened act of worship.