Fifth Sunday of Easter: Being Fruitful Branches...Living the Mass
This Sunday’s Gospel, the Vine and the Branches, reminds us why we are here right now. We are Christians. We are Catholics. This is more than membership in a society. It is even more than membership in a family. We are united to Jesus Christ as branches are united to a vine. His Life flows into us. We come to Mass to be nourished with His Life through Word and Eucharist.
The Mass. A number of years ago I gave a class to help us come to a deeper understanding of the Mass. I based this on the works of Fr. Edward Foley, a Capuchin who gave a series of talks to our Diocese. I would like to share some of this with you today.
The earliest Masses in the first years after Pentecost, the Primitive Church, were referred to as the “Breaking of the Bread.” Each Mass was and is a battle of the Kingdom of God against Satan and the Forces of Evil. I want to begin with a few thoughts about the Entrance rites. The members of the Kingdom of God gather. The best way we prepare for the celebration is by welcoming all who are present. That’s the reason why we greet each other before the entrance song. Whether we have come to this parish for years and years, or we are visitors, we are called to form a community. No one should be a stranger. All should be welcome. We celebrate the presence of those who are new to our celebration today, even if they live in our area and only come sporadically. They are here now and part of us. No one should be made to feel that they are not intimately united to our worshiping family. This means that those who come perhaps just on Christmas and Easter, or those who are visiting from the North, or those who are not Catholic but joining their spouse this week; all should know for sure that they are not just present at this celebration, but are an intimate part of the celebration, and therefore are most welcome. After all, Jesus was a stranger on the Road to Emmaus when he met the two disciples questioning the events that took place in Jerusalem that first Easter weekend. They invited a stranger to walk with them, and encountered Christ in Word and Eucharist. The First Christians were often called the People of the Way, whose lives are a journey to the Lord.
The first main section of the Mass is the Liturgy of the Word. “If today you hear His Voice, harden not your hearts,” we pray in Psalm 95. The Liturgy of the Word is not a preliminary requisite to the celebration of the Eucharist. The Liturgy of the Word is an encounter with our God who is passionately in love with us, who is present in the Word and who gives us His Promise of Eternal Life through the Word. May our Minds, Lips, and Hearts be open to God’s Word. Those disciples on the Road to Emmaus said, “Did not our hearts burn within us as he spoke to us on the road?” Their eyes were opened because their hearts were laid bare by the word. Judeo-Christians saw a direct link between the ears and the heart. Divine Revelation comes first through hearing, “Hear O Israel”. God spoke, and He created the Light. His Word will not return to Him empty.
And we consume the Word of God. “Taste and See,” the prophet Ezekiel was told by the angel, and he ate the scroll. The prophet Jeremiah also found God’s words and devoured them. To consume the Word of God is to be assimilated into the Divine Message. St. Ambrose said, “Drink the Old Testament to slake your thirst. Drink the New Testament so you will never be thirsty again. Drink the Word. Drink Christ. How? Let the syrup of God’s Word flood every section of your being, for it is not by bread alone that we live but from every word that comes from the mouth of God.” In the middle of the world’s bad news, there is the promise of God’s Good News, all summed up so beautifully in Matthew 28:20: “Know that I am with you always until the end of time.” The Liturgy of the Word is not a preparation for the Liturgy of the Eucharist, but a communion with God speaking to our hearts.
After the Liturgy of the Word, we sit down, scoop money out of our wallets, watch the servers set the altar or lead a chosen few up the main aisle with the bread and wine and then gaze at the Deacon and EM’s filling the chalices, waiting to see if they knock one over. Well, the preparation of the gifts is much more than all that. It is a transition into a deeper reality. It is a crossroad between Word and Eucharist, Bible and Table, Gospel and Communion. It is the culmination of what went before and the foundation of the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The Preparation of the Gifts is a time to recognize the Blessings of God and a time to Bless God. This is a very Jewish part of our spiritual ancestry. Good Jews were told to direct 100 blessings to God a day. All that we have is bestowed upon us by God’s graciousness. We thank Him for all. “Blessed are you, Lord God of all Creation, through your Goodness we have this bread, we have this wine.”
Then we come to that wonderful prayer that leads to the Eucharistic prayer, the prayer we call the preface. We lift up our hearts, we acknowledge that it is right to give Him thanks and praise, among the many reasons for our gratitude we enumerate a few that are united to this particular Mass, and then we join the angels in saying, “God is God, and we are not.” For that is what the Holy Holy does in fact say. Once more, we are back to the Preparation of the Gifts as we realize, in the words of Gerard Manly Hopkins, that the world is charged with the Grandeur of God.
And so we go to our knees, in profound humility at the Gift He Is. We begin the Eucharistic Prayer with prayers with the saints and angels and in union with the Church as in the First Eucharistic Prayer, or with prayers in union with all creation as in the other three Eucharistic Prayers, but all leading to the invocation of the Holy Spirit. This is called the Epiclesis. We call upon God to send His Holy Spirit down upon the offering so that He may make the bread and wine His Body and Blood. That which the Holy Spirit touches becomes consecrated and transformed.
And so the priest, acting in the Person of Jesus Christ, recites the words of institution: Take this all of you and eat it...Take this all of you and drink it. We look at the elevated host and chalice and join Thomas in saying, “My Lord and My God.” And then the priest says, “Do this in memory of me.” Do this is memory of me. Fr. Foley notes that there has never been a command so well obeyed, from the coronation of Kings, to the prayer for those condemned to die, for people going to war to those praying for peace, for the rich and the poor, before crowds of thousands to a few gathered in his name, for the joyful bride and groom celebrating their marriage and for the repose of the souls of our loved ones whose deaths unite us to the Lord grieving before Lazarus’ tomb. For centuries, every time we obey Jesus and “Do this” we make the Body of Christ real in the world. For more than just the Bread and Wine, we also are transformed into the Body of Christ.
Then the most profound offering takes place. Jesus is offered up to the Father for us. We remember how he loved us to his death, and still we celebrate. We also are offered to the Father. “May He make us an eternal offering to you,” we pray. “Accept us together with your Son.” “May He take away all that divides us.” “May the Church be a sign of unity and an instrument of peace.” We are united with the whole Church throughout the world. We are united with those who have gone before us. We pray for those who have died and for all.
And so we come to the Great Amen, our affirmation of Whom God is and whom He has transformed us into: God has entered into our history through His Son Jesus Christ. In the living, dying and rising of Jesus Christ, we have been made One with Him. And we pray, “Through Him, In Him, and with Him, in the Unity of the Holy Spirit, all Glory and Honor is yours, Almighty Father, forever and ever.”
We proclaimed the Great Amen and are immediately ushered into a singing or reciting of the Lord’s Prayer. The Lord’s Prayer is our proclamation of faith in a God who has chosen to be a Father, a parent, rather than a terrifying deity. Our Father. And yet, we recognize that even though he is as gentle as a parent, he is as awesome as the heavens. Who art in heaven. All Creation praises Him. Hallowed be thy name. We believe that He will ultimately triumph over the forces of evil. Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. We ask Him to nurture us, and to forgive us, as we pledge also to give His Bread to others, and to forgive others. And we seek His protection from the evils of the world that would keep us from His Kingdom.
After remembering that we have no business approaching the Eucharist unless we are willing to extend His Peace to all, that is what the Sign of Peace is, we then come to the Lamb of God. And we pray again for mercy. Have mercy on us, Lamb of God, for all that we have done to destroy the unity of your Community. Have mercy on us, Lamb of God, for our refusal to see you in others, particularly when you reach out to us in those who are hurting. Have mercy on us, Lamb of God, for the times that we have not eaten all you have set before us, for the times that we have not been open to your Grace. And we recognize, that when we live as He has called us, He, Jesus Christ and He alone gives us peace.
And then we receive Him. We receive communion not in eating until we are full, but eating to find out how to fill our hungry hearts. We receive Jesus acting in us. Communion is the union of Christ, head and members. We don’t just receive. We celebrate. We become. Become what you eat. Don’t just receive Christ, become Christ to others. That is what it means to be a Eucharistic People. The Eucharist is not what we do, it is who we are. The Eucharist leads us into the world to die for others as Christ died and then to live forever. We eat the Body and Drink the Blood. Although the Lord is fully present in each of the species, we can look at the host as the Body whom we receive, and the Blood as how we were able to receive Him, His sacrificial love. God is Love. Communion brings us into an encounter with His Love. We have to be careful that we do not turn this action upon ourselves. We have to be careful that we do not allow our communion to be about us here, or about each of us as individuals. It is important that we take moments after Communion to reflect upon our union with Him, moments of profound silence, and yet, not the silence of individuals, but that of the community of God calling upon Him to give us the Grace to render the Real Presence we have received a reality in the world. For we Christians are called to make His Love, His Sacrificial Presence our very lives. We are called to Become What we Eat.
During His ministry on earth, Jesus’ presence for the sick, the sinner, and the seeker was so powerful that it transformed people’s lives. So must our presence be for others. If we do not have anything to leave for, if we do not have the desire to bring Christ to anyone, then why did we come? The Mass is not an act of spiritual self preservation or self interest. The Mass is about the others. Those out there. Jesus called in order to send. We have been called here so that we might be sent. The very word Mass means a sending. We are a Church on a mission. And we go, with the Lord, who is with us always until the end of time.
“Remain in me and I will remain in you,” the Lord tells us in today’s Gospel. That is what we are called to do, and that is what we do when we live the Mass.