02 August 2008
Is the Mass a meal?
Theology alert! What follows has to do with the nature of the Catholic Mass. If you are not interested ... you have been warned! At our Wednesday evening Rosary group a couple of weeks ago, one of our members referred to the Mass as a meal. Well, of course, it is, isn't it? I mean, we all - or most of us, anyway- eat something and drink something. One person pointed out that if it was a meal, he, for one, would go away awfully hungry - one Communion Host wasn't really as much as his appetite normally desired! Ah, well, of course it is a symbolic meal. The reference is to the Last Supper. This is certainly the point of the Mass on Holy Thursday, which is called the "Mass of the Lord's Supper." At least one normal part of Holy Thursday Mass is explicitly a reference to the Last Supper - the washing of feet. And I have an idea that for most Protestant churches, their "Lord's Supper" is viewed strictly as a memorial of the Last Supper. Nevertheless, I confess I find myself somewhat uneasy at this description of the Mass as a meal - a very common one, by the way. I have done some thinking about the matter, and have had some discussions with better-informed persons than I am, and thought I would write down what I thought. It seems to me that to call the Mass a meal has at least the potential for being very misleading. The Mass is unquestionably a sacrifice. The language of every part of the "Liturgy of the Eucharist" speaks of its sacrificial character. It is for this reason that the priest says to us, the congrgation, "Pray, brethren, that our sacrifice may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father," and we respond, "May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands, for the praise and glory of his name, for our good, and the good of all his Church." But we normally partake, by eating, of the results of that Sacrifice. So the Catechism calls the Mass a "sacrificial meal." And it is indeed a sacrificial meal. I think that some in our discussion supposed me to be denying that it was a meal in that sense but I was not. What I think is important to realise is that the end, in the philosophical sense of the goal, of a meal is fundamentally different from the end of the Mass. The point of a meal - in the normal sense of the word 'meal' - is the eating. You can sit down at a table set with beautiful china and be served four courses, or you can eat a sausage at a barbecue. Both are a meal. But if you don't eat, I don't think you can be said to have had a meal. You could be present at a meal at which you eat nothing. Indeed, I suppose someone could lay out a meal which no one ate - but still, the point of the meal is the eating. The point - the 'end' - of the Mass is the Sacrifice of Our Lord on Calvary. This is not the place to go into the Catholic belief that at Mass, the original Sacrifice is made present; that the sacrifice of the Mass is not a new killing of Jesus but the representation of His death, in atonement for our sins and those of the whole world. But this is what Catholics believe, and this is what the Mass is. OK, but what about the eating? Even if a priest offers Mass alone, he himself partakes of the holy food. And when the people are present - as is normally and ideally the case - they partake also. So eating is necessary. At a meal, the end of the meal is the eating. A necessary and normal consequence of the eating is digestion. Short of illness, this is what always happens at a meal. At Mass, the end of the rite is the Sacrifice. The eating is a necessary and normal consequence of the Sacrifice. If I attend a meal but do not eat, I have not had a meal. But if I attend Mass, even if I do not receive Communion, I have indeed participated in the Mass. It seems to me this distinction is especially important today. Susan has coelic disease and is not in fact able to receive the Host at Mass. She can only take the Cup. Though we believe the elements of the Sacrifice have become the Body and Blood of the Lord, their 'accidents' - their physical, chemical, nutritional, etc attributes - are unchanged. If Susan receives the Host, she becomes ill. Once recently we were to attend a large Mass at which the Cup could not be offered (because of the number of people). Sue commented to a friend that she would not be able to receive Communion. The friend responded, "But that's the whole point of going to Mass!" Here I think we see a change in outlook that genuinely misses the 'point' of Mass. I remember when I was first a Catholic realising, with a bit of a shock, that the high point of Mass was not Communion. That had been the climax of the Lord's Supper for me when I was a Protestant. But at Mass the high point is reached, in rather a literal sense, when the priest holds the Body and Blood of Christ on high, offering the slain Victim to God for his sins and for mine, and for yours, whoever you are. The Body of the Lamb is given to me to consume - and I am thereby identified with Him. I am given the privilege, and the awful honour, of then going into the world to offer my own body a 'living sacrifice' (Romans 12). That is an eating, to be sure, but an eating that leads to death - and through death to Resurrection and eternal life.