Saturday, July 30, 2011

'What is the Mass "for"?' (Sunday homily)

When we talk about the Eucharist, or communion, or the Lord’s Supper,
all Christians are reading the same Scriptures, and in some way,
trying to do what Christ asked us to do.

And a lot of folks--Catholic or Protestant--ask: isn’t it pretty much the same?

With total respect to our fellow Christians who love Jesus--no, it is not the same;
even though a lot of the language and ritual can be very similar.

So, I want to explain what’s different and why.
But two quick notes: first, this isn’t criticism of anyone; just explanation.
Second, to avoid going too long, this has to be broad strokes.

We Catholics--as well as Eastern Orthodox--believe that the Mass,
offered by a priest, is a true sacrifice.
We believe what happened on the Cross on the first Good Friday,
really and truly becomes present on the altar, but in a different way.

When Martin Luther and others began the Protestant movement,
this was a key bone of contention.

They came to believe that the Mass was not--and could not be--a true sacrifice.
A remembrance? Yes.
But does the sacrifice of the Cross really become present on the altar? No.

This goes with our understanding of the priesthood.

Along with our Protestant brothers and sisters,
we believe baptism gives us a share in Christ’s priesthood.

But as Catholics, we go further. We believe in a unique, ordained priesthood.

Catholics and Orthodox believe that when a man is ordained a priest,
a true change happens in him.
He becomes conformed, in an unchangeable way, to Christ himself.
That alone is why a priest can forgive sins in the sacrament of confession--
because it is Christ in the priest who forgives.
And it is Christ in the priest who makes Calvary present on the altar.

Here again the Protestant movement took a different view,
and they see only the common priesthood of all believers.

As a result, Protestant churches almost never call their pastors “priests,” and for good reason: the essence of a priest is to offer sacrifice. If there isn’t one, there isn’t the other.

When our fellow Christians remember the Lord’s Supper, it’s very important to them;
but it means something different.

This is why when we Catholics visit another church,
we are not to take part in their communion.
Sometimes they will invite us, other times not;
but the right thing to do is respectfully to decline.

And this is why we don’t believe in sharing the Eucharist
until people choose to become Catholic.
There’s actually a rare exception, but ask me later about that.

So…what’s the upshot of all this?

Number 1, this is why coming to Mass on Sunday matters.

We can pray anywhere.
But if you want to be truly present at Calvary--that why we come to Mass.

Second, when we talk about the Real Presence of Jesus--
that the Eucharist truly is Him, His Body and Blood,
this is how that happens:
because a true priest offered the Sacrifice of his death on the Cross.
If there is no priest and no sacrifice, where do the Body and Blood come from?

That’s why so many of our fellow Christians say, it’s just a symbol.

Third is a double-reason.
While this is obviously a reason to want to become Catholic;
it also means that something very powerful happens
for those who, for various reasons, cannot come to communion.

Maybe folks will say, “I can’t come to communion, why go to Mass?” This is why.

We aren’t here, just passively observing, or waiting till we can receive communion.

Some will say, only the priest, or the reader, or others, are “doing” something. No.
Everyone here is called to “do” something as part of the Mass:
to join our hearts and wills together with the ordained priest, and with Jesus our High Priest.

Remember, this Mass is the same sacrifice as Jesus on the Cross.
If we wonder what Mass is for, ask what the Cross was for:
He did it to open heaven and to rescue us from hell.
To save us and to save the world.

That’s what every Mass is “for.”

Our nation is in a financial crisis--and we all wonder how it will work out.
Our world is in a spiritual crisis.
The fate of governments and the economy, the end of wars and famine,
are ultimately about whether we will accept Christ as our king.
And if you want to pray for our nation, for family, for the world--
there is no more powerful prayer than Jesus giving his all on the Cross!

We just heard Paul say that nothing can conquer the love of Christ--it will triumph.
But the “love of Christ” isn’t just his warm feelings for us: it’s his death on the Cross.
It’s the Mass!

In the first reading, God promised to renew his “everlasting covenant” with us.

In the Eucharistic prayer we pray at every Mass, we hear Jesus say,
“this is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant…
shed so that sins may be forgiven.”

In a moment, I’ll go to that altar and I will offer this Sacrifice.
Know that I am completely unworthy of it.
It truly frightens me because I am a sinner.
That’s how awesome this is. Pray for me, please. Join with me.


truthfinder2 said...

Excellent! Wish I had been there with my non-Catholic family members when you preached. Yours is a very respectful and charitable treatment of the differences, while you set forth clearly the outline of Catholic teaching on the Eucharist. Thank you! --- Rosemary

AMDG said...

AMEN! Well said. What a gift & grace the Holy Mass is.

AMDG said...

AMEN. Thanks for a wonderful post. What a grace & gift the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is!

Fr Martin Fox said...

Welcome Fr Z's readers, thanks Fr. Z for the link!

Gail F said...

Thanks for posting this, Father!

Anonymous said...

Fr Martin Fox,

I truly loved this homily. I absolutely believe in the real presence, Jesus' Holy sacrifice, and that communion is a means of grace. I was baptized as an infant and was raised in the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church. We all believe in the real presence. We all believe we are participating in the Holy sacrifice. We all believe it is a Holy sacrament and a means of grace. We do not believe it is symbolic.

Although some of the body of believers believe communion is just symbolic, as you said, their intent is to follow God --- just as our intent is to follow God. I do not think I understand communion perfectly, as I am relatively certain you do not think you understand communion perfectly. Fortunately, we are not saved based on our intellectual understanding of Gods means of grace. God said "do this in remembrance of me" and all Christians do participate in Communion in remembrance of Jesus sacrifice. Since communion is something God does for us (means of grace), should we limit others who have a incomplete understanding of communion? I worry about denying the means of grace provided by God in communion to anyone who has a true desire to follow Jesus. After all, we all have an incomplete understanding of communion.

If I can receive Gods grace through baptism as an infant (with no understanding) why is it wrong for me to receive Gods grace through communion with a limited understanding?

I have posed this same question to my past and present Pastors, all with advanced theology degrees, many who are also professors. The official position of the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church is to ask that others refrain from communion if they don't have a full understanding of Gods real presence in communion. I am just not sure that is a good enough reason to deny someone the real benefits of Holy Communion, and cannot find in the Bible where it says a Pastor, Priest, etc. should deny communion to a follower of Christ. It only says to examine yourself before partaking of communion so you don't sin against the body of Christ:

1 Corinthians 11:27-29

New International Version (NIV)

27 So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. 29 For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves.

Thank you for all your wonderful homilies. I have grown in my understanding of scripture, and am now trying to grow in my understanding of Catholic catechism as applied to scripture.


Fr Martin Fox said...


Thanks for your kind words and interesting thoughts.

As in my homily, I cannot give a full answer in this sort of limited forum, but I'll try.

First, let me deal with a delicate question directly. As you must know, one of the issues related to whether the Eucharist, in other Christian bodies, is truly the Body and Blood of our Lord, has to do with the priesthood.

Simply put, at the time of the Reformation (both continental and English), the priesthood was lost in Protestant bodies. Unless a Lutheran pastor seeks ordination from an Old Catholic or similar group, which has preserved valid orders, he cannot effect the sacrifice, any more than I could, before I was ordained.

The same thing happened in the Anglican movement; however, Anglicans have, from time to time, sought ordination from indisputably valid bishops, with the result that while Anglican orders, in the main, are invalid, nevertheless some Anglican priests and bishops do have valid orders. But unless there is a rare exception, I don't believe this is true in any part of Lutheranism.

I admit I'm not an expert on Reformation theology, but you didn't challenge my account of Luther et al. rejecting the ordained priesthood and the nature of the Mass as a true sacrifice; I'd welcome you to show me how I missed the boat there, if I did.

Now, as to the question of folks receiving communion...

Having a "perfect understanding" of communion is not one of the criteria for participating. The criteria, since earliest times (as far as we know), have been to be without grave sin, to believe what the Church believes, and to be part of the Church--i.e., under the authority of her bishops.

Sometimes folks will say, but I believe all the Catholic Church believes, I am just not actually, formally a Catholic--it's just a technicality, not a real difference.

It reminds me of a couple, living together, who might say, look, we're married in every real way, it's just a technicality that we haven't taken vows publicly. What's the difference?

The difference is whatever keeps you, thus far, from making those vows. If you truly believed there was absolutely no difference, what holds you back? Why didn't you make the vows?

Similarly, if someone says, I'm really a Catholic, in every way but actually being one, I ask again: what holds you back? Why don't you actually go the rest of the way--especially if, as you say, there's no real difference?

The answer is, there is *some* difference of meaning to you (meaning the person in my hypothetical), that does hold you back.

And that difference is what matters. Some reservation, some doubt or objection--and it would be condescending, actually, for me--as an outsider to this wrestling of yours--to deem that "insignificant." For me (or the Church) to say, come to communion, what holds you back has no great significance, is actually not very respectful of you.

As to finding the answer in Scripture. Nothing wrong with that, except you would do well to read Scripture in context; the New Testament didn't drop down out of the sky, it was written by and for people who were already worshiping, and celebrating the Mass, for some years before any of it was written. Take a look at the Didache, and the writings of St. Justin Martyr, and the letters of Ignatius of Antioch, for guidance on how the early Church felt about these matters.

Or, to put it another way, where is it written in the New Testament that anyone can pick it up, and offer an authentic interpretation of its meaning? That's not Scriptural. The New Testament shows us a Church, governed by the Apostles, and then those appointed by them. It never shows individual Christians reading Paul's letters, or the Gospels, and deciding for themselves or through debate, what the true meaning was.

Anonymous said...

Dear Fr Martin Fox

Thank you for your timely and thorough response to my inquiry. I appreciate your thoughtfulness.

Regarding Apostolic succession:

“(Wikipedia) The Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox churches, Oriental Orthodox churches, the Anglican Communion and some Lutheran churches are the predominant proponents of this doctrine."

Although apostolic succession is affirmed in our church every Sunday in the Nicene Creed, it is also true that the Catholic church does not recognize the small c catholic apostolic succession in the Lutheran church.I personally know that my childhood minister was ordained through apostolic succession. This was very important to him and I was baptized and confirmed by him. However, I don’t expect you to concede this point.

Never the less, God has given me an inquiring mind and, although I do believe in Apostolic succession, I also think there is room for God to work through more than one methodology to confer authority.


38 “Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”
39 “Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, 40 for whoever is not against us is for us. 41 Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.

This suggests that Jesus’ authority is given to more than just the Apostles. Jesus definitely conferred specific authority onto the Apostles ---- and to others as well.

Regarding my original question about the efficacy of denying a believer the sacrament of communion - communion was definitely a part of the early church amongst the body of believers, but it was not written that only a Priest could determine who should or should not receive the body and blood of Jesus. It does say you must recognize Christ’s real presence and sacrifice, but it tells the body of believers to examine themselves ---it does not say the believer must be examined by a Priest before receiving communion. I still don’t see in scripture where it gives anyone the authority to deny communion to anyone. Instruct, teach, inform, caution, warn ----- absolutely. Deny communion? Still not sure. (After all, Jesus gave communion to Judas).

Finally, regarding your statement

“ ---where is it written in the New Testament that anyone can pick it up, and offer an authentic interpretation of its meaning?”

The very act of my inquiry belies your question. Why would I ask questions if I was “relying “on my own interpretation. If you are actually saying Pastors are just “anyone” picking up the New Testament and offering an interpretation, I don’t think you understand the depths of theological study many have gone through utilizing many Catholic texts to support their interpretation. It just seems like an ad hominem attack on their credibility.

As for what scripture does tell me to actively do:

1 John 4:

1 Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2 This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.

I take Gods word seriously, and I do indeed test every spirit against the Word of God. I also test every tradition against Gods word lest I fall into the trap of the Pharisees.

Thank you again for engaging me in this conversation. I truly appreciate your time and effort which I do not deserve. I discovered you on Althouse and found myself in agreement with you specifically on the “consequences” of the fall (as opposed to the “punishment” of the fall). Your response was brilliant in its simplicity and clarity.