Why call the Mass a celebration?

A Mass is not called a celebration only when it gives rise to happiness in the people of God. Still, that might be one good reason to consider it a celebration.

Jun 13, 2014

By David Gibson
A Mass is not called a celebration only when it gives rise to happiness in the people of God. Still, that might be one good reason to consider it a celebration. While there are celebrations of all kinds in the human family, people tend first to think that a celebration is, well, “celebratory,” an occasion to rejoice.

It is evident that the Eucharist is an occasion to rejoice when two people marry in the church. The occasion brings Christian life's joyful dimension into plain view. As Pope Francis said, “The Christian ought always to be joyful, as one who goes to a wedding.”

Life encompasses “moments of crucifixion, moments of pain,” Pope Francis acknowledged in a September 2013 homily. Yet, he added, there always is a profound peace and joy because Christian life itself “is lived as a celebration, like the nuptial union of Christ with the church.”

A nuptial Mass connects directly with the lives of two people setting off into a somewhat unknown future. Its particular type of festivity does not characterize every eucharistic celebration, however.

What the Mass does celebrate is Christ’s presence in the community of his disciples. It also celebrates the bonds of kindness and care among his people. Pope Benedict XVI once described this group of people as “God’s family” and “a gathering of friends” who “never abandon each other” in “life or in death.”

The church’s people, then, are bonded together by Christ. The Eucharist gathers together these bearers of Christ’s life and love. In the end, it disperses them back into the world to serve in countless ways as lifelines for others.

These realities of the church’s identity were celebrated recently when representatives of the US Catholic bishops visited the border region between Mexico and Arizona. They honoured the lives of immigrants who died trying to make their way into the United States through the desert.

“We know that the border is lined with unmarked graves of thousands who have died alone and nameless,” Boston’s Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley said during an April 1 eucharistic celebration on the border. He explained, “We are here today to say they are not forgotten.” He added, “We are here to discover our own identity as God’s children so that we can discover who our neighbour is.”

People know what celebrations are in ordinary life. We participate in celebratory events, we experience them.

Think of the family celebrations of birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, engagements, retirements and holidays. In these celebrations people rediscover the importance of their identity within a family. Time spent together affords the opportunity to celebrate each family member’s life.

But how is the Eucharist a celebration? I pondered that question recently after hearing several news reports mention Masses that Pope Francis “delivered.” Delivered? Surely the Mass is not “delivered” like a prepared speech or a package UPS brings to your doorstep! The Eucharist is an event to enter into and experience, like all true celebrations.

While Catholics consider the Mass a celebration, the reasons for calling it that rarely are spelled out. St John Paul II’s encyclical on the Eucharist said that in “celebrating the eucharistic sacrifice,” communities of the baptized “express and affirm their identity.”

To truly experience the riches of the Mass, the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy cautioned against becoming “silent spectators” during eucharistic celebrations. It recommended participation in the Mass that is “fully conscious and active.”

In other words, people do not simply “attend” Mass, they “participate” in this central expression of the church’s faith. They affirm and hope to develop their identity within the body of Christ.

Today, some participate as lectors during Mass or Communion distributors, ushers and choir members. For most Catholics, “participation” means taking part “by means of acclamations, responses, psalmody, antiphons and songs, as well as by actions, gestures and bodily attitudes,” in the words of the liturgy constitution. It added, “At the proper times all should observe a reverent silence.”

To discover the meaning of the Mass more fully, it makes sense to pay attention to how Christ is present during its celebration. According to the liturgy constitution, Christ is present “in the person of his minister ... but especially under the eucharistic species.”

Christ also is present “in his word, since it is he himself who speaks when” Scripture is read during the celebration. Again, Christ is present among the people “when the church prays and sings” — present, that is, “where two or three are gathered” in his name.

“The church draws her life from the Eucharist,” St John Paul wrote in the opening sentence of his 2003 encyclical titled Church of the Eucharist (Ecclesia de Eucharistia). Underscoring Christ’s continual presence in the church, celebrated with particular “intensity” in the Eucharist, he wrote:

“In the humble signs of bread and wine, changed into his body and blood, Christ walks beside us as our strength and our food for the journey, and he enables us to become, for everyone, witnesses of hope.”

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