Just before Mass this morning, Grace brought me a lovely plaque of the Virgin and Child which she found in a second-hand shop. It reminded her of me and thought it appropriate for this difficult time in Israel and Palestine. As I opened it, Dominic asked when my birthday is, thinking it might be now, but I told him it was in late January and the mention of it brought me back to the last weeks of my mother’s pregnancy. She told me that, on December 8th, 1954, six or so weeks before my birth, she walked two miles to Mass in deep snow.
That very act of walking so far in difficult weather while heavily pregnant speaks of a commitment to the Mass that is very striking. She wasn’t overly religious but was part of a generation for whom fidelity was as natural and unquestioned as breathing and she probably never missed a Sunday Mass in her life because it is the third Commandment of God and a precept of the Church to keep Holy the Sabbath by going to Mass every Sunday and Holy Day.
And while she would not have had the theological language for it, something deep within her had an understanding of what it was that God was offering her in Mass and who it was that she was encountering there.
It is a desire that Jesus expressed very beautifully in his encounter with the Woman at the Well in John chapter 4 – “if you only understood what it is that God is offering and who it is that is speaking to you…” It might well be said to us in our time. We don’t fully understand, don’t fully get it.
In Isaiah 25 God speaks to us about the Banquet of Eternal Life that He has prepared for all people, a joyful wedding feast of delightful food and drink for the wiping away of every tear and the removal of shame. The Eucharist is our preparation for that Heavenly Banquet. Here and now at Mass the veil between heaven and earth is very thin, we come close to the gates of paradise to be fed with the food of eternal life, to be given Jesus Himself as food for the journey.
Perhaps this is the part that we don’t truly understand – that the Eucharist is not simply blessed bread and wine but that it is truly Jesus Himself, fully present in both forms. When we receive the Consecrated Host Jesus is fully present in it as He is fully present in the Consecrated wine, His Precious Blood. We don’t receive less of Him when we receive the Host without receiving the Chalice.
So, this is “what God is offering” and “who it is”. And He also offers Himself in the Word of Scripture that is read at Mass.
Beyond understanding, there is the problem that many people are simply not interested in what God is offering like the people in the Parable of the Tenants in Matthew 22 and this is a source of profound sadness to the Heart of Jesus. When he gave His teaching on the Eucharist in John chapter 6 many of His followers said it was “intolerable language” and at that point He lost most of His disciples. This was the moment when He turned to the Twelve Apostles and asked, “will you also go away?” It is a poignant and a truly sad moment in His life. And of us He might ask, “will you leave me too?”
It matters to Jesus that we come together in Mass, and it matters to Him that so many stay away. A child is hurt when friends who matter stay away from a birthday party. We are hurt when family members stay away from special gatherings. Their absence leaves an emptiness. Jesus too feels the absence of those who stay away, who are not interested. His desire, His thirst for us in strong, infinitely strong.
Those who are interested are gathered to the table of the Banquet. “Bad and good alike” are welcome there, the bad and good in each of us is welcome there so that healing and mercy may be experienced and the good in us brought nearer to the perfection of Jesus Himself.
What is required of us is respect and reverence for the Master, loving, humble reverence for His presence in the Eucharist. This is the garment that we are asked to wear and without it we are incapable of receiving what is offered. It is the wearing of the “Sunday best” of our soul, the garment of true repentance.
Reverence opens the soul to the most profound experience of the Divine. It is a fundamental part of Christian prayer – “come in let us bow and bend low, let us kneel before the God who made us.” Any for of disrespect closes the door of the soul.
Sometimes I feel frustrated when people use the Mass, the Church and even Jesus Himself for the purpose of getting a Catholic education and when they get what they want they disappear never to return. There’s a sadness and a loss in this but I also know and have to trust that, while they have been with us, they have been touched by grace and the Holy Spirit can use such experiences in ways that I cannon even imagine.
What we have here at Star of the Sea is quite special – the atmosphere, the joy, the commitment – from the smallest baby to the oldest adult and we are here not just for ourselves but for all who are absent.
In the context of the war in Israel and Palestine, we are here on their behalf so that through us tears will be wiped away, conflict resolved, peace restored. The infinite and eternal nature of the Eucharist reaches beyond the walls and doors of our church, and it matters that we are here on their behalf. It really does matter.
After Mass today a woman of the Jewish faith who is part of our parish community told me how she was with a Jewish person from Israel in the past few days. They went into a fish and chips take-away where they were served by a Palestinian. The Jew and the Palestinian shook hands, a small but real and powerful expression of how it can and should be. Ordinary people at peace with each other, desiring peace, making peace possible.