First last and only

What can it be like to be an actor on the west end stage, at the start of an opening run of a play giving the same performance  8 times  a week? How can an actor deliver his lines and mean every word? It must be hard as you cannot  have an off-day, you have to give your all for every performance. The audience’s expectation will be high; though this may be the actor’s  101st time, this will probably be their first and only experience of the play.

In Avila in Spain, in the sacristy of the chapel at the Convent of the Incarnation there is a sign which says, ‘Priest of Christ, celebrate this Mass as if it were your first Mass, your last Mass, your only Mass.’ Like the actor, the priest cannot have an off-day, and has to give his very best in celebrating the liturgy. The priest has to mean everything he says and prays, he has to mean Christ.

The same is true of the people at Mass: would we all not benefit from approaching each  Mass as if this were the only time we were to be able receive Jesus? It is no crass exaggeration that in some parts of the world Christians are dying to receive Christ. The more we concentrate, listen, watch, and enter into what is happening, the more spiritual benefit we will receive. How can we expect Christ to come to us, if we are not actually seeking to find him?

If you go to the theatre or to the cinema, you go to escape from life for a couple of hours, to lose yourself in a story wholly different to your own. When we attend the eucharist, we bring all that we are, and we unite ourselves with the words and action of the Mass. Christ’s story and our story become intertwined.

If we come with a problem, we may lay that problem at the altar, leave it at Christ’s feet for an hour. When we leave we have to pick it up again,  but we may find that problem seems a little lighter, we may see it a little more clearly and be better able to deal with it.

In the eucharist, Christ raises us up from where we are, that we might be where he is; we reach out to him as he reaches out to us. We are taken out of ourselves to another place. I was most deeply aware of this on a visit to Burgos in Spain last year, to the Carthusian monastery of Miraflores. The Carthusians live alone in cells with their own garden, they spend most of their time in silence and contemplation. When a Carthusian father with a long grey beard celebrated Mass it was a memorable experience. Here was a priest who was truly spiritually prepared to say Mass. When he addressed his prayers to God, he looked up to heaven, not one word seemed to be uttered in vain, you felt he was addressing God directly. He took us to where God is. Never have I felt such a strong sense of communion with Christ. How poor I felt was my performance as a priest in comparison.

Another Mass that stayed with me was at the cathedral of Palencia; there a priest who clearly had his problems, was saying Mass and making several mistakes, with a patient fellow priest beside him. The mistakes did not seem to matter, what mattered was that he was doing his best, offering to God the best of his ability. 

Only the best is good enough for the Lord. We take care over the details of the celebration of Mass,  because this is something wonderful that we enter into. This is more than just remembering, it is participation in the sacrifice of Christ, that we enter into again every time a Mass is celebrated.

The Mass has been some two thousand years evolving, and just as the sacrament unites us with Christ, so also does the liturgy itself. Just as the instruction to celebrate the eucharist  was handed down to Paul we perform what has been handed down to us; we are united with the time of the apostles and with Christ himself.

How we do what we do matters, we cannot just change it.I heard recently about a church lady who was in a care home and her priest went to celebrate communion in her room, but he’d forgotten the wine, so he used orange juice instead, as long as she was happy that didn’t matter, I was told.No, it does matter. We do as we have been told, we take bread and wine and remember Christ.

The eucharist is seen in some church circles as exclusive, even old-fashioned. It is important to guard it, because when all is done well, this sacrament  will say more about Christ than it does about the people performing it.

The care we take over the Mass, will have a directly beneficial effect on our church, on our work and on our lives. Jesus who feeds us so abundantly must be kept at the heart of all that we do.