A sermon given by the late Monsignor Augustine Hoey
Sometimes I think that we grow overfamiliar with holy things. We take them all for granted. I wonder, for example, how much time each one of us has spent in preparation for receiving the Body and Blood of Christ this morning. I wonder, did we spend last evening in such a way that it was a suitable preparation for our Communion this morning?
In the early days of the Church our Christian forefathers used to gather together about midnight every Saturday evening; and they would then spend the whole night in vigil waiting for the Sunday Mass, which was celebrated just before the dawn—being the traditional hour of the Resurrection.
Well, we’ve come a long way since then, in the kind of preparation that each one of us makes.
Don’t let us grow familiar with holy things. It is so easy to be familiar with the whole Mass – to forget the Awful Mystery in which we are shortly to be plunged. Having ears, we no longer hear: Our ears have grown deaf to the truth of the mystery of the Mass. Our eyes have grown blind. We are overfamiliar.
What do we really mean when we say that every single Mass is the proclamation and is the setting forth of the Birth, and the Death, and the Resurrection and the Ascension of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ? What do we mean by that?
How would you explain what you mean by participating, as we are each going to in a few moments, in the birth, the dying, the rising and the ascending of Christ?
On the first Christmas Day we know that God came down into our midst, that He clothed Himself in the flesh of a newborn baby boy. Outwardly there was nothing unusual to see. When those shepherds got to the stable, the child in the manger didn’t look any different from any other newborn baby boy. The only difference was that the conditions of birth were more squalid and sordid than usual. There was no mysterious light playing ‘round the head of the child or of our Lady or St. Joseph, such as we love to put on our Christmas cards. It all looked so ordinary . . . And yet you see those shepherds – and this is incredible, really, when you reflect upon it – they had the faith to see the truth beneath the ordinary outward appearance.
They had the faith to see what their eyes could not see: that this child was indeed God of God, Light of Light, and Very God of Very God. Amazing thing! And it is the same faith we have to bring with us to every Mass. Because our eyes do not tell us the reality; all we can see with our eyes is the outward appearance of bread and of wine. And we have to have faith, the faith that the shepherds had, to say, “I believe this is the Body and the Blood of Jesus Christ.”
In every Mass you see how we participate in the birth of Christ as He comes again into our midst; and we have to bring the same act of faith as the shepherds brought.
It is quite clear to any of us that as we reflect on the Words of Institution which Jesus used at the Last Supper, that when He said over the bread “This is my Body,” and over the wine “This is my Blood,” we realize that these words only have any kind of significance when they are seen in the context of the crucifixion.
They don’t mean anything without the crucifixion, do they?
Then what is the connection between the crucifixion and every Mass we celebrate? What does St. Paul really mean when he tells us that at every Mass we “show forth the Lord’s death until He comes”? Does it mean that at every single Mass Christ is crucified again? Does it mean that? No, it does not! Christ can never be crucified again in a physical sense. We know! We’ve often sung “once, only once, and once for all His precious life He gave.” He cannot be re-crucified physically. Well, then, what is the connection between Calvary and every single Mass? What does it mean when Jesus, speaking through the lips of His priest at the altar, says once again, “This is my body which is given . . . This is my blood which is shed”?
It helps me to think of it like this: that when a musician has composed a piece of music – as he writes down the last note on the paper – that piece of music, that composition is finished, finished once and for all. Because if he alters it, it is another piece of music. It is finished, it is completed! But although it is finished and completed we can go on playing it over and over and over again. So is the connection between Calvary and the Mass. Calvary is finished once and for all! But in every single Mass we, as it were, go on playing it over and over and over until the end of time.
But above everything else, the Mass is the proclamation of the Resurrection, because the Christ who comes into our midst at the altar is the risen Christ. It is no dead Christ! He is risen! That’s the Christian Gospel. None of us would be sitting here this morning if Christ had not risen! The Christian Gospel is not that “Christ is crucified,” but “Christ is risen.”
You read through all the early sermons of the Apostles, and that is what they preached about, always: “Christ is risen.” This is the foundation stone of Christianity. And it is the risen Lord who comes to the altar. It is the risen Christ – the power of the Resurrection – that you and I take into our lives in the act of Communion.
“I am the bread of Life,” says Jesus. “He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood hath eternal life and I will raise him up at the last day. Every Communion we make is a pledge – a guarantee, if you like – of our resurrection to which we look forward after the physical experience of death.
And so the risen Lord is coming to you and me this morning. He is coming into our hearts. But alas, so often we receive Him into our hearts, and what do we do? We treat him not as if he were alive, but as if he were dead.
We roll the great stone across the door of our hearts, and we entomb Him there; we imprison Him there. And yet Christ has come to each one of us in order that we might take Him. He wants to go with us into the place where we work, into the place where we live, and to the people we meet when we take our pleasure and recreation. He longs to go, He longs to speak! How can He speak unless it is through our lips? How can He walk where He wants to walk unless it is on our feet? How can he love as He wants to love unless it is with our hearts? And so he comes to us in all the power of his risen life, in Holy Communion. He comes to us that he may go with us, that we may take Him.
But the Mass is also the Ascension, because as we kneel at the altar and receive the Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation, our Lord takes us up with him into the heavenly places, into the bosom of the Father. Every act of Holy Communion is an ascension with Christ into heaven.
Oh yes, I know we can’t see anything: it all looks just the same. We don’t hear anything unusual: we all heard it before, so many times. We don’t feel anything. And we certainly can’t understand it – completely. Nevertheless, we do ascend with Christ in Communion to Heaven. And so you see what I mean. And one could go on talking about this forever, because the depths are so profound, the mystery is so great; and all that is implied by saying that the Mass is the setting forth, the living out of the Birth, the Death, the Resurrection and the Ascension of Jesus Christ. The Mystery so great, the wonder beyond all wonders, that really we should fall flat on our faces before the holiness of Jesus – born, died, rising, and ascending.
For me there are some words with which I’m sure you are familiar, which best express a kind of disposition we should bring with us to Mass. They’re words which are used very frequently by Christians in the Orthodox Church; and I’m sure you’ve often sung them. This is how I think we should feel:
“Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand,
Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in his hand,
Christ our God to Earth descendeth,
Our full homage to demand.”
This sermon was originally preached in the Parish of St Mary of the Angels, Hollywood in 1980