Robert Ladds reflects on the meaning of Thomas Merton’s words about the importance of the Mass
Mass is the most important thing we have to say’. So writes Thomas Merton in his Journal, published under the title The Sign of Jonas in 1953. And so might say those of us brought up in the Catholic Tradition. But what does it mean to say this about the Mass? Most importantly, what are we going to do about it if we are to mean what we profess?
Life is full of words, spoken, written, texted, emailed. Many of these words are important. Words expressing love, kindness and support; communicating helpful things about life and relationship are especially so. Why is the Mass the most important thing we have to say?
For Merton the Trappist priest and monk, ‘the Office is a preparation for that utterance’ which is the Mass. But that same thought can be applied to us all who believe that, through Faith, all we are, all we do and say, is done within the life that Christ lives in us that we might live in him. The Mass becomes a focal point in time and place for all we are and all we do and say.
Merton reflects, that in speaking the words of the Mass, the priest is not only ‘speaking for the people’, he also ‘speaks to God’. But critically, these words are not his own words. ‘In a few simple sentences that are the words of God’ given us by Christ, these words unite us with God. To be precise, what is pronounced when the dominical words are spoken is the ‘Word that is uttered by the Father (and so) cause the Word to be present in time, in a special state – incarnate and sacrificed’.
So, as the Sacred Host is elevated, it becomes a kind of lens. A lens has the capacity to draw light in, to gather and refract that light; then transmit it in a beam, no longer scattered and diffuse, but focused, re-directed and purposive. The words of the Mass and what, by God’s gift and grace, Mass achieves, have this lens-like power. All the words and all that our words contain, express and mean, are collected, gathered, brought together and re-focused, re-directed, given new purpose – diffuse no longer but brought together as if a beam of light and love.
All we do at Mass is because of what we believe it to be. The words, lights, colour, incense and music are all part of seeking to express what we believe and know is taking place: that Christ Jesus is Real and Present in sacramental signs.
What is profoundly shocking in Merton’s thinking about the Mass is that, surrounded though Christ is by all we do and say ‘there on the altar’, the very Word of God, the creator and sustainer of all things, ‘the Lord of all things (says) nothing’. Christ, the very Word of God, rests on the altar in silence and wordlessness –stunning us, surely, to a new kind of silence by his complete humility, love and peace.
Caught up in action
In Mass we are doing what Jesus taught us to do: ‘Do this’, the Lord said. And that says precisely that the Mass is not some kind of intellectual exercise, a philosophical construct; not a thought process. Mass is something that we ‘do’; involving action and relating to the physicality of our human nature. So we are brought to that other essential component of Mass. As well as consisting in those vital and critically important words we say, it is also fundamental that we become involved, caught up in action; feeling, seeking, touching, holding.
Mass articulates very clearly to us what Jesus has done for us; what has been achieved by his life and teaching and, most especially, what has been done for us by his passion, death and resurrection. He has won for us eternal life and salvation as strongly expressed in the Penitential Rite and the Liturgy of the Word. The Liturgy of the Eucharist then begins to make clear and brings into focus another essential dimension of the Mass. While affirming all that Christ has done for us, it also brings into focus what Christ is doing for us.
In a Eucharistic Thanksgiving, we ask that the Father recognize ‘the sacrificial Victim by whose death you willed to reconcile us to yourself’ – what Christ has done for us – and then goes on to ask that we who ‘are nourished by the Body and Blood of your Son and filled with His Holy Spirit (might) become one body, one spirit’ in him – what Christ is doing for us.
The Mass makes real, present and effective all that Christ has accomplished and done for us; it also makes active and dynamic that which he is doing, and will continue doing until the end of time. That is, to make, fashion and mould us more and more into his Body, to make us more the Church of which he is the Head and we that body.
In earlier times greater emphasis was placed on the preparation that priest and people made before Mass. Volumes of prayers and meditations were available for use before Mass, especially on Saturday evenings before the Parish Mass on Sunday. Similarly, prayers of devotion and thanksgiving were provided for use immediately following Mass and throughout the days afterwards. These valuable things are still provided and, maybe, should find renewed emphasis and use. Such devotions provide us with words. Words leading up to and following after those ‘most important words we have to say’ – those of the Mass. Words that join us with God in Christ in all that he has done and is doing among us.