Sermon: Why do we need to "do this"?
Last Sunday, we announced that Bishop Rhoades is ending the general dispensation from the obligation to attend Holy Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation as of this Friday, the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. As we celebrated Trinity Sunday last week, we examined why we have an obligation to worship God, the Most Holy Trinity, each Sunday. This week, as we celebrate the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, let’s look deeper at why we need to worship Christ in the Eucharist.
What sets the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass apart from any other religious service is that what we do at Holy Mass is not primarily our own action. Yes, we praise God through prayer and song, by listening to His Word, by uniting our hearts with His sacrifice, and by being transformed by the sacred gifts we receive. But what is most important at Holy Mass in not our action, but His. In the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, we enter the very life of the Most Holy Trinity because we are taking part in Christ’s prayer to the Father. In the Sacred Liturgy, it is primarily Christ who is praying. We are invited to take part in that prayer by conforming ourselves to the Body of Christ, which prays unceasingly in the ancient rites of the Church passed on through Tradition to us.
As we hear at every Mass, Christ commanded His Apostles, “Do this in memory of me.” “Was ever another command so obeyed? For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance, for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it to extreme old age and after it, from the pinnacle of earthly greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth. Men have found no better thing than this to do for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold; for armies in triumph or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church; for the proclamation of a dogma or for a good crop of wheat; for the wisdom of the Parliament of a mighty nation or for a sick old woman afraid to die; … for the famine of whole provinces or for the soul of a dead lover; … because the Turk was at the gates of Vienna … for a son for a barren woman; for Captain so-and-so wounded and prisoner of war; while the lions roared in the nearby amphitheatre; on the beach at Dunkirk; while the hiss of scythes in the thick June grass came faintly through the windows of the church; tremulously, by an old monk on the fiftieth anniversary of his vows; furtively, by an exiled bishop who had hewn timber all day in a prison camp near [Munich]; … one could fill many pages with the reasons why men have done this, and not tell a hundredth part of them. And best of all, week by week and month by month, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailingly, across all the parishes of Christendom, the [priests] have done this just to make the plebs sancta Dei—the holy people of God.
“It is because it became embedded deep down in the life of the Christian peoples, colouring all the [lives] of the ordinary man and woman, marking its personal turning-points, marriage, sickness, death and the rest, running through it year by year with the feasts and fasts and the rhythm of the Sundays, that the eucharistic action became inextricably woven into the public history of the Western world, [every one of whose great turning parts has been marked by “doing this.”] … This very morning [we do] this with [the same words used by the first missionaries to set foot on these shores, and more importantly yet, with the same words used by Christ Himself]. Yet ‘this’ can still take hold of a man’s life and work [wonders in it]. (Dom Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy. London: Dacre Press, Adam and Charles Black. (1964 printing), pages 744-5).
This, the action of Christ Himself made present in the celebration of the Holy Mass, has left a deep and profound mark on the world we inhabit because it is not just a meal at which we receive spiritual food, but the very presence of His saving action, his Death, Resurrection, and Ascension – the Paschal Mystery.
He tells us, “This is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed for many.” We heard from the book of Exodus how the blood of the first covenant, the blood of the sacrificed bulls whose death sealed the covenant between God and His chosen people, was sprinkled upon the people to mark their sealing with this perpetual alliance. This is the origin of the sprinkling rite that takes place sometimes at the beginning of Mass – sprinkling not with water, but with the blood of the covenant, symbolizing the true but invisible sprinkling with Christ’s blood that takes place when we do this.
Isn’t it a bit much, though, to say that Christ’s command to “do this” means that if we miss one Sunday Mass and don’t confess we will go to Hell? Let’s not forget that Jesus was Jewish. For the Jews, it was absolutely impossible to belong to the chosen people without participating in the Passover sacrifice. Those who were not sprinkled with the blood of the sacrificed lamb were not saved. When He says that His blood is the blood of the new covenant, He is saying that being sprinkled with His blood is absolutely necessary to belong to the new people of God, and thus for salvation. He did so not by inviting the disciples to accept Him as their personal Lord and savior, but through a ritual action that in-so-doing He established as necessary for salvation. So we can see from the context of everything happening at the Last Supper that yes, Christ absolutely meant to establish the Sacrifice of the Mass as necessary for salvation.
Christ, the letter to the Hebrews tells us, is “mediator of a new covenant.” The blood that seals this new covenant is His blood, which is sprinkled upon us when we receive His Body and Blood in Holy Communion. A covenant is an unbreakable bond between two parties. Each promises something to the other. Christ makes incredible promises to those who receive His Body and Blood worthily, in a state of grace. “I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh … He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. … he who eats this bread will live for ever ” (Jn 6:51, 56, 58, RSVCE).
If we want to obtain these incredible promises, then we have to keep up our part of the bargain. First, we must live in accord with the mystery we celebrate. This means following Christ’s teachings, and seeking His forgiveness in confession any time we have committed a grave (mortal) sin before receiving Holy Communion again, that we might be worthy to approach the Sacred Banquet and be sprinkled with His blood. This is why St. Paul tells us, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself” (1 Cor 11:27-29, RSVCE).
Second, keeping our part of the bargain means a regular participation in the new covenant by our participation in Holy Mass. This is why to miss Holy Mass on a Sunday or Holy Day of Obligation without a very good reason or a dispensation is a mortal sin. God has promised to be faithful to us, and we must also be faithful to Him.
When Christ taught His disciples that they must eat His flesh and drink His blood to have eternal life, many responded that, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” (Jn 6:60, RSVCE). Rather than correcting Himself or saying that the Eucharist would only be a metaphor or a symbol, He allowed them to walk away, because they understood correctly what He was requiring. “After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him. Jesus said to the twelve, ‘Will you also go away?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.’” (Jn 6:66-68, RSVCE).
My brothers and sisters, in a very real and concrete way, the choice is ours as well. Will we walk away from Christ by not being faithful to His covenant, or will we respond like Peter? No one else will sprinkle us with His blood, and by the gift of His very self, bring us to eternal life.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, A.D. MMXXI