Marching Orders

I want people to go out! I want the Church to go out to the street!   ~ Pope Francis

What is the most important moment in the Mass?

The Anaphora and the Institution Narrative? Yes, of course, from a liturgical and sacramental perspective. If you had to choose just one, what could be more important than the very moment that God Himself is made present in our midst—when the priest “confects” the Eucharist; when that guy wearing the funny clothes up front makes God appear before our very eyes! The celebrant—a stand-in for Jesus as well as us—brings God to the altar in the guise of a meal, and then we eat Him. It’s as simple and incredible as that.

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And crazy, right? Sure, but it’s what Catholics have always believed about the Mass—if we didn’t, we sure wouldn’t make such a fuss about it. Flannery O’Connor once drove that point home when she set straight a modern, enlightened believer who had referred to the Eucharist “as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one.”

I then said, in a very shaky voice, “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it … except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.

That about sums it up for me, too, but let’s face it: Out in the pews, it doesn’t always seem like we really believe it. When the bell rings at the minor elevations to alert us to the transubstantiating proceedings underway—reminding us to perk up, to lean in with our souls, to attend to the celestial encounter—we’re just as likely to be totally distracted by the kids lolling about in the pew, or somebody else’s cute baby two rows ahead, or the mortgage payment, or the grocery list, or who knows what. If we’re not careful, we can completely miss that “most important moment,” and if you’re like me, you often do. Thank God that moment is not dependent in any way on my paying attention. The priest will make God on the altar regardless of whether I’m keyed in or not—ex opere operatoand all that.

So, is there a different “most important moment” in the Mass that does require my full attention? Practically speaking, is there a point when it really is critical that I’m alert and caught up in what’s going on?

Yes, and it’s right there in our face every week, although it’s easily overlooked. In fact, we mistake it for a courteous formality—almost a liturgical afterthought—and so we frequently take off without hearing it.

It’s the dismissal.

The liturgy is a supernatural drama, and like any good drama, its essential meaning is both framed and encapsulated by its beginning and end: The opening lines tell us what the story is going to be about, and the closing lines wrap it all up in such a way as to direct our thoughts beyond what was just experienced.

Start with the beginning of the Mass then—the opening lines: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” That’s the most formal version of the greeting that kicks off the liturgy; here’s the simplest one: “The Lord be with you.” In all its forms, the opening lines comprise an imperative—an expression of what the celebrant intends to accomplish through God’s grace—and the rest of the Mass is about making it happen. If all goes according to plan, the Lord really will be “with us,” in both Word and Sacrament, by the liturgy’s conclusion.

Assuming that’s the case, it’s understandable then that the closing lines of the Mass follow so closely on the heels of Holy Communion and are so jarringly abrupt: “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life,” or “Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord,” or, best of all, “Go forth, the Mass is ended.” Go, go, go—get outta’ here already!

So … what’s the hurry?

The key is in the Latin original for this liturgical finale: Ite, missa est. Literally, “Go, it is sent.” And what’s sent? It depends on who you ask—there’s a bit of controversy about this. No less than Thomas Aquinas, for example, thought that the “it” referred to the unbloody sacrifice of the altar and its angelic transport back to the Father. In this reading, the dismissal is a simple leave-taking: The divine Victim is gone; it’s time to hit the lights and go home.

I’ll not quibble with St. Thomas, but I’m not the only one who thinks there’s more to the dismissal than that—like Justin Martyr for instance. “When he who presides has given thanks and the people have responded,” St. Justin testified in the second century, “those whom we call deacons give to those present the ‘eucharisted’ bread, wine and water, and take them to those who are absent.” For Justin, it wasn’t just that the people were dismissed after the liturgy’s conclusion, but more to the point, those same people were sent out into the world carrying Jesus with them—that is, carrying Him literally, in terms of the deacons bringing communion to the sick and frail, and figuratively, in terms of all those who’d attended the liturgy and consumed the Eucharist.

Thus, the dismissal is actually a commissioning: Feeding on the Lord isn’t an end in itself, but rather a beginning. “The word ‘dismissal’ has come to imply a ‘mission,’” Pope Benedict instructed us. “The People of God might be helped to understand more clearly this essential dimension of the Church’s life, taking the dismissal as a starting-point.” We feed on the Bread of Angels, and then we’re put to work.

And what is that work? What is our task after we consume the Christ? Here’s the crux of the matter—and the reason why the dismissal should make us wince if we take it seriously. For if we receive Christ, we carry Christ; and if we carry Christ, we become de facto missionaries to a world that rejects the Christ we carry—martyrdom in one form or another is our destiny!

Recall the English translations of the dismissal? Like the greeting at the beginning of Mass, the dismissal includes imperatives—“glorify the Lord by your life” and “announce the Gospel of the Lord”—only this time the directives are aimed at what the congregation is going to accomplish. And this is particularly true for the laity in attendance. It might seem like a herculean task and a dangerous one, but we lay folks are obliged to bring Jesus to the secular realm—through our words, our actions, our very Christ-filled presence—and then transform that realm accordingly. “This obligation is all the more insistent,” wrote St. John Paul II quoting Canon Law, “in circumstances in which only through them are people able to hear the Gospel and to know Christ.”

Jesus wants to invade every nook and cranny of the created order and our lives, yet he chooses to rely on us, His disheveled band of wannabes, to bring it about. “The Church in this world is the sacrament of salvation,” according to the Catechismthink about that! You and I and everybody around me at Mass are the Church in the world, but can we genuinely claim to be the sacrament of salvation? If we receive the Lord in Holy Communion, and then take Him with us as we go—letting Him work in us and through us to make all things new—then yes, absolutely.

It comes down to this: The Mass is a launch pad more than a lounge chair—an idea that’s actually captured in the word “Mass” since it’s derived from the dismissal’s Latin word for “sent” (missa). When we go to Mass, in other words, we’re going to the “sent-forth.” The Catechism quotes an ancient Greek sermon that drives home this idea in case there’s any confusion: “Be present at the sacred and divine liturgy, conclude its prayer and do not leave before the dismissal.” Put another way: Get to Mass, get God, get your assignment, and get going!

We’ve got work to do.


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