One of my formators at the seminary would always use his retreats or talks to focus on the prayers and rituals that we do all the time. We have about 5 Sundays until Lent begins, so I thought I would take this stretch to do a series of homilies on the Mass. We all know that the Mass is the most important part of our week, but I wonder whether we all believe that. More importantly, I wonder whether we can explain its importance to our neighbours if they ask us about it.
My basic plan is to look at some different aspects of the Mass. This Sunday I want to look at the beginning, the start of Mass: the idea of gathering.
In one of my favourite books on the Mass, the author divides up the ritual of Mass into many parts, and he calls each one of them a sacrament. He begins with the Sacrament of Gathering. This is the act of coming together in response to God’s call. Our first reading and our gospel are classic biblical examples of such a call, but round here we might even think of the bell as a call to come together.
You might know that the Greek word for Church – the body rather than the building – is ekklesia. This was one of the Greek words used to translate the Hebrew term Qahal Adonai. The Qahal Adonai was the liturgical assembly formed by those who were called by God, heard the Word and responded.
Now, there are two different results of being called. First, we are called out of something; second, we are called into something else. First, we are called out of society. In this way, when we are called, we are set apart from the world. To be set apart is one of the meanings of consecration. And “to be called out of” is the meaning of ekklesia. Ek is out, and klesia comes from the Greek word to call.
(Interestingly, the Greek word to call, kalein, is very close to the Greek word for beauty, kalos. And historically the experience of beauty has often been linked to the idea of a divine call. That experience of being stopped in my tracks, of wanting to pay attention, of being compelled. Also, the experience of beauty often feels like a call out of banal life to something special, a form of consecration.)
The second result of being called is that we are called into something or into somewhere. In this case, God calls us into the church, into God’s people. That is: one is called to be together with other people in relation to God. There are a number of Greek words for this reality. One was synagogue, which means coming together; and flowing from the word synagogue was another word, synaxis, which we find in the catechism as one of the names for the Eucharist.
For a lot of early Christian writers, this in fact was one of the central names for Mass. The Church precisely existed in the gathering together a) to hear God’s word, b) to sacrifice in response and c) to be fed by God. If you wanted to describe what the Church was and what she did, these writers would describe Sunday Mass; and a central fact of that was everyone came together in obedience to God’s word. The Church was formed by God’s word: call, scripture, sacrament, dismissal.
Interestingly, for a long time, there was only ever one celebration of the Eucharist per community. This was because it makes no sense not to be together since God calls us to be together. To do otherwise would be to be disobedient to Jesus’ prayer that they all be one. Indeed for a long time in the history of the Church, and even longer in the East, it was illegal to celebrate more than one Mass per day at an altar. This was also the reason why a lot of ancient cities have so many huge churches. They needed to fit everyone in.
And this is a major problem with the current church. But it is not a recent one. It has been around for a long time. We are more capitalist than we are Catholic. Catholic, as you know, means according to the whole. But most of us do not think that way. [We do not think in terms of our diocese. Most of us rarely even think about our parish. More often than not, we think in terms of our preferred Mass time.] Our first thought is not to deepen our communal bonds created by God’s word. It is about fitting the Mass into my life, rather than my fitting into the body of Christ. I think this shows that we have lost something of the sense of the sacrament of gathering. Of being called together.
This might be something we as a parish should have a think about, especially in an era of lockdowns and social isolation. We are called together. We need to gather. And people are hungry to belong. Perhaps especially now. Aristotle said, we are social animals. That’s true, but we are also more than that. We are created in the image of the Trinitarian God. Community is where come from (humanly and divinely) and it is our ultimate destiny. It is the food we consume and the food we must become.
Given all this, let’s consider our Gospel. Imagine someone pointing us out as the Lamb of God. Imagine someone telling another person else about us, that we are the body of Christ, the humanity of the Son of God. Imagine that second person taking that seriously and wanting to join us. Imagine that person wanting to see where we live. See how we live.
What would we show them? What would they see? Who would they meet? Would we show them each other? Would we show them us together? And would that be the norm or the exception? As a parish, how are we gathering? Not just at the Eucharist, but also definitely at the Eucharist.