…I'm so familiar with the Mass that I could nearly say it myself. I was brought up to think of it as a miracle or a mystery or something like that. But that's after wearing a bit thin for me, I have to say. It’s too familiar. There must be some better explanation of it today. Our priests here never give any explanation of it, and I'm wondering is it because there’s no real explanation. You just do it. Could you say something about this…? John
Thanks for this question. The Eucharist is a central feature of Christian spirituality, and so it is good to see it coming up again.
Familiarity breeds contempt, they tell us. Sometimes, maybe. Notice that it breeds a lot of other things too. It can breed blindness, or indifference, yes; but it usually breeds love and attachment. Just think of one or two things that are a familiar part of your life (your house, your family, or even just your favourite chair) and then imagine life without them. Familiarity is a good thing in itself; in fact it’s the same word as ‘family’. There’s no problem about being very familiar with the Mass.
If you were to go looking for ‘explanations’ of your family they would probably begin to think that you needed a bit of explanation yourself. If someone claimed to be able to ‘explain’ you, how would you feel? Insulted, I imagine - reduced in some way. People’s behaviour sometimes needs a little explanation, but people themselves…? In regard to the Eucharist I would suggest that we forget about all explanations. We've had too many of them, and they always have the effect of reducing it – just as an ‘explanation’ of your wife would reduce her to an example of some generality; or at any rate, to something less than the real woman she is.
So where does that leave us? Do we just call the Mass a mystery and leave it at that? That would be like a stick in the spokes. For very many people, that's as far as it goes. The challenge, instead, is to take it from there and link it to the deepest things in our experience.
Something stands out in my memory here. A Dominican Sister who worked for many years in South Africa in the days of apartheid told me she was once asked to go to a black township to talk to a group of people about the Eucharist. She wondered how she would explain it to these simple oppressed people. The word ‘transubstantiation’, for example, wouldn’t do much for them. She decided to keep it simple. “What did Jesus mean when he said, ‘This is my body’?” she asked them. After a lot of silence on their part, and discomfort on hers, one man began the speak. “I’m a miner,” he said. I go down the mines in the morning before the sun is up, and when I come up in the evening the sun has gone down. I never see the sun all week. When I get overtime I’m happy to spend even more time down there. I know it’s not a good place to be. I have lung problems, emphysema. In a few years this body of mine will be all worn out and diseased. But I keep going down the mines to keep bread on the table for my family…. So when we sit down to our dinner on Sunday I know what Jesus meant when he said ‘This is my body, which is given for you.’”
Away with explanations, then! Compared with the reality of our lives they are thin indeed. Here’s another story. One hundred years ago a student member of the community in which I live (Dominican Priory, Tallaght), cycled with another Dominican to Kilmainham jail in Dublin to say goodbye to his brother, Seán (or Jack) Heuston, who was to be executed by firing squad next morning, May 8, for his part in the 1916 Easter Rising. That student lived to be a very old man, dying in 1984. As he lay on his deathbed in a semi-conscious state he began to call his brother’s name: “Jack! Jack!” All those years, though he seldom spoke about him, he had held the memory of his brother in some deep part of his being. The words and gestures, and everything that passed between them, lived forever, no doubt, in his mind and heart, and even in his subconscious mind. When we think about the Eucharist we should place it with deep human experiences like this, not with barren rationalistic theories that turn it into just another ‘thing’.
“On the night before he died, Jesus took bread…” The Eucharist is an intensely emotional act, even if we don’t and can't often feel emotional about it. The words ‘this is my body, this is my blood’ mean ‘this is all of me.’ And it is ‘given for you’ – like the South African miner’s life given for his family. When Jesus said, “Do this in memory of me,” what kind of memory could that be? A scrap of information, like a footnote in some history? No. More like the kind of memory that shaped the whole life of Seán Heuston’s brother. The intention behind ‘transubstantiation’ is to place NO limit to the identity of Jesus and this bread and wine, NO separation of past and present that would allow the past to slide away. The Last Supper is here and now, with no qualification. This is crucially important to any understanding of the Eucharist. Anything less would make it just a kind of memorial service. But… the pseudo-philosophical tone of the word suggests that the whole event has nothing to do essentially with the heart. At Mass, if you can let your heart become soft and open, the mystery of Christ’s self-giving will make itself felt in subtle ways that don’t need any explanation.
The best, John, would be to line up some memories of your own that connect to this. In this way, the Eucharist is spreading its meaning into your whole life.