How Mass Nourishes the Supernatural Life
Christifideles Laici series Part II
Forget about the hundreds of years of slavery in Egypt—the many years of making bricks without straw, the many, many years of being placed so squarely under the thumb of Pharaoh. The real trouble started for the chosen people after they crossed through the waters of the Red Sea. They had just conquered—or, rather, God had conquered—Pharaoh and his army, only to replace these with an enemy closer and even more dangerous: themselves. Sadly, after having escaped from Pharaoh, the Israelites couldn’t seem to get out of their own way.
Hear how they complain to Moses: “If only we had died at the LORD’s hand in the land of Egypt, as we sat by our kettles of meat and ate our fill of bread! But you have led us into this wilderness to make this whole assembly die of famine!” (Ex 16:3) Freedom from one master often leaves us open to domination by another.
In case we are tempted to be too critical of the Israelites, recall that they are early images of us: the Israelites’ captivity by Pharaoh is an image of our captivity by Satan, but their release from slavery through the waters of the Red Sea anticipates our release through the waters of the baptismal font, and their desire for bread in a barren land prefigures our desire for the Bread of Angels to sustain our new life in Christ.
In other words, our new beginning in baptism is just that, a beginning, and one that is meant to grow, mature and come to life. And if the sacrament of baptism re-creates us in Jesus’ image and begins our participation in His Divine Life, then the Mass strengthens and nourishes this conformity and participation to a superlative degree.
Baptism, as we saw in the first installment of this Christifideles Laici series (Catholic Life, January/February 2020), conforms us to Jesus, our ultimate prophet, priest and king, and enables us to know Him (like a prophet), love Him (like a priest) and serve Him (like a king).
Pope St. John Paul II also explains the Christian’s baptism-Eucharist relationship in his letter Christifideles Laici: “The participation of the lay faithful in the threefold mission of Christ as Priest, Prophet and King finds its source in the anointing of baptism … and its realization and dynamic sustenance in the Holy Eucharist.” (14) And in another place, “The call to holiness is rooted in baptism and proposed anew in the other sacraments, principally in the Eucharist.” (16) Since the Mass is the clearest and most meaningful manifestation of Christ—prophet, priest, and king—we should expect to see these same offices at its celebration. Consequently, the Mass can nourish the gifts, characteristics and charisms of baptism, forming Christ ever more fully in us.
The first main part of the Mass is the Liturgy of the Word. More than a recounting of salvation history, or encouragement to lead a holy life, or inspiration to strive for heaven (although the Liturgy of the Word is each of these), the celebration of God’s word sounds the words of Christ the Prophet to those ears and hearts made docile to His voice in baptism. The proclamation of the Gospel is the high point of the Mass’s prophetic element. St. Augustine said “The Gospel is the mouth of Christ. He is seated at the right hand of the Father, yet continues to speak on earth” (see Introduction to the Lectionary for Mass, 4, footnote 10). In short, the Liturgy of the Word communicates the voice of Christ the Prophet.
Our new beginning in baptism is meant to grow, mature and come to life.”
The second main part of the Mass is the Liturgy of the Eucharist. After having come to know God through His prophetic word, the baptized express their love for Him by joining in His priestly sacrifice. Indeed, the Liturgy of the Eucharist is less an imitation of Holy Thursday’s Last Supper and more a remembrance of Good Friday’s cross. Every eucharistic element radiates Christ the High Priest. For 2,000 years, the Church has taught that Christ is “the Victim, the Priest and the Altar of His own Sacrifice.” (Order of the Dedication of an Altar, 1) Christ our High Priest, through the hands of His ministerial priest, receives the individual sacrifices of His baptismal priests.
The final element of the Mass—the dismissal—expresses the kingly role of Christ and the kingly call of the baptized. Each of the Mass’s four dismissal texts begin with the imperative that we “Go!” These dismissals are therefore not invitations to “have a nice day” or “be sure to stop in the narthex and buy raffle tickets.” On the contrary, the Ite, Missa est demands that the baptized get out into the world and glorify the Lord by their lives, that is, by exercising their baptismal kingship “in the spiritual combat in which they seek to overcome in themselves the kingdom of sin, and then to make a gift of themselves so as to serve, in justice and in charity, Jesus who is Himself present in all His brothers and sisters, above all in the very least.” (Christifideles Laici, 14) The dismissal at Mass calls us to serve others in the image of Christ the King.
Threaded throughout the history of the chosen people, the Israelites often stumbled, but they also had prophets, priests, and kings to help them along the way. In a similar way, baptism begins the supernatural life by conforming us to Jesus, who is prophet, priest and king. The Mass nourishes that life in a similarly threefold structure: the prophetic Liturgy of the Word, the priestly Liturgy of the Eucharist and the kingly call to go out and sanctify the world.
During these days when we are without Mass, let us remember our solid baptismal foundation that has conformed to Jesus, even as we look ahead to our next Mass when we can receive Him—and He, us—and be changed ever more into His glorious likeness.
Director of the Office for Sacred Worship
Photo of Mary, Mother of the Church Parish Photo by Joseph van Oss
Published in the April issue of Catholic Life