Homily for Corpus Christi Sunday, 2013
I remember my first Mass at the Basilica of Ss. Peter and Paul church in Lewiston almost like it was yesterday. I had been practicing offering Mass for almost a year. In the seminary they had these practice chapels – and groups of us would meet up in them for “smass,” as we called it, so as not to be confused with the real thing. We had to video ourselves offering Mass – other seminarians would serve – and then we would watch the video and critique it with the other seminarians and our liturgy instructor.
So when I offered my first Mass in the Basilica chapel on the morning after my ordination, it was not the first time that I had put on an alb or stole or chasuble – it was not the first time that I had held a chalice or even a host, because we used to practice with un-consecrated hosts.
What does a new priest experience, then, at his first Mass? I’m not sure what other priests have experienced, but I will tell you what I did. I remember kind of watching myself do what I was supposed to do – the prayers and gestures, all as I had practiced – and I remember thinking “I can’t believe I have been entrusted with this.”
The other thing I remember is that it was not, as you might expect, a moment of warm tingly awe and overwhelming emotion. Now maybe it is for some men – but what I noticed was just how, well, kind of ordinary it felt. Fireworks didn’t go off. I didn’t get zapped with a lightning bolt up my spine during the consecration. I was saying and doing the same things that I had practiced a dozen times or more in those "smasses" over the last year.
There is a saying that is often on cards or notes that are given to newly ordained priests, and it goes something like this: “Holy priest of God, say every Mass as if it were your first and last Mass.”
Now I appreciate the intention of the sentiment, but I’m not sure that’s what I would want. My first Mass – well, I was nervous and not familiar with the prayers – even with all the practice, it wasn’t natural yet. And my last Mass – well who knows when that will be, but I’m praying that it will be a long time from now when I am so old and tired that I can barely lift the chalice or get through the words… So to offer every Mass like my first and last? No – I don’t think I would want to offer every Mass like that.
But the sentiment - what I think the sentiment is trying to express or encourage - is that the priest always remember that what he is doing when he offers Mass is incredibly sacred and profound. That the priest never allow himself to celebrate Mass in a routine or rote manner, to lose sight of the transcendent reality, the profound encounter with God that happens each time we are gathered around the altar to celebrate the Lord’s Supper.
Because that is a danger, isn’t it? As I said, even during my first Mass, I realized that the reality of God’s presence at Mass is not something that will force itself upon us, force us to be attentive to the gravity of the moment. In fact, I would have to say that many times in this fallen world of ours there are circumstances that make it difficult to enter into the full mystery of Mass.
Now, we try to mitigate the distractions. We build churches to try to at least keep out the elements, so that’s good. But sometimes the church is hot or stuffy or cold. We try to make our churches beautiful so that we remember that we are not just going to a conference or to an assembly, but that this is a place where we encounter God. But sometimes the architecture of a particular church may not resonate with us or the church may not be well maintained.
And then you fill that church full of people. And we fill it full of our children so that they can experience God’s presence in the Church from a very young age, even if they are only partially able to engage the mystery of his life. Which many times also entails crying and fussing and all the other things that good children do. And maybe the person next to us keeps talking during the liturgy, or the person in front of us is fidgeting the whole time. Or we are distracted by what someone is wearing or not wearing or maybe we can’t find the music for a song, or someone gives us a nasty look or says something mean, or the priest’s homily is pretty miserable or we can’t hear what anyone is saying because the sound system is not great... Distractions sometimes abound within these sacred walls, and many times they seem to be conspiring against us.
And the reality is no different for the priest. In some ways it is harder for priests to be really attentive to the encounter with God that happens at Mass. We notice all kinds of things that many people wouldn’t pick up on – oversights, errors, problems – there isn’t a liturgy that goes by without them. And the priest is looking out at all of you. Thankfully, most of you are smiling or looking interested, but it is quite common for some of you to look like you are in pain, or bored, or distracted. Maybe the microphone starts to freak out, or a server goes down…. all kinds of things.
Look, we’re not in heaven… The reality of going to Mass, the weekly experience of Mass in this earth presents some challenges to us. And it would be easy to settle for a distracted engagement of what is going on. To let ourselves fall into distractions, for our minds to wander or to be focused on all the earthly realities around us. I think this is easier for you to do that than it is for me, because at least I have everyone’s eyes on me, so I had better at least look like I’m paying attention and being pious.
But even for the priest, it’s easy to check out and forget that when we come to Mass, we come to meet Christ. That this is not just an earthly church, this is not just a gathering of people who are going to be inspired or taught or do something good and holy together. That fundamentally this is an encounter with the Most High God, who in a veiled sacramental presence, comes to convert us and change us, to encourage us and strengthen us, to challenge us and console us, to nurture us and to sanctify us.
All the other stuff, we do the best we can, but we fail half the time. And you know what? That is not the end of the world because this is not a show, this is not a spectacle, we are not paying for a product. This is Mass. This is where we come to meet God and to be fed by him.
When I hold up the consecrated host and show Christ to you during the consecration, often, how often, I am aware of a tension – a tension between what I know is going on, the God who I know we are encountering so profoundly and mysteriously in the Eucharist and who is at work to make us holy, and yet at the same time the blindness that afflicts us, how ordinary things can seem, how hard it is to really receive Christ in the Eucharist with an open mind and heart. To hold the living God in our hands?! Most weeks we are just able to scratch the surface of the profound mystery of Christ’s presence among us.
But we want to enter more deeply into the Eucharist, right? We want to love God at Mass, even in the midst of a fallen world. Let us make this our prayer today: that we be given the strength to cling to Christ, present among us, with our whole heart, mind, and strength. To treat one another not merely as fellow spectators, but as fellow members of the Body of Christ, a holy Church, a people of God, a spiritual family that at Mass each week is bound together by our immersion into the divine life of the Triune God and shares in his love.