It is part of the canon of frenzied modern man—“showing up is 80 percent of life.” Whether the percentage is correct or not, rarely do we hear the proverb’s obverse that “20 percent of life requires more than just showing up.” The challenge, and it is a challenge whose success determines a life well-lived, is to know which arenas to apply the 80/20 rule to. Unfortunately, for many Catholics, the Mass falls into the 80 percent category. But the Church, at least according to the Second Vatican Council, thinks it is in the 20 percent exhorting that “fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy” (Sacrosanctum Concillium, 14). In short, we must do more than just show up.
One could wallpaper the entire Vatican several times over (or, if you prefer, fully clog their sewer system) with all that has been written about the meaning of the phrase “fully conscious and active participation” so I will not add to the growing detritus. Regardless of how you interpret that phrase, we can all agree that little, if any, headway has been made towards this “aim [that is] to be considered before all else” (SC, 14). Why is this? Because the Mass, like many parts of our divine faith, has become an ideological battleground whose smoke has obscured the reason that the Mass exists in the first place.
The Sacrament of the Body and Blood
Each of the Sacraments are visible signs, instituted by Christ, by which invisible grace and inward sanctification are communicated to a person. We all remember this definition from our early Catechism lessons. But what we may not have grasped is the uniqueness of the Eucharist and the grounds for the assertion that it is the “summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows” (SC, 10). Like the other six Sacraments the Eucharist bestows grace, but it also contains the very Author of grace, Jesus Himself. The Son is really and truly present upon the altar after the words of consecration. The truth of the Real Presence is overwhelming, but we must take care to not allow its brightness to blind us to the fact that the Eucharist is also a sign. It is a sign that points to the reality of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. It is the Divinely instituted sign that invokes His power and makes that same sacrifice present under the form of bread and wine. It is the Sacrament of His Body and Blood first, Real Presence second—not in the chronological sense but in the order of the Divine intention. Christ says not, “this is Me” but “this is My Body…this is My Blood.” This is not to deny the Real Presence, only to frame it within the context of what happens in the Mass.
By turning our gaze upon the Body and Blood of Christ we see the Mass rightly as a sacrifice. In an age of exaggerated ecumenism it is vital for us to grasp that the “Mystery of Faith” is the sacrifice that occurs on the altar. It is not the same sacrifice as the one on Calvary; Christ was sacrificed once for all. Yet this sacrifice is one with that sacrifice in that it is the perfect re-presentation of the same Victim and the same Priest. The only difference between the two sacrifices are the mode in which they are offered. The natural mode saw the separation of His physical Body and Blood on the Cross, while the Sacramental mode sees the separation of His Body and Blood Sacramentally—an unbloody offering of the one Sacrifice of Calvary. As the Council of Trent puts it “[I]n the two sacrifices there is one and the same victim, one and the same priest, who then on the cross offered Himself, and who now, by the instrumentality of His priests, offers Himself anew, the two sacrifices differing only in their mode” (Council of Trent, Disp 13, q. 3, nos 48,50).
This distinction enables us to see a deeper aspect of the Sacred Mystery. Just as her Divine Head had His natural sacrifice, the Church has her own sacrifice in the Eucharist. The Sacrifice of the Cross belongs to the world, while the Sacrifice of the Mass belongs only to the Church. It was instituted by Christ specifically for the members of His Mystical Body. The Church as the Body of Christ is no mere metaphor, but a profound truth that we are comprised of members who have been bodily united to the Lord in the Eucharist (c.f. 1Cor 6:12-19). Likewise, Communion as the consummation of the Eucharistic Sacrifice becomes a necessary, and uniquely privileged, element of the sacrificial act.
“Pray Brethren that My Sacrifice and Yours…”
Taking ownership of the sacrifice means not only that we receive sacred benefits from it, but that the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross is put into our hands to use. The Mass is not just about receiving forgiveness and grace but also about exercising our share of the Priesthood of Christ. Calvary comes to us so that we might participate in it and have a share in distributing its fruit. This is why simply mailing it in deprives each of us and the Church as a whole of a great spiritual benefit. “Fully conscious participation” consists in recognizing “my sacrifice and yours” as an exercise of our own priesthood. Mary was mankind’s representative at the foot of the altar of Calvary and in that way participated in the sacrifice so that its benefits my spread to her spiritual children. We ought to have her as our model in participating in the unbloody Calvary of the Mass. The point is that we must be fully present in order to not only receive its benefits but also to apply them. As co-sacrificing priests, we ought to have specific intentions for which we offer the Mass—intentions that are distinct from the general intercessions and the special intention of the Priest for the Mass.
Although in some circles the idea of Christians presenting sacrifices to God has the odor of “the Law,” it is something that we are commanded to do. After preaching the essence of the gospel to the Romans for 11 chapters, St. Paul begins the 12th by exhorting them to “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1). According to the Apostle to the Gentiles, the essence of the Christian life is to offer sacrifice. But it is a sacrifice that on our own we can never offer—this sacrifice must be visible (your bodies), living, holy and pleasing to God. It is God who supplies the Lamb. The Eucharist is the only living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God. By its reception we become one flesh with its Victim thus His Body becomes ours. The Eucharist becomes the source and summit of all Christian sacrifice. All our sacrifices—big and small even when mixed with impure motives—are offered in the Sacrament of the Body and Blood and thus become holy and pleasing to God. All of life finds its meaning and fulfilment in the Mass. The great challenge of the Christian life—pleasing God—becomes conceivable. Eighty percent of life may be showing up, but Life itself requires much more.