Have you ever noticed the serious expressions of people when they come back from the altar after the Eucharist? What a pity. The Jesus I came to know was not like that. He always enjoyed a good meal and fellowship with his friends. This makes me wonder about the reasons why people go to mass.
Do they go for the food? That would explain, at least to some extent, the sombre expressions since a sliver of wafer and a sip of wine will not satisfy their hunger if it is physical. Another reason for going to mass may be fellowship with like-minded people, and the disappointment due to the formality of the occasion could be hard to stomach – literally and metaphorically. All speculations aside about the reasons individual people go to the Mass; there is another much more appealing motive.
When I became a Christian I gained a very special friend, one that will always be with me, and when I go to Mass on a Sunday (or sometimes during the week) I do that because I want to celebrate a special friendship. Does that mean Jesus is not there during the rest of the time? Certainly not, but like a marriage, or any other human friendship, we need times when we are allowed to sit or stand with others to celebrate this particular bond. This is what I do when I go to Mass, and I always feel more blessed if there are many people there to share the party. And it is a party because it originates from one: The last meal Jesus shared with his friends and disciples celebrated the liberation of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt. If you have never been to a proper Passover Celebration you may be forgiven to think it is as serious as the Eucharist. I have found that the origin of our Eucharist is just as much a liturgical occasion, and at the same time one of the jolliest, thankful and life affirming festivals I have ever experienced. – And this is exactly what is remembered in the Eucharist.
All very well, but what does happen when we chew and swallow a tiny piece of wafer and a sip or mouthful of wine? Depending on the tradition you grew up with there are different understandings for the transformation. One is that bread and wine are a symbol for the body and blood of Jesus. That would mean that going to Mass is an act of remembrance of an event that happened more than two thousand years ago in a town in the Middle East. I don’t think I would go to Mass for that.
Another and much more powerful concept is the belief that in bread and wine Jesus is actually present in the here and now. That reminds me of the Celtic notion of thin places in the world. These traditionally are gateways where heaven and earth meet. They usually are geographical and solid on one hand, but are also permeable to allow for a passage between worlds. One of these is Glendalough in Ireland, which I have visited fifteen years ago. I can still remember the sense of a changed vitality that filled our group while we were there. Churches and other holy places are often built on top of other holy places. These places exude a spiritual energy which is not dimmed by time or change of the way the creator is worshipped.
Southwark Cathedral is built over a well which was probably a pagan place of worship in the 4th century CE. During the time of Edward the Confessor the place was a monastery; and possibly a college of priests set up by St Swithun while he was Bishop of Winchester. Another place in London of a similar transformation is St Stephen Walbrook. On the banks of the river Walbrook (which still exists as an underground stream) stood a temple to honour the God Mithras. When Christianity swept the old traditions aside the temple was destroyed, but the foundations remained and are still there today. To hallow the heathen area the Saxons built a church on top of the old base.
We often are not aware anymore of the flow of energy because we do not expect to sense or experience anything extraordinary in the real world. The question is: who decides what is normal and what is not? Where do you go to find a sense of the sacred in a world which is increasingly leading away from the holiness of all life, and especially in the inner city? It would seem to be an easy way out to go and live in a different environment, and in this way be always in a place we consider holier than the one we live and work in.
But looking at the life Jesus lived we find that he did not do this. He preached to and healed the people among which he lived, then he periodically and regularly went away to refuel his energy in another place. Of course we know that he spent time with God alone, but he often did it in a particular space such as a mountain or the desert, or maybe even the well where he met the Samaritan woman of the story in John 4.
One of the books I own (yes, I do read them!) speaks of Jesus as a thin place, and this could equally be translated into the language and event of the Mass. What does that mean? It could be that this becomes the mountain or a desert, or the holy well where you find refreshment and an all-pervading sense of God’s presence. Imagine this piece of wafer and the mouthful of wine travelling inside your body. It will be absorbed and digested, and if you don’t drink much regularly you may even find that sugar and alcohol in the wine make you lightheaded. This is not bad. It is just a reminder that you have been given a tiny piece of heaven and drunk the kingdom that is now and not yet. How much more wonderful can life get than this? Rejoice and be cheerful – for one short moment you have met Jesus in heaven!