The meaning of what we see at Mass: Part I

Over the past weeks I have been examining possible reasons why a person might no longer “feel involved” in the Mass when the priest celebrates Mass facing the tabernacle rather than facing the people.

Until now, I have only addressed the difference in what is seen. Last week, at the end of my essay, I suggested that perhaps the reason some people no longer feel involved when the priest turns to face the tabernacle is not so much because of the change in what is seen, but in the change of meaning, the change in what the whole of the Mass represents.

Most people have seen pictures of the Last Supper, like the famous painting of Leonardi de Vinci, in which Jesus and all the Apostles are facing outwards towards the viewer. So perhaps when the priest faces them from the altar some people feel like that are at the Last Supper with Jesus and the Apostles.

This feeling is made even stronger then by the words of consecration, “Take this all of you and eat of it, for this is my Body, given up for you.” And likewise with the chalice. It is as though Jesus himself, represented by the priest is speaking these words directly to them.

This whole effect, then, is destroyed when the priest turns around. It is like being at a banquet where there is a head table raised up on the dais, but all the people seated at the table have their backs to the guests at the banquet.

Indeed, here we come to the heart of the matter. If what I have just described is what the Mass is about (re-enacting or representing or dramatizing the Last Supper) then for the priest to stand at the altar with his back to the people would either falsify the Mass or exclude the people from participation. That would indeed be a serious matter.

But is that indeed what the Mass is all about?

Some people might respond with something like, “Well isn’t it obvious? Of course. The priest is just repeating what Jesus did at the Last Supper. Therefore the Mass should be like the Last Supper.”

Before we latch onto that viewpoint, however, we should pause to recognize that there is no clear evidence that the Catholic Church ever allowed Mass facing the people, much less made it the standard, until the late 20th century. Was the Catholic Church wrong about the Mass for 1900 years before she finally discovered the truth? Have we only come to understand the Mass since 1960? Did all those people who made and looked at paintings of the Last Supper and then went to Mass with the priest facing away from the people just not get it?

Or did the combination of turning around the altar with the priest praying the Eucharistic Prayer (consecration) out loud give a distorted image of the Mass?

You see the Eucharistic Prayer is a rather lengthy and complex prayer. My guess is that very few people, even though they attend Mass every Sunday or even daily, really give much thought to how the Eucharistic Prayer fits together. They may have become familiar with the words they hear week after week, certain expressions may have become meaningful to them, but they never hear the prayer as a whole. They never grasp the parts each one in its place and in its context.

Nevertheless, there are certain words that are always heard and almost always heard standing alone, out of context, namely the very words, “Take this all of you and eat… take this all of you and drink…”. It is precisely hearing those words, by themselves, out of context, with the priest facing the people that has day after day, week in and week out, inculcated the message that the Mass is a repetition or reenactment of the Last Supper. The audiovisual experience of the consecration, with the priest facing the people, has actually ended up overriding the meaning of the whole Eucharistic Prayer and falsified the meaning of the Mass.

In the whole Eucharistic Prayer, the words “take this all of you and eat… take this all of you and drink…” are not spoken to the congregation, but are quoted in a prayer directed to the Father.

The actual words of consecration are a quotation of the words of Jesus found within a narrative account of the institution of the Holy Eucharist at the Last Supper. The whole narrative, including the quotation of the words of Jesus, follows a prayer in which the priest, addressing the Father in prayer, asks him to change the gifts of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. He then continues, making an argument, as it were, that God should answer this prayer because of what Jesus did at the Last Supper.

In other words in the Eucharistic Prayer the priest asks God to change the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ because at the Last Supper his Son said, “Take this all of you and eat… take this all of you and drink.” This is a prayer that God always hears and so when the priest says, acting in the person of Christ, “This is my Body … this is the Chalice of my Blood” the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ.

That is what takes place, but what does this mean? (To be continued)

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Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.

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