When most non-Catholic Christians go to church on Sundays, they undoubtedly participate in many good and wonderful things. They offer prayers of thanksgiving and praise to God. They listen to the Word of God spoken through scripture and they come to an understanding of what His Word means for them practically in their lives. Often, they praise God in song, lifting their hearts and voices to the heavens, proclaiming His glory. All these things, in and of themselves, are good, but all of them independently lack the supernatural realities that can only be found in the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. If you aren’t aware of it yet, my hope is that by the end of this article you will come to realize that when you attend any and every Mass, you are in the middle of the most amazing experience in the world.
The very short explanation is that at every Mass, during the Liturgy of the Eucharist, each of us is standing (or kneeling) there with Mary and the others who were at the foot of the cross on Calvary – not figuratively, not symbolically, but literally. How can this be when we are clearly in a physical building? My goal is to unpack how this happens so that we all may better understand what is mystically happening at Mass so that our participation is enhanced.
At every Eucharistic celebration, Jesus is made present by His sacrifice on the cross right before our eyes. To explain this, the Catholic Church uses the Greek word anamnesis (anam-NEE-sis), which the Catechism of the Catholic Church defines as: The “remembrance” of God’s saving deeds in history in the liturgical action of the Church which inspires thanksgiving and praise (1103). Every Eucharistic Prayer contains an anamnesis, or memorial, in which the Church calls to mind the Passion, Resurrection, and glorious return of Christ Jesus (1354, 1363).
Anamnesis is at the heart of the liturgy in both the Old and New Testaments, but the simple definitions of “memorial” or “remembrance” do little justice to what anamnesis actually means in Greek, which is more accurately: “to make present.” We see anamnesis in the Old Testament celebration of the Passover (in which our Catholic Mass finds its origins) when the Lord commands the people of Israel to observe the Passover as “a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the Lord; throughout generations you shall observe it as an ordinance forever,” (Ex 12:14). Every year, during this feast, the Jewish people commemorate the covenant God made when He freed the tribes of Israel from slavery in Egypt by publicly recalling the stories, reading relevant documents and laws, and repeating the details of the covenant. Further, the rubrics of the Passover celebration require that all of this is to be spoken in the present tense, as if the events being remembered are taking place now, placing those present in the middle of the story as it is unfolding, rather than reflecting on a one-time past event. This ought to remind you of the Liturgy of the Word at the beginning of Mass when we hear the Word of God proclaimed, reminding us of our covenant with Him.
In the New Covenant, when Jesus institutes the new rite in the celebration of the Eucharist, He instructs His disciples to, “Do this in remembrance [anamnesis] of me,” (Lk 22:19). The disciples would have understood that He meant “recall by making present,” particularly within the context of the Passover meal, where they were, at that moment, making present the Old Covenant. When you take the time to absorb what is happening here, it is profound how in this single moment, shared among Jesus and His apostles, the Old Covenant foreshadows the New Covenant and the New fulfills the Old. As Catholics, we believe the Sacrament of the Eucharist was instituted at the Last Supper, and the command for us to continue it in remembrance (anamnesis) of Him was a command to commemorate Him at every Mass.
Now we move from the Liturgy of the Word to the Liturgy of the Eucharist. For the Passover feast, the Israelites were commanded to eat the flesh of an unblemished lamb. We too are called to eat the flesh of an unblemished lamb who is, of course, fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. In the Mass, through anamnesis, we “make present” the sacrifice of the Lamb. When the Church celebrates the Eucharist, she commemorates Christ’s Passover, and it is made present: the sacrifice Christ offered once for all on the cross remains ever present,” (CCC #1364).
Sometimes we are accused of “re-sacrificing” Jesus over and over again, but this is a misunderstanding of the event. Jesus was sacrificed once, for all, and that sacrifice was an unrepeatable event. However, we make that one sacrifice present, now, in the un-bloody sacrifice of the Eucharist. In other words, the initial sacrifice on Calvary was a one-time event, but because the Divine is outside of time, that one sacrifice is re-presented in every celebration of the Mass. We are not simply remembering Jesus’s sacrifice; we are right there at the foot of the cross ourselves.
As if being transported to the foot of the cross is not amazing enough, we ought to consider the implications of what that reality brings for the Mystical Body of Christ. Remember, Christ has one mystical body. There isn’t one body in heaven, one in purgatory, and one here on earth. Rather, we are all interconnected members under the one head of Christ. This means that every angel, every soul in heaven, every soul in purgatory, and every soul present at the celebration of the Eucharist are all standing together at the foot of the Cross, adoring the physical presence of the same Jesus across time and space.
Using eyes of faith, “see” the presence of all the angels and souls around you. Take a moment to think about the immensity of this reality. When we celebrate the Eucharist with all of our fellow parishioners, we are also amid all of the angels and saints, and all of our deceased loved ones who died in the state of grace. Furthermore, when we celebrate the Eucharist, we find ourselves outside the human sense of time and within the eternal. In his book, Letter and Spirit, Scott Hahn says, “Liturgy, then, involves praise and thanksgiving for past and present events, and hopeful anticipation of future events” (p. 95). Brothers and sisters, the Mass is truly the grandest of miracles taking place before our eyes! It is not the priest doing this alone, but God Himself working through the priest, that makes these mystical realities present to us.
Knowing the supernatural realities of what is happening around you at Mass will hopefully work to draw you more deeply into them. Perhaps it calls you to more reverence, more gratitude, or more compassion. Contemplate these things. The next time you are at Mass, look at the crucifix over the altar and really take note of where you are — at the foot of the cross on Calvary, next to Mary, surrounded by souls, experiencing firsthand the sacrifice your Lord made for you.
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