The Mass: Who's on first?
Who’s on first?
In the last issue of Harvest, this column tried to answer the question, “Why do Catholics celebrate the Eucharist?” This month, I want to examine the Church’s teaching on who celebrates the Eucharist? At first glance, that seems like a simple question to answer. We look around at everyone who is at Mass and say, “We all do!” There is truth to that answer, but it is not the whole answer.
Yes, certainly all of us, priest and people together, celebrate the Eucharist. But first and foremost, the agent acting at the Eucharist is Jesus Christ Himself. The Eucharist, like all the sacraments, is above all an action of the risen Jesus in our midst. As far back as St. Ambrose and St. Augustine, theologians have maintained that whenever someone baptizes, for example, it is Christ who is doing the baptizing. Whenever sins are forgiven in the sacrament of penance, it is Christ Himself who grants the forgiveness. The same is true for Mass. The first actor, above and before anyone, is Jesus, who in the Mass makes present once again for us the same sacrifice He once offered to God the Father on the cross on Good Friday. Jesus, who is risen to life beyond space and time, still makes the offering of His life; that hasn’t ended. But He is not alone.
Through baptism, we are all joined to Jesus. We become members of His body, as St. Paul teaches. To the extent we remain united to Jesus by faith, hope, and charity, like branches on the vine, Jesus associates us with Him in making the offering of His life to the Father. So, it is true that all of us celebrate the Eucharist together. But “all of us” includes Christ, first of all, and then we baptized persons around the same altar. We are joined to Him in His act of offering Himself, and we join Jesus in offering ourselves to God the Father along with Jesus.
This community of the baptized is differentiated according to the ways in which Jesus was present to those closest to Him. Jesus related to His disciples in two ways. First, He said, “I call you friends.” Jesus was one with the disciples. He also said, “You call me teacher and Lord, and rightly so.” Jesus related as one sent to the disciples. At the celebration of the Eucharist, all of us priests and people form a community of believers united by a common baptism, living a common faith, and professing a common Creed. But Christ chooses some men among us to represent Himself as Head of the Body, as the One sent to the disciples. The priest represents Christ to the assembled community of believers, reminding them that really it is the risen Christ present and active in their very midst who shares His salvation with us during the Mass. Mass is not possible without the priest. But the priest is merely the instrument Christ uses to reach us in the here and now.
Neither the priest alone nor the baptized alone, but priest and baptized together with the risen Jesus make visible the body of Christ in the present. We become the instruments Jesus Himself uses to renew in our time and place His great offering of His life to the Father. Jesus draws us into that mystery every time we gather in His Name to offer thanks and praise to God in the Eucharist.