I’m a diehard sports fan, so I will be in my glory this coming “Super Bowl weekend,” even though my beloved Chiefs aren’t playing for the 42nd consecutive time–but who’s counting. I’ve never been to a Super Bowl, which would be awesome, but I’ve been to plenty of major sporting events in my life. If I had to single out one sporting event above all the others, hands down it would be the 1984 summer Olympics in Los Angeles. More specifically, it was being present to witness the USA’s Edwin Moses’ gold medal performance in the 400 meter hurdles.
The race didn’t begin until dusk. As the runners got situated in the starting blocks, the 100,000 spectators in the Los Angeles Coliseum became deafeningly quiet. As the race began, all eyes were on the runners. The stadium was aglow with lighters, lit matches, and the flashing of cameras. The silence at the start of the race quickly gave way to a rumble that crescendoed into a roar as Moses triumphantly thundered down the stretch on his way to Olympic glory. Everyone knew that we had just witnessed something very special.
As exciting as Edwin Moses’s gold medal performance was, it was just a sporting event. Yet this experience illustrates that we’re very capable of focusing our attention when we think something is truly important, despite the many distractions in our lives. Our hearts can be found close to what we treasure (cf. Mt. 6:19-21). Where does our treasure–our “gold medal”–truly lie?
The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the memorial of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, the most significant event in the history of the world, occurring in the “fullness of time” (Gal. 4:4). This event not only has left its indelible mark on world history, but even defines who we are today. This event preeminently merits our attention.
Given the fundamental importance of the Mass, we must ask why more people do not fervently enter into the sacred mysteries. Even among the evangelized–those who believe that Jesus died for our sins and rose from the dead–there are those who don’t consider the Mass all that important, and perhaps don’t even believe that Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist. While this is a complex issue, I think much of the problem comes down to a misunderstanding of what a “memorial” is.
On the one extreme are people who relegate Christ’s sacrifice to the distant past. They believe that, in the Mass, we remember what Jesus did for us, but these events do not become present realities. And so with each successive generation, the memory becomes weaker and cloudier. The Eucharist becomes merely a symbolic reminder that Jesus loves us. This leads to an exaggerated emphasis on the “horizontal” dimension of the Mass: the “gathered assembly,” the external participation of the faithful, and the human needs and aspirations of the community. Although these elements have their proper place, they become empty if they are divorced from Christ’s saving presence.
On the other extreme is a more privatized (“me and Jesus”) approach to Christianity. Christ is so present to us that we do not need the sacred liturgy to encounter Him. Some Christians fundamentally misunderstand the sacrificial character of the Mass. They believe that Catholics claim to sacrifice Christ repeatedly, which seems contrary to the biblical teaching that Christ died “once for all” (Heb. 7:27). While it’s important to realize that we can and should encounter Our Lord in prayer frequently apart from the liturgy, we encounter Our Lord in a singular way through the Mass.
I once asked my precocious eight-year-old daughter (now a Dominican novice) what she thinks about when she receives Jesus in Holy Communion. She said, “I think of Jesus dying on the Cross.” I think if Jesus were to comment on her innocent response, He would approvingly say, “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mk. 12:34).
As a memorial, the Eucharist is not merely a symbolic reminder of the salvation Christ won for us, but it actually makes present and effective in our midst Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross for us (see Catechism, nos. 1363-67). Christ is not sacrificed repeatedly. Rather, the Eucharist is a present, unbloody participation in the one sacrifice of Christ.
The concept of a memorial is not new to Christianity. That’s how the Jewish people have always understood the Exodus. The Passover celebration not only calls to mind Israel’s liberation from the slavery of Pharaoh thousands of years ago, but also makes present the liberation and salvation God offers His chosen people right now.
In the New Covenant, Christ has given us the Eucharist as a memorial of His suffering and death, so that His saving presence may be diffused through space and time. Jesus is truly and intimately present with His people, and each time the Eucharist is celebrated Jesus is really present to us. We not only proclaim His sacrificial death (cf. 1 Cor. 11:25), but anticipate His coming in glory.
After the words of consecration, the priest recalls the saving work of God in salvation history, as we unite ourselves with the one sacrifice of Christ. This portion of the Eucharistic Prayer is known as the anamnesis. Recalling the mighty works of God helps us to focus on what is truly happening here and now on the altar of our parish church. This unfolding reality should encourage all of us to be “really present” to the mysteries that are being celebrated in our midst–and to become “deafeningly quiet” before the great event unfolding in front of us.
We must see the anamnesis not as a redundancy but as a necessary reminder of our identity, purpose, and destiny as Christians. Nowhere in Scripture is there evidence of anyone cruising through life in God’s friendship without regularly calling to mind God’s promises, commandments, and saving actions. Rather, those who forget about God are those who fall from the state of grace and do evil in God’s sight. If the living God doesn’t have our attention, then something else inevitably will.
As Lent begins later this month, let us resolve to give our undivided attention to Christ, who truly comes to us anew every time the one sacrifice of the Mass is celebrated.