Before going on to consider the Mass in detail, Guardini prefaces the second part of his book with a brief discussion of the nature of its action. Religious acts have various origins. They arise out of immediate experience that calls for a response of reverence or gratitude. Some acknowledge regularly occurring events in our daily experience as human beings wherein we are conscious of God as our Creator or as He who sustains us. Finally, religious acts may be instituted by God Himself as a means of commerating His saving acts, such as the Passover.
The institution of the Mass, however, is unique. Guardini writes: "It is an act of God springing as incomprehensibly from His love and omnipotence as the acts of Creation or the Incarnation. And such an act He entrusts to men! He does not say: “Pray God to do thus,” but simply “do.” Thus He places in human hands an act which can be fulfilled only by the divine." God puts into our hands to execute what He makes possible and fulfills. This we do in obedience to His will. In the undertaking we find our truest self emerge and divine aid given in every state of life.
FOLLOWING our discussion of the sacred order of time and space, it would now be interesting to turn to that which takes place in them: the act of the Mass itself. But since we are going to consider the Mass in detail in Part II of this book, only one aspect of it need to be mentioned here: the nature of its action.
A religious act can have various origins. What we desire most today is immediate experience. Let us suppose that a group of people has just been rescued from mortal danger. It is not difficult to imagine that in response to some inner urge they grow still, remove their hats, or make some other earnest gesture of reverence and gratitude to God. Their act would be a direct expression of their experience, possible only at that moment and for those particular people. Were it to be repeated, it would at once become artificial and embarrassing.
The act could also spring from the consciousness of a significant, regularly recurring hour: for instance, after the labor, encounters, and providential experiences of the day, before man enters upon the darkness of sleep, which heralds death’s long night. At this moment his impulse is to pause, to collect and place himself in the hands of his Maker, and if he has learned to heed such inner promptings, he will do so. With the beginning of the day comes a similar impulse. Then too man is conscious of the need to do something religious, to become established in himself and turn to face what God expects of him during the coming day. At the close of the old year, the opening of the new, such an impulse, intensified, also makes itself felt. Acts of this kind are repeatable, even under varying circumstances and by different people; for they spring, not from a unique experience, but from the recurrent rhythms of existence.
Finally, a religious act can also be instituted, that is, some act can be made valid and obligatory. Only he who possesses authority can institute with genuine validity. God did so during the Exodus from Egypt, when He commanded that the liberation be annually commemorated in the feast of the Passover. It was during this commemoration, at the Last Supper, that Christ instituted a second commemoration, that of His death. His oneness with the Father’s will, His life and salutary destiny, His living, messianic reality all are expressed in the words spoken over the bread and wine and in the common partaking of the sacred food. And He instructed His followers to repeat it forever: “As often as you shall do these things, in memory of Me shall you do them.” This is institution par excellence, the core of Christian divine service. When God established the law of the Passover, He instructed the people to offer sacrifice on a certain day, celebrating together a feast commemorating their former liberation from Egypt. This act, which emerged from the humanly possible, received its real significance from divine direction. The act Christ instituted is different. He did not say: “On a certain day of the year you are to come together and share a meal in friendship. Then shall the eldest bless bread and wine and invoke My memory.” Such an act would be similar to the Passover, issuing from the humanly possible; only the event it was celebrating would be divine. Christ spoke differently. His “do these things” implies “things I have just done”; yet what He did surpasses human possibility. It is an act of God springing as incomprehensibly from His love and omnipotence as the acts of Creation or the Incarnation. And such an act He entrusts to men! He does not say: “Pray God to do thus,” but simply “do.” Thus He places in human hands an act which can be fulfilled only by the divine. Its mystery is similar to that of sacred time and place, already discussed. Man acts; but in his human action is the act of God. And not only in the general sense that God is present in all human endeavor because all our reality and strength, wisdom and will come from Him. This is a specific, historical act; here the word “institution” has a special, unique significance. God determined, proclaimed and instituted; man is to execute the act. When he does so, God makes of it something of which He alone is capable.
Subject to the divine nature of the act is a certain human attitude, a certain indispensable bearing. If something of the origin and freshness of the experience is to be transmitted, the individual must be aware of what is happening and have the vigor to express it. Its expression must be credible, vital, genuine, powerful in word and gesture. If the act is to be related significantly to regularly returning hours or seasons, the participant must feel the truth of the relation and of the mystery behind it. He must have an expression for it that remains valid through all the variations of the hours. For the institutional act one other thing is necessary: not creative experience and repeatable expression, not the constantly renewed realization of its existential significance in our lives, but obedience to the will of the Institutor. It is for men to “hear” the Lord and to do as He commands. It is service, as independent of personal experience as of comprehension of its natural significance. It is service in faith and obedience. It is not an independent human act, but acceptance of a divine undertaking that prepares a place for it, shapes for it a body of earthly cooperation. In the profoundest sense of the word it is a selfless act whereby man arrives at his true self. That is why the act of the Mass can be renewed time and again under the most varied circumstances of general as well as personal history, in hours of spiritual abundance and of spiritual need, in affliction and mourning or in freedom and joy.