It might be objected that this word was perhaps important to Jesus personally, but not for His Eucharistic memorial; that before His death the Lord’s vision, grave and knowing, reached across the future to the end of all things; that this thought was part of the subjective experience of the hour, but has nothing to do with the sacred act which henceforth is to stand at the core of Christian life. But what St. Paul writes of the establishment of the Eucharist overturns all such theories: “For I myself have received from the Lord (what I also delivered to you), that the Lord Jesus, on the night in which he was betrayed, took bread, and giving thanks broke, and said, ‘This is my body which shall be given up for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In like manner also the cup, after he had supped, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you shall eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes” (I Cor. 11:23-26). Can anyone still speak seriously of a mere expression of Jesus’ passing mood? Specifically St. Paul connects the last things with the celebration of the Lord’s memorial, and we must not forget that the Apostle’s epistles are at least as early, some of them earlier, than the Gospels, and that they voice the powerful religious consciousness of the first congregations.
From all this it is apparent that when the Lord instituted the Eucharist things appeared before His inner vision more or less as follows: He knew that on the next day He would die. He knew, furthermore, that one day He would return; though “of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but the Father only” (Matt. 24:36). For the period between these two events He was establishing the memorial of His redemptory death. This was to be the strength and comfort of the oppressed (indeed of all who looked forward to His coming), and a constant reminder of His glorious promise. Compared to that fulfillment, passing time with all its self-importance is really only a marking time before the essential. Holy Mass, then, is distinctly eschatological, and we should be much more concerned about our forgetfulness of the fact. But what is this “eschatological” that we meet so frequently in the newer literature? It is that which pertains to the last things, and it exists in a “natural” form in our consciousness of the fundamental uncertainty of existence. By this we do not mean any superficial uncertainty connected with our personal existence or with general existence, though this is of course part of it, but the underlying uncertainty of all existence. There are certain individuals who know nothing of this. In fact, it has been ignored by all in certain periods. For them the world is an unshakeable reality-the reality, essential and self-understood. Everything in it is regulated by a definite order of things, everything has its obvious causes and sure results, its clear, universally recognized value. But at certain periods all this changes. Usage seems to lose its validity. The whole structure of human society is shaken. Then accepted standards of work and propriety, the canons of taste and the rules of behavior grow uncertain. It is no longer possible to plan the future, for everything has be come fluent. A feeling of universal danger creeps into man’s consciousness and establishes itself there, resulting in forms of experience peculiar to persons of a certain sensibility. What seems self-understood to those firmly implanted in action and property appears to these singularly perceptive natures as thoroughly questionable. For them the existing order of things, indeed of life itself seems but loosely, precariously balanced across the chaos of existence and its uncontrollable forces. All rules seem temporary, and threaten to give way at any moment. Things themselves appear now shadowy, now ominous. Reality is by no means as substantial as it may seem, and personal existence, like all existence, is surrounded by and suspended over the powerful and perilous void, from which at any instant the monstrous may rise to embrace us. To such natures revolution, catastrophe, Untergang are not distant possibilities, but an integral part of existence.
It is easy to reply that such feelings are typical of the emotional crises that accompany historical turning-points and periods of personal turmoil; or that they are the reactions of an unsound, if not abnormal nature. This is possible; but it is also possible that they express something completely “normal,” the truth. The sense of the uncertainty of existence is just as well-founded as that of its opposite, that of the certainty of existence. Only the two forms of experience together contain the whole truth. These vague sensations so difficult to express and still more difficult to interpret receive their clear significance from revelation, which warns us that all is certainly not well with the world; that on the contrary, human nature is profoundly disordered; that its seeming health and stability are questionable precisely because they conceal that disorder. It revealed itself openly when the Creator and Lord of the world “came unto His own; and his own received him not” (John 1:11). Instead, they did everything possible to destroy Him. True, His death did redeem the world; within His love a new, real protection and an eternally stable order did come into being; nevertheless, the stain of the world’s turning on its God and crushing Him remains. He whom the world attempted to destroy will come again, to end it and to judge it. No one knows when, but come He will. Though we cannot imagine such a thing, the world will perish, and not by its own folly or from any “natural” cause. Christ will put an end to it in the age and hour “which the Father has fixed by his own authority” (Acts. 1:7). Thus Christian existence must face the constant possibility of a sudden end, irrespective of life’s apparent security, order, and promise. Now we begin to see what those sensations of uncertainty really mean: threat from the periphery of time, from Christ, who will come “to judge the living and the dead,” as we say in the Credo. The memorial of His suffering and redemption, which He placed at the heart of our present existence is oriented toward that Coming. It reminds us how things really stand with us.
Early Christianity was acutely conscious of this situation. We see this in references to it in the Acts and feel it in the Epistles of St. Paul. Even the Apocalypse, written at the turn of the century, ends with the words of expectation: “And the Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’ And let him who hears say, ‘Come!’ . . . He who testifies to these things says, ‘It is true, I come quickly!’ ‘Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!'” In other very early Christian writings as well there is a great sense of expectancy. The Lord will return, and soon.
Then gradually the feeling that His coming is imminent disappears, and the faithful settle down for a longer period. However, while the persecutions lasted, in other words, well into the fourth century, existence was so precarious that the sense of the unreality of earthly things was kept very much alive. Then Christianity became the official state religion, the solid, accepted form of life, and the sense of general insecurity vanished. As we have seen, it reappears in periods of historical upset and in certain particular natures, but it no longer determines the Christian bearing as such. Thus Christian existence has lost its eschatological quality, very much to its detriment; because with that loss the sense of belonging to the world becomes more or less self-understood. Christianity’s intrinsic watchfulness and readiness are gone. It forgets that the words, “watch and pray” are meant not only morally, as a vital sense of responsibility to the divine will, but also essentially, as a manner of being. The Christian is never meant to settle down in the world or become “one with nature,” or with business or art. This does not mean at all negation of the world or hostility to life. The Christian is deeply conscious of earth’s grandeur and beauty; he accomplishes his given tasks here as efficiently and responsibly as anyone else. What it does mean is a certain attitude toward the world. Whatever his class, the Christian is never “bourgeois,” is never satiated and secure and smug. Essentially a soldier, he is always on the lookout. He has sharper ears and hears an undertone that others miss; his eyes see things in a particularly candid light, and he senses something to which others are insensible, the streaming of a vital current through all things. He is never submerged in life, but keeps his head and shoulders clear of it and his eyes free to look upward. Consequently he has a deeper sense of responsibility than others. When this awareness and watchfulness disappear, Christian life loses its edge; it becomes dull and ponderous.
Then too Holy Mass loses one of the marks which the Lord Himself impressed upon it, a mark which the early Christians were aware of. It becomes a firmly established custom, the accepted, Christ-given form in which to praise, give thanks, seek help, practice atonement and generally determine religious existence. Then the Mass becomes “that which is celebrated in every day at a certain time, above all on Sunday.” This is of course correct, as far as it goes-certainly not very far. Something essential is lacking.
Perhaps it will find its way back into our lives and the Mass. The different aspects of God’s word have different seasons. At times the one will fade, retreat into the background, even vanish from the Christian consciousness. It is still there in Scripture and continues to be read in the liturgy, but the words are no longer “heard.” Then the direction of existence shifts, and the same words seem to ring out, suddenly eloquent. Today history is undergoing such a change. It is breaking out of its former impregnability into a period of revolutionary destruction and reconstruction. The old sense of stability and permanence is no longer strong enough to provide the mystery of existence with “the answers.” We have again become profoundly conscious of life’s transitoriness and questionableness. Thus even the natural situation helps us to understand St. Paul’s, “For the world as we see it is passing away” (1 Cor. 7:31). Anything can happen. We begin to be aware of the magnitude of divine possibility, begin to sense the reality of Christ’s coming, that pressing toward us from the edge of time, “for I say to you that I will not drink of the fruit of the vine, until the kingdom of God comes” (Luke 22:18).
Jesus’ words just before the institution of the Eucharist are not there by chance. The celebration of the Lord’s memorial binds the present moment not only to eternity-a thought we readily understand-but also to the future; a future, however, that lies not in time, but that approaches it from beyond and that will once abolish time. Christ’s promise teaches us to reevaluate the present, the better to persevere in it.
How well we understand the mood that must have prevailed in the early Christian congregations. Those people knew: everything around us is uncertain, alien, edged with danger. No one knows what tomorrow will bring. Now, however, we are here, celebrating the memorial of our Lord. He knows about us and we know about Him. He is the One who dictates the apocalyptical letters: “I know thy works . . . and thy patience . . . and thy tribulation and thy poverty . . . I know where thou dwellest.” The Lord “knows everything.” This knowledge is our refuge. Now, at the moment of sacred commemoration, He will come to us, will be with us, will fortify us . Whatever tomorrow may bring, it will be of His sending .
Through this sense of momentary uncertainty presses another profounder sense: awareness of the uncertainty of all human existence. This seemingly unquestionable world of ours actually carries with it a question mark. We are beginning to notice it again, and to understand the sign. At any hour the Lord may return to end the world. The celebration of the Mass should always be tinged by the feeling: the world “is passing away.” A temporal thing from the start, it spins before God’s eternity for as long as He permits it to do so. But its essential temporality is not all; it is seconded by an acquired temporality or mortality, the extreme disorder brought about by its disobedience and injustice. Once summoned before God’s judgment, the world will be unable to “stand.” When that summons is to come, we do not know, hence the admonition to watch and pray so as not to be found “sleeping.” All that is certain is that it will come “soon,” the word signifying no simple measure of time (tomorrow rather than a year, for instance, or thirty years rather than thousands) but an essential soon, applicable to all time, no matter how long it lasts. It is the sacred soon that comes to us from the quiet waiting of Christ, pressing terrible and blissful from the limits of time upon every hour, and belonging somehow in our own consciousness if our faith is to be complete.
All this seems strange to us. We must be honest and not pretend to something we do not really feel. Here is a task for our Christian self-education. We must feel our way into these thoughts; must gradually make this expectancy our own. Perhaps these meditations have at least cleared away our modern prejudices against the very terminology commonly used to express the thought. Now we must really acquire the truth of the world’s “passing,” must practice watching, waiting, persevering “until the Lord comes.” This implies nothing unnatural, but simply truth; nothing that could make us uncertain in the world, or less efficient, but only a certain accent without which our existence is incomplete.
With it Holy Mass will receive an entirely new significance. We will realize how essential it is for us, and it will become an hour of profoundest tranquility and assurance. Throughout the noise and tension of the day, thought of the Mass will sustain us. The mind will reach out to it like a hand stretched out-each time to receive new strength.
Meditations Before Mass