Choosing the better part

Choosing the better part

Monday, October 11, 2021

The Mass and Christ's Return



In this final reflection, Guardini reminds us that the Gospel calls us to be vigilant, to remain spiritually awake and ready. We are to look for the signs of Christ’s coming, though we do not know exactly when he will come.

Our vigilance in preparation for this coming consists of worship. To remain spiritually awake is not first a matter of moral obedience to Christ, good and necessary as such obedience is. To prepare for this ultimate encounter with the All-Holy God, every Christian needs to encounter him in the context of worship, particularly in the ritual worship of the Church, and most especially in the Mass.

Our meeting with Christ our Judge will be as sudden as it is intimate. Newman, like Guardini, once described this preparation to meet Christ as the “most momentous reason” we have for our worship. Worship provides the most direct mode of engagement we have with God, it has the most salubrious effect on us insofar as it prepares us for life after death, and it brings us into “sacramental communion” with God here and now. Human nature is not in itself prepared for the vision of God, but participation in the Church’s worship transforms and elevates our nature so that we might be able to come before him without being destroyed.

This worship is not first and foremost something we offer to God, but rather it is first his gift to us. Newman writes:

"Thus in many ways He, who is Judge to us, prepares us to be judged, - He who is to glorify us, prepares us to be glorified, that He may not take us unawares; but that when the voice of the Archangel sounds, and we are called to meet the Bridegroom, we may be ready."

The Real Presence makes possible an interpersonal encounter with Christ in the Eucharist, and this encounter makes possible our preparation to meet Christ at the end of our lives and at the end of time.

It is this liturgical and sacramental worship that fuels the spiritual vigilance to which Christ calls us.

BUT I say to you, I will not drink henceforth of this fruit of the vine, until that day when I shall drink it new with you in the kingdom of my Father” (Matt. 26:29). Like the concept of the covenant, which we have just discussed, this word of Christ too has been strangely neglected. Before closing these meditations let us turn our attention to it. St. Luke places the passage after the offering of the last of the Passover cups and before the words that actually institute the Eucharist. Jesus seems to be gazing through and beyond the hour of the Last Supper to the coming of the kingdom. He is referring to the future eternal fulfillment that lies somewhere behind the inevitable death toward which, in obedience to His Father’s will, He now must stride. The passage tinges the whole memorial with a singular radiance which seems largely to have faded from the Christian consciousness.


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 church.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.

Romano Guardini

Meditations Before Mass

Monday, September 13, 2021

Mass and the New Covenant


Guardini draws our attention to a way that Christ establishes His memorial that is often given little notice in instructions on the Mass - Covenant.  At the consecration of the wine we hear: "this is the blood of the new and eternal covenant."  Yet what that exactly means may elude many Catholics. Guardini shows us how the Mass is connected to the Passover and the establishment of the Law of Mt. Sinai.  He writes: "
The parallel is obvious. The mediator on Sinai says: 'This is the blood of the covenant which the Lord hath made with you . . .'  Jesus says: 'This is the chalice of My Blood, of the new and eternal testament . . . which shall be shed for you.'"  The parallels in scripture go even further back to the covenant establish with both Abraham and Noah.  In all of these we find the stress laid upon "blood" - however, not in the manner in which it is often describe in tribal religions and their sacrifices. Neither, does God bind himself to one tribe or nation.  He is the Lord of all and Israel was to be a light to the nations. Again Guardini states: Christ "accepts the destiny prepared for Him by the disobedient people of the first covenant and turns it into the sacrificial offering of the second, which binds the Father, Lord of the world, to His new people, now no longer a natural ethnic one, but a spiritual people, comprised by all the races of the earth and united by faith. Wherever a man opens his heart to the tidings of Christ and believes in Him, he becomes a member of that 'people'."  All things that came before merely point to this covenant of grace that comes to us from God and draws us from the natural into the divine.  With this new covenant comes a new birth and a new creation! "Christ’s sacrificial death opened for us the new heaven and the new earth; that there exists between Him and us a contract based not on nature or talent or religious capacity, but on grace and freedom; that it is binding from person to person, loyalty to loyalty. At every Mass we should reaffirm that contract and consciously take our stand in it."

AMONG THE words Jesus used to establish His memorial, there is one which as a rule receives little notice in instruction on the Mass: the word about the covenant. St. Matthew’s Gospel reads: “All of you drink of this; for this is the blood of the new covenant, which is being shed for many unto the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:29). St. Mark’s: “This is my blood of the new covenant, which is being shed for many” (Mark 14:24). St. Luke’s: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which shall be shed for you” (Luke 22:20). In St. Paul’s first Epistle to the Corinthians we also find a reference to the covenant, resembling that in Luke (1 Cor. 11:25). We see how important the idea of the covenant is to the Church in the emphasis she places on it. At the consecration of the wine in the Canon of the Mass we have the words: “For this is the chalice of My Blood, of the new and eternal testament: the mystery of faith: which shall be shed for you and for many unto the remission of sins.” What exactly does this mean?

The Passover was a feast of commemoration. We have already discussed the event it commemorated. When the rulers of Egypt remained unmoved by Moses’ threats and God’s lighter plagues, stubbornly refusing to let the Hebrew captives go, the Lord God sent them the terrible plague of the death of all their firstborn, human as well as animal. In order that it might be perfectly clear who was being punished, the members of each Jewish household were commanded to slaughter a lamb and daub the door-posts of the house with its blood. Thus the angel of death would pass them by, and their oppressors would be left in no doubt that they alone were meant. That evening the lamb was to be consumed by the joyfully united members of the household, and the solemn feast was to be repeated annually in commemoration of the end of Egyptian bondage. Jesus Himself had celebrated the Passover each year with His disciples. But He had given the celebration a different turn by emphasizing not so much the liberation as the event following it: the sealing of the covenant of Sinai. The Book of Exodus reports:

So Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord, and all the judgments. And all the people answered with one voice: We will do all the words of the Lord, which he hath spoken. And Moses wrote all the words of the Lord: and rising in the morning he built an altar at the foot of the mount, and twelve titles according to the twelve tribes of Israel. And he sent young men of the children of Israel: and they offered holocausts, and sacrificed pacific victims of calves to the Lord. Then Moses took half of the blood and put it into bowls: and the rest he poured upon the altar. And taking the book of the covenant, he read it in the hearing of the people: and they said: All things that the Lord hath spoken we shall do. We will be obedient. And he took the blood and sprinkled it upon the people, and he said: This is the blood of the covenant which the Lord hath made with you concerning all these words” (Ex. 24:3-8).

The parallel is obvious. The mediator on Sinai says: “This is the blood of the covenant which the Lord hath made with you . . .” Jesus says: “This is the chalice of My Blood, of the new and eternal testament . . . which shall be shed for you.”

Behind the covenant of Sinai stands an earlier covenant, the one that existed between God and Abraham. It too had been sealed in blood: After the sun had set and a dark mist had risen, a lamplike fire passed between the “divisions” [of the slaughtered, sacrificial animals]. “That day God made a covenant with Abram, saying: To thy seed will I give this land, from the river of Egypt even to the great river Euphrates” (Gen. 15:17-18). And still further back, in the grey beginnings of time, looms the original covenant between God and Noe, sealed after the Flood, when Noe offered sacrifice to the Lord: “. . . and Noe built an altar unto the Lord: and taking of all cattle and fowls that were clean, offered holocausts upon the altar. And the Lord smelled a sweet savour, and said: I will no more curse the earth for the sake of man: for the imagination and thought of man’s heart are prone to evil from his youth: therefore I will no more destroy every living soul as I have done. All the days of the earth, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, night and day, shall not cease” (Gen. 8:20-22). “Behold, I will establish my covenant with you, and with your seed after you…. And God said: This is the sign of the covenant which I give between me and you, and to every living soul that is with you, for perpetual generations. I will set my bow in the clouds, and it shall I be the sign of a covenant between me, and between the earth” (Gen. 9:8-13).

In all these texts we find the reference to blood, often stressed again and again. This may impress us as strange, inhuman, but we do well to refrain from judging hastily by our twentieth-century reactions. Deep in the consciousness of all races lies a knowledge of the power of blood. Blood is life in its primary and most elementary form. Its flow eases tension, appeases anger, averts the lowering fate, enables life to reassume its course. How, it is impossible to say; we can only sense the truth of this. Somehow, through the flowing of blood a new beginning is made, mysteriously fortified by the sanguinary life-power. Obviously, the primitive significance of blood cannot simply be applied as it stands to revelation, for if ever anything needed redemption, it is the dark, primeval powers of blood. However, once existence has been transfigured, all things are revealed anew, and with them the power of blood. It is significant in the covenant not because it is symbolic of the glory and terror of life, but because in a special way it belongs to God, the Lord of all life. The flowing of the sacrificial blood in the Old Testament is an acknowledgment of His sovereignty, signifying the opposite of what it signifies in other religious sacrifices. It is not a kind of blood-mysticism, not a release of the divinity in nature, not a summoning of the powers of the deep. It has nothing to do with any of these. It is simply the recognition and prayerful acknowledgment that God alone is Lord!

Upon the conception of streaming blood as an expression of ultimate obedience, then, God places His covenant. And again we must be careful to differentiate. The word does not signify here what it does in the various religions, namely, the alliance of a divinity with a particular tribe. There it constitutes the secret vitality of the tribe, which in turn is the immediate expression of the god’s reality. Thus the two are interdependent to the point of being or non-being: the tribe enjoys the power and protection of its god; on the other hand, the god lives from the fertility and strength of the tribe. Their unity is effected in sacrifice. Through his offerings man strengthens the vitality of his god; then, by consuming the offerings, man avails himself of his god’s strength.

In the Old Testament there is not a trace of any such conception. God is not the divinity of a people or tribe because of any natural circumstance. He is not the mysterious source of its vitality and strength, but One who summons it from the freedom of divine decree. Certainly not because He needs human expression of His existence and a steady stream of earthly vitality in order to exist. He needs neither the Hebrew people nor any other people, for He is Lord of all that is. He summons this particular race not because it is better or more pious or more loyal than another. On the contrary, over and over again it proves itself disobedient, hard-hearted, and inconstant. What God founded with the Hebrew people was neither a powerful theocracy nor a religion expressive of a particular racial existence. He simply entrusted the Hebrews with His word and His law, which they were to bear through history, ultimately to all the peoples of the earth. Why He selected the Hebrews for this task is the impenetrable mystery of His decree.

All this must be clear if the word covenant is to receive its full weight. Above all, it is no question of a natural give and take, no alliance between the divine essence and the tribal, no blending of divine power with earthly, no beginning of a history of God in the history of a race. Not until all these conceptions have been cleared away does the inconceivable reveal itself: in absolute freedom the Lord of the universe singles out a people, addresses it and enables it to respond; He gives it His loyalty and demands its loyalty in return. He undertakes a divine task on earth and commands a race to render its services. If that race renounces its natural-historical existence in obedience to God’s command, it will receive its fulfillment direct from divine sovereignty.

But the Hebrew people declined. They clung fast to their racial consciousness and will and hardened themselves therein. When God’s Son, whose coming had been foretold throughout the centuries, comes to fulfill and end the covenant, His relation to men again assumes the form of a covenant. The people of the first covenant crowns its disobedience by turning on the Messiah and killing Him; and the second covenant, which should have been sealed in faith and love, once again is sealed in sacrificial blood, now the blood of Jesus Christ. For the Messiah accepts the destiny prepared for Him by the disobedient people of the first covenant and turns it into the sacrificial offering of the second, which binds the Father, Lord of the world, to His new people, now no longer a natural ethnic one, but a spiritual people, comprised by all the races of the earth and united by faith. Wherever a man opens his heart to the tidings of Christ and believes in Him, he becomes a member of that “people,” as St. Peter says in his first Epistle: “You, however, are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a purchased people; that you may proclaim the perfections of him who has called you out of the darkness into his marvellous light” (I Peter 2:9).

The new covenant, then, embraces a divine people which takes nothing from any earthly people and disturbs no national history, because it exists on an entirely different plane.

It is strange how completely the idea of the covenant has vanished from the Christian consciousness. We do mention it, but it seems to have lost its meaning for us; our Christian existence is determined by concepts of the new life, the new world, God’s kingdom, all of which tend to attach themselves to corresponding concepts in the natural order and to masquerade as things self-understood. But the moment of demasking always arrives. Then the seeming naturalness of the Christian conceptions falls, and we realize with a start that Christian being is no mere continuation of natural being, that the Christian order of existence is not simply a higher step in the order of nature and man, but “descends” to us from divine freedom and is meant to be caught up and held in human freedom. God summons man before Him. Upon hearing the divine command and question, man is meant to liberate himself from what is purely of this earth and to prove his loyalty to God-straight through the ties of the world. What then takes place is based not on nature, or the processes of history, or the unfolding of the mind and spirit, but on grace, summons, freedom, decision, all contained in the idea of the covenant. We are Christians because of a covenant. This thought must complement the other, more familiar concept of rebirth and the new creation. Covenant and rebirth: individual dignity and responsibility, and the abundance of the new life. The two great concepts belong together, for they mutually sustain one another.

Holy Mass is the commemoration of God’s new covenant with men. Awareness of this gives the celebration an added significance that is most salutary. To keep this thought in mind is to remind ourselves that Christ’s sacrificial death opened for us the new heaven and the new earth; that there exists between Him and us a contract based not on nature or talent or religious capacity, but on grace and freedom; that it is binding from person to person, loyalty to loyalty. At every Mass we should reaffirm that contract and consciously take our stand in it.

Romano Guardini

Meditations Before Mass

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Truth and the Eucharist



Our participation in Mass and reception of the Holy Eucharist can never remain sentimental piety or become something impersonal and magical.  Guardini seeks to help us understand that the reality of Christ present in the Eucharist and a living and vital relationship with Him are inextricable tied together.  Thus, our relationship with Christ, Guardini tells us, must be a communion in truth. Christ's essence must be conveyed to us, we must appreciate His uniqueness, His attitude toward life, His work and His identity.  Absent this, our relations with Him will be incomplete.  Upon receiving Him in the Eucharist we must not lose sight of the fact that Christ is "also 'the Truth.'  He is the incarnate Logos, God’s Message written in flesh and blood. His self-offering is revelation; to receive Him is to receive Truth." Our nourishment in the Eucharist is eternal Truth and we must recognize this otherwise it profits us nothing! Guardini warns: The sacred texts of the Mass are "a clue to Christ’s identity, is some facet of His personality or truth, some event in His life that comes forward to be understood and accepted; each is a ray of that Truth which will be present at the Consecration no longer in word but in His real existence."  This is of primary importance to us because piety has a tendency to neglect the truth - sliding into fantasy, sentimentality and exaggeration. 

THE ACTION of the Lord’s memorial embraces several different but inseparable concepts. We have already discussed two: that of the meal and that of Christ’s coming or our encounter with Him. The Father offers the believer the vital being of His Son, “the true bread.” From the same Father, Christ steps into the congregation that is commemorating Him and lovingly approaches each member. These are the concepts that determine the act of Holy Communion. The creature in us longs to be nourished by the abundant reality of the God-man who said: “I am the life”; the person in us watches, waits, hurries to meet the coming One, remains with Him in the union of love and obedience. Behind both concepts, giving them their sacred significance, stands the tremendous fact of the redemptory sacrifice.

And still we have not touched bottom. One more thought belongs here: revelation and the pious recognition of divine truth. What does community with another person mean? Above all, it demands genuine mutual exchange, respect for his person, trust, loyalty, that simultaneous unity and reverence known as friendship or comradeship or love. Such an alliance surpasses the merely physical or merely spiritual. Because it rests on the will, it is capable of surviving the adversities to which all living things are exposed. But community has yet another element: the sharing of one another’s power, radiance, vital depths; the ability to experience with the immediacy of sympathy and love the life of the other. These elements of community are essential and irreplaceable, but alone they still do not suffice. The relationship founded on them alone would have a blind spot. Between myself and the other there must be also truth. His essence must be conveyed to me. I must appreciate his uniqueness, his attitude to life, his work and destiny. I must consent to his being as he is and make room for him, as he is, in my life. And I must know myself confirmed and accepted by him. Then our relations will be complete-not before.

The whole point of the Lord’s memorial is such communio.

No more complete communion exists than that which Christ established between Himself and those who believe in Him. Of course, its perfection is one-sided, for we remain locked in egotism.

The relation of the believer to his Lord is a pure I-Thou relation, just as one redeemed is related to the freedom of the children of God. The Redeemer “comes” in a particular way that embraces every conceivable degree of person-to-person encounter and mutual fulfillment; this concept continues even to the startling second concept in which the flesh and blood of Him who knew Himself to be “the life” is offered as nourishment for men. Both concepts are threatened: the first by an all-too-personal sentimentality; the second by the impersonal, if not inhuman-magical. History proves that both dangers have frequently become realises. Christ is not only “the Life,” He is also “the Truth.” He is the incarnate Logos, God’s Message written in flesh and blood. His self-offering is revelation; to receive Him is to receive Truth.

Once again we must consult the “commentary” to the institution of the Eucharist, Jesus’ speech at Capharnaum. The crowds have experienced the miracle of the loaves and they press about Him expectantly. Now, surely, the miraculous bounty of the Messianic kingdom will be poured out! Jesus says to them: “Amen, amen, I say to you, you seek me, not because you have seen signs [that reveal divine truth], but because you have eaten of the loaves and have been filled. Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for that which endures unto life everlasting, which the Son of Man will give you” (John 6:26-27). The people do not understand, so Jesus speaks more clearly: “‘. . . my Father gives you tile true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ They said therefore to him, ‘Lord, give us always this bread.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. He who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst'” (John 6:33-35). The “life” He speaks of is His own. The “bread” by which it is nourished is Himself. But how is that bread to be given and received? “All that the Father gives to me shall come to me, and him who comes to me I will not cast out” (John 6: 37). In other words, it will be given through living contact with Him who is the Truth; on the one hand through the radiance of all He is and says and does and suffers; on the other, through our coming to Him and believing and seeing. What does one see? The divine figure of the Lord, in which the abundance of the invisible world breaks through. St. John says: “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us. And we saw his glory-glory as of the only-begotten of the Father-full of grace and truth” (John 1 :14). What is to take place, then, is the revelation of Truth through God and the acceptance of that sacred truth by men. Then the concept shifts. Again He says, “I am the bread of life.” But He adds, “I am the living bread that has come down from heaven. If anyone eat of this bread he shall live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” (John 6:48-51). This is so novel and unheard-of that scandal sets in. Hasn’t He Himself insisted again and again that “the bread” is His living flesh, that the eating is a true eating? Only the manner of that eating and drinking, namely, in the spirit, remains mysteriously veiled. “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh profits nothing” (John 6:63). Christ has given His hearers the clue, but they refuse it.

The coherence of the speech as a whole is immeasurably important. Christ’s memorial is an act of genuine sharing in His vital existence; it is not meant to be “spiritualized” or volatilized, for it is genuine eating and drinking, though in all the dignity, breadth, power and significance of truth. To put it bluntly, Christ, offering Himself as nourishment, cannot be eaten like a piece of bread which is received and become part of our own body whether we are aware of its essence or not. The Lord has just said of this act: “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” The one who offers us Himself is not any parcel of reality, but the universal Logos. The “nourishment” of His body is eternal, holy truth, and consequently the participation in it requires recogniton of that truth; otherwise it “profits nothing.”

To participate in Holy Mass means to recognize Christ as the Logos, Creator, Redeemer. “As often as ye shall do these things, ye shall do them in remembrance of me.” “Remembrance” here does not mean only: “Do this to commemorate me.” It means in addition: “While doing this, think of me, of my essence, my tidings, my destiny; all these are the Truth.” It is not by accident that the essential action of the Mass is preceded by the Epistle and Gospel, for each of the sacred texts is a clue to Christ’s identity, is some facet of His personality or truth, some event in His life that comes forward to be understood and accepted; each is a ray of that Truth which will be present at the Consecration no longer in word but in His real existence.

It is of primary importance that we see Truth’s relation to the Mass. Piety is inclined to neglect truth. Not that it shuns it or shies away from it, but it is remarkable how readily piety slides off into fantasy, sentimentality and exaggeration. Legends and devotional books offer only too frequent and devastating proof of this; unfortunately piety is inclined to lose itself in the subjective, to become musty, turgid, unspiritual. Divine reality is never any of these, never falsely spiritual in the sense of the vaporous, the unsubstantial. Divine reality, which is another name for truth, remains as divinely substantial as the living Jesus who walked the earth. But it must be illuminated by the spirit, the Holy Spirit.

Truth is essential to the fullness of the Mass. It is not enough to harp on the fact that the Mass is the center and content of the Christian’s life. It must also be made clear how that center may be reached and that content shared. This is possible only when truth’s vital relation to the Eucharist is recognized and when truth permeates the entire act of the sacred celebration.

Romano Guardini

Meditations Before Mass

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Encounter and Feast


Guardini examines with us language used in regards to the Eucharist and how it effects our understanding of what and, specifically here in this reflection, Who we receive.  After having discussed the Bread of Life discourse with us and its sharp language emphasizing the reality of the gift that Christ makes of Himself to us, Guardini doesn't want us to reduce the Eucharist to an object and lose sight of the Person. "A person is not passed about; he comes, enters into a vital you-me relationship, gives himself freely and personally. This is the second concept inherent in the Mass. The first was the meal; the second is the encounter." Christ dwells us among us and in the Eucharist He is "He who comes to me." A memorial can commemorate only a person.  'Commemoration always implies a person, and it presupposes a vital relationship to that person. Genuine commemoration is a projection of an already existing 'we-relationship.'”  In other words, Christ comes to us in all his personal reality - everything He has and is and His salutary destiny.  This naturally changes our understanding of the word "Feast" as well. Guardini writes: "He comes in the plenitude of His whole redemptory life- each time in the particular mystery of the day that the unrolling liturgical year is commemorating: the mystery of God’s Incarnation, or His Epiphany, or His Passion, or His Resurrection and Ascension. He comes to us from the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit. To wait for Him, to invite Him, to go to receive and honor and praise Him, to be with Him, drawn into the intimacy of Communion with Him-that is the Christian feast." God has engaged us in the ultimate form of intimacy that surpasses any worldly union. 

THE PARTICIPANT in Holy Mass enters into a community at table. Early in the Mass he receives God’s word, which he accompanies with his prayers, glorifying God and placing his personal concerns at the feet of the provident Father. Then, beholding and participating, he helps to prepare the sacred meal, to which he brings his offering. And however impersonal the money-piece, it is the accepted substitute for the more vital form of giving. Now with the priest he turns to the Father and receives through faith the presence of Him who said: “I am the living bread that has come down from heaven” (John 6:52). At Communion he sees in spirit the Father’s hand proffering the sacred nourishment, which he reverently accepts, that he may “have life.” But this conception of the Lord’s Supper or Feast does not stand alone. It is coupled with another: that of Christ’s “coming.”

Spiritual language has its own idiom for this second aspect, which it expresses with great simplicity. Everywhere we meet sentences such as these: Christ is present in the Mass; in Communion the Lord gives Himself to the communicant; He lingers with him. Those who insist that spiritual language is sometimes faulty, and who should on this point be soberly corrected, should re-read the text of Christ’s speech at Capharnaum. Referring to the promised Eucharist, the Lord Himself uses the image of a coming, an encounter. Along with His insistence on the real eating and drinking of the real food, we find such sentences as: “For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” “. . . not that anyone has seen the Father except him who is from God, he has seen the Father.” “I am the living bread that has come down from heaven. If anyone eat of this bread he shall live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” “As the living Father has sent me, and as I live because of the Father, so he who eats me, he also shall live because of me.” (See John 6:33-57).

The “meat indeed” and “drink indeed” offered by the hand of the Father is not a thing but a Person; not “it” but He, the supreme Person praised in all eternity. Hence the reverent believer is naturally inclined to feel that the words about eating and drinking somehow debase the sacred Person of Christ. St. John is the Evangelist who had to wage an endless battle against the heresies which began to crop up even in his lifetime. That is why his wording of the truth in all fundamental passages is extremely sharp. In his Prologue he does not state that God’s Son became man, he uses the more forceful expression: “the Word was made flesh.” In reference to the Eucharist he does not use the statement employed by the Synoptics: “take and eat, this is my body,” but: “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has life everlasting…. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood, abides in me and I in him” (John 6:54-56). Here is the ultimate clarification to which a man must speak his clear, decisive “Yes!” or “No!”

It is at this point that the difficulty we mentioned becomes apparent, a genuine difficulty quite different from the stubborn contrariness of “the Jews,” of the “many disciples,” or of Judas at Capharnaum; here we have the valid fear that the Lord’s self-offering could be dragged from the purity of His relation to us as a Person to the level of a mere thing or object. A person, and least of all He, the Holy One and Lord, cannot simply be given and taken and had; a person is not something to be passed about here and there. A person is not passed about; he comes, enters into a vital you-me relationship, gives himself freely and personally. This is the second concept inherent in the Mass. The first was the meal; the second is the encounter. Both are expressed time and again by Christ Himself as well as by the general spiritual phrases His words have inspired. The one image is sustained by words like “the true bread,” the “food and drink,” the “flesh for the life of the world”; the other by “come down from heaven,” “He who comes to me,” and by the countless expressions of the Lord’s being among us, with us, His inclining lovingly toward us, His dwelling in us and uniting Himself with us.

The Mass is the Lord’s memorial. We have tried to understand the word as richly and profoundly as possible; now we must go a step further. A “memorial” can commemorate only a person, not an earthquake or a particularly fruitful harvest. These can only be remembered. I can commemorate some beloved victim of the catastrophe or a loved one’s joy over a blessed autumn’s abundance. Commemoration always implies a person, and it presupposes a vital relationship to that person. Genuine commemoration is a projection of an already existing “we-relationship.”

This is precisely what we have in Holy Mass. The memorial which the Lord bequeathed us is not merely the memory of an event or the portrayal of a great figure; it is the fulfillment of our personal relation to Christ, of the believer to his Redeemer. In the Mass Christ comes in all His personal reality, bearing His salutary destiny. He comes not to just anyone, but to His own. Here again St. John brings this mystery into particularly sharp focus. God’s Son comes from heaven, from the Father, whom He alone knows. He lives from the Father’s vitality; everything He has and is, He has and is through the Father. But this intimate bond of love does not stop there. The Father sends His Son to men in order that He may pass on to them the divine life He has received. “As the living Father has sent me, and as I live because of the Father, so he who eats me, he also shall live because of me” (John 6:58).

When He became man, Jesus bridged the gulf between heaven and earth, between the Father and us once and for all. Henceforth He “is” with us in the sense that He belongs to us, is “on our side.” “Emmanuel,” the God-who-has-come. Yet in the special manner of the mystery, the Lord spans that gulf anew every time His memorial is celebrated. First, in the readings of the day, we receive word of Him. Then the offerings are prepared and there is a pause. By Consecration He comes to us, the subject of an incomprehensibly dynamic “memorial,” and gives us His grace-abounding attention. In Communion He approaches each of us individually and says: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock” (Apoc. 3:20). Insofar as the “door” swings open in genuine faith and love, He enters and gives Himself to the believer for his own.

This might be the place to mention the general significance of the Lord’s coming in the liturgy. What are the Christian implications of the word “feast”? When we stop to consider such things we must remember that our century has lost touch with certain ultimate mysteries. We are rationalists and psychologists, and reduce everything to the intellect or moral plane or to the subjective level of “experience.” Asked what a feast is, Easter, for example, we should probably reply something to the effect that Easter is the day on which we commemorate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, that we joyfully praise God, that filled with faith and love, and hopeful of sharing in the graces of His Resurrection, we seek out the Lord, firmly resolving to live the new life He has made available to us.

Have we expressed the essence of Easter? Not yet, for we have not touched the reality that lies at its core, the unique manner in which the Lord’s Resurrection is renewed-not as a mere repetition, but so that He actually steps anew from eternity into our time, our presence. (Recall what was said in the chapter “Time and Eternity.”) And He comes in the plenitude of His whole redemptory life- each time in the particular mystery of the day that the unrolling liturgical year is commemorating: the mystery of God’s Incarnation, or His Epiphany, or His Passion, or His Resurrection and Ascension. He comes to us from the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit.

To wait for Him, to invite Him, to go to receive and honor and praise Him, to be with Him, drawn into the intimacy of Communion with Him-that is the Christian feast.

We begin to see how closely interwoven the concepts of the feast and the encounter are. They do not conflict, but mutually sustain each other. Each prevents the other from one-sidedness and falsehood. The concept of the coming, the encounter, guards the dignity of the person and protects the concept of the Supper from unseemliness and irreverence. It reminds us that Communion is not possession but exchange, like the reciprocal gaze of any genuine “we.” On the other hand, the concept of the Supper projects that of the encounter to the incomprehensible holy mystery of ultimate intimacy. Among human beings an encounter is always relative; it never completely embraces the other person. This last unbridgeable separation is the exigency of all created love. In Holy Communion the last vestige of distance is removed, and we are assured of an “arrival” that surpasses all created possibility, genuine union.

If we wish to read more about the life that flows to us from this mystery, we should turn to the letters of the Apostle Paul. The man who writes in the Epistle to the Galatians: “It is now no longer I that live, but Christ lives in me” is the evangelist of the totally “encountered” Christ, the “Christ in us.”

In the preceding chapter we concluded that participation in Holy Mass demands that we make our concept of the meal, the feast, a living one. Now we must add that participation in the Mass also consists in our awareness of our encounter with Christ, in the consciousness that He is about to come, is here in this room, is turning to me, is here! We must listen for and hear His knock on the door; we must profoundly experience His arrival and visit-without sentimentality or superexaltation but simply, calmly, in a faith that is all truth.

Romano Guardini

Meditations Before Mass

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Christ's Offering of Self


True 
conversion comes when divine truth overthrows our understanding of something or of life itself; where reason and earthly judgement is overcome by the revolution caused by God revealing Himself to us.  We are often unready for such a thing; rather, we are struck at our inner depths.  It is nothing short of a new birth.  The great struggle of modern times is to let loose our grip on the illusory onto which we hold ferociously.  There must be a break with a certain habit of mind and a willingness to grasp for the words that capture the truth revealed to us.  This is so for every generation and one might say particularly so for our generation. There are certain things, especially the central mystery of our faith and its enormity, that cannot be learned from books, sermons or retreats.  We either murmur in protest and gradually move away from the truth or we allow ourselves to hold fast to Christ in a dumbfounded trust in His claims to be the Bread of Life. Guardini writes: "Every believer worthy of the name must sometime undergo the danger of scandal and its trial by fire." Even with a dim conception of things we must choose as it were to allow ourselves to be drawn into Jesus' sacrifice of self and all of its personal implications for us.  There is no genuine belief without battle and so Guardini tells us: "Nothing helps but to warn ourselves: Here is the steepest, highest pinnacle of our faith (or the narrowest, most precipitous pass through which that faith must labor if it is to reach full, essential freedom). Experience has shown that those who water down reality here at the summit of Christianity continue to do so all the way down the line: in their conceptions of the Church, of the Incarnation, of Christ’s divine Sonship, of the truth of the triune God." We are faced with truth faith's supreme test: a perfect self-emptying love that we are called not only to receive but imitate and become.  There is no life without it. 


TWO THINGS are necessary for true understanding. The first is the ability to compare, differentiate, and discern causal relations and interdependencies. This is important, but more important is something unteachable, a certain sensibility to the essence of things. This quality has nothing to do with that watchfulness which is quick to notice a danger or an advantage; animals too have that faculty. It is equally far removed from curiosity, from eagerness to experience the unknown and the extraordinary for their own sakes. Avidness for experience is at best but a forerunner of the essential attitude; more often it is a caricature of it and renders a man as incapable of genuine enlightenment as would indifference. The real prerequisite of enlightenment is an intellectual and more than intellectual readiness to be struck and shaken by the revelatory impact of a thing, not because of any personal fear or desire, for here we are already beyond the range of intent and purpose; not for the sake of diversion, for at this level things cease to belong to “the interesting.” Confronted with the hidden meaning behind some image or pattern of images, a man is moved to disclose it, and to clear for it a path into the open, that truth may come into its own.

Sensibility to the essence of things also exists, though of course in a different way, in the realm of faith. Here the “birth” of a truth, the emergence of its essence into the light and spaciousness of recognition, are made possible not by any contact of intellect with significance, but by the power of God’s light, grace. The object does not step from the world to confront the mind capable of discovering it; it does not exist in itself at all (in the manner I of earthly objects, which can be grasped, plumbed, exploited by exhaustive study); it exists only in God and must be “given,” revealed by the divine word and received by faith. It always remains a mystery that transcends the created mind. Revealed truth is neither a continuation nor a new dimension of earthly truth, but something that completely overthrows earthly truth. And not only does it over” throw it, it brands it as untruth. When a man accepts divine truth in the obedience of faith, he is forced to re-think human truth. The conversion he must make embraces his whole conception of the universe, which he must conceive anew in its entirety. His readiness to do so is the measure of his enlightenment. Yet in all this upheaval his natural reason stands firm, for the Logos who speaks in revelation is the same Logos who created the universe. Thus the depth of a man’s true knowledge depends upon the impact of the divine knowledge he has received. The point that is “struck” lies much deeper than mere intellectual readiness for truth, somewhere in the inmost depths of new birth and the new man.

Revelation presents twentieth-century believers with a special difficulty. We are latecomers. Our generation has heard the sacred tidings time and time again. Moreover, we live in an age that is constantly reading and writing and talking and hearing. There is such a continuous turnover of words, that our “coinage” is worn smooth and thin; its stamp has grown blurred. Instead of truth we have truth’s caricatures; instead of knowledge, the illusion of already knowing. Only with great effort can we free ourselves from illusory knowledge to pause, look up and passionately inquire into the clear-cut, genuine truth of things. Are we then doomed to become incapable of possessing divine truth? Certainly not, for truth is meant for all ages; however, we must recognize and apply ourselves to this century’s particular barriers to truth if we wish to clear them. Above all, we must relearn composure, meditation, absorption-precisely the things that the different chapters of this book have attempted to describe. We must break the strings of habit, must rid ourselves of fateful seeming-knowledge; we must remint our words so that they may again speak clearly, truthfully.

The Lord’s memorial is the central mystery of our Christian life. It has taken the form of a meal at which He offers Himself as the food. We were taught this in the Communion instruction of our childhood; we hear it repeated again and again in sermons and retreats; we read it in religious books. Yet are we really aware of the stupendousness of the thought?

It must have been important to the Lord that His hearers were conscious of it, for when He proclaimed the establishment of the mystery He stressed the enormity of it in a manner that could not have been accidental. His words at Capharnaum sound quite different from those of the actual establishment, where they are frugal and calm. During the tremendous act that took place on Maundy Thursday He no longer dwells on its tremendous significance. The great test of faith has already taken place; the decision has fallen, and those who hear Him now have already proved themselves. For at Capharnaum Jesus so drastically confronted His hearers with the otherness of the divine that they were not only struck, but struck down. The report reads: “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). The Jews “murmured about him because he had said, ‘I am the bread that has come down from heaven.’ And they kept saying, ‘Is this not Jesus the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How, then, does he say, “I have come down from heaven”?’ ” (John 6:41-42).

The protest is directed not at the mystery of the Eucharist, which has not yet been proclaimed, but at Jesus’ claim to be, in person, the bread of faith, eternal truth. What does the Lord do? He does not mitigate what He has said; He does not attempt to explain by pointing out His place in the sacred prophecies. He goes still further, pressing the sharp point of the blade home. “I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the desert, and have died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that if anyone eat of it he will not die. . . . If anyone eat of this bread he shall live forever.” Now they feel the fu]l shock of the blow: “and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” (John 6:48-52). It would seem to be high time to modify these words, or at least to explain them. Instead of coming to the rescue of His floundering hearers Jesus adds: “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has life everlasting and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh, and drinks my blood, abides in me and I in him” (John 6:53-57). At this the first split runs through the group of disciples: “Many of his disciples therefore said, ‘This is a hard saying. Who can listen to it?’ ” (John 6:61). Jesus’ closest followers are hard-pressed, but He does not help them. He forces them to a decision of life or death: are they ready to accept the fullness of revelation, which necessarily overthrows earthly wisdom, or do they insist on judging revelation, delimiting its “possibilities” from their own perspective? “Does this scandalize you? What then if you should see the Son of Man ascending where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some among you who do not believe” (John 6:62-65). “The Jews” who first “murmured” against Jesus have already dispersed. Now also “many of his disciples” leave Him. Jesus turns to the remaining hard core: “Do you also wish to go away?” (John 6:68). Still not a word of help, only the hard, pure demand for a decision. Peter replies: “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast words of everlasting life, and we have come to believe and to know that thou art the Christ, the Son of God” (John 6:68-70). They do not understand either, but struck by the power of the mystery, they surrender themselves to it. They are dumbfounded but trustful; at least most of them. Not all, as we see from Jesus’ reply: ” ‘ Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil.’ Now he was speaking of Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon; for he it was, though one of the Twelve, who was to betray him” (70-71).

It was to such rigorously tested men that Jesus entrusted the mystery of the Holy Eucharist; it was they who at the Last Supper first received the sacred nourishment.

Apparently there is no genuine belief without battle. Every believer worthy of the name must sometime undergo the danger of scandal and its trial by fire. Some, the intrinsically shielded children of God, are enabled to come through; certainly not the majority. We too must have felt the enormity of what took place at Capharnaum, of that which so incensed the Jews and so shocked many of the disciples that they declared Jesus’ words intolerable and left Him. It was the shock that probably shattered Judas’ faith, the other eleven saving themselves only by a blind leap of trust to the Master’s feet. The impact of the message of Capharnaum by no means leaves an impression of idyllic and sentimental wonderment, as the average book of devotions suggests. It is an unheard-of challenge flung not only at the mind, but, as we see from the stark scene at Capharnaum, at the heart as well. There stands Christ and declares that He desires to give Himself to us, to become the content and power of our lives. How can one person give himself to another-not things that he possesses, or knowledge or experience or help or trust or respect or love or even community of life-but his body and his soul to be our food and drink! And He means it really, not “spiritually.” The quotation on which the Symbolists base their theory: “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh profits nothing” (John 6:63) by no means indicates that Jesus’ words over the bread and wine were intended to mean: “My spirit shall fill you; my strength shall strengthen you.” He might have said this, but He did not. The whole point of the speech at Capharnaum is its insistence on real flesh, real blood, real eating and drinking- “in the spirit” of course, but that means in the Holy Spirit. The Lord was referring to sacrifice, yes, but not as the hearers’ familiarity with temple sacrifice would suggest; not in the general, impersonal sense of the Old Testament, but in the intimate mystery of faith. The glorious reality of Jesus’ sacrifice compares with the disciples’ dim conception of it as the risen body of the Lord in the full power of the Holy Spirit with the body that stands before them.

Nothing helps but to warn ourselves: Here is the steepest, highest pinnacle of our faith (or the narrowest, most precipitous pass through which that faith must labor if it is to reach full, essential freedom). Experience has shown that those who water down reality here at the summit of Christianity continue to do so all the way down the line: in their conceptions of the Church, of the Incarnation, of Christ’s divine Sonship, of the truth of the triune God. The test of Capharnaum is in truth faith’s supreme test. The man who refuses to master his feelings when they stand between him and God is unfit for the kingdom of God. This is where the great conversion, the change of measuring-rods takes place. Not until the earnestness of the decision has been felt and the danger of scandal faced and overcome, does the miracle of this ultimate mystery unfold. Then, suddenly, as if self-understood, comes the blissful knowledge that love perfectly fulfilled can give not only all it has, but all it is: itself. No earthly love is ever perfectly fulfilled. To love in the earthly sense really means to strive for the impossible. St. John gives us the clue to the otherness of divine love: not only does God love, God is lover He alone not only desires to love, but can love “to the end” (John 13:1).

Jesus desires that men receive and make their own the gift of His vital essence, strength, His very Person as fully and intimately as they receive and assimilate the strength and nourishment of bread and wine. He even adds that the person who is not so nourished cannot possess ultimate life. No earthly gift of love, even if it were possible, could ever be the perfect gift that Jesus’ self-offering is-utterly devoid of accompanying impurities and toxins. He is total purity, total power, total vitality and more: the prerequisite of that immortal, ultimate life which alone is capable of existence before God throughout eternity. Jesus really means what He said at the Last Supper: “Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where thou art going, and how can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life’ ” (John 14:6).


Romano Guardini

Meditations Before Mass

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Mimicry or Liturgical Form?


While the title of this reflection may seem obscure, what it addresses is a point of understanding that is often confused in our thinking about what we are participating in at Mass.  The Mass is no mere simulation regardless of how permanent the form of commemoration it seems to be to us.  It is not an action that commemorates certain events vividly and activates the emotions and senses of the individual - as many forms of devotion do such as the Way of the Cross or Passion Plays.  Even Adoration does not capture the permanence of the "
act of Jesus’ commemoration, into which the believer is meant to enter, and in which he should actively participate." The Sacred Act of the Mass is translated into symbols and it is not a play but liturgy.  Guardini ties it explicitly to the Incarnation: "When God’s Son came to us, He did not reveal Himself directly as the Logos; He became man. Here in a man’s human body lived divine reality, a reality which did not manifest itself in mysterious radiance or overwhelming power, but which was translated into the body, gesture, word, act of the man Jesus. In that man God was heard and seen, as St. John so vividly expresses it: “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us. And we saw his glory-glory as of the only-begotten of the Father-full of grace and truth”  The Mass moves much along the same line: "The bread assumes a new, special aspect; it becomes host. The cup becomes festive chalice; the table, altar. In place of the presiding master we have the delegated priest. The words spoken no longer spring from the immediate feeling and inspiration of the officiator, but are strictly prescribed. Jesus’ memorial had to assume this form if it was to remain a permanent part of the believers’ Christian life." The task of the believer then is a great one and must be renewed daily to avoid distortion: "The believer must also follow the “translation” into symbols of everything that is taking place. When we watch a person we love, we do not merely observe his expression and gestures; we try to interpret those external manifestations of what is going on within. Here we have something similar, only greater. . . In His presence His[Jesus'] followers should not merely reflect on God, they should behold God with the vital gaze of the new man. The liturgical action of the Mass is a formal rendering of Jesus’ act of making His Father 'visible.'"

HOLY MASS is the commemoration of the Person and redemptory destiny of Christ.

There are various forms of commemoration; one is that of the monument, a constant reminder to forgetful men of something that has been. This great form of commemoration is used chiefly to stimulate the national or ethnic memory. Rarer, but also impressive, is the memorial in which something transitory by nature is given “permanent form” through the continuation of its action; for instance, memorial flame, which, carefully guarded in some sanctuary, burns unceasingly. Essentially something that expires quickly, flame is the symbol par excel fence of the self-consuming. Here its natural action is brought to a “standstill,” remaining just active enough to attract the attention and stir the mind. Water may be used similarly, the play and rustle of a fountain acting as a perpetual reminder of something past but unforgotten, a symbol of unstinted generous service. Whatever form it takes, a commemoration of this kind has the basic characteristic of something continuous, unchanging, that steadily holds its ground in the passing flow of life with all its haste and inconstancy.

It would be perfectly possible to commemorate the Lord in this fashion. Indeed, it is often done, for example, on a mountain peak or at some other significant spot where a cross has been erected. There the cross is not only a sacred image, it is also a monument. But in the Mass it is different. The memorial that Christ established is commemorated in the form of an action which itself commemorates an event or series of events: the life, death, and resurrection of the Savior. To be rendered present -not only as an act of the mind or heart, but in its own full reality-this event must be represented in the form of an action which begins, unfolds and ends. Into this passing act, so perfectly expressive of our own fleeting existence, steps the eternal. Thus all that exists in absolute permanence in God is packed into the brief span of an earthly event.

The believers’ participation is likewise an act. Not a mere beholding and adoring, but co-operation. However inviolable from the standpoint of Christian teaching the adoration of the Eucharist is, and however fundamental and necessary the clear position it holds against error, there is a danger of its forcing the basic, active nature of the Lord’s memorial into the background of the believers’ consciousness. When the host is exposed for adoration, it gives an impression of permanence quite opposed to the act of Jesus’ commemoration, into which the believer is meant to enter, and in which he should actively participate. In what form does this sacred act take place?

It would be natural enough to take Christ’s command to “do this” literally, even in the external sense, and simply imitate what the Lord did on Maundy Thursday. Countless examples of commemorative folk-customs and festivals the world over testify to man’s fondness for dramatization of historical events. Christian thought too has expressed itself dramatically time and again. We have only to consider the age-old devotion of the Way of the Cross, originally practiced in Jerusalem itself, where Christians piously retraced the actual path Christ took from Pilate’s praetorium to Golgotha. Jesus’ bequest that the Last Supper and His imminent death be commemorated could easily have led to the perpetration of the communal meal in its original form, the Agape, the meal of brotherly love immediately followed by the celebration of the Eucharist. In this form it actually was celebrated for quite a long time. However, abuses cropped up very soon, and to judge from the sharpness of St. Paul’s criticism, they must have been grave:

So then when you meet together, it is no longer possible to eat the Lord’s Supper. For at the meal, each one takes first his own supper, and one is hungry, and another drinks overmuch., Or do you despise the church of God and put to l shame the needy? What am I to say to you? Am I to commend you? In this I do not commend you . . . For as often as you shall eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord, until he comes. Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily, will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man prove himself, and so let him eat of that bread and drink of the cup; for he who eats and drinks unworthily, without distinguishing the body, eats and drinks judgment to himself. This is why many among you are infirm and weak, and many sleep (1 Cor. 11:20-22, 26-30).

The oft-quoted words about eating and drinking judgment do not refer, as they are frequently thought to, to the wrong done by those who receive the sacred food in a state of serious sin, but to that attitude which makes the sacred meal the opposite of what it is meant to be: an expression of love between those linked by faith. What each believer brought was to be shared by all; anyone who preferred to eat his own food should take care that it at least would not differ conspicuously from the rest. Instead, the wealthy flaunted delicacies that embarrassed the poor; the one had too much and the other too little. Such lovelessness is the sin of unworthily eating and drinking the sacred nourishment of the Lord. Behind it lies the other wrong: emphasis on the physical nourishment obscures the central mystery of the feast. Such then, the consequences of the imitative form.

The attempt to commemorate Christ’s death in the same form would have similar results. It has been tried, and still is, in the popular mysteries or Passion Plays. People think in pictures, and the depicted scene thrusts its way into the living present. The origin of the Passion Plays indicates that they are definitely religious. Often they have been founded by some religious group; to take part in them is an honor which presupposes a fitting way of life. Rehearsal and performance alike are preceded by religious services and originally bore the stamp of profound piety. Nevertheless, from the start they have carried the seed of degeneration. Quite aside from the dominant position which the dramatic instinct quickly usurps, aside from the inevitable infiltration of pride and envy and all the evils connected with money and success, there is something in dramatization itself that offends faith’s instinctive modesty. Although this negative reaction makes allowances as long as the play remains simple and genuinely pious, and as long as it is produced rarely, it would consider it intolerable if the memorial which the Lord made the center of Christian life were to be commemorated regularly in this imitative form.

The memorial of the Mass is celebrated not in the form of a play, but of a liturgy. The object commemorated is not imitated, but translated into symbols.

The procedure is divided into several parts. The first part of the Mass consists in readings from Scripture and prayers corresponding more or less to the psalms of praise and the host’s account of the Exodus at the beginning of the Passover meal. Then in the Offertory the gifts of bread and wine are prepared. This is reminiscent of the disciples’ preparations for the Last Supper described in Matthew (26:17-19). Immediately after this, Jesus’ institution itself is carried out: blessing, thanksgiving, and the sacred meal. The original form has vanished. No longer is there a table around which the faithful gather; in its place stands the altar, and however close architectural arrangement has permitted it, it still remains essentially separated from the believer. At the altar stands the priest; opposite him, united as congregation, the believers. There are no bowls and pitchers, cups and plates on the altar-all these have been concentrated in paten and chalice. And even they are shaped to differentiate sharply from the customary instruments in daily use. The priest partakes of the sacred food and offers it to the believers in a manner entirely different from that of the ordinary meal. As for the food itself, its form has become so “spiritualized” that one can almost speak of the danger of its being unrecognizable as bread.

It is important really to understand this process of translation from one sphere of reality to another. It exists not only here. In man lives a soul, but the life of that soul is not of itself visible; it is unable to express itself alone. To do so, it must first become gesture, act, word; it must translate itself into the language of the body in order for us to grasp it. Herein lies the true essence of what the German calls Leib-the vital unit of heart, mind and body, as distinguishable from the mere physique. Leib is not only a vessel or an instrument, but the visible manifestation of the soul. In Jesus this relation between body and soul reappears in sublime form. When God’s Son came to us, He did not reveal Himself directly as the Logos; He became man. Here in a man’s human body lived divine reality, a reality which did not manifest itself in mysterious radiance or overwhelming power, but which was translated into the body, gesture, word, act of the man Jesus. In that man God was heard and seen, as St. John so vividly expresses it: “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us. And we saw his glory-glory as of the only-begotten of the Father-full of grace and truth” (1:14).

The Mass moves along much the same line. The event which took place in the room of the Last Supper was in the form of the Passover as it was then celebrated. Jesus sat at table, about Him the members of His “household,” the disciples. He took a loaf of bread, broke it, and spoke over it certain words in the language He ordinarily used and in the voice usual to Him in particularly solemn moments. He handed the pieces to the guests, just as He had done earlier in the meal and during other Passover celebrations. He took the cup, also as usual, gave thanks, spoke the words of consecration, and handed it to the disciples. They ate and drank as they had always done. All this had the immediate form of daily reality, which it preserved for some time. But gradually it assumes a different form, the liturgical. Now the action loses its directness and becomes ceremonial and measured. At some points it only suggests; at others it elaborates on the essential, piously enclosing and veiling it. The bread assumes a new, special aspect; it becomes host. The cup becomes festive chalice; the table, altar. In place of the presiding master we have the delegated priest. The words spoken no longer spring from the immediate feeling and inspiration of the officiator, but are strictly prescribed.

Jesus’ memorial had to assume this form if it was to remain a permanent part of the believers’ Christian life. In its imitative form it could have been celebrated only very rarely; frequent repetition would have caused it to slip into the bizarre and embarrassing. In its liturgical form it can be celebrated at all times-on festive as on ordinary days-and in all situations, whether of sorrow, joy or need. It has now become genuine daily service.

Of course, like any other characteristic form, the liturgical too has its dangers: it invites independent development according to its own laws. Then the ritualistic action threatens to stifle the actual sacrifice, and the essential can be discerned only with difficulty through a tangle of forms. Moreover, the disparity between the liturgical and the realistic forms may so far remove the principal event from ordinary existence that it loses touch with everyday life. Not infrequently these dangers have become reality; for this reason, the business of liturgical work today is to do everything possible to present the original form in its full clarity and power.

The believer is faced with an important task: that of discerning the essential in what meets his eye. In the altar he must see the table; in the priest, the head of the congregation; in the host, the bread; in the chalice, the cup. He must recognize the Eucharistic Supper in the sacred act with its strictly prescribed wording. It is not enough, however devoutly, to “keep up with” a mysterious celebration’s prayers and hymns, readings and acts of consecration and offering. The believer must also follow the “translation” into symbols of everything that is taking place. When we watch a person we love, we do not merely observe his expression and gestures; we try to interpret those external manifestations of what is going on within. Here we have something similar, only greater. Speaking for himself and for his fellow apostles, St. John says: “I write of what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked upon and our hands have handled: of the Word of Life. And the Life was made known and we have seen, and now testify and announce to you, the Life Eternal which was with the Father, and has appeared to us. What we have seen and have heard we announce to you, in order that you also may have fellowship with us, and that our fellowship may be with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ. And these things we write to you that you may rejoice, and our joy may be full” (1 John 1:1-4). The passage is very important. Jesus was the living “Epiphany” of the Son, and in the Son, of the Father. He Himself said: “. . . he who sees me sees also the Father. How canst thou say, ‘Show us the Father’?” The reproving tone shows how essential was the point which Jesus was driving at and how self-evident it should have been. In His presence His followers should not merely reflect on God, they should behold God with the vital gaze of the new man. The liturgical action of the Mass is a formal rendering of Jesus’ act of making His Father “visible.”


Romano Guardini

Meditations Before Mass