PRECEDING chapter stressed the timeless, institutional nature of the Mass so essential for our understanding of it. We saw that it is no immediate (hence necessarily varying) expression of religious sentiments or needs, but something permanent, arranged once and for all; that it was authorized by Him who has “all power in heaven and on earth”; that it demands to be performed according to the will of its Institutor.
Now we proceed a step further, a small step, for what is at stake is so important and so rarely understood fully, that we should spare no pains to bring out the thought completely and clearly.
The institution of the Mass has one further element; it is a memorial.
“Institutions” appear everywhere in the religious life of mankind. They give freely streaming experience its permanent and binding form. The contents of that form vary greatly. They may evolve around an important turning-point in the calendar of the year, spring, for instance. Then the celebration welcomes and honors the new beginning of growth with festivities that invoke the blessing of the godhead. Or the theme may be an important turning-point in the seasons of human life: the celebration of adolescence, in which the maturing youth is consecrated for the life that awaits him, his powers of fertility are sanctified, and the new adult is received into the tribal community. Whatever the motive behind the celebration, some essential life-process always receives its religious consecration. Some personality of talent and authority introduced the chief symbols, adapting and developing them to suit his particular tribe or race, and making the whole obligatory for posterity.
Quite aside from the Person who instituted Holy Mass, what takes place there is of an entirely different nature. In the tribal celebrations universal values, teachings, and regulations of a nature half religious, half natural find expression: seasonal or life-rhythms, guilt and expiation, the beginning and end of war, the major visitations of drought, hunger, pestilence and the like which threaten the coming year. In the Mass we are concerned with a single Person and His destiny. What is repeatedly executed and invoked is no natural or intellectual or mysterious power-relationship common to all human existence, but the memory of One who lived once, and of His destiny. Why? Not because He was a great ruler or lawgiver or warrior from the worldly point of view, an innovator of important arts or sciences, but because His life and work is decisive for men’s salvation; because He is the Savior.
Of course we do find other religious celebrations in which the sacred action invokes a specific religious figure of the past and represents important aspects of his destiny. In the Greek mysteries, for example: Dionysius’ death at the hands of the Maenads and the resurrection of his torn body to new life; the Demeter cult, which recalls the lament of the Earth-Mother for her lost daughter and the joy of finding her again. These festivals too dramatize a specific event. But the beings represented in the Dionysian mysteries and in those of the Demeter or Hippolytus were never historical. Their importance lay in their relation to the senses and in the powers they personified. Mythological figures personify elements of the world itself. Dionysius never really lived in a specific country, never met a his torical fate. What reality he did possess was the mystery of life he represented in all its glory and danger, a mystery that prevails wherever there are living realities and which is particularly apparent at the junctures of life spring, harvest time, and the like. Dionysius was a creation of mythical poetry. Jesus was no myth, no poetry, no symbol, but reality. The distinction is fundamental, because once religious research had discovered the myths, there was a strong effort to make Christianity “another myth religion.” Actually its sharp distinction from the world of myth is indisputable. Even the fact that its Founder and His apostles come to us from the land and tradition of the Old Testament precludes any blurring of the borders of reality, for the Old Testament is anything but mythical. Myths are figures and events employed by the visionary and symbol-creating genius to interpret the meaning of existence religiously. Such creative personalities lived so close to existence, were so deeply imbued with the total religious experience of a race or an age, and expressed the essence of that race or age so perfectly, that their vision was authoritative for a very long time. But always it was a question of myths, not of reality, or to be more exact, not of historical reality. What is real in the myth is the implication it gives to existence, the mysterious power it expresses through the symbol of the god and his fate. Myths of this kind do not exist in the Old Testament, which is based not on a religious world-mystery as glimpsed by sacrosanct visionaries from hallowed shrines, but on the simple reality of holy God, who exists independently of the world. God is not the Urgrund, or mysterious foundation of the world, but its Creator and Lord. When it so pleases Him, He summons specific people, draws them into a particular relationship with Himself, and imposes upon them the obligation to carry out His will. Atmosphere, attributes, spiritual attitude, decisive values and life-forms here everything is different. Even those texts which at first glance seem to be of a mythical nature, for example, the stories of Creation and of the Flood, on closer scrutiny reveal that they have nothing to do with mythology. It is blind and profoundly dishonest to speak of the “Creation and Flood Myths” of the Old Testament. Anyone who sincerely wants to see the essential difference between the stories of Scripture and the sagas of Babylonia and other Oriental countries, can. Jesus comes to us not from the shadowy realm of mythology, but from the clear sunlight of the Old Testament.
Jesus is not just another personification of the spiritual power of redemption, not a savior-godhead comparable to Osiris and Dionysius. He really lived. He was the living Son of God become man. A human being. He took His place in the history of a particular country, worked in definite ascertainable areas during certain years which can, with slight variations, be historically determined. The known life of Jesus the Nazarene is undeniably unique. In all essentials His destiny and death were known and reliably reported in world history. Not even His enemies tried to dismiss Him as a myth. Jesus’ spot in history is not in the dim language of a Dionysius, seemingly part of a past that may be reached by turning back, but actually unattainable because it lies not in time, but in the timelessness of sense and symbol. Jesus’ life and Person have all the abundance of spiritual, all-redeeming strength, yet at the same time they give clear, historical answers to the questions “How?” and “When?” and “Where?” Such, then, is the Jesus commemorated in the Mass.
The establishment of His memorial did not issue from the Christ-experience of some prophet or apostle, but was ordained by the Lord Himself. It rose with the same historical clarity as that which it commemorates; it is even more: a part of the life of its Institutor. On the evening before His death Jesus gathered up and placed into it His entire destiny, that it might be passed on to all men.
The Old Testament is neither a nature religion nor the religion of a certain race; it springs from a specific act of God that is the cornerstone of further action. The beginning of the religion of the Old Testament is the beginning of a history, the history of the covenant between God and certain men of His choosing, first with Abraham, then on Sinai with the descendants of Abraham. The event that concerns us here is similar, but it exists on an incomparably loftier and more significant plane. It enfolds Jesus’ whole historical existence in one holy commemorating act which simultaneously expresses God’s new relationship to men: the new covenant, founded on the act and Person of Jesus Christ. Henceforth history continues as the history of the kingdom of God among men.
Therefore, when we go to Mass, it is not to participate in a time-honored symbolical act that gives religious expression to our own existence, but in order to commemorate a specific Personality, Jesus, and His destiny. This Personality is no prophetic-poetic creation; He really lived. He was born in the reign of Augustus in the year that the Roman emperor ordered a census-taking of his whole empire. He died while Pontius Pilate was the Roman procurator in Palestine. He was born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth. He lived, taught and worked outwardly much like other teachers of His day. Were archeology to succeed in excavating the synagogue which existed at that time in Nazareth, we could say: Here on this spot Jesus sat when He interpreted Isaiah, and the storm of fury reported in St. John broke loose against Him (John 4).
The Mass is the commemoration of a historic reality. It is a memorial in the strictest sense of the term.
Meditations Before Mass