Returning to Mass: Communion and Starvation
Time and eternity meet in the Mass. If we long for the Mass when we can’t get to it, can we ever be truly without it?
As many dioceses are transitioning back to celebrating regular Sunday Masses, I hear some Catholics wondering how it will feel returning to Mass after a long absence.
Will it be a huge relief? Will it be overwhelming? What if it isn’t?
If the Eucharist, the most holy body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, is “our daily bread” par excellence, should we feel as if we’ve been spiritually starving? Should our first Mass feel like a feast after weeks of fasting?
Many of us have made regular acts of spiritual communion over the last few months. What does that really mean? How much does it help?
“It Was As If We Never Left”
I know some Catholics who were surprised to find, on returning to Mass in the last week or two, that they felt as if they’d never left. It felt surprisingly…ordinary.
That seems strange to some, but it makes perfect sense to me.
On the one hand, I’m beyond eager to return to regular Sunday Masses, for a hundred reasons. Sunday mornings have been so empty during this difficult time. As a deacon, I love proclaiming the Gospel. I love assisting the celebrant and distributing communion. I love seeing the faithful and meeting my friends.
I love the Mass. I need the Mass. I long for it ardently.
The Mass: Intersection of Time and Eternity
On the other hand, I also know that what the most important thing we do in the Mass involves interaction with eternal, transcendent, heavenly reality. Our earthly worship joins us to the eternal worship of God in heaven.
Our voices really are joined with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. We really do lift up our hearts — up from mundane distractions and earthly affairs into the realm of divine glory.
Time intersects eternity in the Mass. The Mass does not last only an hour (or whatever)! Our watches keep ticking and our bodies continue doing what they do, but in some way, especially the more we participate with devotion, our spirits slip the surly chains of quantifiable Chronos and we enter an unmeasurable Kairos.
The Eucharistic sacrifice — as the Catechism tells us more than once, quoting the Vatican II Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium — is the “source and summit” (or “fount and apex”) of “the whole Christian life.”
The Mass Pervades Our Lives
Our whole spiritual life both springs from the Paschal Mystery of Christ offered to the Father on the cross, which is re-presented and reenacted in the Mass, and finds its fulfillment in that offering.
We bring to the Mass, and offer to God in union with Christ our sacrifice, everything we have and are, because everything we have and are we receive from Christ our sacrifice. Source and summit, fount and apex.
I often reflect, during Mass, “This is not one hour out of my life. This is my life. This is what it’s all about. This is who I am and what I do. This is why, and how, I get up in the morning. This is where I live. I exist here.”
The reality of the Mass — an eternal reality, not just a temporal one — pervades the lives of the faithful. This is true whether we are daily communicants or shut-ins with no one to bring them communion.
Spiritual Starvation and Spiritual Communion
This is not in any way to minimize either the gravity of the Sunday obligation or the great benefits of daily communication!
There’s a reason we pray “Give us this day our daily bread.” The bread of life is something we need right now, today, every day, all the time. Those who are blesed to be able to attend Mass and receive communion daily live this reality in the fullest way.
At the same time, this obviously doesn’t mean that those of us whose schedules don’t allow us to attend daily Mass are starving six days a week. Nor do we starve if we miss Sunday Mass for a week or two, or even longer, for sufficiently grave reasons (because we are sick, or must care for a sick person, etc.).
To miss Sunday Mass for insufficient reason — or even to attend Sunday Mass indifferently and without devotion — that is truly spiritual starvation.
Whenever we find ourselves unable for reasons beyond our control to get to Mass or receive communion, there is great comfort in remembering that while we are bound to the sacraments, God is not.
This is the theological reality underlying the spirituality of making a spiritual communion.
God is Beyond Time
Grace, like God himself, is not bound by time. One of the most striking realizations of this principle is the Immaculate Conception, in which the Blessed Virgin Mary was preserved from all stain of original sin in virtue of the future merits of her Son’s paschal mystery.
Time, like space, belongs to the created order. For God, all of timespace, from the first instant of the Big Bang (or whatever marks the beginning of creation) to the heat death of the universe, is equally real and equally present to his single eternal Now.
We’ve known for centuries, at least since St. Augustine, that this is good theology, and since Einstein we‘ve learned that the simultaneity of time is also good physics. Every moment in time is as real as every other moment; the past is not gone, and the future is not waiting to exist. (Before people start to ask: No, this doesn’t mean we have no free will, but why that is is a rabbit trail too far for this blog post.)
My life is a whole and God sees it all at once. Every Mass I have ever attended, or ever will attend, is just as real and present, from God’s perspective, as the moment I type these words.
Finding Our True Selves in the Mass
Yes, and so, alas, is every sin. Yet redemption means that evil, sin, and death are swallowed up in victory — the victory of Christ our sacrifice. If I belong to Christ, if I die in his love and grace, it is my union with him, not my lapses or infidelities, that will ultimately define the whole of my existence.
Me at Mass: that is who I truly am, or rather who I am beginning to be — where I begin to wear the true face that is me as I was intended to be from all eternity. Me when I sin: that is a shabby counterfeit, a false face, that by God’s grace I dare to hope is passing away. It will never be untrue, but it will be swallowed up in the larger truth of all things in heaven and on earth united in Christ.
All of this is present in some way in my mind when I am at Mass. And I am, in a certain intangible but real way, always at Mass, always nourished by the Mass, source and summit, font and apex, of the Christian life.