On this Sunday before Christmas just sixty years ago today I offered my first Mass. Even now I love saying Mass every day. My appreciation of the Mass has been growing, thanks to my having time to study Church History.
It has pleased me greatly to discover how our Eucharistic Prayers grew directly out of the grace Jesus offered at the Last Supper. At every meal the family head made up his own words for the grace at meals, while he had to follow a fixed pattern. As the host he had to first lead the diners in recalling God’s favors to them. Secondly, he called down God’s Spirit to unite them all. Thirdly, he asked them to unite with him in becoming a pleasing gift to God. The Greek word for pleasing gift was eu-charis.
At Mass I follow the altar missal for the consecration, saying, “This is my body which will be given up for you.” However, I see more meaning in the way Matthew, Mark, Luke and Paul, writing in Greek actually quoted Jesus. He said, “This is my body which is given up for you.” He said that as the third part of the grace where he was making a pleasing gift of himself.
It is this giving up oneself as part of the pleasing gift that makes the Mass a sacrifice for Christ, for the Apostles, and for us. At the end of the First Century the handbook for Christians had this directive:
“On the Lord’s Day after you have come together, break bread and offer the Eucharist, having first confessed your offences so that your sacrifice may be pure.”
As the earliest Christian gatherings became too large for sharing a full meal the Apostles did away with serving food. However, they kept the table grace as a strong link to the Last Supper. At their Sunday rituals they imagined they heard Jesus asking them to join him as part of the pleasing gift.
That was to undergo a change after 375 A. D. when Christian Europe was almost overrun by Arians Those were people who had the Gospels, but who regarded Jesus as no more than a good man. At that time the emperor of the West resided in Milan, where for twenty-four years Auxentius, an Arian bishop had been bringing the people to believe that Jesus was no more than a good man. When Auxentius died, the emperor told the governor of northern Italy to get the people together to choose a new bishop acceptable to Arians and Christians.
At that gathering a boy cried out, “Let the governor be our bishop.” That found surprising agreement even though the governor, a man from a Christian family, had never been baptized. He was immediately baptized and consecrated bishop. That was St. Ambrose.
Ambrose hit on an amazing scheme for getting the people to revere Jesus. He ordered everyone to give to Jesus in the Mass the same honors they gave to the emperor. Making Jesus into an emperor, people were commanded to kneel before him, and to bow at his name. Only gold vessels and fine linen cloths could touch the host.
His trick worked, respect for Jesus soared. But there was a draw back in that it altogether changed the nature of the Sunday ritual. Where people had once been imagining themselves reclining with Jesus and the Apostles, listening to Jesus asking them to unite with him in a pleasing gift to God, Ambrose had them imagining themselves at the back o an imperial audience hall with the ushers commanding them to bow.
Jesus had insisted that his kingdom was not of this world. He doesn’t want you to think of the Eucharist as our emperor. He wants to see it as his invitation for you to join him as part of the pleasing gift to our loving Father.