I have been going over the Mass weekly on the blog, to show how the liturgy provides a pattern for our whole life—how in fact everything there is to say about being a disciple of Jesus Christ can be found in a close study of its forms and rites.
We are backing off the specific rites last week and this week to look at some of the fundamental symbols that make up the heart of the Mass. Last week we looked at bread and wine; this week let’s talk about the priest and the altar. Bread and wine are brought to the priest at the altar, and it is from there that the action of the Eucharist proceeds.
Why a priest? What is the point of this character in the funny clothes up there at the front? Why can’t anyone of the congregation do it, or the whole congregation together, for that matter? We can always say ‘Cuz Jesus told us to do it that way,’ and leave it at that (certainly, I believe that to be the case), but is there more than can be said here? Does it mean anything, this priestly office in the Church? Why is he at an altar? What special significance does that have?
While a full theology of the priesthood would be well beyond the scope of this single blog post, I think the great symbolism of the ordained priesthood in the Mass is to signify Christ the head of the Body, Christ to whom we bring the offering, Christ who is the sanctifier of the gifts.
Bread and wine, I said last week, carry within themselves a symbolic meaning that encompasses the entirety of human life. We bring the bread and wine and not simply offer it ourselves but hand it to ‘another’ to be offered. This other is, of course, a human being like ourselves, really no better or worse than we are in any respect, but has been ‘set apart’ for this role by his sacramental consecration.
And so the symbolism is direct and clear and deep – the radical resolution of our lives and all that is in them consists in our ‘handing them over’ to, not ‘another’, but to The Other who is God.
The altar, meanwhile, is essentially the place of sacrifice. We do not just offer the sacrifice any old place, in any convenient location—there is a place where the offering is to be made. In the context of the liturgy this means we perform the action of offering and consecration on a piece of furniture that has been solemnly consecrated for that purpose and hence can be used for no other.
Priest and altar symbolize together the radical ‘other-ness’ of our faith. Christ has come to us, God has made Himself so very near to us, so very intimately one with us, and this is a great gift, a great and awesome joy. But He is still the wholly Other, the Holy One who is utterly transcendent even or perhaps especially in His drawing so near to us, His making Himself so available to us.
The Pope has called since the beginning of his pontificate for the Church to not become ‘self-referential’. This is rightly taken to mean that our mission is outwards, that we must have a constant care to reach out from the sanctuary to those who are outside of it and seemingly cannot or at any rate will not come in. But there is this other sense in which we are not to be self-referential, and it is upwards, not outwards.
For us to be rightly missionary and outwards-directed, it seems to me we need to first be utterly non-self-referential in the sense of our whole selves being directed, referred, to Christ. Bread and wine are brought to the priest and placed on the altar. Our whole selves—everything in our lives right now, no matter what it is—is only rightly ordered when it is brought to Christ and placed on the altar which is the place of His own self-offering, His own gift to the Father for love of the world. The Paschal Mystery, and our lives are only what they should be when every bit of them is taken up into it, when it becomes Our Mystery, too.
The truth is, most of us hold something back. We may offer our prayers and explicitly charitable deeds as bread and wine for the priest and the altar, but our work life is our own. Or we may get it that our work life is to be consecrated for Him, but our personal realtionships are ours to manage. Our maybe those belong to Him, too, but our interior lives, our emotions and wounds and hard places within—well, He doesn’t want all that junk, does He? That’s what psychiatrists are for, if we can afford them.
And so on and so forth. Most of time, when our lives are not flowering into the fullness of holiness, of life made radiant and beautiful in Christ, it is because we are keeping some of our bread and wine to remain just that, our own bread and wine to be dealt with as we wish. And the bread goes moldy and the wine turns to vinegar, useless to us and to others, when it could have been transformed into food and drink for the world.
In this simple symbolism of the Mass (which we know does not remain at the mere level of symbol, but is a living reality, the center of all reality in fact), we see the whole pattern of Christian discipleship and Christian holiness. And as we go on in the Mass next week, we shall see exactly how our bread and wine are to be given to Him, and what He does with them to make them what they are meant to become.