On (Not) Attending Mass

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Lords Supper by Vladimir Sakhnenko. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 Internationa

Job 11:13      “If you direct your heart rightly, you will stretch out your hands toward him. (NRSV)
[Scripture quotation from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.]

Creative Commons Francisco” by tvol is licensed under CC BY 2.0

For me, the most meaningful regular worship experience occurs when we are celebrating the Lord’s Supper by intinction. Because I usually sit toward the front of the sanctuary, I am among the first to be served. I am then able to return to the pew and watch the great parade of God’s people pass by as they proceed to the serving stations. That parade — young and old, men and women, black and white, republicans and democrats, gay and straight, those who believe deeply and those whose faith is in question, … — is a metaphor for the Commonwealth of Peace and Justice, a foretaste of the Kingdom. I have just realized that watching that parade (and sharing in it) is at least as important (maybe more so) than receiving the bread and the cup. Passing plates and trays in the pews just doesn’t offer up such an image. (I know! The passing of the elements to others in the pew is a means of serving each other, but it seems to have become a pro forma act, rather than a symbolic one.)

Recently, on retreat in a Benedictine monastery, I chose not to go to morning prayer, immediately followed by Mass. In such situations I have always felt excluded from the community because of the Catholic Church’s rules and regulations about Eucharist. There have been a few times that I have been able to participate by sharing the elements, but I always felt like a thief sneaking in by a window, slightly ajar. As I thought about it, I realized that there are at least two ways to be a rebel in circumstances such as this — 1) sneak in, do the thing you aren’t supposed to do, and gloat afterwards or 2) refuse to participate as a way of demonstrating the injustice. Is there a third way for me?

Walter Wink writes: “Concrete symbolization, such as temples, rituals, and myth, may help us to find our interiority outside ourselves.” As I reflect upon my attitudes toward the Lord’s Supper and being present at Mass, I realize that I was expecting the exterior meaning of bread and cup to infuse itself into my interiority — rather than letting my interiority find its expression in the exterior. Since I have actually found my interiority meaningfully expressed in the great parade at the time of intinction, why have I continued to throw an interior temper tantrum when I am not among the first (or even last) to be served at Mass? How can I expect the Mass to carry the meaning into me when I present myself as one predisposed to be absent?

Tomorrow arrived another chance. Can I present myself as a part of the gathered community, open to the movement of the Spirit? Will my interiority find itself in the presence of a hospitable community? Will I leave my theological ‘baggage’ behind? Will I allow the baptismal holy waters at the entrance of the church to wash me clean? Will I bow, not to the altar, but to the community gathering before me? Will I join the liturgy as one who is truly present? Will I allow the spirit of Morning Prayer to prepare me to turn toward my Benedictine sisters with hospitality?

If I direct my heart rightly, will divine presence stretch out hands toward me?

I attended morning prayers and Mass. What a change. A beautiful service, a beautiful experience. I felt an openness. I felt a part of the gathered community. When the community went forward to receive the elements, I did not feel excluded; instead, included. I was part of the great parade, that part which remained in the pew.

I watched as the first sister received 4 or 5 pieces of the bread (host) from the priest. A few minutes later I saw her walking through a side balcony, obviously clutching the extra hosts in her hands — on her way to serve sisters who were unable to come to the chapel. As the last of the community was in line, I watched as a sister in an electric wheelchair joined the line. My eyes filled with tears as my heart overflowed with joy. She became my sister; they all had become my sisters.

The community is open and the parade goes on!

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