Hoc est enim corpus meum. The priest genuflects as the altar server holds up the tail of the chasuble and another one rings the bell. Then as you begin to bow low you see the white host held up in the distance and the bell rings again. A wave of coughing is released by the sixth bell.
Mass…. It is the very stuff of memory. We think of parents who were alive and with us then, elderly neighbours, uncles, aunts: all of them solid and real. Memories cluster around the Mass, even for people who have since abandoned it. Whether in the old rite or the new, it is bound up forever with childhood memory.
The Mass is about memory. “Do this in memory of me.” This is why we celebrate Mass at all: to remember the Lord and what he did, to repeat the story of who is he for us. Real memory, of course, is not an aimless wandering in the past, a way of distracting oneself from the present. Essential memories make us who we are. We recognise ourselves in the story. Memory is about identity.
This became vividly clear when a twenty-year-old nephew suddenly wanted to know everything about the past generations of his family. He travelled from Dublin to the heart of the country and asked us hundreds of questions: about our parents and our grandparents, what they were like, the things they said and did, even their relics (I found three generations of old hats in the attic). He pondered long in the cemetery. He was a man smitten with a sudden great awareness: that his life was a much longer story than his twenty years. For us it was a wonderful experience to be the medium of that awareness; it was like meeting him for the first time as a man. Places and things and stories that bored him senseless a year before were now matters of complete fascination. Before our eyes he was coming into possession of his inheritance.
At Mass we remember who we are and who Christ is for us. We come into our inheritance. Words and things that were boring beyond endurance in religion classes begin to come to life. They are about us. But there is more than natural memory here. Christ's death and resurrection become actually present to us - or is it that we become present to them? St Gregory of Nyssa (4th century) wrote: “I believe Bethlehem, Golgotha, the Mount of Olives and the Resurrection to be truly in the heart of the one who has found God.”
Painting scenes from the life of Christ on the walls of his brethren’s cells in San Marco, Florence, Fra Angelico included a Dominican friar in each fresco, though there were no Dominicans in existence for twelve hundred years after the death of Christ. He understood a profound truth: when we pray (and above all when we are present at Mass) we are contemporaries of Christ. Time has not simply marched forward; it has looped to include us all in an eternal instant. We are present at Calvary and at the empty tomb. (And all our ancestors are present too in that instant when we touch the eternal present.)