“See the big rat in the GPO!” shouted the treble voice…. The boy was making what he could of ‘Sicut erat in principio….’ Yes, you remember the altar boy of old, called in Italian a clerichetto, “a little cleric” - not seriously a lay person at all. He was dressed up as a miniature cleric (in some Italian parishes he even wore a little clerical collar). Who was he? He was your representative in the sanctuary! - just a token layperson. Meanwhile the church was full of genuine lay people, struggling sometimes heroically with poverty, hardship, worry, sickness, tragedy, life and death. But all of them were silent…. Their only choral responses were the jingling of coins at the Collection and the outburst of coughing after the Consecration. Everything was taken out of their hands.
    But what does the Mass mean if it is taken out of your hands? Referring to the Mass, St Augustine said (in the 5th century), ‘All of that is about you!’ But he said it better than that. “The mystery being celebrated on the altar is the mystery of you! You became his body and his members [at baptism], when you said, ‘Amen!’ to that mystery of what you are. Now you receive his Body and you say, ‘Amen!’ Be a member of his body in such a way that your ‘Amen!’ is true!”
    Glance back even further than Augustine’s time. An ancient book called the Didachè, written in the first century (earlier than some of the New Testament) was discovered in 1883. It contains an account of the Mass and the words that were used then. Here is one sentence of it. “As this broken bread, once dispersed over the hills, was brought together and became one loaf, so may your Church be brought together from the ends of the earth into your Kingdom.” It is a beautiful image. The grains of wheat were gathered from the fields and the hillsides and made into this one loaf; likewise the people, whose homes are scattered all over the hillsides, have come together to form one community - one Bread, one Body of Christ. And may that gathering be endlessly wider and deeper, till Kingdom come!
    Neither the Didachè nor St Augustine could have imagined the Mass becoming something that people just stood and watched - or were physically present at while saying prayers of their own. It was an individualistic world: “Remember, man, thou hast but one soul to save; and after that, the judgment!” I remember that phrase still, though it is forty years since the missioners pounded it out at the parish mission. Save your own skin.
    We have a lot of ground to make up. What will it take to make us know that “in Christ we, who are many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others” (Romans 12:5)? Remember, man (and woman!), thou hast every soul (and body) to save, not just your own! That's what a community is, as distinct from a collection of individuals.
    I have always found that a Mass somehow absorbs whatever went before it. What transpires during a retreat, for example, finds expression (even without anyone planning it) in the Mass. The difficulty with the ordinary Sunday Mass is that frequently nothing has gone before it, so nothing finds expression. It bears out that connection assumed by the Didachè and St Paul and St Augustine and countless others: the connection between the two bodies of Christ. The Body of Christ in the Eucharist is for building up that other body of Christ, the parish community. The Mass is a community celebrating its own identity: its identity in Christ. That is why it is so absurd to receive Communion if you are at enmity with others. Jesus himself said, “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23,24).

Donagh O'Shea

These are brief articles, one per month,
on a wide variety of topics concerning the living of the Christian life.