Many many years ago, I attended High Mass at a church on Merseyside. The choir sang beautifully, the church looked stunning, the “bowing and scraping” in the sanctuary was second-to-none. Perhaps I was too new to the church thing (any church) that I found the experience both mystifying and downright hilarious. I had a fit of the giggles.
Not many months later, I attended S. Luke’s Tranmere, a gloomy, red sandstone pile at the other end of the park near my then home. S. Luke’s had a small congregation and was due for closure. I walked into the church on S. Luke’s Day as the procession wound its way to the sanctuary. I can see it all now, nearly fifty years later. I was captivated by the reality of worship. I wanted to be part of that experience – and became part for the eighteen months that remained until the church was closed and demolished.
I learned well at S. Luke’s. I never missed a mass – and continued not to miss after the building had gone and the community dispersed. I learned that the mass was the worshipping heart of Christianity – and that Jesus, present in the Blessed Sacrament, was the object of that worship.
All in a gloomy church in the backstreets of Birkenhead.
Since then I have worshipped in churches with orchestras and grand architecture, large congregations and high drama, laser projections and clouds of incense. All very lovely and I am glad of the experiences – but I sometimes wonder if these aspects of worship can become a substitute for worship. I love beautiful churches – but there is always the danger of idolatry. We can worship something other them God without realising it. The excellent preacher, the priest who “says a lovely mass” as the nuns in Father Ted exclaimed. Choral singing and organ fanfares. Even the singing of favourite hymns.
Some of you will have heard my tale of being invited by a friend to attend Sung Mattins (Bible readings and songs and sermon) at Chester Cathedral. There was to be an orchestra present and the music was the grandest. The service would have leant my missing mass at S. Luke’s. “No thanks.” I said. “But its a chance of a lifetime to hear this music.” “I’d rather go to mass in a mud hut than go to the most epic event in a cathedral.” was my reply. I realised then that the mass had captivated me.
Why is it so important? Why so important day by day? Simply because Jesus gave it as the means of offering true worship to the Father. Christ’s sacrifice made present and offered. Christ giving himself in Holy Communion. “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you do not have my life in you.” says Jesus in S. John’s Gospel. “The disciples knew the Lord in the Breaking of Bread.” according to S. Luke. ‘The Apostles met daily for the Breaking of Bread, the prayers, and fellowship.” according to Acts. It all boils down to this – and everything else flows from it, including social action and personal behaviour. (Or it should.)
A friend was diagnosed as HIV. He was put on medication. Each day he consumed pills, large pills, by the dozen. He never missed a pill or an appointment with the hospital. Why did he do this? Because his life depended on it. The pills are now much reduced and he is a long-term survivor.
I see the Sacrament in the same way. My life depends on it. It is food for this life and the journey to the next. It is lovely to have it in the setting of incense and song, beautiful architecture and powerpoint projection. But they are style, not substance. The substance is a validly ordained priest using the right words with the right matter, bread and wine. It is by the strength of this food that I seek heaven and hope to avoid hell.
So there you are. The Gospel according to…? I believe, Jesus and the Catholic Church. It matters not that I am entirely attentive. I am not having my ears tickled by a sermon or song. It is the Bread of Angels, heavenly food. I may even be inattentive when I am saying mass, it matters not one jot. Of course, better appreciated when celebrated and received with care – like any food – but the nourishment is without question because it is what the Lord promised.
Finally, when you are on your deathbed and not out-of-it with drugs, get a priest to hear your confession, anoint you, and give you viaticum – that food for the journey which is beyond compare.