The last few Sundays I have found myself feeling an “epic disproportion” between who I know myself to be in light of what truly occurs at a Roman Catholic Mass. Please note that I didn’t say “I believe” that it truly occurs–no, I have the temerity to state it as objective fact. Laying aside your possible prejudices about my position, I ask you to stick with me as I try to reason this out here and now.
For my readers that aren’t sure what I mean, I’ll simply say that Catholic dogma teaches that during the “Holy Sacrifice of the Mass”, the death and offering of Jesus’ very self is relived at the altar. He becomes present through the actions of the “alter Christus” (the Priest). That is why the holiest moment of the mass is the consecration–Jesus Christ becomes truly present in the simple elements of bread and wine and he gives himself to his disciples. [Interesting piece of historical trivia: Early Christians were rumored to be cannibals as a result of partaking in a meal claimed to be the body and blood of their so-called leader.]
When I decided to ask to be received into full communion with Rome–what is referred to as receiving the “sacraments of initiation”–I did it because I had an intuition that given what I’d seen through the testimony of John Paul II there was something real about the Catholic tradition. Something real enough that I was willing to wager on it given what JPII showed me through his life, writings, and witness. I decided to take a Pascal’s-wager-of-sorts on Rome. What if it’s true?
I think one of the greatest barriers to faith is what Christians refer to as the Doctrine of the Incarnation. Simply put, the Master of the Universe–the Creator himself–becomes flesh through a baby purportedly born in a stable to a 16 year old Jewish girl from a Galilean town still known as Nazareth. This is the Christian claim: God became human. When I say that it is a barrier to faith, I have to confess that it is most especially a barrier to people who claim Christian faith–people just like me. The claim certainly gives more power to the word in-credible.
I’ve been attending Mass at least once per week for the last 10 years. That means I’ve witnessed at least 520 masses. At least five hundred and twenty times I have witnessed a priest following the Catholic ritual (be it Roman, Ambrosian or Maronite) replay the death of Christ on the altar. The epic disproportion that I referred to in my opening statement is something that I have only recently begun to experience. [By recently I mean last Sunday and today.]
I have to confess that the term disproportion applied to the incarnation is not original to me. I first heard the term in Madrid, Spain, at a discussion among a group of people who follow the teachings of a now deceased Italian priest named Luigi Giussani. Fr. Giussani is most famous for his ruminations on the Gospel scene where two guys named John and Andrew first come across another guy named Jesus. They were listening to John the Baptist (Jesus’ first cousin) as he baptized people (among them his cousin Jesus) and were dumbfounded when John the Baptist points to Jesus and says “there goes the Lamb of God”. As the story goes, John and Andrew follow Jesus on the shores of the Kineret (the Sea of Galilee) and Jesus stops in his tracks, turns around and asks them, “What do you want?” The Gospel writer (believed to be an eye-witness given the detail) reports that it was “about 4 p.m.” [Although the English translation leaves a lot to be desired, you might be interested in reading Fr. Giussani’s reflection here. If you read Spanish, the translation is better and you may read it here. If you read Italian, the language of Fr. Giussani, you”ll find his reflection here.]
The American writer John Steinbeck wrote a short novel titled Of Mice and Men. According to Wikipedia, Steinbeck took the the title “from Robert Burns’s poem ‘To a Mouse’, which read: “The best laid schemes of mice and men / Go oft awry.” In his novel, Steinbeck explores the human condition in ways that many readers find quite uncomfortable (present company included). The book is on the American Library Association’s list of “Most Challenged Books of the 21st Century” for its vulgarity (but that’s not why I find it uncomfortable). I think it would be safe to say that the central theme of Steinbeck’s novel is loneliness. That’s why it both moves me and makes me uncomfortable. It is said that Steinbeck originally wanted to call the novel Something That Happened but came across Burns’ narration about the regret felt for having destroyed a mouse’s home while plowing a field. Interesting choice of metaphors given the tragedy that ensues at the novel’s climax.
It occurred to me these last few Sundays that the “epic disproportion” I have recently begun to feel as I walk up to receive communion is tantamount to Steinbeck’s inspiration in titling his novel Of Mice and Men. What would my life look like if I really and truly accepted the objective fact of the real presence? That I truly accepted the fact that the Lord of all Creation gives himself to me so that I won’t experience the defeat of loneliness? That this God-Man is so moved by my nothingness (as Fr. Giussani liked to say) that He comes to me by first making himself human and then perpetuating His presence through the Church in the miracle of the Eucharist? Truly in-credible. Well, what if it’s true?
I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’d like to turn Steinbeck’s metaphor on its head. Man might experience mere regret at destroying a mouse’s home. God not only decides to carefully avoid destroying the mouse’s home with his plow, but he comes to build a home in that mouse’s very field. Maybe it is a stretch and I’m just writing nonsense on this Fourth Sunday evening in Ordinary Time. But I thought I’d put it out there for whatever it is worth.