Understanding the sacraments: The Mass — a mystery of mercy

It is ‘the place where the mercy of Christ is not only recalled but received’

By Father Randy Stice

The tragic events of recent weeks and months recall the prophetic words of St. John Paul II in 1980, that as the human  conscience becomes increasingly secularized it “moves away from God and distances itself from the mystery of mercy” (Dives in Misericordia, no. 15).

And the more this happens, continues the saint, “the more the Church has the right and the duty to appeal to the God of mercy” (DM, no. 15). The pre-eminent place she makes her appeal is in the celebration of the Eucharist, the source of her life and the summit to which all of her activity is directed.

The Mass, wrote Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher to the papal household, “is the place where the mercy of Christ is not only recalled but received, experienced, and consumed” (The Gaze of Mercy, p. 128).

In this article I would like to consider three ways in which the Mass is the supreme manifestation of and appeal to God’s mercy.

First, the Mass is the representation — the making present — of Christ’s paschal mystery, his suffering, death, resurrection and ascension, the event that St. John Paul II said “bears within itself the most complete revelation of mercy, that is, of that love that is more powerful than death, more powerful than sin and every evil” (DM, 15).

Second, we will look at some of the explicit and implicit appeals to God’s mercy in the words and actions of the Eucharist.

Third, we will look at how sacramental Communion increasingly transforms us into the image of Christ, who is, writes Pope Francis, “the face of the Father’s mercy” (Misericordiae Vultus, 1).

First, the Mass makes present Christ’s saving work on the cross, the supreme expression of the mercy of the Most Holy Trinity. Pope Francis describes Jesus’ institution of the Eucharist and his paschal sacrifice in the context of mercy.

“While he was instituting the Eucharist as an everlasting memorial of himself and his paschal sacrifice, he symbolically placed this supreme act of revelation in the light of his mercy. Within the very same context of mercy, Jesus entered upon his passion and death, conscious of the great mystery of love that he would consummate on the Cross” (MV, 7).

Unlike every other historical event, Christ’s paschal mystery “cannot remain only in the past, because by his death he destroyed death, and all that Christ is — all that he did and suffered for all men — participates in the divine eternity, and so transcends all times while being made present in them all. The event of the cross and resurrection abides and draws everything toward life” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1085). For this reason, every celebration of the Eucharist makes present the “the culmination of the revealing and effecting of mercy” (DM, 7).

Secondly, the Eucharistic liturgy includes numerous invocations of God’s mercy. In the Kyrie, we pray “Lord, have mercy…Christ, have mercy…Lord, have mercy.” Similarly, the Gloria appeals to Christ for mercy: “you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us…you are seated at the right hand of the Father, have mercy on us.” The Eucharistic prayers all invoke God’s mercy. In Eucharistic Prayer II, for example, the priest prays, “Have mercy on us all, we pray,” a petition that is both humble and eloquent.

We also appeal to the mercy of God through action and gesture. The presentation of the gifts is but one example. “In the bread and wine that we bring to the altar,” says Pope Benedict XVI, “all creation is taken up by Christ the Redeemer to be transformed and presented to the Father. In this way we also bring to the altar all the pain and suffering of the world, in the certainty that everything has value in God’s eyes” (Sacramentum Caritatis, 47). Through the words and actions of the Mass we appeal to God’s mercy.

Finally, our participation in the Eucharist transforms us into the image of Christ, who is “the face of the Father’s mercy” (MV, 1).

Pope Benedict XVI, quoting St. Augustine, describes this profound transformation. “Stressing the mysterious nature of this food, Augustine imagines the Lord saying to him: ‘I am the food of grown men; grow, and you shall feed upon me; nor shall you change me, like the food of your flesh, into yourself, but you shall be changed into me.’ It is not the eucharistic food that is changed into us, but rather we who are mysteriously transformed by it. Christ nourishes us by uniting us to himself; ‘he draws us into himself’” (Sacramentum Caritatis, 70). Through eucharistic Communion we increasingly love others with Christ’s love.

St. John Paul II called the Eucharist “the school of active love for neighbor” (Dominicae Cenae, 6) and “a great school of peace, forming men and women who, at various levels of responsibility in social, cultural and political life, can become promoters of dialogue and communion” (Mane Nobiscum Domine, 27). So important is this dimension of the Eucharist that, in the words of the saint, “our concern for those in need…will be the criterion by which the authenticity of our Eucharistic celebrations is judged” (Mane Nobiscum Domine, 28).

“The Church lives an authentic life,” says St. John Paul II, “when she professes and proclaims mercy—the most stupendous attribute of the Creator and of the Redeemer—and when she brings people close to the source of the Savior’s mercy, of which she is the trustee and dispenser” (DM, 13). Through the celebration of the Mass, its words and actions, and its transforming power, we abide in and bring the whole world “close to the source of the Savior’s mercy.”

During this Jubilee of Mercy, may we deepen our understanding and participation in this great mystery of mercy. ■

Father Stice is pastor of St. Mary Church in Athens and directs the diocesan Office of Worship and Liturgy. He can be reached at frrandy@dioknox.org.

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