The problem with Roman Catholic theology is that along with all of the good, wonderful, rich teaching, there is too often mixed with it a deeply flawed element, a strain of thinking which compromises the good that is taught, and which, in fact, is deeply harmful to the soul. Sometimes, this comes right up to the surface, and dominates the conversation in an unmistakable way, so that the issue really must be addressed.
For example, yesterday, as I was driving, I was listening to Relevant Radio, which was broadcasting the show "Go Ask Your Father." The host on this occasion was Father Richard Simon, whose podcasts can be accessed at this link.
In one segment he was discussing the purpose of the Mass. And he summed it up with this statement,
"You don't go to mass to get something; you go to mass to give something."
This line of thought is partly derived from viewing sacramentum as a sacred oath. It also is fundamental to the theology of the mass as propitiatory sacrifice. With all due respect, it also happens to be absolutely backwards. To be clear and fair, I must say that many Catholic writers, theologians, and teachers, do indeed give great emphasis on what we receive in the Eucharist. As I say, the problem is that there is this mix, and that though in some cases the good is given more emphasis, still this other side seems never far from the surface, and on occasion bubbles right up to the top.
I go to Mass for one fundamental reason. Before I state what the reason is, let me also say that I go to Mass to do many things. I praise God there. I offer the sacrifice of eucharist there, ie., thanksgiving. I pray for my needs, and the needs of the Church and the world there. There, before the awesome reality of the Blessed Sacrament, I submit my life to the will and hand of God. I do all these things and more. Yet there is really one essential reason I go to Mass. And that is to get something. A very big something. I am poor and empty, and I need the treasures that God in Christ lavishes on me in His Holy Word and Sacrament. I am lost and condemned, and I need to get home, and to receive the reconciliation that Christ gives me in the Mass. I am broken and crushed, and I need Jesus to give me new life and wholeness. I am full of sin and filth, and I need the forgiveness and cleansing that only comes from the one whose death has paid for the sin of the world.
Now lest someone think that this post is anti-Roman Catholic, and therefore essentially Protestant, I must say that getting such things (the truly needful things for an utter sinner like me) is not really feasible in a Protestant church. It is not possible to receive anything from a Christ who is absent. For the very way in which Christ, the God-man, gives to us true reconciliation, forgiveness, new life, and salvation is by personally delivering to us the merits of His all availing sacrifice on the cross. In the Mass Christ gives us a real and personal delivery of these gifts, for in the Mass He Himself is personally and truly present. He comes to us, bodily, in the Mass, precisely for us; we might even say for us men and for our salvation, for there is an incarnational reality to the liturgy, which one just doesn't get with the Protestants. It is in Christ, in what He gives us today in Word and Sacrament, that the Spirit gives us life. Apart from Christ, there can be no life giving Spirit.
For these reasons, the awful, tremendous presence of Christ, His real, true, substantial and personal presence in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar, is absolutely crucial in my life. It is the crux of all my spirituality, literally, for it is where the blessings of the cross actually meet my own life here and now. What Flannery O'Connor said of the Eucharist in one of her letters is my own sentiment as well, namely, "it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable."
The idea that the reason one goes to Mass is to give something to God, therefore, turns the truth of the Gospel on its head, and defeats the real purpose of the liturgy. In fact, it must be said that this doctrine contradicts genuine Catholic tradition. That tradition gives us men like St. Benedict, the great sixth century abbot who gives us the beautiful concept of seeing the church's prayer as the Work of God. It gives us men like St. Ambrose, the fourth century bishop in whose "prayer before Mass" we have such a wonderfully humble and evangelical focus on what really happens in the Sacrament that it is worth publishing here:
O loving Lord Jesus Christ, I a sinner, presuming not on my own merits, but trusting in Thy mercy and goodness, with fear and trembling approach the table of Thy most sacred banquet. For I have defiled both my heart and body with many sins, and have not kept a strict guard over my mind and my tongue. Wherefore, O gracious God, O awful Majesty, I a wretched creature, entangled in difficulties, have recourse to Thee the fount of mercy; To Thee do I fly that I may be healed, and take refuge under Thy protection, and I ardently desire to have Him as my Savior, Whom I am unable to withstand as my Judge. To Thee, O Lord, I show my wounds, to Thee I lay bare my shame. I know that my sins are many and great, on account of which I am filled with fear. But I trust in Thy mercy, of which there is no end. Look down upon me, therefore, with the eyes of Thy mercy, O Lord Jesus Christ, eternal King, God and man, crucified for men. Hearken unto me, for my hope is in Thee; have mercy on me who am full of misery and sin, Thou Who wilt never cease to let flow the fountain of mercy. Hail, Victim of salvation, offered for me and for all mankind on the tree of the cross. Hail, noble and precious Blood, flowing from the wounds of my crucified Lord Jesus Christ and washing away the sins of the whole world. Remember, O Lord, Thy creature, whom Thou hast redeemed with Thy Blood. I am grieved because I have sinned, I desire to make amends for what I have done. Take away from me, therefore, O most merciful Father, all my iniquities and sins. That I may be purified both in soul and body, let me partake of the holy of holies; And grant that this holy gift of Thy Body and Blood, of which though unworthy I propose to receive, may be to me the remission of my sins, the perfect cleansing of my offenses, the means of driving away all evil thoughts and of renewing all holy desires, the accomplishment of works pleasing to Thee, as well as the strongest defense for soul and body against the snares of my enemies. Amen.
Let me cap off this reflection by pointing to a traditional way of viewing the liturgy which can be very helpful in terms of what is happening in the Mass. Namely, in the Holy Mass, the Church, as a Bride, receives the life of her Holy Spouse. That is, in the liturgy in general, especially as it culminates in the Holy Supper, there is a holy intercourse in which the Church, and the Christian soul, is united with our Redeemer and Lord. This helps us see that the position of the Christian, then, is chiefly that of receptivity, while our Lord Jesus unites Himself with us, and thereby gives us Himself, which is life itself, and all good things. It is a most fruitful union, for as a result of it, our lives are renewed, and indeed Christ's very life is lived out in and through us. This imagery may seem unseemly to some, but is built into the Church's traditional view of itself. We even sing it in communion hymns, like Johann Franck's "Soul Adorn Thyself with Gladness." And so I end with this hymn. Let it serve to draw you soon to the blessings we receive in the Holy Eucharist.
Soul, adorn thyself with gladness,
Leave behind all gloom and sadness;
Come into the daylight's splendor,
There with joy thy praises render
Unto Him Whose grace unbounded
Hath this woundrous supper founded.
High o'er all the heavens He reigneth,
Yet to dwell with thee He deigneth.
Hasten as a bride to meet Him
And with loving reverence greet Him;
For with words of life immortal
Now He knocketh at thy portal.
Haste to ope the gates before Him,
Saying, while thou dost adore Him,
Suffer, Lord, that I receive Thee,
And I nevermore will leave Thee.
He who craves a precious treasure
Neither cost nor pain will measure;
But the priceless gifts of heaven
God to us hath freely given.
Though the wealth of earth were proffered,
Naught would buy the gifts here offered:
Christ's true body, for thee riven,
And His blood, for thee once given.
Ah, how hungers all my spirit
For the love I do not merit!
Oft have I, with sighs fast thronging,
Thought upon this food with longing,
In the battle well-nigh worsted,
For this cup of life have thirsted,
For the Friend who here invites us
And to God Himself unites us.
In my heart I find ascending
Holy awe, with rapture blending,
As this mystery I ponder,
Filling all my soul with wonder,
Bearing witness at this hour
Of the greatness of Thy power;
Far beyond all human telling
Is the power within Him dwelling.
Human reason, though it ponder,
Cannot fathom this great wonder
That Christ's body e'er remaineth
Though it countless souls sustaineth,
And that He His blood is giving
With the wine we are receiving.
These great mysteries unsounded
Are by God alone expounded.
Jesus, Sun of Life, my Splendor,
Jesus, Thou my Friend most tender,
Jesus, Joy of my desiring,
Fount of life, my soul inspiring, --
At Thy feet I cry, my Maker,
Let me be a fit partaker
Of this blessed food from heaven,
For our good, Thy glory, given.
Lord, by love and mercy driven
Thou hast left Thy throne in heaven
On the cross for us to languish
And to die in bitter anguish,
To forego all joy and gladness
And to shed Thy blood in sadness.
By this blood, redeemed and living,
Lord, I praise Thee with thanksgiving.
Jesus, Bread of Life, I pray Thee,
Let me gladly here obey Thee.
By Thy love I am invited,
Be Thy love with love requited;
From this Supper let me measure,
Lord, how vast and deep love's treasure.
Though the gifts Thou here dost give me
As Thy guest in heaven receive me.