Summer is on the wane. Its last holiday is Labor Day when families and friends will be gathering in back yards, patios and public parks. There will be games: softball, volleyball, croquet. The traditional hamburgers, hot dogs and sausage will be served along with a variety of salads, topped off by watermelon, cakes and pies. In another day or two, children will be laying out their new clothes for the first morning of school. The mingling fragrance of new pencils and shoes will soothe them to sleep.
Such are traditions. We look forward to them as welcome islands of rest spent with loved ones in an atmosphere of laughter, story-telling and open affection – a powerful antidote to the heavy seriousness of our days at work or school. The goal is simply FUN, pleasure in the companionship of people who love and value one another.
Then too there are celebrations that honor an individual person: birthdays, mothers or fathers day, anniversaries. Special practices often mark these days: the favorite flavor cake is made and extra little services are performed for the honoree.
Count them, these oases of rest and celebration: Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, weddings, and so many more opportunities for a relief from the everyday blahs.
As each of these special days arrives, we attentively prepare for them, careful to observe and repeat certain practices that provide the continuity of one celebration to the next. These rituals convey a sense of stability and permanence in our unpredictable world. Yet along with the sameness is a special something new to mark this one celebration as unique this year: maybe a 40th birthday that ushers a young adult into middle age; a Fourth of July that might draw us to consider afresh our nation’s foundation and values.
Most who read this post have been blessed to have been brought up in this nest of traditions that both refresh us and anchor us to a sure place of safety. Holidays can be holy days that cement affectionate relationships with others.
Our liturgy of the Mass consists of the same elements as holidays and is even referred to as a celebration. Each time we participate at a Mass we are at a feast. It is a commemoration of that famous of all dinner parties — the last dinner, in fact, that Jesus celebrated with his friends. This was a farewell dinner, for all at table knew that their Teacher would be leaving them. It must have been a sorrowful celebration, as our going-away parties often are, but it was the high point of Christ’s mission and his relationship with his friends. I no longer refer to you as servants! We disciples had now been raised to the special status of friend.
The Mass is designed to recall and even relive both the Last Supper and the post-Resurrection appearances. In the story of the journey to Emmaus, Jesus reviewed Scripture passages with the two disciples to illustrate how the prophecies referred to his life and death. Just so, at each Mass various scriptural readings add luster to the changing liturgical seasons of Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost. In this way, the life and teachings of Christ are reviewed for us throughout the year, just as the Emmaus disciples experienced on their walk with Jesus. As they listened with burning hearts to old revelations made new, they came to recognize and receive the living Christ in the breaking of the bread. The sacrament of life-giving love was the high point for them in their journey, just as it is for us at Mass.
When I attended Mass for the first time after a long absence, I was amazed to see the pews emptied as virtually everyone went up to the altar to receive Communion. For me, this was a significant change that was probably not realized by those who had remained in the Church. It was a powerful revelation of how the congregation had evolved over the years into such an intimate relationship and greater comfort level with the Person of Jesus Christ. To me, it concretely demonstrated what St. Paul mysteriously referred to as the Body of Christ. The widespread reception of Communion confirmed for me Christ’s real presence in the world and in us.
This is what Christianity is about: our union with God and with each other in Christ. This happens not just once in a while, a few special times a year, but every time we join with one another in the celebration of the Mass.