Why does the Catholic Mass focus so much on Jesus’s death on the Cross? For someone unaccustomed to Catholic worship, this may seem morbid or even embarrassing. Does not Christianity claim to be a religion that holds out the power of God’s love and the promise of eternal life?
Yes! But let’s back up a step. Drawing a basic analogy will help make this bit of theology more intelligible. Memorial services. They’re what we all know needs to be done, whether the ones being remembered are the fallen wartime comrades of a grandparent or our childhood friends who passed unforeseeably and much too soon. As long as we remember, the people we loved remain present to us. What is more, doing this can assure us that their lives did not pass in vain.
We proclaim your death, O Lord, and profess your resurrection until you come again. This “memorial acclamation” and pungent summary of the Christian Faith marks the high point of the Mass. It bears a reference to the words of St. Paul: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26).
Recalling our experiences of natural bereavement processes, we recognize something familiar and something exceptional about the Church’s remembrance of the death of Jesus. Christians constantly remember all that Christ did and suffered. They want him to remain present to them and for his memory to influence their lives. This sentiment is familiar enough. Yet the liturgical remembrance of Jesus’s passing from this world contains a much stronger claim.
In the Eucharistic sacrifice of the Mass, Jesus becomes present in a way which exceeds simple memory. Here we come as close to Jesus—body, blood, soul, and divinity—as if we stood by him with Mary and the other disciples on Calvary. This is a miracle of God’s love. The Eucharistic Real Presence was designed by Christ to commemorate his greatest gift to his friends: “This is my body [emph. added] which will be given for you. Do this in memory of me” (Lk 22:19). Every Mass makes present again Jesus’s supreme act of love, his sacrificial death on behalf of sinners, which he accomplished on Good Friday. What is more, the miracle of Easter shows us that death could not quench this love. Jesus’s life now invigorates the lives of his disciples in the midst of their own struggles. Along with keeping his other commandments, receiving Holy Communion is how they are to remain in his love.
In approaching the Eucharist, rather than simply honor the wisdom of a holy prophet, Catholics allow Jesus’s love to exert its powerful influence. And it is strong: “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” brings us righteousness, sanctification, and redemption through his death (1 Cor 1:24,30). His sacrifice on the Cross restores the relationship with the Father that mankind had lost through sin. Then through Baptism and Penance, Jesus sends the Holy Spirit to heal sin’s wounds in each of us. Finally, Holy Communion is the perfect food to nourish those who have been redeemed and healed. “Whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” (Jn 6:51). Jesus’s death conveys a love so great that everyone it touches, including through the memorial of the Mass, is restored and perfected in God’s grace.
The unique power of Jesus’s death and its remembrance in the celebration of the Eucharist can even change the way we remember the deaths of our loved ones—hence the practice of praying for the faithful departed at Mass and having Mass offered for their repose. We not only keep their memories alive in a basic and very important human way, but we ask for them to be associated forever with the death of Jesus. “If, then, we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him” (Rom 6:8). This Christian remembrance makes the love that conquered death present again to those who have faith. This indeed is the death worth remembering—for ourselves and for those we love.
Image: Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., Look and Live! (Copyright © 2014 Dominican Province of Saint Joseph)