If the pope was giving out a free pass to every Catholic which said: “You never have to go to mass again in your life, and there would be no eternal consequences” – would you take it? Would you ever come back to mass?
As the church celebrates this last ‘feast day’ (Corpus Christi) before ordinary time returns in earnest, I found myself thinking about this Eucharist that sometimes I take for granted. At some point in my prayer, that quirky gospel question popped in there – which was another way of saying: “Why do I bother to go to mass anyway? Does it do anything for me? For us?” If you ever got a free pass from mass, would you ever darken the church doors again?
The line that started this thinking for me was the simple command of Jesus to “have them (the crowd) sit down in groups of fifty.” Jesus had some choices there. He could have had them sit down en-masse, a whole disorganized, milling crowd – and they would have stayed that way. He could have had them each find their own little quiet place – a kind of me and God moment. Or he could have followed the disciple’s suggestion and sent them away – given them a free pass of sorts. Instead, he has them sit down in groups of fifty – no longer crowds, but communities; no longer teeming masses of people, but little neighborhoods; not solitary individuals but people bonded together into villages of concern and care. It is not an accidental choice.
In language that our liturgy has been so careful to pick up, Jesus takes, blesses, breaks and has the people eat – a clear reference to that Last Supper which he would eventually institute on Holy Thursday. In this miracle, Jesus is foreshadowing the Mass that he asks us to do in his memory. And it all begins by having the crowds sit in those groups of fifty – in those communities of life and love. Did you ever notice that?
Besides the fact that I am the pastor – so you’d all be pretty mad if I didn’t show up, it was that issue of sitting in those small communities that began my reflection about why I would not take the pass. Though I can’t speak of what it is like from your vantage point of mass – let me tell you what I see from up here each time I celebrate.
- I see the widower praying in grief and loss, after having spent a little time in our cemetery visiting his wife’s grave prior to coming to pray, and here being connected to his spouse who celebrates on the other side of this altar in heaven. How could I not be with him in that moment of communion?
- I see a single mom herding 3 active kids, making the effort to come here, because she knows she needs to draw strength from the Lord for the task of raising them on her own. How could I not be here? How could I not pray with her and for her?
- I see a mom and dad gathering a week after the big wedding weekend – the first in the clan to get married – with a mix of joyfulness and that touch of emptier nesting that goes along with weddings – and how could I not pray with them?
- I see an elderly spinster, never married, with most of her family gone, coming here because this is her family now, and these are the people who know her story and look out for her and ask her how she is doing. How could I not be with her?
- I see a parishioner who has struggled long and hard with belief – hoping that God hears their prayers, but not feeling it too much in their life. Yet there they are, Sunday after Sunday, still on their knees, still being faithful to God because that is the choice they have made to love God with all their heart, mind and soul. How could I not be here to pray for that gift of God’s presence in their life?
- I see the family who gathered last week for the Baptism of their infant son, filled with all the joy and hope of new life, tinged with that sense of “How do I raise them well?” How could I not be with them?
And so it goes. You know the stories too. You know all those connections of life and love and neighborhood and family that we are invited to become a part of each time we gather around this altar; each time we do this in memory of our Savior. It is why we gather, not in a group of fifty, but our own community of life and love and fellowship. Because we matter to each other, and we hold each other’s stories and lives in our hearts and our prayers and our loves. And in so doing, we become that which we receive – the Body of Christ for and with each other.
Would you take the free pass if the pope gave it to you? I hope your answer is the same as mine: How could we not be here?