“You never cease to gather a people to yourself, so that from the rising of the sun to its setting a pure sacrifice may be offered to your name.”
This line from Eucharistic Prayer III leveled me just the other day at mass–so much so that I (perhaps inappropriately) leaned over to my 6-year old son and whispered, “did you just hear that? Imagine . . . every moment of every day there’s a mass going on somewhere. How awesome is that!?” It happened to be his feast day (feast of the archangels). I couldn’t help but look in awe at the ceiling of our University chapel, painted with seraphim and cherubim, and ringed with the communion of saints. The eternal praise of God on their lips. It stunned me to think that this liturgy at once stops, reverses, and accelerates time in its very performance. The moment of elevation makes present the Lord’s infant body raised by Mary from the manger for the adoring shepherds’ feasting eyes, the Lord’s paschal body raised by his own hands at the last supper, the Lord’s battered body raised by the Romans on the cross, the Lord’s lifeless body raised by the power of the Spirit from the tomb, the Lord’s blessed body raised to heaven 40 days later, the Lord’s mystical body the Church raised from the blood of the martyrs and raised from the graves on the last day. The strange realization hit me that, my wife, children, mother-in-law, and all the others cobbled together at this mystery and in this space praise the Trinity with all other faithful on earth now just as truly as we do with John who worshiped through the revelation given on Patmos, or even with the prophet Isaiah, who heard the sanctus sanctus sanctus with his own ears and tasted the burning, cleansing presence of the Lord God of Hosts on his lips! Yes, this moment, this host elevated unites me to all worship in spirit and truth that has come before, but even stranger is the thought that I am somehow present to all the masses yet to come.
In pondering how this might be so, a short story by Evelyn Waugh flashed into my mind. Waugh’s “Out of Depth” masterfully illustrates the constancy yet transcendence of the liturgy. The liturgy as sticking-point is increasingly necessary amidst a throwaway culture, facebook feeds a speedreader can’t keep up with, memes that die in a day, and videos that go viral and are forgotten in five minutes (#unmemorable). Waugh tells the tale of Rip, a wealthy, well-connected, and shallow Englishman who finds himself, drunk, dazed, and (at the hands of a magician) deported from his own age and into the London of 500 years to come. A mental haze hovers over Rip as he wanders through the formerly familiar alien landscape. Taken prisoner by the white savages, Rip attempts to wake himself from what he believes is a dream. Communication with the natives of this new “Lunnon” proves a near impossibility, despite the linguistic similarities. The African “bosses,” who come and take Rip from the village, bring him to a learned man, whose thick accent baffles the attempt to communicate to Rip by reading Shakespeare. This moment strikes particularly strong chord. The plain language of English does not transcend time; even the seemingly timeless classic of Shakespeare seems of little use to bridge the intellectual, emotional, psychic gap for Rip. Something else, however, will do just that. Rather than paraphrase the moment of insight, let me allow Waugh to speak for himself:
“And then later–how much later he could not tell–something that was new and yet ageless. The word “Mission” painted on a board; a black man dressed as a Dominican friar . . . and a growing clearness. Rip knew that out of strangeness, there had come into being something familiar; a shape in chaos. Something was being done that Rip knew; something that twenty-five centuries had not altered; of his own childhood which survived the age of the world. In a log-build church at the coast town he was squatting among a native congregation; some of them in cast-off uniforms; the women had shapeless, convent-sewn frocks; all round him dishevelled white men were staring ahead with vague, uncomprehending eyes, to the end of the room where two candles burned. The priest turned towards them his bland, black face.
‘Ite, missa est.’ “
In Waugh’s imagination, even 500 years from now, when African Dominicans will be re-evangelizing the savage British Isles, the one immutable rock that weathers any storm, the one ever-glowing beacon that cuts through the haze of confusion and the vanity of time is the Lord’s sacrifice made once for all–the source, the summit, the sempiterna, the Eucharist.