I recently wrote a little bit about the concept of irony. Although I’m not summarizing it in so many words, my mind is churning entirely because of the wonderful book written by Anthony Esolen, Ironies of Faith.
I’m returning from a spiritual retreat, so you’ll have to forgive me for the introspective theological turn we’re about to take. I’ve had a lot of time to think, and I’ve spent it thinking about the irony of the Mass, both for the depth of the disconnect between what seems to be happening and what is actually happening, as well as the breadth of the disconnect. By this latter bit, I mean that the Mass checks the box for all three types of irony that Esolen categorizes: Ironies of Time, Ironies of Power, and Ironies of Love.
Irony of Time
Although the sign in front of our parish says “Mass at 8am”, the mass actually has no beginning or end. Those well known words of the priest? Ite Missa Est? Amusing. The word itself, missa, from which the word Mass is derived, is also the root word for Mission, meaning the Mass is not content to quietly wrap up so we can head out the door and get on with daily life. The mass is content with nothing less than to become daily life, to take over the world. The prayers and offerings of the faithful are slowly but inexorably sanctifying all of creation and soon everything in the universe will be subsumed by and transformed into the Church. This has been our fate from the moment that the infinite God fitted himself into the womb of a virgin, an action that, to tell the truth, is quite impossible.
Beyond the prayers of the faithful that somehow prompt the continuing divinization of creation, there is the sacrifice without which the mass doesn’t actually happen. What seems to be an event taking place before our eyes in the steady hands of the priest most certainly is happening before our eyes, because God isn’t a liar, but it is revelatory of a deeper order. If Our Lord is sacrificed at daily mass, and he is, it is only because he is sacrificed two thousand years ago on Calvary, and always will be sacrificed. The sacrifice is in time but not of time. It reveals a more fundamental time, God’s time, in which a single action can change the course of history and affect all of it at every moment. This is irony. We come to see that God isn’t detached from time but somehow reveals time to be much more than we had ever thought it could be. At Mass we are in the presence our contemporaries, and also saints, and also angels, and perhaps in some way those who are yet to be born.
Irony of Power
Desire for power is weakness. It gets us nowhere to proclaim that our good deeds earn immortality, or that our piety makes the Mass, or that a certain priest has better Masses because he preaches energetic homilies. The mass is not the quid pro quo of a magician currying favors. We earn nothing, contribute nothing, and have power over nothing. The desire for power, even in the confines of Holy Mother Church, is destined for failure. Blessed are the meek. It isn’t that weakness is better than power and we merely need to invert Nietzsche’s formula to get it right. The goal isn’t to be weak. Power is weakness and by the law of transitivity weakness is power. Who is the strong man but he who dies voluntarily for the sake of another, who is brave enough and compassionate enough to die even for an enemy, who inhabits the still place at the center of the universe and is dependent on nothing, not even taking another breath, for his happiness? Who is weak but he who seeks power through the temporary control of created things, a game destined to come to an end when the sun and other stars burn up at the end of time? Remember, when a game is played, there will always be a loser.
Esolen writes, “The weakest of martyrs is more powerful than the strongest hero.” He goes on to say, “Christianity does not obliterate hierarchies. It transforms them, and the transformation gleams with the irony of the unexpected and appropriate.” The fragile host held captive in the unworthy priest’s hands, broken, and consumed…look and see the power that conquers universes and overcomes the hearts of men.
Irony of Love
Think more about that fragile wafer of bread. It is first of all changed in the institution narrative, then sacrificed and offered to the Father, the returned to us as our daily sustenance. The very purpose of that bread is to be changed. This, of course, is because its very purpose is to become love. Love, by definition, is not necessary. It is an act of the will. We may choose to love or we may choose to withhold. How odd that the unchangeable God would find himself on a million altars each day in a voluntary act of love. How ironic that we are changed by receiving him sacramentally, and in the changing become more ourselves, which is to say more akin to the image of the unchanging one?
We will never love as much as Our Lord loves. The imbalance is complete. Esolen comments on the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, writing, “Hopkins asserted with great ardor that man could approach his Lord by the inconsiderable trifles of the world, a love for irises and moths and falcons.” We consider our attendance at mass a great inconvenience. We must awake ourselves from our well deserved slumber and deign to give most generously of our time. I suspect that most of us cop the attitude that God had better appreciate our consideration. God, on the other hand, is prodigal. He pours himself into the spots on the side of trout, the drift of clouds in the sky, and deigns to eat a meal with us.
He is found most of all in the delicate irony of the Mass, the liturgy at which we play and pretend that our actions are very important indeed. Which isn’t to say it isn’t very serious business, but it is so in the same way it is serious business to my son to dig a hole in the yard for his new clubhouse. He labors at it, and dreams about what the clubhouse will be like, how no girls will be allowed, how wonderful it will be. To me, knowing what actually goes into building a successful house, it is play. How much more so are my castles in the sky compared to the architect of the universe. The priest may as well be standing next to a banana peel.