You will notice if you accompany me to Mass that some of our singing and a lot of our liturgy is responsorial, that is, we have a leader who sings or prays one part, and we in the pews “answer” with the other part. That’s why it can be difficult to participate in the Mass if you’re new; you’re never sure when to come in (don’t worry – you’ll pick it up. My family did!). Why all this “proposal” and response?
It has been noted that Jesus never actually came out and said, in so many words, that He was God. Of course, the Christian will assure you, He said and did many things that should leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that He was God (things like claiming that He had descended from Heaven, claiming that He existed before the world began, claiming the authority to forgive sins, claiming that He and the Father were one, and making statements like “before Abraham was, I AM” – the very name of God applied to Himself) but “in so many words,” no, He never said those words: “I am God.” He left that to His Church. We see the beginning of this in a question-and-response in Matthew. Jesus asks His disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” Well, that response is all over the map – some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah, some say one of the prophets. Then He asks that question of His Church, “Who do you say that I am?” And the Holy Spirit leads Simon, representing the Church that Jesus was about to build upon him, to the confession of faith that we all must make at some time in our life:
You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.
The paradigm is repeated when Jesus appears to St. Thomas, who doubts. After being assured that He has indeed risen, that He is not a ghost, and that Thomas can put His fingers into the very Wounds of God, it is not Christ but Thomas who makes the statement confirming Jesus’ deity:
My Lord and my God!
God waits for His Church to proclaim Him. God questions, and the Church responds. God proposes, and His Church gives her answer. The Church is believing humankind’s response to God, believing humankind’s “fiat” uttered in the one voice of the communion of saints from the first century down to the 21st.
So you will hear this exhortation and reply, back and forth, throughout the Mass.
- The Lord be with you.
- And with your spirit.
- Lift up your hearts!
- We lift them up to the Lord.
- Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
- It is right and just.
Our prayers are also responsorial, with the Church proposing various petitions such as “That the newly elected leaders of our country may seek to serve not their own interests, but the poor and the marginalized in our country, we pray to the Lord,” which we then make our own by giving our heartfelt assent: “Lord, hear our prayer!” The very order of the Mass is based upon this paradigm. We hear the Scriptures read to us, we hear the homily expounding on those Scriptures and challenging us to change our life accordingly – and then we stand up to give our answer, the “I BELIEVE!” of the Creed, our public assent to the core teachings of Christianity.
In a Protestant worship service, things generally end with the sermon. It is the pinnacle; it is the final word – a quick altar call and you’re outta there. When Protestants broke away from the Church, they took the Liturgy of the Word with them – the hymns, the prayers, the sermon – and relegated Holy Communion to an afterthought. If the Protestant worship service is a body, the sermon is the heart, and the Lord’s Supper is the appendix – it’s there, Protestants know God made it, but they’re not sure exactly what it’s for. From a Catholic perspective, the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist are inseparable. The Liturgy of the Eucharist is the response to the Liturgy of the Word, a response for which the Protestant “altar call” is a paltry substitute. The Catholic response to the Good News of Jesus Christ is to bring forward our gifts of bread and wine, to lift up our very hearts and to declare that it is truly right and just to give this God, proclaimed in the Scripture readings, thanks and praise. We proclaim Him Thrice-Holy, and when the Spirit descends on our gifts and they become the actual Body and Blood of our Lord, we announce before the world:
We proclaim Your Death, O Lord, and profess Your Resurrection, until You come again!
Up to this point in the Mass there have been a lot of “we’s” – as in “Lift up your hearts! We lift them up to the Lord!” – and that is a nagging Protestant quibble. A Catholic can be baptized as an infant, attend Mass all her life, and never make a personal commitment to Christ. Tragically, no amount of “we’s” will make up for the missing “I” – either one knows Jesus personally, or he risks the dread pronouncement “I never knew you!” No matter how many responses we give as one, as the Church responding to her Lord, they can never make up for the absence of a personal relationship. And that is why our final response at Mass is the most important. Our final and greatest response takes place when we actually leave our place among the congregation and go forward as an individual to meet Jesus. No longer responding corporately, each of us is asked to give his or her own private, individual response to the Question asked of the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” As we present ourselves before what looks like bread in the hand of the priest, we give in essence the answer given by Simon: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!” God proposes something simple but profound to us: “This is the Body of Christ,” and we answer with the answer that contains all other answers, the answer which amounts to our own very personal fiat: “Amen.”
God proposes, and we give our answer, our “I do.” We individual Christians, made one through this Body and Blood, together are the bride of Christ. Individually and corporately we give our assent, that it is truly He – Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity – in the Holy Eucharist, and that in Him we have Life.
So that’s what’s going on with all the responses. Saying “yes” to God, Protestants will agree, is the most important choice a human being can make. At each Mass each individual Catholic is called forward to make his or her decision, to say “yes” in the presence of Christ. At each Mass each Catholic gives his or her frail human “Amen” to Him Who is the living “Amen,” the Ultimate “Yes” to the Father, and (as 2 Corinthians puts it), “through Him is our Amen to the glory of God through us.”
The Mass is, after all, a foretaste of the wedding supper of the Lamb. Our “Amen” is our Catholic answer to the Divine Proposal.
On the memorial of St. Martin of Tours
Deo omnis gloria!