Why Go to Mass?
Not every Mass is going to be a great and deeply moving experience, not for the vast majority of us anyway. But there is a great deal to be said for simple fidelity to our worship. St. Ignatius Loyola says in the Spiritual Exercises that the person who is experiencing some desolation (dryness, “downness”) in prayer can be helped by remembering times of consolation in the past. I think that is true not only of individual prayer but of communal, liturgical prayer as well. In any case, the Mass may not always be a deeply emotional experience, but it is always an experience of the Lord giving himself to us in his word and his sacramental presence and calling forth our self-giving in return.
Why bother? Why bother going to Mass at all when we can worship God anywhere?
1. Participation in the salvation of the world. The most important reason for participating in the Eucharist is that God has invited us to share in the experience of the world’s salvation in the death and resurrection of the Lord every time we celebrate. We are invited to participate in God’s redeeming act each time we participate in the Eucharist and thereby commit ourselves to working for God’s reign.
2. Experiencing the glory of God. St. Irenaeus, a second-century Christian theologian and martyr, wrote that the glory of God is the human being fully alive, and that the human being fully alive is the one who is in Christ Jesus. The Mass is where we experience sacramentally our destiny as members incorporated into the body of Christ. This is what God wants the world to look like: human beings who give of themselves to others in faith, hope and love.
3. Discipline of faith. A third reason to bother is the formation of the habit of worshiping and glorifying God. Human beings ordinarily develop by forming habits, some good and some bad. These are patterns that shape our lives. The discipline of worshiping God helps us to grow into being habitual “adorers of God,” even when we do not feel like it.
4. Hearing the Scriptures communally. The Bible is the word of God, but let’s face it, individualistic and idiosyncratic readings of the Bible have led to some pretty wacky and even destructive interpretations. We need to experience the Scriptures both alone and in community. This is what Christians mean by tradition: the way we have learned throughout history as a church to interpret the Scriptures together. Hearing the Scriptures in community is a way of deepening as well as safeguarding our experience of God’s communication with us.
5. Developing the moral life. If the basic structure of the Eucharist is taking, blessing, breaking and giving in imitation of the Lord’s passion, death and resurrection, then the habit of weekly (or even more frequent) celebration of the Mass ought to help us in our development as moral human beings. If we celebrate faithfully, we ought to be conforming more and more, as individuals and as a community, to the image of generosity and love of the one into whom we were baptized. The final test of whether the Mass “works” is: “By their fruits shall you know them.”
6. Companionship with Christ. If I believe that Christ is the savior of the world, God incarnate, who has given his very self for me, then I want to share in the most intimate experience of self-giving—holy Communion—and I also want to recognize him in the brothers and sisters with whom I am sharing the act of self-giving. We have a vital human need for both food and meaning. The word “companionship” is derived from the Latin cum (with) and panis (bread). We find companionship in sharing food with others. There is no companionship without sharing what our bodies need. There is no companionship with Christ except by sharing in his body—sacrament and church.
7. Focusing my needs. From the earliest days of Christianity, men and women have brought their deepest needs and desires to the table of the Lord, confident that they can be joined to Christ’s great act of intercession before the Father (Heb 7:25, 10:1-22). This is why we pray for the dead at Mass; we place them before the merciful and compassionate God in the midst of this great work of our redemption. I can bring my deepest desires to the table of the Lord, confident that I will be heard.
8. Praying for the world. Of course we bring not only our own personal needs but the state of the world to the celebration of the Eucharist. There is a kind of cosmic dimension to every celebration in which the realities of our world (bread, wine, men and women) are transformed into the body and blood of Christ. The world with all of its needs, joys and struggles is present every time we celebrate the Eucharist together, and our consciousness of the world helps to make the Mass the experience of Christian life in a concentrated way.
9. Welcoming the kingdom. If the Eucharist is the celebration of how God wants the world to look, then every time we celebrate, we anticipate the banquet of God’s kingdom “when every tear will be wiped away.” In other words, the reign of God looks like human beings who, recognizing their sinfulness, know that God’s mercy is far greater. The reign of God looks like people who are gathered to receive his word gratefully. The reign of God looks like people who allow God’s Holy Spirit to form them into a community that accepts life from God, blesses God with everything that is in them, are broken and poured out for others in imitation of the Lord Jesus who has given us this pattern. The reign of God looks like people who share the most unimaginably precious gifts freely because they know that all is gift in Christ. The reign of God looks like people who are sent forth to do the works of faith, hope and love with courage.
10. Pure joy. A final reason for celebrating the Eucharist is that here God invites us to the deepest peace and joy that is possible—sharing in his own divine life. St. Augustine wrote in his Confessions: “O God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” The Mass is a foretaste of that perfectly joyful rest. The Mass is an obligation to be sure, but it is an obligation that comes not so much from the outside as from the nature of what it means to enjoy Christian fellowship. We are who we are because of our sharing with our brothers and sisters. And what we share is Jesus Christ himself. How could that not be the cause of pure joy?
In the Gospel of John, Jesus invites his followers to “come and see.” Nowhere is that invitation from the Lord clearer than in the invitation to share in the celebration of the Mass.