We are still joyfully celebrating the Christmas season even as we begin a new year and a new month. And the Christmas season, in all its mystery and joy, is a wonderful time to ponder this most fundamental dimension of our faith—the blessed Eucharist—the “source and summit” of our lives as Christians. It is, after all, the life of Christ that we celebrate and consume in the Blessed Sacrament.
At every Mass, we recall and ponder in our hearts and minds the assuring words of Jesus from Saint John’s gospel: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise you on the last day.” How overwhelmingly privileged we are to be nourished week in and week out, and at daily Mass, by our living Lord Jesus—life in Christ.
Holy Communion plants, as it were, the fertile seed of the resurrection deep within us. This seed will grow, silently but assuredly, until it sprouts forth and yields the flower and fruit of life eternal, the pledge of eternal life promised to us.
It is another way of speaking about the “dismissal” at Mass, Mass which is the “source and summit” of our lives as Catholics. It is the highest form of prayer. Properly understood, the dismissal at Mass helps us understand the very meaning of the Mass itself and its relationship to our spirituality.
Said or sung by either the priest or deacon, the dismissal is a challenge for you and me to live in our own unique ways the Mystery we have just celebrated.
There were three dismissal options in the old Roman Rite—“Go in the peace of Christ,” “The Mass is ended, go in peace,” or “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” In the new translation of the Roman Missal, there are four options: “Go forth, the Mass is ended,” or “Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord,” or “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life,” or “Go in peace.”
To whichever one is spoken or sung, our common response is “Thanks be to God.”
As Jesus took, bless, broke and gave the bread at the Last Supper, and as Jesus hyimself went immediately thereafter where he was taken, blessed, broken and given, so too you and I are challenged in this dismissal in a similar way. We are challenged to be taken, blessed, broken and given, in effect, to put into action in our own concrete and daily lives, by the grace and transforming power of this Holy Sacrament, the Love we have just celebrated.
To help understand more deeply the implications of this dismissing challenge of the Mass, I ask you to go once again with me to the Upper Room, the theme of my new book. The humble action of Jesus in the Upper Room and those words about love and service that he uttered there both help us understand what it means to follow the command to live the Mass.
Washing feet was the work of a slave, and yet before they had their meal and in the face of Peter’s resistance, Jesus took a towel and tied it around his waist and washed his feet and the feet of the others. What an incredible sign—the Son of God stooping down in humble service to wash the feet of his followers the night before he was crucified! In the words of Saint John Paul II: “Even more than an example of humility offered for our imitation, this action of Jesus, so disconcerting to Peter, is a revelation of the radicalness of God’s condescension toward us. In Christ, God has ‘stripped himself’ and has taken on the ‘form of a slave’ even to the utter abasement of the Cross, so that humanity might have access to the depths of God’s very life” (Holy Thursday Message, 2000, 4).
This action, precisely at the time that he knew his hour had come, implies that he was committed to the redemptive sacrifice. The washing of feet, reported only in John’s Gospel (and instead of the institution narratives found in the others) is linked to the mystery of the Eucharist that they were about to celebrate. The one who served by washing feet would soon thereafter give himself as food and drink and tell us to do this in his memory. This humble service is tied to and gives meaning to his actions at table and his later loving action on the wood of the cross. It is how we also live our participation in the Mass—humble, servant-like service. “If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet.” (Jn 13:14)
There is a beautiful hymn, perhaps you know it, entitled: “Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.” (Where charity and love are, there is God.) Holy Communion is the feast of love, the love of a cross, the love of humble service. As we are transformed more and more in communion with Jesus in the Eucharist, we take on his love in our actions. Where charity and love are, there is he. The Eucharist makes him visible and possible in our lives. It is how we live the Mass.
I mentioned that the action of Jesus in washing feet in the Upper Room are not left uninterpreted by Jesus himself. There are so many examples that strike the same chord in John 13-17—his “farewell discourses.” They all bespeak of the new commandment that he gives the disciples, and you and me, in the Upper Room, and the upper rooms of our lives, a commandment which he concretizes personally and ultimately on the cross and in the breaking of the bread and pouring of the wine. Specifically: “This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn 15: 12-13).
We live the Mass when we lay down our lives for our friends after the example of Jesus. “As I have loved you”—the word as is the key to it all. He was alluding to the love to which he would bear witness in his painful offering. But he was thinking, at the same time, of the love demonstrated in the institution of the Eucharist.
It is thus not just a model, Jesus’ example of humble service and love. The Eucharist communicates the strength to imitate his life, to follow the missionary command: Go, live the Mass. The eucharistic food assimilates us and transforms us and introduces us into a higher life, into the very life of Jesus himself. Model and power all in one! Go and live! Service to the poor, witness to charity, the defense and promotion of every person’s life from conception to natural death, the struggle for justice and the constant search for peace flow from and are developed and sustained by the eucharistic mystery.
The Eucharist is, after all, “the source and summit of our lives” as followers of Jesus Christ. That is why we cannot live authentic Catholic lives without the Eucharist—lives committed to loving as Jesus loves. With the Eucharist, the Bread of Life, Jesus gave his disciples, and each of us, a power of love that knows no limits and that is efficacious in every human condition. All we are and all that we become are rooted in this sacrifice of love. The Eucharist is both gift and command. It rests at the very heart of our spiritual lives as his followers, followers committed to humble service, sacrificial love after his example, living and pulsating members of his body, a body broken out of love for us in the Upper Room and on Calvary itself and in the upper rooms of our lives.
So in this new year, I say Ite Missa est! Go, live the Mass! Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord! Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life! Amen
Excerpted from a speech delivered by Msgr. Peter J. Vaghi to members of the John Carroll Society on January 5, 2017. Vaghi is the author of Meeting God in the Upper Room: Three Moments to Change Your Life (Servant Books).