Mass-less is not Faithless

Mass-less is not Faithless March 12, 2020

Photographer Name Not Listed: Empty Brown Pews / pikrepo

In early Christian times, the period of the Great Fast, that is, Lent, a time of penance and almsgiving, was also a time in which the Divine Liturgy, Mass, was not celebrated. Rather, pre-Christian times were remembered, and the Great Fast itself was seen as participating in and continuing the memory of the past. Whenever Christians met to worship (but not in a Mass setting), the readings were taken from the Tanakh instead of the New Testament. The historical preparation for the Gospel became the symbolic foundation for the preparation for Pascha (Easter).  Sundays, because they were understood as participating in and continuing the eighth day celebration of Easter, continued to offer the people Divine Liturgy services, but otherwise, throughout the week (except possibly Saturdays), Christians did not receive communion at church. Divine Liturgy was seen as a special celebration of the Paschal joy, while the Great Fast was a time of humble reflection.

There came a time in which the Christian faithful wanted communion during the Great Fast. As a result, communion services which gave reserved communion were created. Vespers services, which continued to reflect upon the pre-Christian preparation for the Gospel, were joined with the communion service, creating what was eventually called the Pre-Sanctified Liturgy (often, attributed to St. Gregory the Great). In the West, this tradition eventually was lost, with the exception of Good Friday, which remained Massless. In the East, the tradition remained, so that, except for special holy days, the Great Fast remained Massless during the week (but resumed on weekends).

Even though the Divine Liturgy, Mass, plays an important, indeed, central role in Christian worship, Christian worship should not be reduced to the Divine Liturgy. Christianity was never meant to be reduced to Divine Liturgy, reception of the eucharist, and private devotions like the rosary. It was always meant to be more holistic. Historically, reception of the eucharist was often limited, even when the faithful went to Divine Liturgy; the “Easter obligation” of receiving communion once a year was often the only time many of the faithful would actually receive the eucharist during the year. This was especially true to those who did not live in the cities, but rather, in the various villages and other communities which did not have priests of their own.  Even those who had more access to priests often limited themselves, or were told by spiritual leaders that they did not need to receive so often, that even if they went to a Divine Liturgy service, they did not partake of the eucharist.

Yes, daily communion can be good, and ease of access has allowed many to receive far more frequently than in other ages, but we must also remember that once it is taken so frequently, the eucharist often is taken more as a right than as the gracious gift it actually is. When we understand the eucharist in this fashion, we fail to understand it, the treasure which it is, and so receive it with the wrong frame of mind, hurting ourselves in the process. St. Teresa of Avila, understanding this, presents to us in The Book of Her Foundations the example of a woman who spiritually harmed herself by demanding frequent communion for herself.[1] That woman presented herself to be a holy and pious woman. She received communion on a daily basis. But she was filled with pride, and did not follow proper spiritual direction. She took communion, demanding the right to receive when she wanted; but if some priest were to tell her she should not receive for one reason or another (such as when she was sick), she would get angry and her unwholesome character could be seen.  St Teresa indicates that when that woman got so sick and was nearing death, she had priest come to her place for daily Mass; when he saw her character, he thought she was not prepared for communion and told her so. Instead of being concerned about the state of her soul, she took out her anger on the priest. She died soon afterwards. The priest was so scandalized by the incident he told Teresa about it. Teresa saw the inspiration of the devil behind her desires, because she was unwilling to obey the recommendations given to her for her own spiritual good, and instead, fought against those who were seeking to guide her for her own good.

St Teresa gives us this example to indicate how we can improperly take communion for selfish reasons, that self-love could merge with such a good act to lead a soul astray. In her writings, she admits that even she suffered from similar self-love and had to learn obedience in order to make sure she did not improperly partake of communion: it was self-interest, and not the love of God, which often led her to want to receive communion, again and again, even soon after receiving communion:

Our self-love, too, can get mixed in with these experiences. It has happened to me sometimes that when I saw others receiving Communion just after I had received myself (to the point that the sacred species must have been still intact), I would desire not to have received so as to receive again. Since this happened to me so many times, I came afterward to notice (for at the time it didn’t seem to me there was anything to give careful attention to) how the desire came more from wanting my own satisfaction than from love of God. [2]

St Teresa explains how the emotional, sensual impact of receiving communion was involved with her inappropriate desires. After she had received communion, the graces offered from them were still with her, God was still within her soul, but she ignored what God was doing and wanted the external, sensual delight. If self-will, therefore, could and did lead her away from the proper reception of communion, ignoring what God was doing for her, then others, too, can easily be swayed by such self-love, and use it to confuse them to take communion inappropriately.

Thus, when we find ourselves in a time in which sickness is being spread around the world, and people are dying as a result of that sickness, it should not be surprising that the church, in its wisdom, begins to think about whether or not it is beneficial for us to have routine Mass, or if churches should be closed to the public. The church has a history of taking the physical conditions of its people into consideration when determining whether or not Mass should be obligatory or even celebrated; those who are sick already have been told that they should not come to Mass. The church knows that sick people can harm others if they come to Mass, spreading their disease to others, some who might not be able to handle it as well as they. And so, in her wisdom, the church tells people to be prudential and not act as to cause others harm. This is not because the church is faithless, but rather, because the church knows God wants us to engage him with prudence and wisdom. This is why the people of Israel were told to be careful of those with leprosy (cf. Num. 5:2; Deut. 24:8-9); leprosy, though somewhat contagious, requires close and repeated contacts with nose and mouth droplets from those who are infected (so that, if someone infected with the bacteria which causes leprosy coughs or sneezes on someone else, the other person has a chance of catching it). Now, when we have the example of leprosy, which was not as communicable as other, dangerous diseases, being used to separate people from the general community to keep them safe, this should tell us that such caution is one which God would have us follow when facing a pandemic (especially when people can be infected and not know they are).

It is reasonable to follow prudence and keep church activities to a minimum. This does not mean priests will necessarily forgo private liturgies for themselves, but rather, they can have them and film then so others can benefit from a distance (and spiritual communion), similar to the way St. Charles Borromeo had liturgies the faithful could see from their windows while churches were closed.

And so we need to realize that daily, weekly, or even monthly communion is not necessary, and indeed, when we take it for granted, we might even be harming ourselves more than if we take it infrequently because we begin to think of it as a right instead of a holy gift. Likewise, even if we are not able to receive the eucharist for one reason or another, we still have the graces which have come to us from the communion which we have previously received. Also, we can receive graces in and through spiritual communion as well as in other forms of worship. Daily or Weekly or even Monthly Mass has become so normalized that we have lost sight of the greater Christian life, one which goes beyond the Mass. There are various forms of non-liturgical and liturgical forms of worship which can be followed without the Mass (private devotions, the liturgy of the hours, the Psalms, et. al). We should look to them and find the rich spiritual banquet which we have otherwise neglected if and when we find ourselves cut off from Mass. The Eastern tradition already knows and recognizes this as it “fasts from Mass” during Lent, but it will be useful for people in the West to also recognize this so that they do not take the Mass lightly.

When we begin to think of the Mass as being for the community instead of our own individualistic desires, we will be able to participate in communion in a better frame of mind. Then, it will be easier for us to move away from selfish demands for communion when our reception would put others at risk. We will see that the spirit of charity, and with it grace, grows once we move away from such a self-centered approach to Mass. Then we will be able to appreciate and understand the prudence which follows when times of sickness in the world require us to forego reception of the eucharist. It is not a lack of faith which makes the church follow through with such decisions, but rather the reverse, a recognition of the truth of communion, that it is a common instead of a private good, and faith which recognizes God can and will work with us and continue to offer us the graces during the times in which we cannot receive the eucharist. It Is faith which recognizes Scripture’s example with the lepers (and others who are sick) demonstrates how God wants us to act in prudence in earthly matters, instead of thinking of things in a selfish manner. It is faith, not faithlessness, which accepts the authority of the church if and when it decrees, now is a time not to go to Mass.

Faith, hope and love go together. Love expects us to think of the needs of others over our own particular wants. When we ignore others, when we act selfishly for our own desires, it is no longer a pure faith, but a faithlessness which imitates faith but takes us away from God, for God is love. We need the faith which moves mountains, the faith which builds up others, not selfishness which thinks our every whim needs to be fulfilled. We need faith. It is in and with such faith we can follow the church’s guidelines if and when we are told, “stay home, so as to take care of the needs of your community.” Faithlessness will speak out against such guidelines with arrogance. Let us not follow through with such infidelity. Let us be people of faith who take the needs of others into consideration.

[1] See St Teresa of Avila, “The Book of Her Foundations” in The Collected Works of St Teresa of Avila. Volume Three. trans. Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D. and Otilio Rodriguez, O.C.D. (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1985), 131-2.

[2] ibid., 131.

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