Thanksgiving meal, mass mirror effortPublished 12:05am Thursday, November 28, 2013
As people in our community prepare to celebrate their annual Thanksgiving meal with family and friends, I think these gatherings, generally, mirror the order of Catholic worship.
I share my reflections as a way of offering insight on the order of Catholic worship, which is viewed by Catholics as “the Thanksgiving Celebration of the faith community.”
Theologically speaking, the Mass is a worship service dedicated to the memory of Jesus Christ and his redemptive work. Its development was influenced by worship forms in the Jewish tradition and specifically found its beginning in the Passover meal (Last Supper) which Jesus celebrated with his apostles.
For Catholics, their worship service (the Mass) is a sacred memorial event that is central to their faith. It commemorates His redemption of humankind — through his death and resurrection — and it invites and challenges his followers now, and through the centuries, to be his witnesses and to live and love as He did. It re-enacts His saving deeds and invites the members to be ‘participants’ and not just ‘spectators.’
I am using the image of a Thanksgiving Day family meal to convey additional aspects of the Catholic understanding of Mass. For such a meal, family members gather from many places. On arrival they talk with one another, they become acquainted with new members and they share some of their respective experiences with one another. Later, they move to the table and someone, often the oldest member, leads a prayer of blessing and thanksgiving, and they eat and drink and share stories of their life experiences. Often the food is prepared by many in the families and the meal is a happy and festive event.
In a Catholic Mass, a somewhat similar format is followed. It has a gathering rite during which people greet one another, they are welcomed by the host/prayer leader (the priest), the mood is set with the music, congregation members are reminded of the purpose of their gathering, namely, to give praise and thanksgiving to God; and they are called to repent of their sins and wrongdoing.
The Mass has a story telling segment during which passages from the Old and New Testaments are read. This “story telling” component reminds members of the saving works of God among his people in the past, and in the “homily” the priest offers some thoughts on how God is working among them now and possibly some appropriate ways for them to respond to these signs of God’s presence.
After the story telling segment, Catholics at Mass, turn their attention to the table (altar) for the spiritual food. This part is called the liturgy of the Eucharist. As at the family thanksgiving meal:
The priest leads the Eucharistic prayer and calls on God’s spirit to change the elements of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. He then recalls the events of the Last Supper — especially the institution of the Eucharist. Along with the congregation the priest proclaims the mystery of faith (the presence of Jesus) and recalls the wonderful deeds of salvation — the passion, death and resurrection of Christ. He prays for unity, for church leaders and for the living and the deceased.
The sharing of Communion is followed by a time for private prayer, a time for reflection and thanksgiving, a time to be alone in conversation with God, a time to listen to God, and a time to experience the awe and mystery of God’s presence in ones heart.
Now that the liturgical meal (the Mass) is about to come to an end, and the people are about to return to the world where they live and work, there is a short rite of “commissioning” or “sending forth.” The priest then blesses the congregation in the name of the holy trinity, and sends them forth.
My hope is that the image of the family thanksgiving meal, which I have used, is helpful to you, my readers, in gaining some insights into the Catholic worship service — the Mass. There are additional parallels that I want to mention. Ministers of hospitality at the doors of church greet and welcome churchgoers, the worship is a time of celebration and it is a time to express gratitude to God for his abundant blessings.
Everyone comes to the worship, as they do to the thanksgiving meal, with gifts — their personalities and stories, their monetary gifts, their talents to serve the congregation in liturgical roles and church music, and everyone needs to be accepted and cherished.
Another similarity from the image I used is that no family member lightly excuses him/her self from attending their family’s Thanksgiving meal, neither are Catholics to excuse themselves from the church’s weekly worship. In fact, “missing Sunday Mass” is considered serious failure in the Catholic tradition and is only justified in the face of serious illness or grave circumstances.
Mass is a time for prayer and worship. Any person who wants to attend such a prayer experience, no matter their faith tradition, is welcomed to attend Catholic worship. A worship aide or outline is available in the pews to enable visitors to prayerfully participate.
David O’Connor is pastor of St. Mary Basilica and Assumption parishes in Natchez.