holy cross sermon: the mass part 25: the canon part 2

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Last week we arrived, in this series of sermons on the mass, at the very apex of the mass – the great prayer called the Canon – or variously, the Eucharistic Prayer, the Anaphora, or, my favorite, “the most dangerous prayer.” Last week I discussed how, historically, the canon was recited by the celebrant alone at the altar, in an undertone, so quietly that those standing around could not hear what was being said. Indeed Graham reminded me the other day that there have been quite a few organ compositions through the centuries, that were intended to be played simultaneously with the celebrant’s “silent” recitation of the canon.

I also talked last week about how this silent recitation of the canon, along with the celebrant’s isolation at the altar, is an icon of the solitude – one might even say the secrecy – of the suffering and death of Jesus, alone on the cross – and by extension, of the mystery of all Christian redemption. When our suffering, when our whole life in the world, is referred to the cross of Jesus, we participate in this paradoxical fact of true spirituality: “solus cum solo” – we are alone together with the One who is alone; and in him, we are also alone together with all those who are alone with the One who is alone.

This is a picture of the dynamic of worshipping at mass. We do so as individuals, certainly, offering our own private intentions, praying quietly in our hearts, and so on. But we also do it together with all the others who are here, likewise worshipping as individuals. And we are not just with them, but we are together also with all those throughout the Church who worship at mass, participating together with us in this “one oblation of himself once offered,” and indeed not just synchronically, but we are joined with the faithful in Christ of every age who have done “this in memory” of him. And, moreover, not merely with men and women down through the ages, but also with the Angelic host who participate in the worship of the one God in the heavenly regions, as is dramatically demonstrated when we sing the Sanctus.

Today I would like to parse this out a bit. Dom Prosper Gueranger, the father of the great Benedictine Abbey of Solesmes, identified three ends of the mass exemplified in the Canon:

“Firstly, the Sacrifice whereby Glory is given to God; secondly, the Sacrament which is the Food of our souls; thirdly, the Possession of Our Lord personally in his Real Presence, so that we are able there [at mass] to offer Him that adoration which is the consolation of our exile.” (“The Holy Mass,” p. 105)

All of these ends of the mass are inexpressibly great, but the final two have reference to ourselves. They are, in the phrase from the old Psalter, “to usward” –  WE are afforded the opportunity to adore our crucified-and-risen Lord, who comes into our midst by the action of the mass; WE receive his Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, when we make our communion. But the first end of the mass – the giving of Glory to God by means of the Sacrifice of Jesus – is, in a certain sense, spiritually primary. It touches upon our destiny as human beings, and in doing it we fulfill the purpose for which we were created.

The idea of giving Glory to God by means of the sacrifice of Jesus is conspicuously and appropriately brought into focus at the very beginning of the Anglican canon, which begins straightaway with the idea: “All glory be to thee, Almighty God, our heavenly Father, for that thou, of thy tender mercy, didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross…”

Herein is expressed the most central mystery of our faith – God’s approval of the death of his Son. That may sound strange, or even sadistic, but let me explain. God does not approve of the NECESSITY of Jesus’ death on the cross. He does not approve of its being perpetrated; he does not approve, in other words, of the murder. He approves of the victim. He approves of Jesus’ willingness to endure this most ignominious death out of his superlative fidelity to and love for his Father. Have you ever wondered why, if Jesus were all-powerful, he did not find some other way? The answer is that there was no other way, not without betraying his Father. He was murdered because he refused to deny his own identity as God’s anointed. And God accepts and blesses this loving fidelity.

Consider: the mass is essentially a pleading, a re-presentation, before God the Father of Jesus’ superlative act of loving fidelity to God. And this is why God does not – indeed why He CANNOT – turn away from it. Why, in other words, God MUST favorably regard it – because, in a manner of speaking, God owes it to himself. God must keep his Word, and it is his incarnate Word that we hold before Him in the mass. Dom Prosper Guerange puts it thus:

“Lo! by this Sacrifice, we act directly on God himself, and to that act He cannot be indifferent, else He would thereby derogate from His own glory. Now, as God has done all things for His Glory’s sake, He must needs be attentive to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and must grant, under some form or other, whatsoever is thereby asked of His Divine Majesty….

“When Our Lord was teaching us how to pray, He told us to say:Sanctificetur nomen tuum [“Hallowed be thy name”], – this is a bold petition, one that very closely touches the interests of God’s great Glory; but in Holy Mass, we go further still, we poor creatures may there tell the Mighty God Himself, that He may not turn away from this Sacrifice, for it is Jesus Christ Who is offering It; that [God] may not refuse to hearken, for it is Jesus Christ Himself Who is here praying.” (ibid., 106-107)

I want to close by asking you a question. Consider that your life is not an accident. Your circumstances and relationships are not accidents. God has formed you and led you, and brought you to this particular coordinate of the space-time continuum, and to all the others of your life in succession. How are you fulfilling your Eucharistic destiny in your life circumstances and relationships? How are you allowing what we do in here to percolate through your life “out there”? How are you giving Glory to God in union with your crucified Lord in the places and the times to which God has brought you?

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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About Fr Will

Fr Will Brown is rector of Holy Cross Dallas
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