A few months ago, I was at Mass and I heard something new. Usually, when the priest says the words of consecration, “This is my body,” I am thinking about the miracle of transubstantiation: Of the bread and wine becoming Jesus’ flesh and blood, of God being physically as well as spiritually present on the altar.
And that is plenty to think about! But on this particular Sunday, when the priest said “This is my body” and when he elevated the host, I saw clearly that “this” meant everybody. He meant everybody in the church is his body.
Of course I already know this. We are the body of Christ, yes, yes. God has no hands but ours, and so on. But it has never struck me as such a literal thing before. It was one of those galaxy brain moments when I saw, with my actual eyeballs, every human in that building physically contained or comprehended in the elevated host. Then the priest laid the host down and the moment was over. But it shooketh me, as they say.
It’s not just a matter of “You have to be nice to other people, because if you’re not, God is going to take it personally.” It’s that, because God became human, humans are with God in a way that must not be trifled with. The Incarnation has a direct bearing on our obligation toward other people. And at the same time, the Incarnation irreversibly changed the character of what it means to be obligated in general.
(Here is my standard disclaimer: I’m a housewife who knows how to type, and those are my qualifications to talk about theology.)
Today is normally a Holy Day of Obligation, but in our diocese, there is a blanket dispensation from the Mass obligation. It’s because of the pandemic, of course, but it’s led me to think more deeply about obligations and dispensations in general, and about the times when it feels like we have to choose between following God’s law or acting in love.
We have been going to Mass despite the dispensation, because the parish is currently following good safety practices. But we’re not going today, because some of us have minor cold symptoms which are not COVID, but which, if other people were to catch them, might obligate them to isolate themselves while they wait for a test, which might mean missing work, which they might not be able to afford to do. We’re not dangerously sick, but this is an unusual time in which we could really hurt other people if we went.
We would have made the same choice even if we hadn’t had a blanket dispensation from Mass. I have also advised people who don’t have a blanket dispensation to stay home from Mass if they are high risk or caring for high risk people, or if their parish isn’t following safety guidelines. The obligation to attend Mass is something that we may, up to a point, discern for ourselves.
Here is what the catechism says about our obligation to attend Mass:
2181 The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice. For this reason the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor.119 Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin.
So there is a serious obligation to be at Mass, but it is not an absolute obligation; and it is, to some degree, up to us to decide whether or not our reasons for not being at Mass are serious reasons.
As with many decisions, it’s possible to err with two extremes. Before there was a pandemic, I have seen people brag about of their choice to drag themselves to Mass shaking with fever and barely able to stand, because they think that if you can possibly, physically force yourself to be present, then you must, and this is how you obey. And I have seen people err in the other direction, arguing that God made the family and therefore family time is important and therefore Jesus would never want them to disrupt their cozy Sunday morning tradition of watching Spongebob and eating waffles with the kids, and anyway they can always worship God in nature or whatever, and this is how you love.
As usual, actual virtue lies in the middle of these two extremes. God does not require us to physically wreck our bodies and put other people in danger by dragging ourselves to Mass when we’re sick. And God does require us to show up for an hour once a week because the Eucharist is the very heart of our faith and God knows we need it. So it’s not that there is a law about going to Mass, but sometimes we are allowed to break that law. It’s that the choice to go or stay home is part of what the law is for.
Why do we go to Mass? We go to Mass (a) to worship God (b) with other people.
I have witnessed Catholics who almost completely ignore (a), and speak as if the Mass is primarily a musical fellowship meal with our sisters and brothers, and they may or may not believe in the Real Presence. And I have also seen Catholics who barely tolerate the existence of (b), and conceive of the Mass as entirely about their personal, intimate contact with the divine that no one has the right to intrude upon.
But when we have a legitimate reason to miss Mass, whether because of an official dispensation, or because of something serious we’ve discerned on our own, this is not something separate from our obligation to go to Mass. It’s not a loophole offered to us because of weakness, a sort of downgrade from the divine to the merely human. A dispensation is part of our obligation: our obligation to worship God as a human, as the body of Christ. If I were sick but went to Mass anyway, thinking it was the best way to obey the law of God, that would be violating the spirit of the obligation because it would be bad for the body of Christ.
And by the same token, if I violated some other law of God thinking it would be the best way to show love for some part of the body of Christ, I’d be doing something just as foolish and fruitless as worshipping God at the expense of the lady next to me in the pew. I’m not just thinking about the mass obligation. I’m thinking about any obligation we have as Catholics. Sometimes, the laws and obligations we face feel so inhuman. Some of them feel like they are separate from love, like they will separate us from love, like they will separate us from each other. Like the Church has made a mistake and has asked us to do things that will quench love.
This is a real problem. I’m not saying it’s not real. All I can say is to stay close to Christ. Tell him your problem. Let your heart bleed on his altar, which is your altar, and demand that he keep his promise and care for the ones he called his own body.
When we stay close to Christ in prayer, he will take on the burden of uniting obedience and love. But we cannot show love to ourselves or to other people by ignoring the law. And we also cannot follow the law by treating other people as if God does not care for them, because he clearly, clearly does. We cannot follow the law by treating ourselves as if God does not care for us, because he clearly, clearly does. It’s so foolish to behave as if we have to choose between love and obedience. They are the same. If they were not, then the crucifixion was a huge mistake. The mistake we make is to mistake what love looks like.
The Eucharist is the heart of our faith, and it is a living heart whose purpose is to send life to its members. The synthesis of love and law is in Christ and only in Christ. When the body of Christ was elevated at Mass, from that height he saw us who had come to him, and I heard his priest say, “This is my body.” Meaning us. And so it was.
So I will never speak about dispensations as if they’re some kind of weasly accommodations for the weak and unwilling; and I will never speak about obligations as if they’re a departure from the demands of love. We have an obligation to each other, as one body, and this love is not a separate thing from the law, and this law is not a separate thing from love.
If you have doubts of any kind, put yourself next to Christ. You will find him on the altar — the altar inside the church building, or at any other place where you are given the chance to be a sacrifice. There is Christ. When we stand with Christ, following the law will always be an act of love, and acting in love will always flow from the heart of the law. He will make them the same.
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