Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The End of the Story: How the Dismissal Can Shape Our Worship

In the 16th century, humanistic scholarship opened up the Scriptures anew and upstart scholars challenged the Church’s traditions by their fresh reading of the Bible. Part of their debate was over the meaning of the Mass, and particularly what happened in the re-presentation of Jesus’ sacrifice in the consecrated bread and wine. That disagreement not only split the nascent Protestant movement from Rome, but it divided the reform movements from each other.

Medieval Catholic teaching set the agenda for the discussion, and the Reformers responded out of necessity on that point. But what if liturgical Christians looked at the the Eucharist) through a different lens? My friend Greg Pierce has recently published a book that does just that with the liturgy (The Mass Is Never Ended: Rediscovering Our Mission to Transform the World, Ave Maria Press, 2007).
If you want to understand a familiar story, consider how it ends. Then look back and see how various plot elements point forward in clear or obscure ways to how things will turn out. The “end of the story” for liturgical Christians is the dismissal, when the deacon or priest says, “Go, the Mass is ended,” or in more contemporary rites, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” The congregation responds, “Thanks be to God.”

What can we mine from that brief exchange about the purpose of Christian worship? The word mass did not always refer to the entire order of worship. The original Latin phrase (Ite, missa est) literally means, “Go. It is the sending-forth.” That in turn raises the question of what we are being sent forth for.

The term missa simply means sending. But to Christian ears steeped in the language of the New Testament, there are clear echoes of passages such as “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21) and “As thou didst send me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (John 17:18). We are part of God’s mission to the world. And when at the end of a liturgical worship service we are sent forth, it is precisely as part of God’s mission to the world and as representatives of Christ.

For Greg Pierce, this sending into the world is a sending into the world of work. (Greg has made spirituality in the workplace the focus of his efforts at ACTA publishing.) Work is what most of us do—whether paid work or the unpaid variety that improves and eases the lives of families, friends, fellow citizens, and strangers. So the various parts of the worship service must strengthen us and prepare us to do that work in Christ’s way. The sermon, which is supposed to help us hear God’s scriptural voice speak more clearly, had better not stop short of application to daily life. Saying the Creed together should be understood as assuring that we are all on the same page before we take up our mission for another week. The prayers should, of course, praise God, but they must also address our world of work. Communion is receiving strength for the task, because Jesus himself is the food and drink that sustain us on our kingdom-advancing mission.

Has Greg gone out on a limb by trying to view Christian worship through the lens of the dismissal? It doesn’t sound very Catholic (at least to Protestant ears).

Not really. On the back cover of his book, Greg has reprinted Pope Benedict XVI’s comments on the dismissal: “These words help us to grasp the relationship between the Mass just celebrated and the mission of Christians in the world. ... The People of God might be helped to understand more clearly this essential dimension of the Church’s life, taking the dismissal as the starting-point” (The Sacrament of Charity, 51).

The Mass Is Never Ended is a quick read with short chapters that leave you wanting more. It is therefore a good stimulus to help us think about whether the way we conduct and participate in worship really does help us in our task of advancing God’s kingdom in our daily lives. The book is written in a simple style to encourage Catholic lay people to think about their public worship as preparation for their daily work and to think of their daily work as an extension of their public worship. But non-Catholics and non-lay people need to be encouraged to think along these same missional lines.

Now, go in peace to love and serve the Lord.

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