As those of us responsible for adult faith formation seek strategies for responding to people—especially Millennials—who see little or no reason for going to Mass, here is one approach we might want to consider: stressing that going to Mass is not only a statement of faith but is also a statement of liberation.
For the people of Israel, liberated by God from oppression through the Exodus/Passover event, proclaiming that “God reigns” was not only a statement of faith, but was also a statement of political resistance and liberation. It was the recognition of a king and a kingdom more powerful than any earthly power. This defiance was critical for a people who continued to suffer oppression at the hand of occupying forces. The Romans, in particular, relied on the practice of crucifixion as a way of reminding people that they alone were in control.
Therefore, Jesus’ victory over that very Cross and the early Christians’ celebration of that victory (proclaiming Jesus as “Lord,” “King of Kings,” and “Son of God”) were a powerful statement, a way of saying to Rome: “You may think you are in control, but our God reigns!” This new Exodus and new Passover are celebrated by Christians in the Eucharist. For the early Christians, celebrating the Eucharist was an act of defiance and a statement of liberation and deliverance. The idea of the Mass being boring was unheard of, since the act of celebrating the Eucharist was seen first and foremost as the most provocative and risky expression of defiance one could make in the face of oppression.
In today’s world, to proclaim that “Jesus is Lord!” is often viewed as a mere pious expression of faith. And yet, to do so is to proclaim that our primary commitment is to God and to one another, not to an earthly power. For the early Christians, going to Mass was not so much about personal holiness and getting to heaven as much as it was about living as citizens of the Kingdom of God here on earth. It was a statement of liberation from any earthly oppression. The sentiment is best summed up by St. Thomas More who, before being executed by the decree of King Henry VIII said, “I die the king’s good servant, but God’s first.”
Jesus taught to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s but to render unto God what is God’s. Today, as it was back in the time of Jesus, we live in the midst of turmoil and are called to stand in tension between our commitment to “Caesar” and our commitment to God. For Catholic Christians, the Mass is a powerful expression of our liberation, which often manifests itself as non-conformity: our refusal to let anything take priority over God. Consider how the following elements of the Mass express the priority of God over “Caesar.”
- The Cross: Roman armies were led by a standard bearer carrying the eagle, a symbol of Roman military might. In our procession, our standard bearer carries a Cross, our symbol of power and might.
- In the name of the Father… We begin by invoking God’s name.
- Gloria and Alleluia: Crowds shouted praise to the emperor if they were in his presence; we sing praise to God alone in the Gloria (“You alone are the holy One, you alone are the Lord, you alone are the most high!”) and the Alleluia, which means “Praise God!”
- Gospel Reading: Announcements of Roman military victories were posted beginning with the word “evangelion,” meaning “good news.” We hear good news of a greater victory—God’s!
- The Creed: Roman soldiers swore an oath of allegiance called a “sacramentum.” We profess our allegiance to God in the Creed.
- Offertory: Roman soldiers could demand food and shelter from anyone within the empire; we bring offerings of our own free volition.
- Hosanna: Only the emperor had the ultimate power to save an individual from a magistrate’s ruling; we proclaim “Hosanna!” (“Save us!”) to Jesus, who alone can save us.
- God of Hosts: The emperor’s power was consolidated in the military; we sing praises to the “God of hosts” (hosts meaning “heavenly armies”).
- Thy will be done: The emperor had absolute authority and his will was to be obeyed without question; we pray that God’s “will be done on earth as it is in heaven” in the Lord’s Prayer.
- Sign of Peace: The “Pax Romana” or “Roman peace” was enforced by the edge of a sword; we share a peace with one another that has been achieved by Christ’s selfless laying down of his life for others.
- Eucharist: The Roman Emperor was seen as a god to be worshipped for sustaining the well-being of the people; we are sustained (nourished) by the reception of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.
- Blessing and Dismissal: The objective of Roman worship was to gain the blessing of the gods, including the emperor; we are sent forth as ambassadors for Christ with God’s blessing and in his name.
Every celebration of the Eucharist is an expression of our liberation from worldly powers and of our allegiance to the Reign of God in our lives. Catholics can and must be good citizens of this world. However, the Eucharist reminds us that, because our true allegiance lies elsewhere, we are called to be “politically homeless.” I propose that we teach that going to Mass is a very powerful way of expressing our liberation and a powerful vehicle for ensuring that we become, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, “maladjusted” to the various ways that the world pressures us to conform with “things that are Caesar’s” instead of those “things that are God’s.”
They brought him a coin. And he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar’s.” Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mark 12:16–17)