Creation, Salvation, and the Mass | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | June 30, 2006
The Holy Father, in his brief homily on the Feast of Corpus Christi before the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome, remarked that the Eucharist has "cosmic implications," by which he meant that the transformation of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ portended the "divinization of the whole cosmos" (L'Osservatore Romano, June 21, 2006). This is a remarkable statement. What could he possibly mean by it?
Can the world be "divinized" and, at the same time, still be a world, so evidently full of fallen men, of evil and disorder? God remains God, not the world. We cannot forget Chesterton's remark, however, that the fact of sin, something obvious among us, does not argue to the view that revelation was not necessary, but to the conclusion that it was necessary, that was its point. We are not capable of redeeming ourselves. The context of revelation, as it has been handed down to us, concerns both "the purification of reason," as the Pope called it, and the restoration of the human race to the original intention of God in creation, that is, to associate other free beings with His own inner life, His Trinitarian life. How so?
In the Book of Wisdom (1, 13-15), we read that God originally did not intend that there be death in our lives. Something went wrong. Logically, as I see it, the very creation of human beings as they might be according to what they are by nature was not to come to pass. Thus, the alternate "God and simply natural creation," though possible, was never really something that came about. Human nature as such was merely, and still is, something that only exists in the mind of God and, perhaps, the stories of novelists and science fiction writers. As Aquinas said, "man by nature is not merely natural but supernatural."
What came first in God's understanding of creation--what governed everything else--was not the evidently intricate design of the physical cosmos, but the rational and angelic creatures, their purpose and destiny. All else that was created was designed in relation to, or in consequence of, them. The vast physical cosmos, which seems to make us the tiniest and most insignificant things imaginable, is itself a consequence of the kind of beings that we are conceived to be in the first place. That is to say, if we are to be at all, a world must exist to make it both possible and actual that we exist.
At first sight, this position will sound outlandish, but only if we think that cosmic creation is more complicated than human creation and the latter's own cosmic and trans-cosmic purpose. The cosmos is itself also intended to be understood by beings who are not themselves God. The fact is that individual human complexity, not to mention the complexity of all human beings over time and place with their intricate inter-relation to each other, displays a greater inner variability and altereity than does the cosmos itself. Einstein himself, I believe, recognized this. The root cause of this human complexity is reason and especially free will.
As it is understood in revelation, God initially created us human beings to exist in a universe in harmony with creation. We were not to die, but this was a gift beyond our nature and depended on our choice. That harmony between man and God, however, would not be something that He could simply "impose" on mankind. God was bound both to His own nature and to the nature of what He brought into being for His own purposes. Were creation simply to be "made" perfect in the likeness of God, made in the "Word," as it says in the Prologue to John, it would lack an inner perfection that was at the very heart of what is best and noblest about creation itself. Namely, creation needed to contain within itself, at its very root, a free acceptance on the part of what is created to be what it is. Essentially, this meant that creation needed finite and free persons within itself to complete its very purpose. Not only is it right that God be God, but that what is not God be, and remain, what it is.
That we were not intended to die did not mean, however, that we were, by what it is to be a human being, somehow deathless gods, as the pagans sometimes pictured them The drama of the present human race's relation to God is implied within this very phrase in Wisdom, that God did not initially "plan" death. Death was rather the result of something else, outside of God's control in the sense that He could not make a free being not to be free, but not outside His knowledge or wisdom. The possibility of death was also part of God's original plan for us, since its avoidance depended on our will, not God's will.
We were not to be "forced" against our wills to accept the kind of plan that God had envisioned for everyone from the beginning. It was a relatively simple plan that consisted basically in saying "Yes" to a proposal or a purpose that was better than anything we could imagine or bring forth by ourselves. In one sense, actual human history consists in proposing and living out alternative plans. The story of the choice actually made, found in the account of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in Genesis, is essentially a drama that each human being is subsequently to repeat in all of his actions in his own life--namely, does he or God create the rules and destiny best ordered to his own purpose and good, his own happiness?
The drama that we know as original sin, followed by redemption and the Incarnation, flows out of this background, with its best explication found in a careful reading of the Book of Genesis and of Paul's Epistle to the Romans. What the Incarnation is, in essence, is God's response to human free will, a response that, in every detail, respected freedom, even when, as it often did, it chose against God Himself. Divine omniscience could not be unaware of the possibility of a free creature acting freely to reject what the free creature is intended to be. But it was a greater good to have this possibility of choosing to have free creatures in the universe than not to have a universe at all, the only real alternative.
What is good, at its highest understanding, includes the free acknowledgment of the rational creature that the good is good--that the plan of God is what anyone would want. This is why the initial purpose in creation had to do with free beings other than God, beings who had their own autonomy. These beings, once put into existence, because of their soul or spirit, were to be everlasting, but their ultimate status would in part be up to them. The essence of their being was not so much their everlastingness but their confrontation with what is good, with, in other words, their choice to accept or reject what is finally good.
The Redemption had a long preparation from the beginning and more immediately in the history of Israel and its location within the Roman Empire. It occurred in a specific time and place, during the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius Caesar. It had to do with a Child who was "born to us," as Scripture says. Who was this Child? He was, as it turns out, true God and true man. "The Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us." He was "He who was to come." He explained, and confirmed by His deeds and acts, that He and the Father are one, that He would send the Spirit to teach us all the things that we needed to know about our final destiny and how to achieve it. This achievement would have something to do with how we lived.
In a public trial, this Man was finally condemned to death, the death that ought not to have existed. He was crucified, he died, and he was buried. On the third day, He rose again from the dead and ascended to the right hand of the Father, from whence He shall come again to judge the living and the dead. The concreteness of Christ's life and death leave us no alternative but to know that He existed; the words and deeds that He performed indicate that, while being man, He was also God, but God after the manner of being a Son--that is, as of receiving what He is from His Father. Christ's words taught us that God Himself has a complete inner life that does not need to world itself to be what it is. Christ's very presence in the world followed the freedom of creation.
What, then, is the Mass? The Mass, as we witness it, is visibly within the context of the Last Supper that Christ spent with His disciples. But it includes, by clear anticipation, what is to happen to Him on the next day. He speaks of "my Body" and "my Blood which is to be shed for you." The Mass is, wherever and whenever celebrated, at the same time the one event of Christ's sacrifice. There is only one Mass, the same one that occurred at the Last Supper. This is how Christ intended it.
Basically, the Mass is the answer to the question--long searched for in various ways by men of all times and places--of what is the proper way to respond to the Godhead, to the origin of our being. The virtue of religion basically means the human effort to repay a debt, the gratitude for existence. The fact is that such a debt cannot be repaid by finite creatures using their own powers.
The history of religion, in one sense, can be looked upon as an effort, sometimes a desperate effort, by man to relate to God in a proper way. Sometimes these efforts resulted in bizarre sacrifices to the gods, even the sacrifice of human beings themselves. Yet redemption, as we understand it, does involve the sacrifice of a human being. The rejection of Christ took place in the form of His Crucifixion, which He accepted as an offering for our sins. The Mass is itself the sacrificial offering of Christ in obedience to the Father in reparation for our sins. It is itself the very means by which we are to worship God. We are redeemed in Christ's name, not our own.
This is why the Mass is only one Mass, each Mass is the "memorial" of the Last Supper with its ending in Christ's death and resurrection. It is not something human beings "made up" and can change in any way they like. It is the making present of the sacrifice of Christ to His Father in the name of all human beings. It is the restoration of God's initial purpose in creation, the means whereby we might achieve everlasting life.
The fate of Christ in the world was to suffer and die because He was rejected precisely as what He said He was, the Son of God. His very understanding of His Father was what was rejected. Indeed, men have found it is not belief in God but belief in the Incarnation of the Son of God that is the more difficult doctrine to accept. But the Mass is itself given to us as the proper way we are to worship the Father.
Obviously, we human beings could not really have figured out this manner by ourselves, nor are we likely to have understood the cost of our redemption, what had to be done to effect it. However, it is the solution to a problem that has vexed us from the beginning, namely, "How does God choose to be worshiped by human beings?" The Mass, in its brief moments of word and sacrifice, reenacts the central act of human history. This is possible because Christ is true God and we in time live before His eternity. But He was true man. What happened to Him, to who He was, really happened to Him. We are to receive His Body and Blood whereby we too are to become, freely, what we are intended to be, from the beginning.
The Mass, then, is also, like creation itself, something given to us. Our ways, however complex, do not improve on God's ways, but we are free to choose God's ways. Human freedom is simply asked, "Do you believe that Jesus Christ is Lord, true God and true man?" It is on this basis that we understand what we are and what are the essentials of our destiny. The Mass is present in the world as the way to return the world to its origins now in appreciation for what it is that was freely given to us.
Our acknowledgement, when we behold the redemptive drama that is before us, is simply, "Amen." That is, "I hear the Word, I participate in the Sacrifice, I receive the Body and Blood as the proper way, indeed the only way, to worship God." Thus the very act of worship explains to us who God is and what He has given to us in creating us so that we might participate freely in the inner life of God. The Mass exists so that we can be more than we are.
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Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing, and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning.
Read more of his essays on his website and on his IgnatiusInsight.com Author Page.
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