Sunday Mass and the Courage of the 1st Century

Friends in Jesus Christ,
in the Mass for today, in the Communion antiphon, it says: ‘Thou hast given us O Lord, bread from heaven, having in it all delights.’ This is from the Book of Wisdom, and it teaches us that the Holy Mass is a Sacred Banquet. In the Secret prayer for today, we pray: ‘Look graciously O lord upon Thy people, graciously look upon our gifts: and appeased by this offering, may you grant us pardon and grant us what we ask.’ Here we see the way that the Holy Mass is a sacrifice, seeing to appease the Lord and beseeching him in our prayer.
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These two aspects of the Mass can clearly be seen: Sacrifice and Banquet. The Holy Mass has been the center of Christian life from the beginning. After Christ’s resurrection, his disciples would often refer to the Mass as ‘The Breaking of the Bread.’ It has been called by various names through the centuries: The Divine Liturgy, The Lord’s Supper, the Holy Sacrifice, or simply: the Mass. The Mass is the central focus of the life of a True Christian, its why we are here every Sunday. As the Fathers of the Church tell us, Holy Mass is the source and the summit of the Christian life, and this is the reason for the 3rd Commandment: ‘Keep holy the Lord’s Day.’ It is a mortal sin to skip Mass. St. Paul tells us, in Hebrews chapter 10, that people are not coming to their ‘Asembly;’ here he means Mass. He says that these people, who do not go to Mass – for them, there will only be a certain, dreadful fire waiting for them.
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So how are we to understand the importance of Sunday Mass? To answer this question, let us today transport ourself back to the early years of the Church. Let us see what Mass was like for them; In the early centuries, there were no big churches yet. Mass was celebrated in the large homes of more wealthy members of the Church – they had the space. The chalices and other vessels used were very beautiful and made of the best materials, the records show this. In those days, Mass was usually offered by the Bishop and his priests together, assisted by the Deacons. Nearly anything that was spoken out loud at mass was chanted, this was the normal way of prayer in those days.
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In the Roman Empire, Sunday morning was a working day. So before your job, you would rise at perhaps 4am, and walk down the silent streets. In your pockets was a little bread and a container of wine. As you walked, you would see the symbol of a fish carved onto certain fences or walls, telling you that you were on the right path to the meeting place, because the location was a secret. You come at last to the large home owned by a Christian woman. A man would look carefully at you as you went in – the Deacon – but he knows you, and you are allowed in. There in the main room, you would find the gathering of other Catholics, you knew most of them. At the other end of the large room, sitting in a chair is an elderly man, the Bishop. Next to him a man talking to him quietly, he is another Deacon. And in a semicircle of chairs are the priests, then Mass begins.
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After the readings and a homily, the offertory. The Deacons put a white cloth on the altar, and then they stand in front with silver vessels. Each person goes forward and puts their bread and some wine into the vessels, to contribute to what is needed for the Eucharist. This even today is symbolized by the people bringing the gifts forward at Offertory. Holy Mass in those days was simpler than ours; many of the prayers we have, had not yet been added to the ritual. But the Eucharistic prayer which varied quiet a bit from region to region, was chanted by the Bishop.
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Then comes Holy Communion, in which you partake in the true Flesh and Blood of Jesus Christ. In some places the priest would give you Communion and say: ‘The Bread of Heaven in Christ Jesus. ‘ Afterward, people slip out quietly, in two’s or three’s, but not all at once to arouse suspicion. But let us imagine that that day it did not go so well. Perhaps the Bishop lingered outside a moment, to speak to the Deacon, and a passer-by recognized him and shouted: ‘He’s a Christian!’ A mob quickly forms. A brick is thrown through the window and a policeman arrives asking: ‘What’s going on here?’ ‘it’s the Christians again,’ someone says. And then the challenge comes by the policeman: ‘Is it true? Are you a Christian?’ And the bishop admits it. And the Deacons, and those who are still inside.
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You yourself have only made it down the block – but hearing all this, you whisper a prayer for your brothers – and then you hear someone say to you: ‘Aren’t you also one of them?’ This was real life of the 1st centuries. For those convicted of this capital crime, the person might be immediately tortured and killed. But if in that area, the judge is lenient, you might be sent to the lead-mines on Sardinia, to work. But the mines were more of a death-camp. From the point of view of the State, the Holy mass was deliberate treason. From the point of view of the Catholic people, Mass is the supreme act of worship given to us by Christ. For a person to say they were Catholic, or that they had Faith, without attending Mass, would be pointless and useless. If you were a believing Christian, you were there on Sunday.
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Can we begin to comprehend what the Eucharist meant to them? Rising so early, amidst real danger, they went. For 250 years, to be a Christian was a Capital Crime. How important was the Mass, that men and women would run continual risks to attend it? Was it because they wanted to have a “remembrance of Jesus”, no, they could remember Jesus safely in their homes. Was it to sing some songs, or hear a good homily? no. No, they had to be at Mass, they had to be there, in this action, this act of Faith, this burning faith, this offering of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, this Holy Sacrifice for our sins, our salvation – the Supreme Act of Worship. It was so important, that priests had to be smuggled into imperial prisons to secretly celebrate Mass for those awaiting execution.
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In this age lacking in any faith; this age of atheism and despair and scandals; let us hold fast to the Holy Mass given to us by Christ, and offer Jesus and offer ourselves and our families to God, in this Holy Sacrifice. And may the Blessed Virgin guide us. Mary, pray for us, to be true Christians, and to be always faithful to you and your Son.
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[Entrusted to the prayers of Venerable Antonietta Meo]

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