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“Ask a Priest: How does the liturgy and liturgical calendar help us identify more with Christ?”
Q: Seeing as how Christ the Incarnate Word and the sacrifice of the Mass each transcends time, all of Christ’s life is present at each moment of his life and at each moment of the Mass. But how do you explain the living of the liturgical calendar — that is, what makes Christmas different from Easter Mass since all of Christ’s life is present at both? I have heard a thousand times in preaching that when we celebrate a mystery in the liturgy we are really living it. Is there a foundation for this statement other than the fact that all of Christ’s life is present in each Mass? Thanks. -I.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: The sacrifice of the Mass transcends time in the sense that it renews the paschal sacrifice of Christ as the sacrifice offered by the Church. As the Catechism, No. 1323 says, “Our Savior instituted the Eucharistic sacrifice of his Body and Blood. This he did in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the cross throughout the ages until he should come again.” So it is better to say that the Mass re-presents a very precise moment in the life of Christ: his sacrifice on Calvary.
Even though we can receive Our Lord’s body and blood in the Eucharist, we never stop discovering “the inscrutable riches of Christ” (Ephesians 3:8). The mysteries of Christ are inexhaustible. We could spend a lifetime — indeed, an eternity — going deeper into them.
Now, we can learn something about Christ just by being in his Eucharistic presence. We can also learn about him by contemplating the various moments of his life on earth. This, not surprisingly, takes time. To really get to know a person, it takes time to listen to him and to ponder his words and deeds. The same is true with Jesus. We learn more and more about him through prayer, Scripture, the Eucharist and, of course, through the liturgy. In the Mass we can focus on various moments in his life. This is what the liturgical calendar helps us to do.
An analogy might help here. Think of a pair of newlyweds. They know each other at a certain level on the day they marry. But their knowledge isn’t static. It grows as they go through life together. By raising children, maintaining a home and dealing with assorted crises, the spouses might come to discover the hidden strengths of each other. The process takes time.
So it is with Christ. For those of us still living within the limits of time and space here on earth, we only gradually learn more about him. The liturgical calendar helps us turn our attention gently toward all the mysteries of his life. In heaven, where we would see God “face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12), our experience would be quite different.
For now, we could say that the Mass brings us in contact with Christ at different levels. We encounter his body and blood, soul and divinity in the Eucharist. We also encounter him in the Scripture readings and the particular prayers of each Mass.
Part of the mystery of the Incarnation — the Second Person of the Trinity taking on human nature — is that Jesus experienced many of the same things that we do: pain and joy, misunderstanding and love, betrayal and loyalty. This helps us to identify with him more closely and, with the grace of God, to imitate him more fully. I pray that the liturgy helps you to do precisely that.