Adoration of the Lamb, van Eyck, St. Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium.
Click here to read today’s Sunday Mass Readings.
After this I had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb,wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands. Revelation 7:9.
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All three readings today deal with gatherings in one way or another. The first, from the Acts of the Apostles, talks of a synagogue congregation addressed by Paul and Barnabas which turns ugly once they indicate that God had welcomed the Gentiles into their midst. The second reading from Revelation talks of the endtime, with a huge gathering united in adoration around the Lamb of God. Then today’s gospel which talks of Jesus preaching in the Temple, describing how he gives life eternal to the sheep who follow him, and because of his resurrection, he became the living proof of the power of that teaching, one which gives eternal life and happiness. So the pattern is both success and discord in this life in the first reading, Jesus letting his followers know that the path will be difficult, sometimes good sometimes not. But the result of acceptance of that teaching is eternal peace, unity and joy shining in the second reading, and the gospel spelling out how this teaching should be delivered, to those willing to trust in the Lord and his message and to follow him no matter what.
Sunday Mass is called a liturgy. That is an interesting word. It is originally Greek, λειτουργία, or leitourgia, whose literal meaning is work of or for the people, or simply public worship. It meant the worship of the gods to the ancient Greeks, and the Christians adopted it to describe their own worship. Link that with Matthew 18:19–20, where Jesus says, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them”.
So clearly, in the mind of Jesus, the ancients and today, there is something very special about gathering together to worship God. We call it the Mass. You can find this in the absolutely grandest buildings in the world, and the humblest setting imaginable.
U.S.Army Captain Carl Subler, a chaplain, celebrates Mass for soldiers in Helmand Province in Afghanistan, February 21, 2010.
And the Lord is present no matter the surroundings! The Covid pandemic over the last two years has confirmed the necessity we have as human beings to gather together. We are social animals. Among the very first manifestations of this in the Covid crisis was restaurants opening up in the street, taking valuable parking space, so that people could gather once more, as safely as possible, so strong is this urge to be together. How much more is this elevated when we gather together to give thanks (the meaning of the word Eucharist) for blessings received from God, especially good health, and to pray for those who suffer for any reason, from any disability. And recall that the Eucharist is a re-enactment of the Last Supper, a meal, just like the reason for the street restaurants which have flowered in the last two years!
There is, I think, a progression in today’s three readings. The first reading from the Acts of the Apostles describes the challenging start of Jesus’ message in Antioch, the one in Pisidia, now an ancient ruin in the middle of Turkey. There was a great fuss in the Jewish synagogue at Paul’s message, especially when he said that Gentiles should be welcome to worship with them. The universality of Jesus’ message, which was a topic that had almost ripped the infant Christian church into shreds, had only just been resolved in the Gentiles’ favor. So this core teaching, that all are welcome at the altar of the Lord, was born amid protests and even some violence. So, like any birth, our church had difficulty in getting the message of universal salvation out to everyone. And it was within the confines of a liturgy, the Jewish Sabbath in this case, that it was first announced. Today’s gospel shows the seeds of this new teaching, with the words of the Lord describing his followers, those who “hear his voice” and follow him – anyone who hears his voice, that is. Jesus places no limits on his teaching. And the reason? The promise of eternal life. And the wondrous van Eyke vision of this, namely the image at the top of this page, is the consequence. All within the context of a liturgy, a social function in the presence of God.
So as the pandemic slowly recedes and our world tries to regain a sense of normality, we can return to Mass as we once knew it, rejoicing and giving thanks once more amid fellow Christians, as we regain the experience of church, assembly, liturgy. It is in this experience that Jesus is, as ever, present, and fulfills the promise in the second reading:
For the Lamb who is in the center of the throne
will shepherd them
and lead them to springs of life-giving water,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
The Lamb of God, Basilica of San Vitale 6th century, Ravenna, Italy.
Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.
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