Experience of God is about extremes because it is an experience of infinity. God’s love for us knows no bounds. Its highest expression, in physical terms, was the cross. It is interesting that the only way God could show us the height of his love and of his glory was through one of the lowest, cruelest forms of capital punishment ever devised.
Meditation on the cross has always been central to Christian prayer. One can never exhaust its meaning. The cross is extreme. It demonstrates a divine life laid down for people whom Jesus called friends, not slaves. It was laid down freely, willingly, out of love, by a compassionate God in order to free humans from the trap of sin that they had set for themselves. The crucifix is central to the liturgy. Every altar must have a crucifix. It can be placed on the altar, be the processional cross or be on the wall behind the altar. It serves as a reminder of what we are celebrating at the altar, the sacrificial death and resurrection that redeems us and calls us to everlasting life with God. Created in God’s image, we are called to the same extremes of love. The spontaneous compassion we feel for suffering people around us is but a sign of that divine spark that ignites our hearts and motivates us to act. That is part of our human nature. However, our Christian faith impels us beyond that spontaneous human response toward a more divine one.
We are called to give beyond the level of convenience and comfort, or even of logic. We are called to forgive even when forgiveness is not deserved, to love even when love is not returned, to offer our lives even when our rescue is not readily at hand (“My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”). In short, we are called to love as God loves, to offer our lives as completely back to God as God has offered his on the cross.
The Mass provides a safe place for us to experience the infinity of God’s love for us and the endless possibility for our response. The baptismal water washes over us and reminds us of the call to continual rebirth in the Spirit. The Scriptures tell of the countless ways God has acted on behalf of the human community. The Words of Institution recall and make present the Lord’s Last Supper and his self-offering on the cross. The Eucharistic Prayer proclaims his resurrection and his eternal prayer for us at the right hand of the Father.
The Offertory invites us to spiritually process down the aisle with the gifts and be laid on the altar with Christ. Alone, our self-gift may be paltry, but joined to Christ’s by the power of the Spirit, it smells as sweet as incense in the nostrils of the Father. The dismissal sends us back into the world to live what we have celebrated.
Something about the liturgy smacks of excess. The language is “kingdom language.” It presumes a holiness that we do not yet exhibit. It celebrates the heavenly banquet in advance of its full reality. We fall on our knees with a sense of our unworthiness, yet we trust that God has found us worthy (“…but only say the word and I shall be healed.”).
This is stewardship celebrated. Ritualization of anything important is essential, but liturgy is more than mere human ritual. It is an actual encounter with God: Father, Son and Spirit. More than merely a gathering together, as if for a meeting or a social event, this is a “calling” together. We are called by God (“The grace and peace of God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you.”). We experience the boundless love of God and are given the opportunity to respond with our complete selves. What is received here is more than encouragement for our lifestyle; it gives grace to fulfill through the week what we have celebrated on Sunday.
This holy gathering comes not from our initiative but from God’s. It is not that we have found God but that God has found us. Our faith is a response to God’s prior love (1 Jn 4:10). Faith and stewardship come from the recognition of what God has done for us. Overcome by that love, we respond in kind. We acknowledge our gifts as not our own. We offer our talents to be used in God’s service. We share our goods with those around us, who also belong to God. “You gave (Jesus) up to death so that we might turn again to you and find our way to one another” (Second Eucharistic Prayer of Reconciliation).
What we celebrate in the Mass finds its way, naturally, almost effortlessly, into our daily living. We are committed to the Church, which is Christ’s body. We care for his body by acts of charity and generosity to all those around us. We spend time in prayer, pouring out our hearts in gratitude and ever deepening love.