All of you have come here today by personal choice. But your choice is in response to an equally personal call. It is a call from beyond the grave, from a world in which there are no more graves. And it is a call to remember the greatest love story ever told and performed by the Greatest of all Lovers. But it is even more. We don’t just remember that story as if it were closed in the tomb of the past. For in the act of remembering it, that love story is actually made present before our eyes. Christ spares us the naked reality of his violent torture and execution. Instead, he makes it present clothed in the simplicity and solemnity of sign and sacrament.
But there’s more still. For obviously, of ourselves, we can’t make Christ’s death and resurrection present. Only the Lord of history and eternity himself can do this. And yet, with exquisite respect for our freedom, he has chosen not do so without us. By baptising you, He has empowered each of you individually and all of you collectively to join yourselves with His self-offering. By ordaining me as priest, He has empowered me to lead you to share in His act of love for the Father and for humanity. He perpetuates his work of Redemption in our work of worship, above all in the Mass.
All grace comes from the Christ the Head through His Body, the Church. The grace, the joy, the divine power we receive as individual Christians is the result of that dual belonging which we have: to Christ and, in Christ, to one another in the Church. An isolated Christian is meaningless. In the same way, the grace of holy orders given to me can only attain its purpose in service to you as a communion of brothers and sisters. An isolated priest is a contradiction. He would be like a bridge linking nothing to no-one. My joy can only be found in being Christ for you, to enrich and strengthen the graces his love has showered on you. My fulfilment is in bringing his grace to you and in bringing you thus showered with grace to God.
So Christ has established a constant relationship of exchange of grace and love between people and priest. And that exchange is the meaning of that apparently harmless little greeting we have right at the start of Mass. When the priest greets you at the beginning of Mass with the words, “The Lord be with you”, it’s really like a surge of life-blood from the Heart of Jesus to the rest of the Body. Through my greeting, He is renewing your awareness of belonging to Him and to one another as Church. Present among us now on the day of Resurrection, he is refreshing your baptismal grace. He is blowing away the cobwebs of the week just past which may have obscured or weakened in some way your awareness of your Catholic dignity and destiny, your sense that you belong to Him and to the Church. “The Lord be with you” is like a warm blast of creative breath from the Holy Spirit to renew you collectively and thus individually.
It’s the same when you respond to me “and with your spirit.” As the Church of God in this place Christ in you is breathing the Spirit back to me to refresh and renew my whole being in the grace of the priesthood. This is a wonderful act of Christian love. You both encourage and love me with Christ’s own love so that I can step forward with confidence despite my weaknesses and sins to lead you in Christ’s worship of the Father. You are effectively telling me: yes, we are Church for you; you now be Christ for us. Join us to Christ in the act of worship which saved the world.
As Mass begins, then, there is a profound exchange of love between priest and people, rooted in Christ’s crucified love and in the love of the Trinity itself. By that exchange, we identify ourselves as the Church of Jesus Christ. We set Christ’s love as the tone for the rest of that sacred action in which we will take part. We call it familiarly the Mass. Here we exercise our own free will to be inserted more fully into Christ’s supreme act of worship of the Father for the liberation in the Spirit of humanity from sin and death.
As at the beginning of Mass, so at the beginning of Advent that greeting of exchange between priest and people serves as a wake up call. It’s time to give ourselves a shake and realize who we really are. It’s time to accept that every one of us, every day, is closer to our encounter face to face with Christ. Like Lent, Advent it is a time of conversion, which is to say of heightened, adult and responsible commitment, to the true meaning and hope of our brief existence. It’s time to snap out of any darkness in our lives, to snap out of the hypnosis we lull ourselves into by our self-concern. Christ does not want us to sleep-walk into death. As he puts it so bluntly in the Gospel: “Watch yourselves!” Before we know what hits us, He will have come, be it in our death, through a spiritual visitation to our soul or through his return in glory.
Hence the exchange between priest and people at the beginning of Mass is not just a wake-up call for the Mass itself, but must become a permanent experience once the Mass is ended. Because the Mass is never in fact ended but only ext-ended. Yes, we go in peace, but to love and serve the Lord. We carry the exchange of love between priest and people into life. We carry our renewed awareness of belonging to the Church into life. We carry the Word we have heard and the Eucharist we have received into life. By them we inject daily life with real life. By God’s Word we bring wisdom to our own words and confer it onto our exchange of words with others and chiefly by our living out of the Word. By the Eucharist we bring Christ in our flesh to meet others in their flesh, aware of its sacredness as coming from the hand of God, sacrificing our own flesh through our daily efforts to attend lovingly to the needs of our marriage, family and society.
There is nothing that gives life to our existence more than the greatest love ever shown in the sacrifice of Christ, the Mass. The Mass is not part of your life. Your life is part of the Mass. For apart from Christ, we have no real life, but only the appearance of life which will end in death. This is my challenge to us for this Advent. Not to sleep-walk into and out of Mass, not to sleep-walk through life and into death, but to wake up as never before to the invigorating realization and hope that the Lord is with you and with my spirit.