Throughout the Bible, when people come into the presence of God their immediate reaction is fear. The fear is caused by the sheer holiness of God and by the sense of unworthiness we feel before it. Coming to Mass is to come into the presence of God. That is why, as Mass begins, we are invited to take a moment to be aware of that presence and of our sins. By the initial exchange of greetings (The Lord be with you; And with your spirit), priest and people say to each other: God is here, he is with us in this central act of Christian worship. Let us call to mind and admit our sins to be less unworthy in his presence. But what precisely are we to do when the priest invites us to call to mind our sins?
First what it does not mean. In the half minute of silence to think of our sins we are not making a full examination of conscience. That takes time and is something we should do before Mass, at some point during the weekend. It involves an honest reflection in the presence of God on our moral life during the period since our previous examination. Calling to mind our sins at Mass means that we recall with true contrition of heart the conclusions we have reached after our examination of conscience.
True knowledge of sins is a grace of the Holy Spirit. He alone can help us see what our sins truly are. We need to pray for the light of the Spirit to see our own inner darkness. We can’t do it alone. The Spirit who has helped us during our examination is the same Spirit priest and people invoke on one another in their opening exchange of greeting. He is the same Spirit who gives us the grace Mary had at the Annunciation to be afraid in a healthy way at the presence of God. Provided we are not in a state of mortal sin, it is the same Spirit who will cleanse us of our sins when we receive the Eucharist. He enables us to cry out with confidence and joy to Jesus, our Messiah and Lord, “kyrie eleison, Christe, eleison”; then later, “Lamb of God you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.”
When we have made that cry to Christ for mercy, the priest asks God to absolve us all from our sins: “May Almighty God have mercy on us, etc.” This form of absolution is not the same as the one we get in the sacrament of reconciliation. In the sacrament, the priest himself absolves of sin in Christ’s name once we have confessed our sins. By that absolution given as minister of the God who is both judge and doctor of our souls, we are restored to the fullness of grace as on the day of our baptism. At Mass, on the other hand, the absolution is of a non-sacramental nature and it is not the priest who does the absolving. Rather he asks Almighty God to do so. And when the congregation responds amen, it is adding the force of its petition to that of the priest.
Throughout the Mass, the Spirit will work within each of us to purify our hearts. He does so through the Word of God, which penetrates into the most intimate depths of our open souls, judging us, instructing us, consoling us, strengthening and encouraging us. He does it through the prayers of the Mass, especially the Eucharistic prayer as he makes Christ present upon the altar. He also cleanses us in other imperceptible ways, possibly through the words or melody of a hymn, through visiting us directly with new awareness about ourselves, the purpose of our lives, the meaning of some suffering or problem we have. As Christ himself taught, the Spirit comes as the breeze whose origin and destiny we know not. He is free with the liberality of divine grace, delighting to bestow his gifts upon the children of men. Mass is far from being mere ritual. The ritual gives structure and stability, but the Spirit breathes life into and through and beyond the ritual, weaving a beautiful pattern and harmony of heavenly gifts in and around us as we worship in Christ’s name.
The greatest of these gifts is, of course, Holy Communion itself. It contains the whole treasury of the spiritual wealth of the Church. That is why we must approach it humbly, reverently, joyfully, with a deep sense of awe that Love itself is giving itself to us once more. Holy Communion is when our cry, “kyrie eleison” is answered beyond our wildest imaginings, and when our anxiety about our sin is dispelled by means of the great calm of Christ’s peace.
When we receive the Risen Christ, we receive through him the Holy Spirit more intensely and fully than at other points in the Mass. We receive the renewal of those gifts of the Spirit proper to Christ himself, as mentioned in that first reading: the Spirit of wisdom and insight, of counsel and power, of knowledge and fear of the Lord. Isaiah says that the “fear of the Lord” is the breath of the Lord. The Spirit breathes into us true fear of the Lord meaning. That fear is not servile shivering fright but a deep awareness of God’s presence and the effects of that upon our awareness: the awareness of ourselves, of our behaviour before him and of the dignity of all others as His sons and daughters who share that same breath of God.
Receiving the Eucharist as the point of climax of communion with Jesus, the Father and the Spirit, we also receive the gifts mentioned by Paul in our second reading. The gift of hope, of never giving up and so drawing to ourselves the help of God in all our trials.
In his inimitable style, John the Baptist brings it all together in very blunt terms, facing us with the final and radical choice we must all make. He challenges the sincerity of the repentance of some. He basically tells them that they are only concerned for their own skin, not with giving themselves in faith and love to God. The basis of his accusation is that, for all their talk of repentance, their lives bear no fruit that shows they have repented. It’s as if he is saying, “cry kyrie eleison all you want, but unless your deeds show you mean it, the response of God to you will be to take an axe and cut you off at the root.” Tough love for sure! He knew his baptism would give way to Christ’s and that the fire of the Holy Spirit would refine the wheat but incinerate the chaff.
A good way to ensure that our own repentance is sincere is to take time, at least once per week, to perform an examination of conscience in the light and, yes, fire of the Holy Spirit. Bring the fruits of that to Mass, recall them during the penitential rite, surrender them to the Cross and the Spirit at communion and receive the strength to produce in daily life an abundance of fruit worthy of God, worthy of the Eucharist and worthy of your truest and noblest self.