When I was in my late teens, I saw attending Mass as just about the most boring thing on earth. If somebody had told me that the Eucharist is a foretaste of what heaven will be like, I might have replied, "If that's the case, I'll check out the other place."
To me, Mass seemed to be a boring ritual, endlessly replayed, complete with songs that were a pale imitation of the music I listened to on the radio.
In the years since then, there have been times when I've attended liturgies and it's seemed like my heart was being lifted to the edge of heaven. There have been times at Mass, say during a weekend retreat or an especially uplifting Divine Liturgy, when it's seemed that you could almost touch God -- the emotional power of the celebration was that strong.
The biggest difference between these two types of experience is my own faith. God has given me a faith that I sorely lacked as a teenager.
However, there's a problem with looking at the Mass too much in the light of feeling and experiences. If I conclude that the Mass is a foretaste of heaven only when it stirs my emotions (and that it's not a foretaste when the music is not so great or I'm feeling flat) then I've missed the point. The Mass is always a foretaste of heaven and this is not dependent on how I feel.
The Mass gives us a taste of eternal life precisely because it re-presents Christ's sacrifice on Calvary, the sacrifice which opens the doors to heaven. It is that sacrifice which makes it possible for us to live life on a supernatural plane. It is Christ's death and resurrection which makes it possible for us to be more than rational animals. It is the paschal mystery which enables us to have the Holy Spirit dwell within us and for us to be adopted sons and daughters of God.
The Eucharist is the fulfilment of Christ's promise that "Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life and I will raise them up on the last day" (John 6:54).
But how can this be if I don't feel like I'm in heaven?
Well, feelings and the testimony of the senses are important. Mozart's Masses and John Michael Talbot's simple guitar arrangements can tell us, in quite different ways, something about God's love for us and about eternal life. The church's use of smells and bells in the liturgy are a statement that it approves the use of material devices to point us toward truths that transcend anything we can see, touch and hear.
The important thing, however, is not the messenger, but the message. The smells and bells and the feelings they arouse can turn our attention toward God. But if we see them as an end in themselves, they have turned us away from God and back onto ourselves. We end up with a pious form of idolatry.
St. Teresa of Avila was wary of what she called "spiritual sweetness." This sweetness, she said, "does not enlarge the heart; as a rule, it seems to oppress it somewhat." She noted that the sweetness we may sometimes experience in prayer is no different in origin than the satisfaction we may derive from sealing a business deal or coming into a large inheritance.
Love is what really counts, said Teresa. "Love consists, not in the extent of our happiness, but in the firmness of our determination to try to please God in everything."
Love for our family and friends is often just a matter of being there for important and not-so-important occasions. Our showing up and being in a good disposition is pleasing to our loved ones. Love for God can likewise often be reduced to "showing up" -- praying daily whether or not it's fun and taking part in the Mass with "full, conscious and active participation."
God showed up for us. When humanity fell into sin, God could have left us out to dry. Instead, he fully, consciously and actively participated in the fate of humanity. He participated to the point of death. And beyond. His paschal mystery continues to be made present for us at every Eucharist. God loves us, so he shows up.
We have it on the authority of John 6:54 that if we show up when Jesus shows up, we will have eternal life. The Eucharist is our first taste of this life. We don't know very much about eternal life except that love will be overflowing and all the vestiges of sin and division will be washed away. We also know that emotions are transitory and that they are not the key to eternal life.
The key is love. The Eucharist is the most complete sign of God's love. When we participate in the Eucharist as best we are able, we taste that love. We know something of the life that will last forever.
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