Project Canterbury

The Mass and the Masses
by Alden Drew Kelly

New Tracts for the Times, Number 5.
Milwaukee: Morehouse, 1934.

THE DOLLAR SIGN, the Hammer and Sickle, the Swastika, even the Blue Eagle are more than symbols; they are trademarks. The advertising man's dream has come true in that today all things carry the label "none genuine without this signature." Even civilizations and cultures are represented by a concrete emblem for the guidance of the masses.

The conscious application of the principles of mass psychology was for some time limited to the advertising media of Big Business. Now, however, the field is so much extended and taken for granted that political leadership uses the same technique for selling an idea or, more frequently, an emotional complex as was formerly utilized exclusively for toothpaste and cigarettes.

But even more important in its unifying effect than the common symbol is the expression of a collective consciousness by mass action. Meetings, parades, drills, ceremonies, and birthday celebrations are not spectacles to divert the onlooker, nor "circuses for the poor," but opportunities for corporate expression of a common emotion. Mass action, in which all are participants, as a means for expressing, as well as impressing, mass consciousness is one of the most characteristic notes of the contemporary era.

The tensions in modern society are in great part traceable to the conflicting, and frequently self-frustrating, aims of these human collectives organized around contradictory racial, national, political, or economic principles. They are expanding in numbers and becoming more intense in feeling so rapidly that violent conflict seems not far away.

In the midst of—it would be better to say against—all these opposing social forces stands one super-human collective. Older in time, operative on a higher level, more comprehensive in its premises, and more radical in its ultimate purposes, the Church as essentially a mass movement is taking its place in the modern scene. I say this despite the obvious past weaknesses and the deplorable lack of corporate consciousness in her members. The failure of Catholics to live and act collectively for the redemption of society is particularly inexcusable because the principles which are inherent to the Faith are essentially social in their implication.

As a mass movement Christianity has its symbol in the Cross and its characteristic activity in the Service of the Altar. The Mass is a corporate action "of the people, by the people, and for the people," and anything which serves to weaken such a conception is historically and theologically false. To regard the Mass as a spectacle, an occasion for private devotions, or the means for an individual approach to God is a scandalous and grave perversion of its fundamental character. That such misunderstanding should be widespread is comprehensible in the light of certain unfortunate developments of the past.

Perhaps we can more readily see the Mass in proper perspective if we bear always in mind that it is essentially a common meal. The Kingdom of God on earth in all its aspects is no better represented than by the picture of the Meal in Common. This concept is particularly fruitful as applied to consideration of a Christian economic for society. Certainly, its applicability is increased rather than diminished by the growing disposition to substitute an "economics of abundance" for the classical "economics of scarcity." The story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand might well be regarded by Christians as a divine foreshadowing of the economic aspect of the Kingdom of God.

Lest we regard this as a pious allegory based on what might be considered a superficial aspect of the Mass, it would be well to remember that we have good reason to believe that there was in the mind of our Lord a definite connection between the Common Meal and the Kingdom of God.

In the pre-Christian apocalyptic tradition there were many references to the great Banquet which was to begin with the coming of the Kingdom of God. This Messianic Banquet was to last indefinitely, in great abundance, and all the righteous would eat with the Son of Man. Just how much that concept influenced our Lord's thinking it is difficult to know. But that it was involved in his idea of the Kingdom of God there can be little doubt. Of course, it was given an interpretation peculiar to Him just as were many other points in the traditional notion of the Messianic career. To Christ the banquet was not so much a magnificent reward made available by invitation of an open-minded and benevolent king as it was the focus of the fellowship which is His. The uniqueness of Christ's teaching lies in the way the material was handled rather than in the material itself.

The early Christian group, persevering in the fellowship, found the "heart of religion," as did Fr. Vernon in his little book so named, in the "breaking of bread." Central to their corporate, even communistic life, was the divine banquet of the Kingdom of God.

For first-century Christians, as for Christ, the Kingdom was more than "at hand"; it was in their midst. Already it was being manifest, already they were entering into its promises, and already they were participants in the Messianic Banquet. It is easy to see that their chief concern was with the resurrected and glorified Christ rather than with their memories of the human Jesus and His sufferings. The latter was past, but the former was present with them and "He was known of them in the breaking of bread."

This is not to say that consideration of the Common Meal as the form of life in the Kingdom exhausts its meaning for our Lord or His followers. It is one aspect of the rite but one, unfortunately, since the rise of and emphasis on Atonement theology, that has been badly neglected. Of course, some may dismiss the matter as "apocalypticism" that has been outgrown. Such peremptory treatment is possible only by forgetting that the Christ of the Synoptic Gospels, the Christ of Paul, and the Christ of Catholicism is the apocalyptic Christ.

In some manuals for confirmation instruction, the Mass is treated under certain headings which are in fact the various titles applied to the one service. For the sake of convenience we may well pursue along the same lines our analysis of the Mass in respect to its social teaching.

All are familiar with the Prayer Book title, "The Lord's Supper." However, we may not so readily recognize the tremendous implications of such a phrase for society. Contrary to the usual way of thinking, especially in northern climates, the hearth is not the heart of family life. The focus and most central activity of the family is around the table. In the shared meal, common to all, we have more than the symbol of friendship—we have an exercise of the very nature of family relationship.

The Mass is indeed the center of a family life, the family of God the Father. True, there are some who absent themselves from their Father's house even as the Prodigal Son. Also, there are others who, staying at home, exhibit the selfishness of the legally-minded Elder Brother, as well as many who forget their family ties once away from the Table of the Lord. If the latter do not forget, then their estimate of proper family life is lower than one is sometimes given to think when listening to their clamor in regard to "the sanctity of the home." It is an absurd idea that within the home one person should have a monopoly of the food, another of the water, another of the furniture, etc., and in exchange for a drink of water or a slice of bread permission will be granted to sit in a chair. Yet such a travesty is not an exaggerated picture of the way some members of the family of God would have life organized. So much has been said about the family of God that some are apt to think that it is merely a pretty metaphor. But He, who on the Cross made for His friend and His Mother a family bond, because each was related to Him, taught that the real bonds in life were fundamentally spiritual and not a matter of blood. Christ is the ultimate nexus between human beings and that fact is most manifest in the Mass. Assuredly, an organic relationship of this sort is in vivid contrast to the Marxian concept which makes society, in the words of Nicholas Berdyaev, "a mechanical and artificial amalgam of atoms."

The Mass is an offering to God of praise and thanksgiving, hence it is properly termed the Eucharist, a word from the Greek meaning just that, to give thanks. During the course of the Mass thanksgiving is offered to God for the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of His Son together with the benefits provided thereby, for the making available of those benefits through the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ, for the assurance of God's goodness and favor, for our life in association with God, and for our ultimate destiny. These specifically mentioned benefactions, along with all their possible implications, merely serve to illustrate the inherent quality of the Mass as an expression of profound gratitude for everything of value in life. This, in its social implications, is teaching of a most radical and revolutionary character. The fact that the whole of human existence is due to God's love, as was taught by our Lord, leaves little room for argument concerning what we call human rights. From this viewpoint there can be no such thing as absolute human ownership. All which we have, including our life and talents, is given and the purpose of the Giver must be considered in all circumstances. This is a particularly difficult attitude to adopt and live by because from childhood we have been thoroughly conditioned from all directions in favor of the doctrine of human rights. But, as W. G. Peck ably points out in The Divine Society, "Jesus taught much about the dignity of man but nothing whatever about his rights."

All life is literally a stewardship and property can only justify its existence functionally. Our possessions are instruments for the doing of God's Will, that is, for giving thanks.

Central to the action of the Mass is the principle of sacrifice; so much so, that at times it has seemed that the sacrificial element would blot out other and as important properties. If heresy is the emphasizing of one aspect of the faith to the exclusion of others, then the Mass has been a fertile breeding ground for heresies galore.

The Holy Sacrifice may be thought of as the representation of the Sacrifice of Christ by the offering of the Body of Christ. For purposes of discussion, we can consider the Sacrifice of the Mass as twofold, although it is one in reality.

A sacrifice is an offering and particularly one with a religious connotation. It is to be hoped that the Sacrifice of Christ is conceived in wider terms than just the Sacrifice of the Cross. Christ's life was an offered life from beginning to end. Beginning with the Incarnation, throughout His ministry, reaching its psychological climax in the Garden of Gethsemane, and its physical climax in the Crucifixion, the life of Christ was just a single note—the doing of the Will of God. That is what is meant by the "offered life"; it is a life lived, as was our Lord's, in terms of the Will of the Father. Certainly this defines for the disciples of the Master the orientation of their lives; and ambition in its highest terms can mean only one thing for the Christian, the perfect carrying out of the Will of God in his life. Every man's occupation becomes his religious vocation. Society organized on such a basis would bear little resemblance to the contemporary situation.

The "offering of the Body of Christ," mentioned above, was meant in a more extended sense than the offering of the Sacrament of the Altar. The congregation of the Faithful, as members of the extended Body of Christ in the world, i.e., the Church, join in the Sacrifice of Christ by joining their sacrifice with it. The Mass as the occasion for the offering of the lives of those participating takes on added significance. The Prayer Book words, "And here we offer and present unto Thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto Thee" represent an integral and necessary element of the Mass. In this act, the whole Christian mass movement concentrates on a point—God.

The tragic note in this mass offering of self by the Body of Christ is heard in the reservation, mental or otherwise, made by the individual at the time of the oblation or the snatching back of the given life when leaving the church door. To take from another what is not one's own is usually called robbery.

Perhaps the sacrifice of the people seems lacking in reality to the worshipper because certain distorted liturgical customs and theories, which have gradually crept into the Mass, have obscured the fact that the offering is made by the Body of Christ, the Church. In other words, the priesthood of the Church includes the laity. All who are baptized, and thus members of the Body of Christ, participate in the priestly functions and powers of Christ. Certain members are set aside by ordination and given thereby the specific faculty of administering the Sacraments for the Church. The ecclesiastical hierarchy is a necessary organ of the Church, and its members are ministers, that is, servants of the Body Corporate as well as of God. The "stewards of the mysteries of God" are trustees and not the owners. At the center of Christianity stands the principle of sacrifice—the principle of the Cross. The complete oblation of the Body of Christ is perhaps what most distinguishes it as a mass movement from all contemporary collectives. The life of the Church is, like her Head, a living to die. That is the law of love and a premiss for the very existence of the Church. Other groups may be actuated by the "law of self-preservation," but for the Church to live by anything other than the law of self-sacrifice is a betrayal of her innermost spirit.

In no more striking way is the sacramentalist philosophy of Christianity exemplified than in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar; and not only in the Blessed Sacrament, regarded in isolation from the Mass, but also in the whole action of the Liturgy is this found to be the case. Of tremendous import is the conviction of Catholic Christians that the material or physical is the vehicle for the spiritual forces of the universe. No less consequential is the corollary that the physical elements of life derive their meaning and justification only as instruments for spiritual achievement. The subordination of the materialities of life to spiritual ends is one of the great lessons of the Mass. The full explication of this teaching in social terms would pass much beyond the bounds of the present discussion. Suffice it here to say that from the sacramental viewpoint Christianity is in utter opposition to those groups ascending to world prominence who discover and limit the meaning of man's activity and destiny to the physical constituents of existence. Unbridgeable chasms separate the Church from those on the one hand who, splitting life into departments, see no relation (but, possibly, conflict) between the physical and the spiritual, and those on the other hand who resolve all of human existence to "bread alone," even though the latter be called culture.

"The Greeks had a word for it." For most purposes the Latin word sacramentum is the equivalent of the Greek, mysterion. However, there seems to be a sense in which the latter has much more extended meaning. This is particularly noticeable in the Orthodox title for the Mass as the "Holy Mysteries." It is not suggested that we should think of the Divine Liturgy as a mystery in an esoteric sense, a secret action surrounded by mystifying ceremonies, but rather that the "presence" of Christ in the Mass should be regarded in a wider way than a localization in the material elements. Looking at the Mass from this viewpoint is a good antidote to much contemporary over-emphasis on the localization of Christ almost to the degree of considering Him the prisoner of material things. This tendency has, doubtless, contributed a great deal to the development of sentimentalism and subjectivism in modern devotional practice. Insofar as the Mass has lost its corporate trait and become an opportunity for individuals to indulge in private devotion, it is self-defeating and a perversion of the Sacrament of Fellowship. It is understandable, then, how it is that so many of the faithful are so deficient in the realization of themselves as members of the organic whole.

The idea of the Holy Mysteries is ultimately based on a "resurrection mysticism" which admittedly is closer to the Gospel of the primitive Church than the later development in Western theology of a "suffering and crucifixion mysticism." The Christ of the Holy Mysteries is the risen, triumphant Lord of Life, the Conqueror of sin and evil, by His presence impressing His image on the worshippers and infusing them with His life. Thus is the Mass seen from the viewpoint of God's activity toward man (the obverse of the Holy Sacrifice which is man's activity in a Godward direction). That which Rudolf Otto calls the numinous quality of religion and the sense of the mysterium tremendum is most evident in the aweful moments of the Mass. The eternal breaks through into the temporal and truly the Kingdom of God is in our midst.

This, the continuous revelation of God in the Mass, has little to do with the individual as such. It is a manifestation of the activity of God in and through the group. It is noteworthy that the occasion for the most intense and highest experience of the presence of God afforded to humanity is a corporate experience—a long way from the approach to God described as the "flight of the alone to the Alone"!

It would be possible, perhaps, to think of the corporate unity fundamental to the Mass without believing also in the equality of the participants. There is a type of corporate unity found in an army or in a penal institution. However, w7hen we consider the Divine Service in the light of the Holy Communion, it is clear that men are on the same footing.

There is a universal similarity of all in that all owe not only their existence but their preservation as spiritual beings to the infinite goodness of God manifested in the Gift of the Altar. The "givenness" of the Blessed Sacrament is irrelevant to the worthiness of the recipient.

In addition to a common dependence there is, in fact, a common unworthiness—a lack of personal merit whether the communicant be priest or layman, sinner or saint, president of the bank or day laborer, white or black. On the fundamental and eternal levels of life the intrinsic worth of men and women is equal. Surely this gives the lie to any system, economic or social, which permits wide variations of opportunity for achievement of the abundant life, systems which tolerate, if they do not encourage, disparities of material reward for services of equal intrinsic worth. The struggle of man for advantage, of whatever sort, over his fellow-man is in the final analysis sacrilege because it is a denial of the horizontal plane of the Communion Rail.

Again, in the anti-religious philosophies of certain mass movements, there seems to be a real illogicality. There is nothing in human nature, apart from its relation to God, which will provide adequate ground for it to be considered in terms of a universal; as a matter of record Marxianism does involve just that conclusion—the denial of a universal human nature. Consequently, the reasons sometimes presented for the condemnation of "rugged individualism," which is nothing more than the biological law of self-preservation projected into social relationships, appear extremely weak. Christianity by its own premisses avoids any such difficulty.

By the Holy Communion we enter into the most intimate relationship with God that is possible in this world. But, and this is important, that supreme fellowship with God is available only in fellowship with man. Thus the transcendent and maximal religious act of man is a social one and not individual. The Two Commandments, love toward God and love toward one's neighbor, are both taught and practised in the Mass.

Individualism as a perfect or even adequate religious method is out of the question for Christians. And, if it is true that the Kingdom of God on earth means the transformation of society by the eternal and spiritual principles of life, then individualism as a dominant factor in society must meet with the wholehearted opposition of all who call themselves Christians. The life of Christians will have the quality of unreality as long as it is lived in a world which contradicts the canons of their very existence as children of God.

Furthermore, the fact that the highest activity of man is in corporate and cooperative terms implies that human conflict as a mode of life for Christians is a contradiction beyond the power of any casuistical argument to resolve. To adopt the Sword as a solution to the tensions of social living is more than an admission that evil is stronger than God; it is a desecration of the Holy Communion.

The word used to describe the Divine Service by the majority of Christians is "the Mass." It needs no apology historically and it is especially valuable because, meaning little in and of itself, it can be used to include the sum total of all aspects of the one Service. Some words are like empty box cars in that they can be loaded with all sorts of goods.

If we have the proper understanding of the Mass we realize that in it all creation, physical, human, and Supernatural, joins in the worship of the one God. Accordingly the foregoing treatment of certain arbitrarily limited features makes no pretense to throw more than a gleam on the panorama. The Christian "Weltanschauung" finds its dramatic and symbolical representation in the action of the Mass as the concretion of the abstract and universal ideas underlying the Christian Way. The Mass is the point at which two worlds meet—where eternity invades time and where the unseen impinges on the sensible. There the timeless verities of historic Christianity converge.

The facts of the Incarnation, the Atonement, and the Resurrection are apprehended by the worshippers in a corporate connotation and in a corporate manner. The truths of Christianity might well be interpreted, as they frequently are, in terms of the individual, his activity and his destiny, but only when they are divorced from their liturgical expression. The invidious distinction between a personal gospel and a social gospel is quite impossible if Christian dogma is seen in its proper context, the Mass. For the Christian it is the sheerest nonsense to talk of "personal religion" as if it was in some way unrelated to his social relationships because his entire knowledge, approach, and association with God is socially conditioned and most of all in the Mass.

Not only is the Mass the distinctive mass action of the Christian collective, it is also the dynamic for it as a mass movement. The masses are often regarded as the sediment of society, the dregs of our social order, an agglomeration whose existence is due to a sort of precipitation. Even those movements which are most concerned for the raising up of the masses offer a mechanical and gravitational explanation of group cohesion. Marx states in Capital: "Along with the constantly diminishing number of the magnates of capital, who usurp and monopolize all advantages, grows the mass of misery, oppressions, slavery, degradation, exploitation; but with this, too, grows the revolt of the working class, always increasing in numbers, and disciplined, united, organized, by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself."

The Christian mass movement is to be looked at rather differently; its unity is due to internal factors, it is purposive rather than mechanistically determined, and it is moved by attraction rather than propulsion. To use a crude analogy, the masses are to be drawn up as the sun seems to draw up moisture from the earth; or even a better example, they are to be taken up to a higher level as inorganic matter is taken up into vegetable life, vegetable into animal, etc., the long ascendent process culminating in the lifting of man to the level of God.

The Mass as the central act of the Christian order is the paramount vehicle and occasion for the lifting up of unified mankind to a level where life is operative in the closest cooperation with God and where it can be truly said life is God-like. It is in the Mass that we see most clearly the ultimate meaning of the Words attributed to Christ, "And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto Me."

Project Canterbury