Thursday, August 2, 2018

Dismissal and the sending forth of the people of God

Few words in the ecclesiastical lexicon make Protestants squirm more than "Mass." To the spiritual descendants of Luther, Calvin, and Cranmer, the mere mention of the term conjures images of magical thinking and superstition.

The traditional Roman explanation of "the sacrifice of the Mass" makes Protestant squeamishness understandable.
The Mass is the Sacrifice of the New Law in which Christ, through the ministry of the priest, offers Himself to God in an unbloody manner under the appearances of bread and wine.
Protestants have long held that this means Christ is repeatedly offered in sacrifice, contrary to the biblical teaching that his sacrifice for sin on the cross was once for all (Hebrews 10:10). While Protestant liturgies go to great lengths to mute any such interpretation of the celebration of the Eucharist, most of them retain that one element of the service from which the "Mass" derives its name.

Many may be surprised to learn that "Mass" simply means "dismissal." The entire Roman service derives its name from the words spoken by the deacon at the very end. In Latin, those words are Ite, missa est. Commonly used Catholic liturgies have translated these words into the rather pedestrian, "Our Mass has ended. Go in peace." A more literal rendering would be, "Go. It has been sent."

Following Aquinas, traditional Catholicism has taken these words to mean "the victim [Jesus] has been sent to God through the angel, so that it may be accepted by God."

You can already hear the Protestant alarm bells ringing.

During his brief but consequential pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger) dug deeper into the meaning of these words in his encyclical, Sacramentum Caritatis. Protestants will find far more common ground with statements such as this:
In antiquity, missa simply meant "dismissal." However in Christian usage it gradually took on a deeper meaning. The word "dismissal" has come to imply a "mission." These few words succinctly express the missionary nature of the Church. The People of God might be helped to understand more clearly this essential dimension of the Church’s life, taking the dismissal as a starting-point.
Such theological reflections had profound consequences.
Instead of seeing the words of the priest or deacon as a conclusion to the celebration, Pope Benedict saw them as a beginning. He made that abundantly clear when he developed new words for the dismissal at Mass. Pope Benedict approved the phrases, “Ite ad Evangelium Domini annuntiandum (Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord)” and “Ite in pace, glorificando vita vestra Dominum (Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life).” Both of these dismissals focus on the missionary character of the Mass and how those in the pew are meant to go out in the world, sustained by the Eucharist they just received.  
Viewed in this framework, the “Mass” is not just a single celebration on a Sunday or weekday or feast day, but a starting-point for a lifelong journey of Christian witness. The priest, in the place of Christ, sends forth his parishioners into the world so that they may be beacons of light, set on a hill for all to see.
Ironically, Protestant liturgies have long since used the words of the Dismissal as a sending forth of the congregation into mission. Anglican services, for example, end with such exhortations as "Let us go forth in the Name of Christ," "Go in peace to love and serve the Lord," and "Let us go forth into the world, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit."

There is one overarching fact we dare not overlook. The words "Mass" and "mission" derive from the same root. Protestants will not likely return to using "Mass" as a term for their service of worship but they would never deny that "mission" is the primary work of the church. Neither Protestant nor Catholic should treat the Dismissal at the end of their service as a mere addendum. Rather, they should see it as a pivotal and formative moment. It is in being sent forth into the world that the church truly becomes the church.

The church is not the building. The church is the people of God, nourished on Word and Sacrament, going out from behind the four walls and into a hostile world in which they, under the power of the Spirit, become beacons of light in the darkness.

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