A couple of weeks ago, a truly unfortunate occurrence happened. We ran out of the Eucharist at a weekend Mass. Even though I realized we were running short and began snapping the hosts in half and then into quarters, a few people still had to walk away without having received. This sad occurrence gives us the opportunity to ask an important question: is receiving the Eucharist the only worthwhile thing at Mass? If we don’t receive the Eucharist, is there any point in being there?
The answer is that attending Mass is extremely important even if we don’t or can’t receive the Eucharist. There are good reasons that the Church requires us to attend Mass every Sunday else we, barring a serious reason, commit a mortal sin, but are only truly obligated to receive the Eucharist once a year, preferably on Easter (Canon Law #920.) If the only thing that mattered about coming to Mass on Sunday was receiving the Eucharist, then I might as well celebrate one Mass on Sunday morning, consecrate a huge number of hosts, and pass them out in the narthex as people walked in and walked out.
So what are the reasons we need to attend Mass other than to receive the Eucharist? We can only briefly sketch them here.
First, the Eucharistic celebration (also called the Holy Mass) is, in itself, the greatest prayer of the Church, and our participation is the greatest prayer we can make. To get more particular, the Catechism tells us that the Eucharist is a Sacrifice of Praise and Thanksgiving. “The Eucharist, the sacrament of our salvation accomplished by Christ on the cross, is also a sacrifice of praise in thanksgiving for the work of creation. In the Eucharistic sacrifice, the whole of creation loved by God is presented to the Father through the death and the Resurrection of Christ. Through Christ, the Church can offer the sacrifice of praise in thanksgiving for all that God has made good, beautiful, and just in creation and in humanity.”
God has given each of us, both collectively and individually, more than we could ever know. But undoubtedly the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ for our salvation is the biggest gift. We come together to offer God ourselves, our possessions, our works, and all of creation in thanksgiving to the Father. And this can only be done in a truly acceptable and perfect way through Christ. The posture of thanking God is essential to the heart of each and every Christian. The less we give thanks to God and praise him, the easier it is to lose all perspective and only think of what more he can do for us. Hence, Sunday Mass is our consistent opportunity to reorient our hearts to an attitude of a true Christian: thankfulness and praise.
Second, we must remember that the Mass itself is a memorial of Christ’s sacrifice. Now, the word ‘memorial’ can be a little underwhelming. We just sit around and think about what Jesus did? No. Memorial means something different here. We don’t just remember. We stand right in the middle of it. Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross happened once. We don’t repeat it, but somehow, mystically, whenever we attend Mass, we present at that same Sacrifice. We are with Jesus as he suffers, dies, and is resurrected. And the Graces of redemption that Jesus gained by his actions then are made available for us because we are there with him.
The Catechism also tells us, “In the Eucharist, the sacrifice of Christ becomes also the sacrifice of the members of his Body. The lives of the faithful, their praise, sufferings, prayer, and work, are united with those of Christ and with his total offering, and so acquire a new value.” (CCC 1368) I don’t know about you, but when I think of my imperfect life and all my imperfect works and prayers, I don’t think much of them as worthy offerings to God.
That all changes with the Mass. When we attend Mass, we have the opportunity to unite all our sacrifices to Jesus Christ himself who is offered in sacrifice to the Father. And he makes our sacrifices beautiful and acceptable (Think about that the next time I raise the patten and chalice to heaven and say, “Through Him, with Him, and in Him.”)
There are more reasons that it is important to attend Mass, but I will limit myself to two more quick reasons. The past two reasons were more theological. These last reasons are more, shall we say, tangible. First, attending Mass is an act of obedience to God and his Church. Simply obeying for its own sake may seem a little distasteful, but we ought to obey because…well, its God and his Church. And in being obedient to God, we become more like Jesus, who “humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, death on a Cross.” (Phil 2:8). He was obedient even though it meant his death. We must be obedient as well.
So, let us take to heart this exhortation of Saint John Chrysostom and encourage others to do so as well: "Tradition preserves the memory of an ever-timely exhortation: Come to Church early, approach the Lord, and confess your sins, repent in prayer. . . . Be present at the sacred and divine liturgy, conclude its prayer and do not leave before the dismissal. . . . We have often said: "This day is given to you for prayer and rest. This is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it."
Further Reading (Each title is a link)