|Every once in a while having been
raised Unitarian in Mississauga is a real disadvantage. This morning
is one of those moments. Our choir is singing the African Mass,
Missa Luba, and all week I've been trying to figure out what a
Mass is. I know Catholics go to Mass all the time. But, what is
it? Why are they going? What are they doing? I remember visiting
other congregations with my Unitarian Sunday school class. But
I don't remember ever figuring out what the Mass was exactly for.
According to the unabridged Random House dictionary
of the English language, Mass is the celebration of the Eucharist.
According to the same dictionary, the Eucharist is the sacrifice
of the Mass or the sacrament of Holy Communion. And Holy Communion
is the act of receiving the Eucharistic elements, the bread
and the wine. I'm sure this makes perfect sense to many of you.
But you weren't raised Unitarian in Mississauga. When I looked
at those words earlier this week I couldn't figure them out
at all. I looked further. A sacrament, I read, is a visible
sign of an inward grace. And grace is the freely given, unmerited
favour and love of God. Well, I can certainly affirm that there
are visible signs of God's love everywhere, but I hadn't thought
of them as sacraments and I didn't think one needed to go to
church to receive them. A sacrifice, I read, is the offering
of something in propitiation or homage to God. And God is defined
as the one Supreme Being, the creator and ruler of the universe.
Well this was problematic too. Not because I can't conceive
of God as the creator and ruler of the universe, but because
I don't regard going to church as a sacrifice and I don't really
believe in a God that demands or desires our sacrifices either.
According to Fulton Sheen, "The Mass is the Sacrifice of
the Mystical Body of Christ, and is one with Calvary, which
was the sacrifice of the physical body of Christ." And
Paul Bussard goes even further: "The Mass," he writes,
"is a true and real Sacrifice. It is identical with the
Sacrifice of the Cross."
I think I understand. The Mass is a reenactment
of the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is a Christian's
act of identification with Christ's suffering. Christ sacrificed
his life for us and God responded to that sacrifice with mercy
and love. The Mass is an opportunity to ask God for the same
love and mercy Jesus received. That connection with God, which
is called grace, is a Christian's central source of hope - hope
that God, the creator and ruler of the universe, loves us, will
watch over us, thinks about us, will answer our prayers and
make a place for us in heaven.
We don't have masses in Unitarianism because
we don't have sacraments. We haven't ordained any particular
set of actions with the exclusive power of symbolizing our connection
with God. And our coming to church is not a sacrifice to God,
because our God is not interested in sacrifice.
Last week I participated in a debate on the
question: "Can We Be Good Without God?" I spent a
fair bit of time defining God not as an anthropomorphic ruler
of the universe but as the interdependent web of all existence,
of which we are a part. Of which we are a part. Perhaps the
purpose of the Mass is to enable us to feel at one with God.
This morning, as we listen to the elements of the mass sung
by our choir, perhaps we might feel it too. Perhaps we will
catch the spirit, feel our interdependence within that web,
stretching out to the ends of all time and all space, that whole
beyond our capacity to perceive or comprehend.
As we sang this morning, the winds of change
are forever blowing. With the gift of life comes pain, struggle,
challenge, and ultimately, death. To be alive means to feel
sorrow along with joy. To be alive is to be able to imagine
the finality of death. You and I both know that many more than
fourteen women died just this past year at the hands of angry,
alienated gun-wielding people. Random individuals, young and
old, like you and me, people alive one moment, and gone the
next. How are we to respond? How are we to make sense of it
all? How are we to find peace?
Randy Becker, a friend of mine, wrote this:
In 1995, our oldest daughter was killed
-- along with two other college friends -- by a drunk driver
going the wrong way down the Interstate. ... Unitarian Universalism,
as I understand it, offers us a vision of a larger HOPE. That
hope is in the essential goodness of existence despite the specifics
of any given moment. Events happen, but to isolate bad times
and then turn them into personal attacks is no more appropriate
than to isolate good times and turn them into evidence of personal
divine favor. The larger hope is about an overall pattern in
which the many events of life play out, no one point in the
pattern being definitive of the whole, unless we choose to dwell
and focus on it as if it were. My belief, as a UU, is that when
the whole is seen, there will be meaning in the pattern. "This
larger hope depends on a measure of FAITH. Such a faith does
not believe that life will turn out in a specific way, but that
there is meaning in the whole. So, this faith says, in the face
of life not going the way we would choose: there can be meaning
on the other [side of] any piece of our life. Horror and tragedy
do not mean the end of meaning, unless we choose to see it that
way. Our informing faith, affirming not a linear cause/effect
way of believing but a field of possibilities through which
meaning can be found on many paths, calls us to see those possibilities
wherever we are in life, even on the other side of the worst
tragedies we can imagine." Unitarian minister Robert
Terry Weston calls us to this same relationship with Life, with
God: The past that has hurt slips away: The humiliations,
the failures, the resentment, The sorrows, the haunting fears,
dissolve into the healing night. And it comes, a great peace,
flooding the heart. It comes, a sense of healing forgiveness,
A sense of comprehending and forgiving compassion, A meaning
in which all things are comprehended and made whole Though we,
accepting, comprehend it not.
The Macabees hung on for three years, hiding
in the hills before finally defeating the Seleucid forces, taking
back their Temple, rededicating the altar and lighting a lamp
that burned for eight days on one small vial of olive oil. It
was a miracle, they said, an outward, visible sign of God's
grace, God's love and favour.
That flame was their sacrament, their symbol
Finding hope ... learning to trust death, to
feel thankful that life includes the dark ... feeling the great
peace, that connection to the whole ... trusting in God, the
interdependent web of all existence that sustains life and beauty
on this earth and in this universe. We are part of that whole,
rocked in the cradle of its ancient rhythms.