by Tom Coyle "ON THAT DAN which is called after the Sun, all, whether they live in the town or in the country, gather in the same place. Then the memoirs of the Apostles or the writings of the prophets are read for as long as time allows. When the reader has finished, the president speaks, exhorting us to live by these noble teachings. Then we all rise together to pray.
"Then ... when the prayer is finished, bread, wine and water are brought. The president then prays and gives thanks as well as he can. And all the people reply with the acclamation: Amen! After this the Eucharists are distributed and shared out to eseryone, and the deacons are sent to take them to those who are absent."
Thus Saint Justin the Martyr writing about the year 150. Here we have one of the earliest descriptions of the Mass and it is familiar to us today — the readings. the homily. the prayer, the offertory, the eucharistic prayer and the Communion. A little later St Justin even refers to the collection!
It is also stressed that on Sunday "all, whether they live in the town or the country, gather in the same place" and this coming together on the Lord's Day goes back to the time of the Apostles.
In the Acts of the Apostles we read: "They went as a body to the Temple every dar but met in their houses for the breaking of the bread", and there are seaeral other references throughout the Acts and the Epistles to the weekly assembly of the Christian community.
nfortunately. with the decline in the active participation of the people. the idea of the importance of the assembly. this coming together of God's family, was lost.
We came together to 'hear Mass' rather than to take an active part in the celebration of the Lord's resurrection, and it is only now that we are once again re-discovering how central this assembly is to living out the Christian life. In the words of the Constitution on the Liturgy of Vatican II:
"For on this day (Sunday), Christ's faithful should come together into one place so that, br hearing the word of God and taking part in the Eucharist, they may call to mind the passion, resurrection and glorification of the Lord Jesus ..."
Later in the same document, the Church emphasises the importance of the Assembly as one of the ways in which Christ is really present in the celebration of Mass:
"He is present, lastly, when the Church prays and sings forthe promised: 'Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them' (Mt. 18:20)".
The Order of Mass itself begins: "After the people have assembled, the priest and ministers go to the altar ..." and the purpose of the Introductory Rites of the Mass is precisely "to help the assembled people to become a worshipping community and to prepare them for listening to God's word and celebrating the Eucharist."
For too long vve have forgotten or been ignorant of how marvellous it is that we have been called to be followers of Jesus. In Baptism something very special happens to us: we become members of a 'chosen race, a royal priesthood, a consecrated nation, a people set apart to sing the praises of God ..." We become members of Christ's Body and each Sunday we come together with Christ at our head to offer prayer, thanksgiving and sacrifice to God our Father.
Too often when we speak of the 'Church' we think of the building in which we meet, but we should always remember that it only gets its name from the people who assemble there. The Church is people as the new Rite for the Dedication of a Church reminds us: "This holy people, unified through the unity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is the Church, that is, the temple of
God built of living stones, where the Father is worshipped in spirit and in truth."
If, tomorrow, our country were to become an atheistic state and all our church buildings were closed down, the Christian community, the Church. would continue to exist in the coming together in secret of the faithful to celebrate Mass. Today we are not asked to do that, but as we meet together in our comfortable churches, we should be grateful to all those who have come together down the centuries, handing on to us the faith.
Our sign of unity in the Mass is our sharing in the gone bread and the one cup', the Body of Christ broken for us. At the end of Mass, we who are Christ's Body are, in a sense, broken and shared with our neighbours as we are sent forth from the church to love and serve the Lord.'