It has been more than 20 years since Vatican II released its document on liturgy. During those years, we’ve seen many changes in the Eucharist. But the question might be asked: “Is the Eucharist more meaningful to people now than it was before all those changes?”

My own hunch is that, while we have done a pretty good job in the area of renewing the liturgy of the word, we have perhaps regressed in our understanding of the liturgy of the Eucharist. Why do I say that? Because if you stood at the door of a church on an average Sunday and asked people leaving the church: “Was this a good liturgy?” they would answer yes or no almost exclusively on the basis of the homily and the singing. We employ a simple algebra: good homily and good singing = good liturgy. Conversely, poor homily and little or bad music and we go away with the sense that nothing very meaningful has happened.

But this betrays a certain weakness in our understanding of the Eucharist. Twenty-five years ago, had someone stood at a church door and asked my parents’ generation the same question (“Was this a good mass?”) they wouldn’t even have understood the question. They would have mumbled something to the effect: “Well, aren’t all masses the same, isn’t the mass Christ’s sacrifice?”

Their answer too would have betrayed a weakness, namely, for them, the mass tended to be only a re-enactment of Christ’s sacrifice. It was not as important for them that this coming together should also be a time break the word and to be together as a faith community.

However, where they were stronger was in their understanding of ritual. Today, like the rest of our culture, we in the church, are going ritually tone-deaf. We no longer understand cult and what it means to be in a ritual container within which the sacred and profane, God and ourselves, can meet and we can be empowered in a way beyond and deeper than words.

From the Enlightenment onwards, down until today, our sense of ritual has progressively atrophied and now it has basically died. In many respects, the Roman Catholic and High Anglican mass is the last true deep sacred ritual left in our culture … and now, this is my fear, we are losing our understanding of precisely that part of it (the memorial, sacrifice, communion) which lies at the core of the ritual. More and more, we are identifying Eucharist mainly with what happens in and through the liturgy of the word.  We use the words meaningful or not meaningful, which once were applied only to our subjective reaction to what happened at a Eucharist, to apply to the objective event. Past generations were unable to do that and this, I submit, suggests that, at one level, they understood the Eucharist a whole lot more deeply than we give them credit for – and perhaps more deeply than we do ourselves.

What is ritual? What is a ritual container? What is re-enactment? What is a sacrifice?

Anthropologists, mythologists, and scripture scholars can, and do, give good explanations of these. Lately, those explanations seem to have got lost somewhere between our best theologies of liturgy and the actual expectations and assessments of those attending those liturgies. In the end, too few people today go to Eucharist any more looking for the magic of God’s real presence in the consecration and the communion. The only magic we expect (and it itself is rarely delivered) is such as can be produced by a good homily, good singing, and the experience generated by people worshipping and being together. What is generated by these elements, word and community, should not be underrated, as my parents’ generation sometimes did. 

However, the magic that they looked for, and most always found at “mass” (as they called it) should not be underrated by our generation. Theirs’ was a magic not dependent upon the right priest, like-minded community, a good homily, good singing, or a psychological sense of being bonded and supported. Theirs’ was a magic ultimately not dependent upon human effort at all, but one generated by sacred ritual which promised and delivered the presence of Christ and his saving actions beyond our words, efforts, and community and personal shortcomings. Such ritual was mysterious and mystical because it involved something beyond words, touching and being touched by the source of all life.