I couldn’t fault my doctor when I went for a private consultation, but in his own home on his own pet enthusiasm he seemed to have left his common sense in the surgery. He was fascinated by visionaries and their private revelations and seemed to assume that most religious had them. When a local mother superior sent a nun to him who said she was hearing voices, he sent her back with a clean bill of health. There was nothing wrong with her, he told me, the voices she was hearing were not coming from her head, but from the tabernacle! Whenever I visited him at home he was engrossed in a massive three-volume tome detailing the private revelations of some obscure seventeenth century German nun. Apparently her revelations filled in all the gaps in the Gospel story with outrageously pious nonsense that made me bite my lip to blood to stop me laughing.
It seems that when the ‘Holy Family’ went to Egypt shortly after Jesus was born, idols fell on the ground, temples collapsed and pagan priests dropped to their knees to do homage, as the Magi had done before them. On the way home they fell in with a band of robbers who, as they had no money, treated them kindly. A child belonging to one of the robbers was suffering from leprosy, but when it was bathed in the same water as Jesus, lo and behold, that robber child was cured. “But that is not the end of the story.” said the good doctor, sitting on the edge of his seat to amaze me with the punch line. “Would you believe it, that little robber grew up to become the Good Thief, who Jesus saved again on the cross and took to paradise with him that very day.” And so the stories went on until it was time to go. As I was leaving he said, “By the way, did you know something is bleeding inside your mouth, I think you would be advised to see your dentist!”
Although we do not know a hundred-and-one things that Jesus did in the hidden years, we do know the most important things. We know when he prayed, where he prayed and how he prayed. We know that he prayed first thing in the morning to consecrate his day to God, just as we make our morning offering. We know that he would have prayed last thing at night too, and we know some of the prayers and psalms to which he would have turned. Further to this he would have gone to the synagogue each day, to say a prayer called the Shema. For the Jews, and therefore for Jesus too, this prayer embodied within it a total abandonment to God by promising to love him with “all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength,” as they had been commanded to do, as the first and greatest of all the commandments (Deuteronomy 6:5). This prayer was said three times each day in the synagogue at the third, the sixth, and the ninth hour. If, for whatever reason a good Jew was prevented from doing this at those said times, he would stop his work, or his journey or rise from his sick bed to say the prayer that was meant to dedicate every moment of every day to God. They also said another prayer whenever they came together for meals, to thank God not just for the food on the table, but for land that was given them to provide it. They thanked him too for all he did for them in the past, was doing for them now, and had promised to do for them in the future. This prayer was called the Berakah.
Although we know for certain that Jesus prayed the Shema while he was growing up, there is no evidence that he personally offered sacrifices in the temple, (Karbanot) for one important reason. The sacrifice that he had come to make was not of lambs, or sheep, or oxen or of anything else for that matter. He had come to offer himself. He embodied within himself the new temple, the new form of priesthood and the new form of sacrifice that he would bequeath to his disciples. While he was with them they prayed with him, but after the sending of the Holy Spirit they prayed not only with him, but in him too, and through him in such a way that they could pray as none of their greatest forefathers had been able to pray before. Now they were able to understand for the first time the meaning of the new worship “in spirit and truth” (John 4:24), that Jesus promised to the Samaritan woman. Like Jesus they no longer needed to go to the Temple to offer material sacrifices, because the sacrifice that God wanted now was nothing other than themselves, and, as nobody else could do this for them, they were, each one of them, priests. Now they were able to make the only offering that God wanted, and make it in such a way that he could receive it, because it was made in, with and through his Son Jesus, the one and only true High Priest.
The essence of the ancient Jewish prayers was still used by the first Christians after the Resurrection, but they were transformed. The prayers that were once said with Jesus before the sending of the Holy Spirit were now prayed in, with and through Jesus, into whose mystical body they now lived and moved and had their very being. The inner dynamic power and vitality on which the early liturgy depended was the quality of the daily prayer and service of others, practised during the previous week that was offered at Mass. However, what is supposed to be a liturgical climax can turn out to be an anticlimax if those who come to Mass bring nothing to be offered, because their previous week was barren and bereft of trying to practise the two new Commandments that Jesus gave us. Our daily endeavour to implement them is the offering that we bring with us to offer, through Jesus at our weekly Mass. If we come with nothing, then we receive nothing, and the Mass becomes meaningless, not in itself, or for others, but for those who bring nothing to offer when they enter the church.
After Our Lady appeared to three girls in Northern Spain the eldest asked her if she would take them back to heaven with her. She replied, “Whatever for, for your hands are empty.” What would she say if we arrived for Sunday Mass with our hands empty? Any great enterprise of any moment whether it is a wedding, an anniversary, or even an important game or match, or any crucial event for that matter, will only be as successful as the time given preparing for it. The Mass is no different, except that it is the most important event in our lives, on which our lives depend. Regular failure to prepare for it will lead at best to spiritual stagnation, and at worst to spiritual suicide.
Renewal in the Church does not primarily depend on a perfectly designed liturgy, but on the quality of the spiritual lives of those who participate in it. Let us suppose that I had a magic wand to give everyone the liturgy of their choice each time they went to Mass. It might be the new liturgy as introduced by the Second Vatican Council, with a perfect translation of the text and with all the rites and rituals perfectly designed to satisfy everyone. On the other hand, it might be the old Tridentine Mass in Latin that so many of us were brought up on, or a grand sung high Mass with music by Perosi, Palestrina or Purcell, or the mediaeval Mass that was so loved by some of the greatest saints that have ever lived, or the ancient Mass known to the Fathers of the Church which was said in Greek long before the introduction of Latin. Or what about Mass according to the Chaldean rite said in Aramaic, the language that Jesus himself would have used at the Last Supper. The introduction of any or all of these rites in themselves would do nothing to change us personally and permanently, or the Church to which we belong, unless they are animated and inspired by the same profound daily liturgy of spiritual endeavour as practised by the first Christians in imitation of how Jesus prayed and served the neighbour in need throughout his life on earth.
The measure in which the first Christians gave to God each Sunday, determined the measure of the grace he was able to give them in return. Then this grace suffused their prayers and their good works making every moment of every day the Mass, the place where they continually offered themselves to God, through Jesus in whom they lived and moved and had their very being. Learning how to do this for ourselves from Our Lord’s own example, in his hidden years, is so much more spiritually rewarding than reading the pious fantasies of a suspect German visionary; but tell that to my doctor!
The themes in this article are detailed in far greater length in David Torkington’s latest book Wisdom from The Christian Mystics which was published on 26/01/2018 and is available on Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk