Belief that the Mass is heaven on earth comes from what St. John recorded in the Book of Revelation. In his vision of the heavenly liturgy, angels and saints sing the constant praises of God by venerating the Lamb.
This vision is addressed by the Second Vatican Council in Sacrosanctum Concilium (the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy). It states succinctly what had long been held by the Catholic Church. “In the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy …where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God. We sing a hymn to the Lord’s glory with all the warriors of the heavenly army.”
One could argue that this is simply a pious belief based on what St. John allegedly saw and wrote about in Revelation. If that’s the case, we don’t participate in the events of heaven, but rather we imitate them.
For Catholics, this is nonsense. Our faith comes from Jesus’ command: “Do this in memory of me.”
Some Christians believe that all we must do to honor Jesus’ memory is to recall His words and actions — that there’s no need for rituals, bread or wine to celebrate it.
Catholics, however, borrow heavily on the understanding and customs of the Jewish community, from whom we separated when the Messiah came. For Jews, memory means to participate in actively, as if one was present at the event being remembered.
A historical event of God’s action is not stuck in the past for them. Rather, it is constantly present in sacred gatherings that celebrate the memory of God’s salvation of the chosen people.
This notion is expressed clearly in the Haggadah, a collection of instructions detailing the celebration of the Jewish Passover meal called the seder. The Haggadah says that “in every generation, every Jew must regard himself as though he, personally, was brought out of Egypt.”
Those who celebrate the seder meal must consider themselves as having participated in the original Passover.
Our Jewish friends arrived at this understanding of memory from a reflection on the nature of God.
God is boundlessly different than humans. In a word, He is infinite; we are finite. For God, to say is to be. He said, “Let there be light,” and it shined. God’s word requires no further action. His action is never isolated in the past; it endures as a constant, living event.
For us, to say the word clean doesn’t make something sparkle. We have to act, and then repeat, in order to maintain. When we remember, a thought process begins. We search the brain to retrieve a memory. This is a constant, albeit imperceptible, occurrence.
As wholly diverse from us, God doesn’t have to search His mind to recall. For Him, it’s present.
When God says He will remember the covenant He’s made, it’s not a recollection, but a constant awareness.
When God commands the Israelites to celebrate Passover, He’s asking them to act as if subsequent generations were there in Egypt. God’s command to keep a memory didn’t mean to look back, but to make Passover ever-present.
At the Last Supper, Jesus gave a new commandment: “Do this in memory of me.” His followers were Jewish, and “do this in memory” would have meant continually acting in future generations what Jesus was doing then, as if future generations were present when Jesus spoke.
If memory means to participate in an event as an ever-present reality, then Sacrosanctum Concilium’s teaching that the earthly liturgy participates in the heavenly liturgy makes perfect sense.
Jesus’ command, “in memory of me,” is like God’s word — once spoken, it is.
Throughout history when God acted, His actions never ceased to be. Because Jesus is “one in being with the Father,” His actions that Holy Week never stopped either. That’s how the Mass can be Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday all at once.
The Mass is the memory of those realities of our salvation which are made present when we stand before God to sing His praises like those in heaven.
Heaven and earth are united because of the ever-present memory of Christ feeding us at the Last Supper, dying for us on the cross, and rising for us on Easter.
Jesus brings us into union with heaven as the Lamb standing before God.
Our liturgical prayer is always asked “through Christ our Lord.” If Jesus’ word is enough to heal the sick and raise the dead, then it is enough to make His memory present on the altar at Mass, and to usher us into the heavenly court.
Father Bryan P. Babick, SL.L., is the diocesan vicar for Divine Worship and the Sacraments.