I have always wanted to know if we fulfill the Sunday Mass obligation when we arrive late. Is there a point during the Mass at which it is too late to attend?
This is a good question because often today there is a tendency to think that as long as we have arrived in time to receive Communion, then we have fulfilled our Sunday obligation to keep holy the Lord’s Day. But there is a great deal more to it that that. When a person is careless about being on time for Mass, especially when this happens repeatedly, it can be a sign that there is a lack of understanding of the action that is taking place at the Mass. This needs to be thought out carefully.
The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is made up of two parts, the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist, and these two parts make up the whole Mass. It is during the Liturgy of the Eucharist (the second part) that we receive our Lord in Holy Communion, but there is something else that will take place before that happens. In the first part (the Liturgy of the Word) God will reach out to us. This is accomplished through the readings from Sacred Scripture. Every part of the Mass is important, but this is especially important because when the lector approaches the ambo to read, we should know that we are about to hear God speak through the Scriptures.
It is stated in the documents of the Second Vatican Council that “the Church has always venerated the Scriptures just as she venerates the body of the Lord, since, especially in sacred liturgy, she unceasingly receives and offers to the faithful the bread of life from the table both of God's Word and of Christ's Body. She has always maintained them, and continues to do so, together with sacred tradition, as the supreme rule of faith. Therefore, like the Christian religion itself, all the preaching of the Church must be nourished and regulated by Sacred Scripture. For, in the sacred books, the Father who is in heaven meets His children with great love and speaks with them” (Dei Verbum, n. 21).
In a document published in 1980, the Sacred Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship stated the following: “The two parts which in a sense go to make up the Mass, namely the liturgy of the word and the Eucharistic liturgy, are so closely connected that they form but one single act of worship.” A person should not approach the table of the bread of the Lord without having first been at the table of his Word. Sacred Scripture is therefore of the highest importance in the celebration of Mass (Inaestimabile donum, n. 1).”
The Mass is both a sacrificial memorial of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and a sacred banquet of communion with the Lord’s Body and Blood (CCC #1382). Foremost, it is a sacrifice, but it is also a meal. The sacrifice is memorialized so that by remembering what He did for us, we might be transformed to go out into the world and love as He did, and Christ’s own flesh and blood gives us the nourishment and strength needed to do this. Perhaps if we think of this aspect, it might become clearer to us why it is wrong to arrive only in time to go up to the table and eat, thinking that to be the only nourishment we need. In reality, however, the table to which the Lord invites us feeds us with both his Word and His Body.
Every effort should be made to be on time for Mass. If we are not able to be present in time to be seated for the readings from the Word of God, then it might be better to plan to attend the next available Mass on that day. If we rush in just in time for Communion, then we will not have truly experienced the transforming sacrifice of Jesus. We will not have been completely nourished by the Lord’s Word and his Body. If we who love Him so had been there on the day He died, would we have been late?
© Copyright 2003 Grace D. MacKinnon
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Grace MacKinnon is a syndicated columnist and public speaker on Catholic doctrine and teaches in the Diocese of Brownsville, Texas. Her new book Dear Grace: Answers to Questions About the Faith is available in our online store. If you enjoy reading Grace’s column, you will certainly want to have this book, which is a collection of the first two years of “Dear Grace.” Faith questions may be sent to Grace via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org. You may also visit her online at www.DearGrace.com.