Early Christianity was acutely conscious of the imminence of Christ’s coming. We see this in references to it in the Acts and feel it in the letters of St. Paul. Even the book of Revelation, written at the turn of the century, ends with the words of expectation: “And the Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’ And let him who hears say, ‘Come!’ . . . He who testifies to these things says, ‘It is true, I come quickly!’ ‘Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!’ ” (Rev. 22:17-21). In other very early Christian writings as well, there is a great sense of expectancy. The Lord will return — and soon.
Then gradually the feeling that His coming is imminent disappears, and the faithful settle down for a longer period. While the persecutions lasted (in other words, well into the fourth century), however, existence was so precarious that the sense of the unreality of earthly things was kept very much alive. Then Christianity became the official state religion, the solid, accepted form of life, and the sense of general insecurity vanished. As we have seen, it reappears in periods of historical upset and in certain particular natures, but it no longer determines the Christian bearing as such.
Thus Christian existence has lost its eschatological quality, very much to its detriment, because with that loss the sense of belonging to the world becomes more or less self-understood. Christianity’s intrinsic watchfulness and readiness are gone. It forgets that the words “Watch and pray!” (Matt. 26:41; Mark 14:38) are meant not only morally, as a vital sense of responsibility to the divine will, but also essentially, as a manner of being. The Christian is never meant to settle down in the world or become one with nature, or with business or art.
Essentially a soldier, the Christian is always on the lookout. He has sharper ears and hears an undertone that others miss; his eyes see things in a particularly candid light, and he senses something to which others are insensible, the streaming of a vital current through all things. He is never submerged in life, but keeps his head and shoulders clear of it and his eyes free to look upward. Consequently he has a deeper sense of responsibility than others. When this awareness and watchfulness disappear, Christian life loses its edge; it becomes dull and ponderous.
Then, too, Holy Mass loses one of the marks which the Lord Himself impressed upon it, a mark which the early Christians were aware of. It becomes a firmly established custom, the accepted, Christ-given form in which to praise, give thanks, seek help, practice atonement and generally determine religious existence. Then the Mass becomes that which is celebrated in every church every day at a certain time, and above all on Sunday. This is of course correct, as far as it goes — certainly not very far. Something essential is lacking.
Perhaps it will find its way back into our lives and the Mass. The different aspects of God’s word have different seasons. At times the one will fade, retreat into the background, even vanish from the Christian consciousness. It is still there in Scripture and continues to be read in the Liturgy, but the words are no longer heard. Then the direction of existence shifts, and the same words seem to ring out, suddenly eloquent. Today history is undergoing such a change. It is breaking out of its former impregnability into a period of revolutionary destruction and reconstruction. The old sense of stability and permanence is no longer strong enough to provide the mystery of existence with the answers. We have again become profoundly conscious of life’s transitoriness and questionableness. Thus even the natural situation helps us to understand St. Paul’s, “For the world as we see it is passing away” (1 Cor. 7:31). Anything can happen. We begin to be aware of the magnitude of divine possibility, begin to sense the reality of Christ’s coming, that pressing toward us from the edge of time, “for I say to you that I will not drink of the fruit of the vine, until the kingdom of God comes” (Luke 22:18).
Jesus’ words just before the institution of the Eucharist are not there by chance. The celebration of the Lord’s memorial binds the present moment not only to eternity — a thought we readily understand — but also to the future; a future, however, that lies not in time, but that approaches it from beyond and that will ultimately abolish time. Christ’s promise teaches us to reevaluate the present, the better to persevere in it.
How well we understand the mood that must have prevailed in the early Christian congregations. Those people knew: everything around us is uncertain, alien, edged with danger. No one knows what tomorrow will bring. Now, however, we are here, celebrating the memorial of our Lord. He knows about us, and we know about Him. He is the One who dictates the apocalyptical letters: “I know thy works . . . and thy patience . . . and thy tribulation and thy poverty. . . . I know where thou dwell-est” (Rev. 2:2, 9, 13). The Lord “knows everything.” This knowledge is our refuge. Now, at the moment of sacred commemoration, He will come to us, will be with us, will fortify us. Whatever tomorrow may bring, it will be of His sending.
The celebration of the Mass should always be tinged by the feeling: the world “is passing away” (1 Cor. 7:31). A temporal thing from the start, it spins before God’s eternity for as long as He permits it to do so. But its essential temporality is not all; it is seconded by an acquired temporality or mortality, the extreme disorder brought about by its disobedience and injustice. Once summoned before God’s judgment, the world will be unable to stand. When that summons is to come, we do not know; hence the admonition to watch and pray so as not to be found “sleeping” (Mark 14:40; Matt. 26:43). All that is certain is that it will come soon, the word signifying no simple measure of time (tomorrow rather than a year, for instance, or thirty years rather than thousands) but an essential soon, applicable to all time, no matter how long it lasts. It is the sacred soon that comes to us from the quiet waiting of Christ, pressing terrible and blissful from the limits of time upon every hour, and belonging somehow in our own consciousness if our faith is to be complete.
All this seems strange to us. We must be honest and not pretend to something we do not really feel. Here is a task for our Christian self-education. We must try to feel our way into these thoughts; must gradually make this expectancy our own. Then Holy Mass will receive an entirely new significance. We will realize how essential it is for us, and it will become an hour of profoundest tranquility and assurance. Throughout the noise and tension of the day, thought of the Mass will sustain us. The mind will reach out to it like a hand stretched out — each time to receive new strength.