The complete beginner’s guide to identifying the climax of the liturgy

The complete beginner’s guide to identifying the climax of the liturgy

When I was about six or seven years old, my mother made a big bowl of popcorn and sat down on the couch with me and my two brothers. CBS was airing The Wizard of Oz, and we watched it on our small black and white TV. I don’t remember touching the popcorn or even moving during the broadcast. I was enthralled.

For kids across the United States, Dorothy was our big sister, leading us on what was both a fantastic and (to us) totally plausible adventure. She seemed only slightly braver and slightly smarter than the rest of us (that is, normal), and we could imagine ourselves skipping with her down the Yellow Brick Road to a life filled with talking trees, flying monkeys, munchkins, witches, and wizards.

Stories have power – especially in the liturgy

That is about the time I began to realize the power of story. A story pulls you up out of your ordinary life and into a new world — just as the Kansas cyclone carried Dorothy away to the merry Land of Oz

We said earlier that every time someone comes to Mass, they are looking for a good story. They are hoping to be carried away from whatever it is that burdens them. They are hoping to find a life that is free from worry, fear, and despair.

The story of Jesus is the story they want to hear, even if they don’t know it yet. Like Dorothy’s story, the Jesus-story has a beginning, a climax, and an end. In both of those stories, the climax is a death. Death or near-death is the climax in a lot of stories. For example, Romeo and Juliet, Harry Potter, Frankenstein, and Old Yeller. Death or near-death causes the protagonist to change.

In Dorothy’s case, she killed the witch. Her life would never be the same after that. In Jesus’s case, he killed death itself. By sacrificing himself, he saved us. St. Paul says that Jesus, who knew no sin, became sin so that sin would die with him (see 2 Cor 5:16-21).

The story of Jesus is the story they want to hear, even if they don’t know it yet. Share on X

When a story has death at the climax, it means that before death, life was one thing and after death life is a different thing. The life before death has ended and the life after death is something brand new and transformational. Death signifies a clear and powerful break between the past and the future.

So in the Mass, there is a death that marks the climax of the story. And it is true to say that it is Jesus’s death that is that climax. But it is not only Jesus’s death. If that were the case, the story we tell would be more like The Wizard of Oz. No matter how many times you watch it, the story always ends the same way.

In the liturgy, especially Sunday Mass, the ending is different each time. There is always some suspense. We know that the story of Jesus’s death is always the same. He doesn’t “re-die” each week. He died once. But when we come to the altar — the place of sacrifice — and share in Jesus’s broken Body and poured-out Blood, we join ourselves to his one death. We die to ourselves in a new way, a deeper way, each week as we become what we eat and drink.

Behold, all things are made new

That moment of dying to ourselves is a clear break with the past. We will never again be like we were. It is the promise we make to every catechumen. Just before they are baptized and come to the altar for the first time, we read to them from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans:

We know that our old self was crucified with him,
so that our sinful body might be done away with,
that we might no longer be in slavery to sin.
For a dead person has been absolved from sin.
If, then, we have died with Christ,
we believe that we shall also live with him.
We know that Christ, raised from the dead, dies no more;
death no longer has power over him.
As to his death, he died to sin once and for all;
as to his life, he lives for God.
Consequently, you too must think of yourselves as being dead to sin
and living for God in Christ Jesus.

So then, if everyone who comes to Mass is looking for a good story, we have to help them see that the story they are looking for is already inside of them. Just as Dorothy was looking for a wizard to take her home, she had the power to click her heals and return anytime she wanted. Seekers show up at Mass because the Spirit is already within them, leading them home.

The way we tell the story of Jesus in the liturgy has to help seekers — and the rest of us — see that the way home is join ourselves to Christ as we gather at the altar of sacrifice and die to the past in order to live into the future.

Image credit: Mark Kyler Boone, Unsplash, CC0.

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