Note: This is the first of a series of five columns on the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The accompanying homily for the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time is available to listen to online by clicking here.
The Psalms contain a very beautiful section called “the Psalms of Ascent.” They were prayed by the people as they approached Jerusalem, literally, as they “ascended,” as they “went up” to the Holy City. Deep in the heart of every Jew was a desire to go to Jerusalem, because that was where the Temple of the Holy One of Israel was. It was the center of the world for them, as it continues to be for Jews today. They were required to “go up” to Jerusalem at least three times a year, for the great feasts of Succoth (Tabernacles), Pesech (Passover), and Shavuot (Pentecost).
In the Scriptures going to Jerusalem is always described as a going up, not simply because of the elevation of the City but because it was the center of the Universe where the Holy One Himself chose to dwell. This is still reflected in contemporary Judaism. Twice a day observant Jews pray the Shema (“Hear O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one. …”). When they pray it, they face Israel; if they are in Israel, they face Jerusalem; if they are in Jerusalem, they face the Temple Mount.
When Jews make a Pilgrimage to Israel, they call it “making Aliyah.” Aliyah literally means “a going up.” The Israeli national airline’s name, El Al, literally means “to the up.” The whole purpose of Aliyah, from Biblical times to now, is to encounter God. This Psalm of Ascent cited above speaks of the most essential reason: to seek His mercy! We go up to seek His mercy! The Psalm speaks of fixing our eyes on the Lord as we implore that mercy. How do we do that?
Fixing our eyes on the Eucharistic Lord
We have one opportunity in which we are literally able to do that, to actually fix our very eyes on the Lord. During the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, when the priest raises up the now consecrated Body of Christ, we literally fix our eyes on the Lord; so too with the Blood of Christ. We no longer need to go to Jerusalem to fix our eyes on Him, to seek His mercy; He has come to us, making Himself available to us! Every time we go to Mass we have this glorious opportunity to fix our eyes on the Lord and plead with Him for His mercy! He is there before us, Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity. Every day we have the opportunity to make Pilgrimage to the heavenly Jerusalem, to fix our eyes on the King of Kings, and not only to plead with Him for His mercy, but to actually receive Him into our hearts. The Church affirms this understanding: “In the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God.” (Sacrosanctum Concilium , #8)
Jews going on pilgrimage would prepare with prayer and fasting for such an important event. How do we prepare for our Pilgrimage to the King? It begins with coming to faith: “Before men can come to the liturgy they must be called to faith and to conversion.” (SC #9). How do we come to greater faith? We read the Book; this causes our faith to grow and hopefully we, with ever greater understanding of what it means, surrender more and more deeply to the Lord Jesus, thus coming to that conversion the Church has called us to. We also spend time in prayer, daily, that our hearts may be prepared for this divine encounter. This is crucial, since “In order that the liturgy may be able to produce its full effects, it is necessary that the faithful come to it with proper dispositions, that their minds should be attuned to their voices, and that they should cooperate with divine grace lest they receive it in vain.” (SC #11).
Prayer and Scripture need to be built into the very rhythm of our lives. As we do both, we should do them with the intention that it prepares us to “fix our eyes on the Lord,” especially so that we can be fully present for this Divine Encounter, the source and summit of our Christian life! (see SC #10). — Fr. Ed Fride