“Ite, missa est!”
That’s Latin for, “Go, you are dismissed.” For hundreds and hundreds of years, in the Latin rite, this is how the Deacon tells the people that their liturgy–their solemn duty and joyful privilege–has been successfully performed, and they are free to go. Indeed, they are not just free to go, they need to go. Deacons are a polite bunch, generally, but if they are off their feed, they might say something like, “Scram. Get outta here!”
The Dismissal is a very small component of our celebration of the Eucharist, given and responded to inside of about four seconds, but it bears a huge load of significance. It is the nexus, the hinge, between our re-membering the Body of Christ around the altar and our re-membering the Body of Christ in the world, and for the life of the world. Our response to the Dismissal–not just “Thanks be to God,” but the way we live our lives between celebrations of the Eucharist–either validates our performance of the liturgy, or makes it incoherent, a false witness.
When we come together for the Eucharist, we, who have each been made a member of the Body of Christ through Baptism, re-member–re-assemble–the whole Body of Christ. We bring ourselves, “our souls and bodies,” as a living sacrifice to God. This sacrifice, this offering, is represented by the money that we place in the offering plate. It is also represented by the bread and wine that we place on the altar. It is significant that we don’t simply use grain and grapes in the Eucharist. Grain and grapes are God’s gifts to us, through nature. It takes human involvement–skills and labor–to turn grain into bread and grapes into wine. Bread and wine are our gifts to God. They represent all that we are and all that we have.
But we don’t just give ourselves to God, full stop. That would be an inadequate offering. We give ourselves to God in union with God’s offering of himself to himself. Yes, that sounds silly, but it’s precisely true. On the cross, God the Son offered himself to God the Father. In the Eucharist, we offer ourselves, in union with Christ’s offering of himself, for that offering alone can bridge the gap between God’s holiness and human sinfulness.
God then takes what we offer–ourselves in union with Christ–and returns the gift, transformed into his own deathless life. We become, per St Peter, “partakers in the divine nature” (II Peter 1:4).
It is God’s own mission to save–to reconcile, to forgive, to heal, to redeem, to generate justice and love. In the Eucharist, we are caught up into this mission. We have no choice, actually; it’s a vortex from which we cannot escape! To follow Jesus as his disciples, to come together around the altar and participate his divine life, his divine nature, is to be implicated and included in that saving and redeeming mission of God. There are no disciples who are not also missionaries. We announce good news, we make disciples, we baptize, we promote human flourishing in every way available to us. We do all these things as missionaries.
This is what the Dismissal reminds us of. “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” “Let us go forth in the Name of Christ.” “Let us go forth into the world, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit.” We are missionaries as individuals–in our homes, with our neighbors and friends, among those with whom we work or study. And we are missionaries as communities. Eucharistic Communities, corporately, discern how and where the Holy Spirit is calling them to “move into the neighborhood” (John 1:14, as rendered in The Message). Trust me, you will be hearing a lot more about this in the coming months!
In the meantime … scram. Get outta here.
P.S. Yes, the word Mass comes from the Latin missa–dismissed.