As I’m sure many of you know – for it is hardly a little-known fact about me – I am a great, life-long jazz aficionado. Of my lifetime of memories of following the music, one that most stands out in my mind is the opportunity I once had to meet the late great jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck when I was a young priest.
Mr. Brubeck was coming to town for a concert, and a priest friend of mine who was beginning a major project for addressing homelessness got the idea of asking him to do a benefit concert. Mr. Brubeck had written music for a Mass, and my friend’s thought was to use that for the concert. Certainly, I’ll never forget the privileged insight I got into what a musical genius he was, but what really stands out in my memory was the conversation my friend and I had with his agent before Mr. Brubeck arrived for our lunch appointment.
The agent was Jewish, and when we were talking about the music for the Mass, he spoke, in a very perplexed tone of voice, of how priests sometimes will pronounce the words of Consecration at Mass in such a casual, lackadaisical way. He asked, “How can they do that, when you realize the meaning of those words and what is happening?”
It was an important insight – perhaps ironically and powerfully so, coming from someone outside of the Catholic Faith. On the other hand, being Jewish, he would understand, even instinctually, the meaning of the Eucharist as a Passover event: in the Jewish ritual it commemorates liberation from slavery in Egypt, when the angel of death “passed over” the Jewish homes whose doorways were marked by the blood of the slaughtered Passover lamb. Language shapes the mind, the way one views the world, and the Jewish mind is shaped by the Jewish language: Hebrew. Hebrew is a language without verb tenses; everything is in the present moment. “Commemoration,” then, is not simply thinking fondly or gratefully back to an event that happened long ago in history; it is present with us today. And we still sometimes use this style of language today, even in English, saying things like, “St. Thomas Aquinas says that grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it,” or, “Tomorrow I move into my new home.”
Memory is powerful. Sometimes, a memory of the past can be even more powerful than the present. Memory has the power to sweep you away, to carry you from where you are to an intense experience, maybe of your childhood or your adolescence. What is especially impressive about the experience of such memories is that they seem to have a power of their own. It is not so much that we remember them; it’s more as if the memory itself takes hold of us and grasps us, surging into our present and immersing us in the past in a way that makes time disappear.
When Christ gives us the command at the Last Supper, then, “Do this in memory of me,” he’s not talking about historical memory. As Christians, we know that the original Passover event is a prelude to the true Passover of Christ’s sacrifice made present at each Mass: passing over from a life of sin to the true freedom of the Kingdom of God, set free from death by the blood of the true Lamb of God. This is a mystery to be lived always in the present tense, every day of our life – just as his presence to us is constant, that presence which we call “Real”: the bread and wine become his Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity….
The benefit concert my friend wanted Dave Brubeck to put on for him never materialized (although he did, over a period of decades, end up building quite an empire to rehabilitate the homeless, becoming locally renowned as an apostle to the homeless). But shortly after composing his Mass, entitled, “To Hope,” Mr. Brubeck converted to the Catholic faith. This, ultimately, should not surprise us. For the power of the Eucharist, when celebrated reverently, beautifully, and with all of our best and all of the talent that God has given us to glorify Him, can draw all sincere hearts into the Eucharistic heart of God’s Son. And this call from our Eucharistic Lord is the hope that each of us is charged to hold on to, to live by in our own lives, and to pass on to all generations.
From the Archdiocese of San Francisco.