Explanation of the Ceremonies of Holy Mass, Part 3

The priest starts out the Mass with the sign of our salvation as we all make the Sign of the Cross over our bodies as he sings, In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. The Mass is a Trinitarian act of worship to the Father, through the Son and in the Holy Spirit. Many of the prayers of the Mass are addressed to the Father, through the Son and in the Holy Spirit for this reason. The priest than turns to the faithful and addresses them, The Lord be with you. This invocation occurs several times in the Mass. It is taken from the Book of Ruth, where the pious farmer Boaz greets his wheat reapers with those words before he takes the foreigner Ruth as his wife. Boaz is a type of Christ, who gives the LORD to the Church, His Spouse. We respond and with your spirit, as we realize that the priest is performing a work of the Spirit, and by these simple words pray that the priest who offers the sacrifice may be in the Spirit, to fulfill his office as priest worthily and well.

Priest and people recite together the Confiteor, a prayer asking for the intercession of Mary and the saints in our request that God may forgive our sins. This prayer, borne aloft by sorrow for our sins, suffices to wipe away venial sin and orient us to receive the graces that come from the Mass. We then sing the Kyrie, the ninefold invocation of Father, Son and Spirit for mercy which is often reduced in the Ordinary Form to six fold. The Kyrie is the remnant of a longer litany which disappeared from the Roman liturgy very early on and was restored, in Greek, in the Latin liturgy in the sixth century because of its antiquity. On Sundays and feasts the celebrant intones the first words of the Gloria just as they were announced by the one angel at Bethlehem to the shepherds before a chorus of angels took up the song of praise. This ancient hymn was put into the Mass around the year 160. This hymn ends, as end so many prayers and hymns, with the Hebrew word Amen. This little word, which is the automatic end of our prayers, means so many things: so it is, let it be done, I believe. It is a statement of belief, a profession of hope, and an exclamation of trust in God.

The priest then prays the first of three prayers which change according to the day. This prayer is traditionally called the Collect, because by it the Church collects together various strands of thought in a short prayer, usually to the Father, sometimes directly to Christ, but always invoking the entire Trinity. The priest performs a gesture called the Orans position, from the Latin word for praying. He stretches out his hands in supplication before God, to show that his prayer is directed to God on behalf of His people. The priest raises his hands before God like the poor man begging alms from a rich man, the priest praying on behalf of poor sinners to the source of all riches, Christ. Whenever he mentions the Holy Name of Jesus, everyone in the congregation bows their head reverently at the Name before which the demons flee.

The Liturgy of the Word

Jews gathered in places called synagogues to study the Word of God. At the center of the synagogue is the Ark in which the scrolls of the Law were kept and from which they were joyfully removed to be studied. In front of the Ark is the bema, a raised platform with a reading desk on which the Word is read and from which the teachers of the Law expounded on its meaning. Christians gather in their churches to study the same Hebrew Scriptures as well as the writings of the Evangelists and Apostles which are also the Word of God. At the center of the church is the Tabernacle in which the Word made Flesh dwells and from which the Blessed Sacrament is joyfully removed to nourish the faithful. Because Christ is truly present in the Eucharist under the forms of bread and wine, the written word, although it is treated with great reverence, takes second place. The bema of the church is called a pulpit or ambo, and on it is placed the Lectionary from which the appointed readings for the day are proclaimed.

In the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, the first readings were proclaimed facing the altar. Because those were the readings which pre-dated Christ, they were like the preaching of John the Baptist which pointed to Christ, hence they were proclaimed towards the altar which is the symbol of Christ. In the Ordinary Form those readings are proclaimed towards the people, as a sign of God speaking to the people through them.

Between the Epistle and Gospel in the Old Rite and between the Old Testament and New Testament readings in the New Rite, the Gradual is sung. The gradual comes from the Latin word for steps; it is a psalm, and just as the Jews sang psalms as they ascended the steps of the temple in Jerusalem, Christian cantors sang the psalms from the steps of the altar. Often today the Gradual is replaced by a responsorial version of the psalm.

Before the Gospel, the Church places on the lips of her people another Hebrew word, Alleluia. The Church has always sought to praise her LORD with the same word that Christ praised His Father, in the same tongue, a word which merely means, Praise the LORD! The proper Gregorian chant Alleluias will often have a large number of notes on one syllable, symbolizing the effusion of joy of the Spirit in praising the Father, pointing out the yearning for union with Him. On penitential days, the mournful Tract or the simple Gospel Acclamation replaces the Alleluia. During the Alleluia or Tract, the deacon asks for the blessing of the priest to proclaim the Good News worthily and well. He goes to the altar upon which at the beginning of the Mass he placed the Book of the Gospels. In Revelation, we read I saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a book written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals. As the altar is the symbol of the throne of Christ, the deacon takes the Book of Life from Christ Himself to announce the word of salvation to men in the Gospel. He says, The LORD be with you, but he does not open his hands in the Orans position as the priest does, not usurping the priestly gesture of raised hands. He then reads the name of the Gospel writer as the faithful make the sign of the Cross on their forehead, mouth, and chest, praying that the Gospel will be in their minds, on their lips and in their hearts. In the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, the Gospel is chanted facing north, against the cold and dark regions of the earth that symbolize the malice of the Evil One. The Gospel is audaciously sung in the face of evil itself. Now it is usually read towards the people, that the evil in their hearts may be driven out by the words of the Saviour.

Faith is a gift from God; the priest, who stands in the person of the object of faith, Jesus Christ, intones the first word, Credo, I believe, to show that faith is a gift from God that demands a response, a response given by the faithful taking up the words of a profession of faith drawn up at two ecumenical councils of the Church at Nicea and Constantinople, in the fourth century. When Henry, the Holy Roman Emperor, went to Rome in the eleventh century, he was scandalized to find that they did not sing the Creed like they did everywhere else in both West and East, at Mass. The Pope told him that the Church at Rome had no need to profess her faith because she had never needed to be corrected from error like so many other places, but shortly thereafter the Pope ordered that the Creed be sung on Sundays just to make sure that no one would ever claim they didn’t know the central truths of the faith even if they came to Mass. In the middle of the Creed are the words, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man. To symbolize the condescension by which Christ came down to earth in the Incarnation, the ministers and the faithful bow profoundly during these words, except on Christmas and the Annunciation, when they kneel.

At the end of the Creed, General Intercessions, prayers for the state of the Church and the world, may be prayed.