Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Prayers at the Foot of the Altar

A spiritual conference by Monsignor Andrew Wadsworth

All Souls Day Morning of Recollection - Juventutem DC
A spiritual conference by Fr Andrew

Given that this morning of recollection has been sponsored by the newly-formed chapter of Juventutem DC, I thought it might be appropriate to offer a few thoughts on the name ‘Juventutem’ and its obvious reference to Psalm 42 which is to be found in the prayers at the foot of the altar that occur in the Traditional Latin Mass. In most Masses in the Extraordinary Form, Psalm 42 is said in its entirety. In almost all Masses at least verse 4 of this psalm is said. In Sung Masses, it is not heard as the prayers at the foot of the altar coincide with the singing of the introit and the kyrie. In Masses during Passiontide and in Requiem Masses (such as this morning’s Requiem Mass for All Souls), the psalm is omitted but the antiphon retained.

Although commentators often disagree in their explanation of the origins of certain features of the liturgy, it would seem that historically, this penitential act has occupied its place at the beginning of Mass, at the foot of the altar, from the time when the Roman liturgy was spreading into Gall-Frankish territory. The psalm did not gain an entrance into many rites of Mass, however, even through the later Middle Ages and for a considerable time after. In the liturgies of religious orders such as the Carthusians and Dominicans Psalm 42 did not appear in their rite of Mass when these orders were established in the 13th century. Even when it was inserted, only a single verse was recited, Introibo ad altare Dei. Even when the psalm itself is omitted, the antiphon is said once.

This wonderful psalm expresses perfectly the sentiment which should animate the priest as he approaches the altar. It expresses a very great truth – the priest is powerfully attracted to the altar. A priest belongs at the altar and there is no place where he is more conscious of the reality of his priesthood than when he stands at the altar. The altar of God, however, is an awesome and holy place, yet there the priest stands, an unworthy servant of the Most High. He might call to mind the words of St. John Chrysostom: ‘When the priest calls upon the Holy Ghost and offers the tremendous Sacrifice: tell me in what rank should we place him? What purity shall we require of him, what reverence?’”


As a priest approaches the altar for the celebration of Holy Mass, he longs to ascend there to perform his sacred duty, to draw near to the Lord and to be united to Him. St John Chrysostom continues: “By the words iuventutem meam the priest may indeed, also, acknowledge that from his early days God has been his delight and bestowed on him a thousand joys.”

These are very beautiful thoughts but this psalm clearly expresses mixed emotions and demonstrates something of the divided heart that is so much a part of our human condition. It contains a sort of lament but one which includes a vow to give thanks in the Temple. Even when we are anxious and things are not going as we planned, we can purpose to praise God despite the way we feel. This primacy of will over emotions is one of the early lessons of the Mass and an essential one for anyone who wants to find happiness in the Church. It runs so very counter to all of the counsels of this age that suggest that our feelings are the greatest guide to reality. In truth, they are the least reliable guide and should often be mistrusted or even ignored.

What is so magnificent about Psalm 42 is that it is a pure expression of yearning for God with no expectation of reward or any other benefit – we seek God for the good which He is in Himself and not ultimately for personal gain. This approach to the altar which begins every Mass in many ways sums up all that follows. We should note that the approach to the altar is always one of happiness and joy, even if the Mass is celebrated in circumstances that are less than joyful or even downright sad. Perhaps it is for this reason that the Syrians call the whole Mass simply Kurobho, “approach.”

St. Ambrose relates the meaning of this psalm to those who have just been baptized: “The cleansed people, rich with these adornments, hastens to the altar of Christ, saying: I will go to the altar of God, to God who makes glad my youth; for having laid aside the slough of ancient error, renewed with an eagle’s youth, it hastens to approach that heavenly feast. It comes, and seeing the holy altar arranged, cries out: You have prepared a table in my sight.”

Most of us approach the altar with our baptism in the relatively distant past but this essential aspect of our Christian identity is of major importance every time we come to Mass. The traditional designation of the ‘Mass of the Catechumens’ and the ‘Mass of the Faithful’ reminds us of what a tremendous privilege it is as those who are baptized to be permitted to remain for the whole accomplishment of the offering of the Sacrifice and even more to approach the altar for the reception of Holy Communion.

These prayers “at the foot of the altar,” as Josef Jungmann explains in his momumental writings on the history of the development of the Mass, only existed after the year 1000. This is because before the eleventh century, as a rule, there were no steps up to the altar—not even a predella or platform. Yet by the ninth century, these prayers had been inserted:“On the way to the altar, Psalm 42 was spoken in common, and upon arrival at the altar, two orations were added in conclusion, one of which is our Aufer a nobis. In witnesses to this particular arrangement of the entry (of the priest at Mass), there are found in addition various apologiae, forerunners of our Confiteor, included in a variety of ways and in an assortment of forms. They are either added at the beginning or inserted somewhere in the middle or subjoined at the end.

This arrangement quickly took the lead over other plans of a similar kind…Very seldom was there any clear transfer of the psalm to the altar steps. Often this transfer occurred because the chasuble was put on the altar, as was the custom especially at private Mass. In other cases the rubric was left indefinite. This diversity of practice corresponded to the variety in spatial arrangements. Often the distance from sacristy to altar was very short. In order not to prevent the psalm’s being said with proper care and to lend it greater importance, it was not begun until the steps were reached. This must have been the origin of the arrangement now found in the Missal of Pius V.”

Although we cannot be confident about the origins of this Psalm and its place in the liturgy of the Mass, we do have the psalm itself which is worthy of careful attention and rewards a close reading. I would like briefly to walk through this psalm with you and offer a little commentary on those phrases which I have high-lighted in your printed hand-outs:

- Judge me, O God
We ask a serious thing when we ask God to judge us because we ask Him to search our heart and discern our truest motives which alone give meaning to our actions. So often we judge others by their actions in the hope that they will judge us by our intentions. Only God has all the information necessary to make such judgments. For this reason, He, and He alone is the judge of all.

- distinguish my cause from the nation that is not holy
We always want it to be clear that we are not just like everyone else but we forget that for God, it is as if we are the only one who exists – He is faithful even when we are faithless!

- deliver me from the unjust
We need God to help and rescue us, particularly form those who will bring about our ruination. Bad company, occasions of sin etc.

- For Thou art, God, my strength
A profession of faith – we need to make them often in the course of the day so that the muscle of faith may be exercised and become strong.

- why do I go sorrowful?
It is easy to be depressed but we have to minister to our emotions speaking faith to our feelings.

- Send forth Thy light and Thy truth
Only God can show us the way, the right path, without His light, we are really lost.

- they have conducted me and brought me unto Thy holy hill
This is where God brings me- to the holy hill which is the altar, the Mass: the one place where we can make sense of all of this confusion and chaos.

- I will go in to the altar of God
This is the future tense of intention and purpose - I have to keep coming here, I have to keep ascending this holy hill – it is the only answer.

- to God Who giveth joy to my youth
God is the only reliable source of happiness, the only true satisfaction for any human heart. So many marriages, relationships and friendships fail because people do not understand that nobody can ultimately satisfy us, only God.

- I will give praise upon the harp
I have to keep singing and not be deterred even when the opposition or discouragement, either from within myself or from others, is very considerable.

- Hope in God
The fundamental virtue of the Christian life – the ability to look beyond our present difficulties and to see a time when all will be well. It is the virtue most obviously demonstrated by the Holy Souls for whom we pray today.

I want to conclude these brief thoughts with a citation from the writings of Pope Benedict XVI, his very particular commentary on a verse from this psalm with he mentions in concluding a sermon he preached on Sexagesima Sunday in 1962 at the first Mass of a newly ordained priest. It is of particularly personal significance for me as I chose to include this citation in the printed program for my first offering of the Traditional Latin Mass, the day after my ordination, twenty-there years ago. It says, far better than I could ever say, what lies at the heart of this word of Scripture:

“and I will come to the altar of God, the God of my joy” (Ps.42:4)

Pope Benedict writes:
We want to ask God that he will always let something of the splendour of this joy, if it is is necessary, fall on our life; that he may give the radiance of this joy ever more deeply and purely to this priest who today for the first time comes before the altar of God; that he will still continually shine upon him when he does so for the last time, when he comes before the altar of eternity in which God shall be the joy of our eternal life, our never-ending youth. Amen.