Explanation of the Ceremonies of Holy Mass Part 2: I will go to the Altar of God

Today there is an option to sing man-made hymns chosen by the priest or a parish staff member during Mass. But the Church has always appointed texts from the Psalms to accompany ritual actions at Mass. The Introit, or Entrance Antiphon, is taken from the Psalms and other scriptural texts to proclaim the theme of this particular celebration of the mysteries of divine life. The Church has never believed in singing at the Mass or praying at the Mass; the Church sings and prays the Mass. At the beginning of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the sacred ministers and those who serve them make their way in a dignified procession to the altar. A thurifer leads the procession with a smoking vessel of incense called a thurible. The smoke of the incense symbolizes our prayers rising to God and has since antiquity been a sign of homage to holy people and holy things.
 
Another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of the saints upon the golden altar before the throne; and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints from the hand of the angel before God. Then the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth.[1]

Behind the thurifer comes the crucifer, who holds aloft before our eyes the image of Christ who came to save us. Just as the Israelites wandering through the desert looked upon the image of a bronze serpent and were healed of their illnesses, Christians gaze upon the likeness of the Crucified and are stirred to devotion, to reverence and to prayer. The crucifer is accompanied by two candlebearers, who carry lights that symbolize Christ, the light of the world who pierces the darkness of sin and death, lights given from candles blessed on the Feast of the Presentation of the Infant Jesus in the temple on 2 February, made from the wax of bees who work diligently like Christians at their appointed task. Other servers, representatives of the faithful at the Sacrifice, process as so many saints to the Throne of Grace. A deacon, the servant of the priest and the Church, clad like the priest except for his dalmatic of joy and gladness, enters, holding before him the beautifully bound Book of the Gospels to place upon the altar. The priest enters the church as Jesus rides into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, amidst great joy and Hosannas, always mindful of the awe-inspiring events which will take place in this holy place.

 The priest arrives at the foot of the altar. In ancient times, he did not enter the Holy of Holies, the sanctuary of the Church, until he had taken off his biretta as a sign of submission to God and genuflected to Christ in the Blessed Sacrament reserved in the sanctuary. He would recite with the ministers the words of Psalm 42, I will go to the altar of God, to God the joy of my youth and then recite a formula for the confession of his sins.

The priest then, right foot first, enters the inner precinct of the sanctuary. In the temple of Jerusalem, only the High Priest could enter the inner sanctum once a year, and say the name of God. Now the minister of the Eternal High Priest, Jesus Christ, enters into the holy place another Christ, so that God may become present amongst men and dwell within their hearts.

In the sanctuary there is a table. This is no ordinary table for an ordinary meal; it is an altar of sacrifice and the table of Passover. The Jewish ritual of the Passover meal and the sacrifices in the temple of Jerusalem find their fulfillment on the altar of the wood of the Cross on which was sacrificed the Lamb of God. The altar of the Mystical Sacrifice of the Mass is of wood or of marble, but it represents Christ in His tomb.

The altar is covered with three fair linen cloths, which symbolize the winding sheets in which Christ was placed in the tomb. Christians from earliest times celebrated Mass in altars raised over the remains of those who gave their lives as witnesses to the faith, sacrificing their lives because of their belief in the sacrifice of Christ. Today the Church places relics, physical remains of or objects belonging to the saints, to remind us of the connection between the sacrifice of the Eucharist and the sacrifice of those who are nourished by the Eucharist.

Behind the altar is always to be found an image of the Crucified Christ. This image is a powerful reminder of the unity between the sacrifice of Calvary and the sacrifice of the Mass. When Christ died on the Cross, he faced outward to the West. Since the beginning of the Church, Christians have prayed facing east, facing Christ who died gazing at them and whom tradition holds will come again at the end of time, from the east. The universal custom of the Church has always been for priest and people to face, if not directional East, at least liturgical East, at Mass, indicated by the image of the Crucified. Only two exceptions are known: in Rome, the ancient basilicas were built westward facing, so the priest stood behind the altar people actually turned their backs to the altar to face East during the consecration of the Mass; and now, in many places in the West, where Mass is celebrated facing the people so they may see the rites on the altar. The eastward position is not so that the priest can have his back to the people; on the contrary, it is so that priest and people may be together on the same side of the altar, worshipping the LORD together and awaiting His Second Coming.

In the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, also referred to as the Old Latin Mass, the priest prayed as he approached the altar,

Take away from us our iniquities, we implore Thee, Lord, that with pure minds we may worthily enter into the holy of holies: through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Now as then, he kisses the Altar, the symbol of Christ. In the Extraordinary Form he prays,

We implore You, Lord, by the merits of all Thy Saints, whose relics are here, and of all the Saints, that thou wouldst deign to forgive me all my sins. Amen.

The Mass is not just a celebration for the men and women physically present in the church; it is a celebration of the entire celestial court, and the priest calls on the saints to assist him in his ministry to the People of God. He kisses the altar to make reparation for the traitorous kiss of Christ. He kisses the altar to remind us all of the intimate relationship between God and the soul professed by the Beloved in the Song of Songs, Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth. The Mass is more than an act of worship; it is that intimate kiss of love between Christ and His Bride, the Church, a kiss by which new life is generated and death overcome by the Resurrection.

In the Extraordinary Form, the priest-celebrant assists at most of the Mass from his position at the altar. Only a Bishop would preside from a throne set off to the side. In the Ordinary Form, after the priest or bishop reverences the altar he goes to a special chair off to the side. Chairs in the ancient world were a symbol of authority. When Jesus explained the scriptures in the synagogue where the Jews gathered to study the Word, he sat and taught from a chair. A bishop’s church is called a cathedral because the Bishop teaches sitting in a large throne-like, called a cathedra in Latin. Today, priests have smaller and less ornate chairs than Bishops, but the principle is the same: the one who is seated has authority to teach.


[1] Revelation 8.3-5

Explanation of the Ceremonies of Holy Mass, Part I: Before Holy Mass

Sunday is the LORD’s Day. Christians rise with the sun on the eighth day, the first new day of a new age of the Resurrection, and go to buildings which have been set apart for divine worship by the name church. They are called church because it is the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church, which assembles there in the presence of God just as the twelve tribes of Israel assembled at the foot of Mt Sinai to receive the Law and came to the temple in Jerusalem to offer sacrifices to ask God to forgive their sins. Christians come to celebrate the sacrament of the Eucharist, a word which means thanksgiving, in the context of a liturgy filled with rites and ceremonies called the Mass.

Every baptized Christian becomes a member of the Church when water and the Holy Spirit are poured over him at baptism. And so the Christian enters the church building just as he entered the Church through baptism, taking holy water as a reminder of his baptism and tracing upon himself the Sign of the Cross which brought about his insertion into the life of the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit whose Name he invokes.

The Christian finds a space in an assembly where there are no divisions between rich and poor, races or social class. When he crosses the threshold of the church from the outside world into the church, he leaves behind all earthly cares to enter into a foretaste of the Heavenly Jerusalem, the place where heaven meets earth at this Mystical Banquet. Jesus Christ reigns in the church as surely as He reigns in heavens, from his throne in the tabernacle, where He waits for us to come and worship and adore Him. We enter the church and gaze at Christ who waits for us in the tabernacle and we touch the right knee to the ground in a simple act of adoration to Him who is worshipped by the angels and saints and by men. At the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow. We prepare for Mass by kneeling, a symbol of our own submission to the will of God. We make prayers of adoration, contrition, thanksgiving and supplication. We silently prepare ourselves for the re-enactment of the drama of Calvary, to receive the fruits of the one sacrifice offered to the Father for the salvation of men.

The priest, a man ordained to offer sacrifice for the living and the dead, has no other reason to exist than to make present in the here and now the same sacrifice that the LORD accomplished on the Cross, and to give to us the fruits of that sacrifice. Every day he offers the Mass, so that at every moment somewhere in the world there is the one sacrifice of redemption is celebrated in ritual forms and under symbolic guise, from the rising of the sun to its setting, and throughout the watches of the night.

The priest enters the sacristy clad in his black cassock, a sign of his renunciation of the world and of penance for his sins. He washes his hands and prays,

CLEANSE my hands, O Lord, from all stain, that, pure in mind and body, I may be worthy to serve Thee.

Just as the priests of the Old Testament purified the hands that would offer sacrifices of animals and plants, the priest of the New and Eternal Covenant washes his hands as a symbol of a prayer that he may be worthy to offer the last sacrifice for the People of God. The priest then puts on vestments reminiscent of those worn by the priests of the temple and the doctors of the law. Adore the LORD in holy attire, the Psalmist says, and the priest, putting on these special clothes, reminds himself that what he is doing is no ordinary, everyday action, but the Act by which Jesus redeems and saves us. He makes the Sign of the Cross and picks up the amice, a linen cloth held by strings evoking the prayer shawls of Jewish men, and prays, PLACE, O Lord, the helmet of Salvation upon my head to repel the assaults of the Devil.

Satan hates the Mass, because by that sacrifice commemorated here his reign over the hearts of men was destroyed, and so he seeks to distract the priest from his noble task and draw him into hell with the damned. Undaunted, the priest picks up the alb, a white garment stretching to the feet which reminds him of the pure white robe given to him at baptism as a symbol of his restored innocence. The word alb comes from the Latin word alba, which means white. When St John had his vision of the end of the world, he saw a multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb![1] The priest standing in the place of the people, appears before them a sign of the blessed in heaven praising the Lamb slain for them in this sacrifice, and prays,

CLEANSE me, O Lord, and purify my heart, that, being made white in the Blood of the Lamb, I may attain everlasting joy.

The priest then puts the cincture around his waist,

GIRD me, O Lord, with the girdle of purity and quench in me the fire of concupiscence, that the grace of temperance and chastity may abide in me.

He is reminded that he is a sinful man, prone to the lusts of the flesh as any man, but called to a life of angelic chastity for the love of souls. As Jesus said to the Apostle Peter, he says now to the priest, When you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.[2] Christ reminds the priest that he is promised to an obedience which transcends his own desires, a sacrifice willingly undertaken for love of souls. In ancient times, the priest put on his left arm a maniple, a handkerchief to wipe his sweaty brow during the Mass, and he prayed,

GRANT me, O Lord, to bear the light burden of grief and sorrow, that I may with gladness take the reward of my labor.

The priest’s life is one of hard work and solitude, so he asks for the strength to live the life Christ has asked him to live. GIVE me again, O Lord, the stole of immortality, which I lost by the transgression of my first parents, and although I am unworthy to come unto Thy Holy Sacrament, grant that I may attain everlasting felicity. This man of obedience, this man of sorrows, kisses and places round his neck a stole, a long, narrow piece of cloth. Roman government officials wore stoles as signs of their authority, and the priest, who has the authority from God to teach, sanctify and govern, wears this ancient emblem of office whenever he celebrates a sacrament. But more important than authority, however legitimate, is love, and so the priest covers the stole and everything else with the chasuble, from the Latin word casula, or little house, signifying that charity is to cover all else in the priest’s life. He prays, LORD, who hast said, My yoke is easy, and My burden is light, grant that I may so bear it, as to attain Thy grace. Amen. The priest may then put on his headcovering, the biretta. Having its origin in the Middle Ages as a scholar’s cover, the priest must be learned in the sacred sciences, so it is appropriate that he wear the sign of that learning in church.

The priest spends time in silent preparation for what he is about to do. When the time has come, he bows to the Cross in the sacristy, as just as the Word made Flesh came forth from the body of the Virgin into the world, the Word’s herald comes vested in the ancient garments of tradition from the womb of the sacristy into the Church, the Body of Christ given for the life of the world. He rings a bell as a sign that the drama of Calvary is about to begin, and everyone is ready to witness its power and glory.


[1] Revelation 7.9-10
[2] John 21.18

Lessons in Liturgical Music from France

When I was a student at Christendom College, one of the things that drove my chant maestro, the indomitable Fr Robert Skeris, crazy, was when I would absent myself from the schola on a Sunday morning to indulge in liturgical tourism. Now that I am a student once again, without any parochial responsibilities or musical ones, I can engage in this little vice to my heart’s content. Whether my heart is content with what I have seen and heard is another matter, but that’s for another posting! Right now, I am enjoying the city of Montpellier, where I am busy perfecting my French and enjoying a little bit of Languedoc for the summer.

I have already made the round of the city’s most important churches, and I have found a similar situation in all of them, with two notable exceptions. Congenial clergy preside over basically rubrically correct liturgies of standard Ordinary Form fare; lots of singing of orations and active participation of the part of the people. But how few people there are! I tried to help out a superb cantress at a daily Vesper service at the Cathedral; she and I, in my poor French, sang the psalms as a couple of other dedicated layfolk tried to sing with us. I have found the few and the proud, mostly older, but very sincere, to be a refreshing change from the unadulterated secularism of my European schoolmates. But I also have found it interesting to see how the clergy often give cues to everyone what to sing, when to sing, and how to sing, from the people in the pews to the organist in the loft. That’s when there is not a young woman in the sanctuary with a guitar being prodded by Monsieur l’Abbe on when to do what. I have come away from these Masses wondering why everyone needs to always be told what to do all the time. Maybe they do, but I am thinking perhaps not.
There are two lovely exceptions to what seems to be the rule. The Dominican church has a late-night Mass that is filled with students and young adults. The Dominican Fathers concelebrate and a young priest directs a student chorale in the music of Andre Gouzes of the Abbey of Sylvanes. The music is certainly very prayerful, very much in what I have come to describe in my non-musical way as “Russian polyphony with a Taize feel to it in French.” Still the desire to direct everything and tell the organist up in the loft what to do, but at least a church filled with the young who do actually sing, in parts, the simple parts of the Mass and the “chorales” with verse and refrain that stand in for the Propers.
The other exception has been St Matthieu, a church given over to the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite under the care of the Institute of Christ the King. The Institute’s noted penchant for Baroque vestments and Solesmes chant continues here. But absent is the stuffiness and military precision which characterise some some of the EF places. A mixed schola ably executes the Propers, and the people sing the responses and the Missa de Angelis well. It has been interesting to hear religious scouting songs sung in French during the Mass, the enthusiasm for which is only broken by the sound of so many children doing what children do best at Mass: join their voices with the chorus of praise going on around them, albeit not necessarily to a tune found in nature.
I do not intend on making my contributions to this blog a travelogue of interesting experiences, as if I were some kind of modern Euro-American version of Egeria describing late-antique Jerusalem. But sometimes sharing what others are doing for the sacred around the world is a good thing. We can learn a lot about what to do (attract young people to Mass by music done well) and also what not to do (direct the choir from the altar, maybe?). Either way, the Mass is celebrated, God shines His graces upon us, and the mystery of Redemption continues to break in on our lives in the most surprising of ways – all around this world.