The altar must be prepared for the sacrifice. The Missal, the book out of which the priest signs the prayers, is placed on the altar along with the sacred vessels, all made from precious metals. The chalice in which the LORD’s Precious Blood will become present is placed on the altar under a veil. There are many veils in the church, and all of them have the same symbolism. A veil partially or completely covers something, pointing to the fact that what is beneath it is a mystery not entirely accessible to man. Thus, much of what has to do with the sacrifice is veiled. The chalice is veiled. The tabernacle where the Blessed Sacrament is veiled, like the tabernacle of old. Inside the tabernacle are to be found veils, which symbolise the veil separating the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple. The ciborium which contains the Sacred Host has a veil on it after the hosts inside are consecrated.
Saint Paul in even instructs women to veil their heads when they pray: any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled dishonours her head . . . a woman ought to have a veil over her head because of the angels . . . if anyone is disposed to be contentious, we recognize no other practice, nor do the churches of God.
The altar itself is often veiled with an antependium, a covering over the whole altar. In the Middle Ages a large veil called the hunger veil hid the entire sanctuary from the people at Mass during Lent, to highlight the separation of man from God by sin. In the East, an iconostasis, a large wall covered with holy images, blocks the view of the people so that they may not gaze on the mysteries and have contempt for them. In the West, rood screens and grilles are often seen in churches to underscore that God and the things of God are sacred, removed from the profane, wholly other. The language of Latin also serves as a veil; the words which are used in sacred worship are different than ordinary words, consecrated for divine use to emphasize that the actions that are taking place now are truly from another world.
In ancient times, the faithful often made the bread and wine for Mass and brought them, along with all kinds of gifts for the poor and the needy, to the altar. The deacons would distribute them from the altar while the priest went with the bread and wine to the altar. In the Ordinary Form it is common to have a procession during which monetary offerings for the good of the parish are brought up along with the bread and wine for the Eucharist. The bread is unleavened, just like the bread used by Christ at the Last Supper on Passover. The wine is ordinary wine made from grapes with nothing else added or taken away. The bread is fashioned into smaller and larger hosts. The word host comes from the Latin hostia, victim, because the bread of the host then becomes Christ who is both Priest and Victim. A larger host is placed on a paten, a large dish, and smaller hosts in ciboria.
In the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, the subdeacon takes the paten away from the altar and stands with it wrapped in a humeral veil placed around his shoulders. During the entire Eucharistic Prayer, he stands with the paten over his face, to symbolise the cherubim who covered their faces from the Divine Presence in the Book of Ezekiel, again calling to mind the mystery of the God hidden underneath the sacramental veils of bread and wine.
The priest and deacon prepare the chalice with wine, careful to use a purificator, a linen cloth, to wipe away drops which adhere to the sides of the chalice, A small quantity of water, no more than a drop, is added to the wine. The wine is a symbol of Christ, and is not blessed. The water symbolizes us, and is blessed before it is placed in the wine, just as by baptism in water we are blessed in Christ and then submerged into his divine life. When water is mixed with wine in the chalice, the people are united to Christ. The sacred vessels are placed on another linen cloth called a corporal, from the Latin corpus, or body, because the Body of Christ will become present in the Host which rests upon it. The chalice is covered by a rigid piece of cloth to protect it called a pall, the same word used for the covering of a coffin at a funeral Mass. Everything on the altar at this moment makes reference to the death of Christ, which the Mass commemorates. The round paten is the stone rolled over the tomb. The Chalice is the sepulcher. The purificator and pall are the winding sheets and the veil used to cover the face of Jesus in the tomb. The stage is set for the Sacrifice of Calvary to be re-enacted in an unbloody manner.
These gifts of bread and wine, work of human hands, are now set apart from any use other than that of sacrifice. In the temple in Jerusalem, there were three sacred spaces, an altar of incense, an altar of bread and the Holy of Holies. The church melds all three sacred spaces onto the altar which is the Cross on which Christ is sacrificed and upon which bread and wine are transubstantiated into the Body and Blood of Christ. The priest imposes incense in the thurible once more. In the Extraordinary Form, he asks the blessing, not of the angel standing at the right hand of the altar in heaven in John’s dream of the Apocalypse, but of the Archangel Michael, the prince of the heavenly hosts. Just as the Cross was the battle by which Christ vanquished the Father of Lies and the Prince of Darkness, the Church invokes the blessing of him who offers us protection from the wickedness and snares of the Devil as our prayers ascend before the Father on His Celestial Throne. The priest incenses the gifts, the Cross, the altar, all in groups of three, which recalls the three comings of Mary Magdalene to anoint the LORD with aromatic spices: at the house of Simon the Pharisee, t the house of Simon the Leper, and at the empty tomb.
The priest is then incensed, and one by one, every one in the sanctuary is also incensed in order of rank, and then the faithful assembled in the church. This hierarchical incensation is a reminder of the hierarchical nature of the Church. Just as there are nine choirs of angels, there is a hierarchy in the order of grace and in the order of nature.
When the priest has been incensed, while the thurifer incenses others in the church, filling it with the smoke which hearkens back to the pillar of cloud in the Book of Exodus which guided the people of Israel and the fragrance of holiness, the priest washes his hands. In ancient times, the priest frequently became dirty from handling all of the material gifts the people brought at Mass and the use of incense. Now, it is generally a ceremonial washing. But it is still important. As the priest quietly prays, Wash me, O LORD, from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin, he reminds himself that he must be entirely pure to be admitted into the presence of the LORD and that his life must be coherent with his preaching. He returns to the altar, the words of Psalm 26 accompanying his movement, I wash my hands in innocence, and go about thy altar, O LORD.
The priest invites the people, Pray, brethren that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father. The sacrifice of the priest is different from, although not unrelated, to that of the people. Only a priest can offer sacrifice; only a priest can celebrate the Mass because he is ordained by God to do so. He offers the sacrifice in the person of Christ the Head. Yet, where the head is, so too the Body, and the faithful unite the sacrifice of their praise and their lives with the action on the altar.
After saying another prayer, the priest engages in a dialogue with the people that is present in all forms of worship from all times. He shouts out, Lift up your hearts and raises his hands from where they have been resting on the corporal in that priestly gesture of prayer. He then bows low before the Divine Majesty as he says, Let us give thanks to the LORD our God. The moment of sacrifice has arrived, the death of Christ comes upon us. But it is not a sad and tremendous occasion as it was on Calvary. We look upon the unbloody re-enanctment of this one sacrifice with great joy as the price for our redemption, paid once for all on a green hill far away, is made present in the here and now of our lives. And we rejoice as the priest prays the Preface, a prayer to recall to us the mystery of salvation, sung according to the same melodies the Greeks used to welcome their heroes home fro the Olympic Games. The priest calls upon the angels and the saints to be present on the altar before the choir representing the blessed in heaven along with the Church militant on earth and the Church suffering in purgatory all cry out, Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus.
Holy, Holy, Holy LORD, God of hosts, heaven and earth are filled with your glory. The heavens open to unite themselves with earth and the cry of the angels in the Book of Revelation becomes ours as we proclaim the awesome majesty of God. We cannot help but cry out in the primitive language of the Church, Hosanna, save us, the Hebrew invocation to Jesus as he rode triumphantly amidst palm and olive branches into Jerusalem. The veiled vision of the glory of God inspires us to call out to Him to save us and we are reminded of that great truth, Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD, affirming that the man who has faith to come to God to ask for mercy has is truly blessed in this moment when the doors to heaven are mystically opened to the believer in the Mass.
Part 5: The Eucharistic Prayer
Holy Thursday meets Good Friday in the most sacred part of the Mass, the Eucharistic Prayer. This prayer of consecration changes bread and wine into Christ Himself. This is the kernel of the Mass, the actual sacrifice. Christ bent over bread and wine during a Passover meal and said, This is my Body, which is given up for you, the same body which would be given up for men the next day on the Cross .
Christ’s actions on that first Holy Thursday night were not yet another re-enactment of the traditional Jewish Passover meal. There was something different about this meal, as evidenced by how Jesus celebrated it. Christ gives the definitive meaning to this meal only the next day, when he dies. The sacrifice of Christ, which is ordered to be commemorated by the memorial of eating bread and drinking wine which is His Body and Blood, is the fulfillment of Passover, the passing over of Christ from death to life in the Resurrection.
What happens in the Eucharistic Prayer is no more an exact replica of the Last Supper meal than Jesus exactly replicated the Passover meal. In fact, what is called the Institution Narrative, the words that surround the consecration of the bread and wine, are not taken exactly from the scriptures at all, but is an amalgamation of scriptural texts into the form of the sacrament. The reality is that what Christ did is commemorated in a way which makes the entire Christ present, Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, under the outward appearances of bread and wine.
Up until the liturgical reforms after Vatican II, the entire Eucharistic Prayer was said in silence. The priest never turned to face the people, intent on contemplating the divine alone, and raised his voice only seven times from the beginning of the Offertory until Communion, reminiscent of the seven words of Jesus from the Cross. The entire church was plunged into silence, rapt in the mystery of what was happening before them. The silence is there, not to obscure the prayer, but to draw attention to the fact that Christ is doing something on our behalf which is beyond our rational comprehension, it is something to be submitted to in faith.
The text of the first Eucharistic Prayer, or Roman Canon, was fixed already by the end of the second century. In the Ordinary Form of the Mass it is heard aloud, as are the new Eucharistic prayers introduced in 1970. During the first part of the Canon, the Church prays that the LORD will accept the gifts, offerings, unspotted sacrifices she offers to Him. She then prays for the living and remembers the apostles and martyrs before beseeching the LORD to accept this offering as a sacrifice to deliver the elect from eternal damnation.
Then something wonderful happens. The priest then spreads his hands over the gifts of bread and wine. Just as the priests of the Old Law placed their hands on animal sacrifices to set them apart and sacrifice them to the LORD, the priests of the New Covenant do the same to the bread and wine, praying the Father that they become the Body and Blood of His Son, Jesus. This moment of the Mass is called the Epiclesis, the invocation of the Holy Spirit who will change the elements into God Himself. The graceful motion by which the priest’s hands flutter over the gifts symbolizes the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the gifts to change them.
The priest then proceeds to the Institution Narrative, the Consecration. The bread and wine are consecrated separately just as they were at the Last Supper, using the very words of Our LORD as appear in the scriptures, although not in any one place. After each consecratory formula, the priest holds the element aloft for the faithful to see. The Body of Christ under the form of bread is showed to the faithful so that they may be stirred to devotion and hope in their salvation. As the LORD said, If I be lifted up from the earth, I will draw all things to Myself, and He brings to Himself at that moment all who gaze upon Him with living faith under the sacramental veils of bread and wine. The priest replaces the Host and the Chalice on the corporal, and genuflects: he bends the knee in adoration before the Divine Majesty.
The priest continues to pray that this sacrifice may be carried to the Father in glory and that all who participate in the sacrifice may be blessed. He remembers all the holy dead who sleep in hope of the resurrection, the souls in purgatory. Then, remembering his own sinfulness, the priest asks on behalf of the people that the LORD will remember all sinners and grant them entrance into the heavenly Kingdom. After Christ died, the centurion beat his breast and said, Truly, this is the Son of God and the priest does likewise, showing forth the humility of the sinner before the great sacrifice of Christ which he has just witnessed by touching his heart with a sign of repentance.
The Canon ended, the sacrifice is over. At this moment the Church dare not invent a prayer as she stands beneath the Cross of Jesus. Her sins taken away by the Passion and Death of Christ just re-presented, all the Church can do is pray the words that her LORD taught her to pray: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy Name. This LORD’s Prayer contains seven petitions, and symbolises the seventh day of the week, when Jesus rested in the tomb. The priest prays the Embolism, Deliver us, LORD, from every evil, afterwards; in the Extraordinary Form it is prayed in the silence of the sepulcher. The Church awaits the Resurrection.