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.
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.