Explanation of the Ceremonies of Holy Mass, Part 5: Communion and Dismissal

No one was there when Jesus rose from the dead. But he appeared on the evening of His Resurrection to two disciples walking on the Road to Emmaus. They do not recognize Him until He breaks bread with them. In the Mass, no one sees the Resurrection, even in symbol, for no symbol could ever do it justice. But the priest breaks the consecrated bread so that we may recognize the presence of the Crucified and Risen Christ in the Eucharist as surely as the disciples knew Him in the breaking of the bread. Just as the angel, removes the stone from the tomb, the deacon removes the pall from the chalice. The priest breaks the host into three parts, signifying that Christ was in three parts: His body was in the tomb, His Blood poured out upon the earth, and His soul was freeing the just from hell. The priest places one section of the three into the chalice. Jesus’ Body and Blood are reunited in the Resurrection and this commingling of Body and Blood is the eloquent and simple sign of that Resurrection.

All the while, the choir and people sing, Agnus Dei, Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us. The priest raises the Host, the sacrificed Lamb, and exclaims in the words of John the Baptist when he sees Jesus: Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world! The people respond with some of the same words as the Centurion said to Jesus when asking Him to heal his sick child: LORD, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.

The priest consummates the sacrifice by reverently consuming the Host and the Precious Blood, couching that moment of union with his God by preparation and thanksgiving. The sacrifice has been made and consummated. Now the fruits of that sacrifice can be shared with those who have participated in that sacrifice, who have been witnesses to it in faith. The fruits of the sacrifice of redemption are shared in the sacrament of Holy Communion. Baptized faithful who have been taught the faith and are in communion with the Church can approach the altar to commune, become one, with God, through this great sacrament.

The faithful who have mystically participated in the teaching and ministry of Christ in the Liturgy of the Word, in his Passion and Death in the Liturgy of the Eucharist, in his Resurrection through their prayerful and reverent preparation for Communion, now come forward to consummate their union with Christ in the sacrament of Holy Communion. While all of the rites and ceremonies of the Church are now open to all, while all may gaze upon them and participate in them, Holy Communion is not for every one. The Church has always had a strict discipline for who is to be admitted to Holy Communion. Saint Paul admonishes believers, Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the LORD in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning he body and blood of the LORD. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself.

Sacramental communion with God presupposes two things: union with Christ through grace and union with Christ’s Body through the Church. Only baptized and practicing Catholics who are not in the state of mortal sin may approach Communion, and then only if they have been fasting for at least one hour. It is not something to be taken lightly, for it is like passing through fire – a fire which purifies some and makes them shine and which destroys others and compounds their misery.
Just as the priest is consecrated from among men to offer the sacrifice, he is also deputed to administer the sacrament. At ordination his hands are anointed with sacred chrism to set them apart for blessing, consecrating, and administering the mysteries of God. He is the ordinary minister of the Eucharist, and others administer Holy Communion only when licensed by the Bishop to do so in cases where priests are lacking for Communion to be distributed in a timely and reverent manner.
The preferred method for receiving the Host is directly on the tongue. Just as birds open wide their mouths to receive from their mothers all they need to sustain life, the faithful reverently open their mouths and receive the Bread of Life from Christ. For much of history, Christians in the West have received Communion kneeling, that profound symbol of humility and adoration. Where Communion is received standing or in the hand, by the Church’s permission but not by her preference or tradition, care must be taken that no one approaching the sacrament does so out of a sense of right or that it is due to them. We should always approach the altar not like the Pharisee, proudly standing, assured of our own righteousness, but meekly kneeling, beating our breast like the publican, LORD, have mercy on me, a sinner.

When the distribution of Holy Communion is finished, the priest consolidates what is left of the consecrated bread and places it in the tabernacle of the church, that receptacle which recalls the Ark of the Covenant where God’s presence dwelt with the Israelites and in which the Bread of Heaven is kept so that we may visit and adore the LORD’s wondrous presence. The vessels are carefully purified so that not even the slightest particle or drop may remain. The altar is despoiled of the Missal and the sacred vessels, prepared for another celebration of the Divine Sacrifice.

We have seen the true light! We have received the heavenly Spirit! We have found the true Faith! Worshipping the undivided Trinity, who has saved us. The Eastern rites sing this hymn after Holy Communion. Our true faith and worship have brought us to celebrate the mysteries of Christ in the worship of the Trinity. The priest sings a final prayer and then calls down God’s blessing upon us once again through the sign of the life-giving Cross. Recalling the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and Mary at Pentecost, the priest in the person of Christ blesses the faithful disciples in the church gathered at the sacred assembly. They have had the Holy Spirit poured out upon them at Holy Mass so that they can go forth from the church into the world, united to Christ by grace to share what they have witnessed and experienced. The deacon sings, The Mass is ended, go in peace, sending forth the baptized faithful into their mission territory, the world. All sing back to him, Thanks be to God, in one simple phrase summing up the nature of the Eucharistic celebration itself: giving thanks to God for His Sacrifice and for giving us the fruits of His Sacrifice in Holy Mass.

The priest gives a final kiss of gratitude to the altar and genuflects before the Holy Presence before he and his ministers return to the sacristy. Going out of the people’s sight, he enters the place where he vested, just as then Christ ascended into heaven, the clouds took him from the sight of those who gazed upon Him. And tomorrow, the whole drama of the LORD’s sacrifice will be repeated once more and God will be glorified as he has been adored through the Mass at every moment every day until the last priest says the last Mass and the LORD comes to proclaim a new heaven and a new earth.

Explanation of the Ceremonies of Holy Mass Part 4: Offertory and Eucharistic Prayer

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.

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.

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.