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Exploring the Mass

The annual unfolding of the Church’s liturgical year from Advent to Pentecost and into Ordinary Time is something we need in order to make sense of our lives. The gentle rhythms, the ebbs and flows of each liturgical year make present the rhythms of Jesus’ own life even as they reflect the rhythms of our own lives, and they have power to shape our thinking, to color our outlook, and to make sense of our sorrows as well as of our joys.

Father Michael G. Ryan

Called to Worship

    “It’s Sunday morning. You decide to go to Mass. Or rather, God decides for you. God draws each of us out of our solitude and isolation, and makes us into a people that lives by faith and whose unity is Christ,” writes Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, the recently-retired Archbishop of Paris. “Yes, we should consider it a grace of God to have been ‘chosen’ to be members of the People of God, ‘to serve in his presence,’ to be gathered into his Church, the Body of Christ.”

    We come to Mass not because we happen to have time or because we feel like it or because we have to. We come in response to a call. In coming to Mass, Sunday after Sunday, we are letting ourselves be gathered by God.

    In gathering his people together, God makes his Church visible. For, writes liturgical musician and theologian Lucien Deiss, “as long as ‘Michael, John, Monica and Jane’ met outside of the Church… they formed the body of Christ, but in an invisible manner. They remained dispersed in their multiple personal occupations; sometimes they barricaded themselves in their individual royal autonomy. Now when they gather together in the Church, they form the visible Body of Christ.” Disparate individuals become something altogether new. They become a community entrusted with a task that no one else can accomplish for them: to be the Body of Christ in this place, at this time. The whole is infinitely greater than its parts.

The Entrance

    I like to think that the entrance procession really begins at 6:30am on Sunday morning, when one of our faithful sacristans arrives to turn on the lights and open the Cathedral’s doors. This great procession continues as the faithful arrive from every direction – on foot, by car, by bus, by taxi, by van, even by ferry! – greet one another, and take their places in the church. This is the great entrance procession—the vested ministers simply bring up the rear! The formal entrance is in one sense an emblem of what has already begun to happen: it is “a visual expression of the people becoming a liturgical community” (Johnson).

    But, of course, there is more, because the procession is not just about us. It’s about Christ’s living presence in our midst. As the cross enters the church, we stand: the simplest possible gesture, and yet a powerful sign of attention and respect. We’ve already seen that it is God himself who gathers us here, though we may think we arrive on our own steam. And in spite of what liturgy directors might say to the contrary, it is Christ who directs the procession! The cross leads us, and the solemn, deliberate pace reminds us that the pilgrim people of God have nothing to fear: their destination is sure and their guide cannot go astray. Candles are signs of a living presence; and the candles carried with the cross remind us that the cross we adore is a living cross, a flowering tree, alive and life-giving.

    The procession points to other signs of Christ as well. Servers also carry candles around the Book of the Gospels, because, as the Second Vatican Council teaches us, “Christ himself speaks when the scriptures are proclaimed in the Church.” A stunning statement, if we let it sink in! In many of the Eastern Rite churches, the entrance of the Gospel book overshadowed the entrance of the ministers, to become the primary procession in the liturgy, as the very “Wisdom” of God is carried in and shown to the people.

    The priest presider is another sign of Christ’s presence. This is perhaps most obvious in the vestments he wears. As a fourth century commentator wrote, “their outer garb is more sublime than they are”: the presider “does not wear his usual clothing nor does he wear his ordinary outer garment; a vestment of fine, bright linen envelops him.” The vestment is an outward sign of an interior reality, the sacrament by which the priest is enabled to act in persona Christi, in the person of Christ, in the celebration of the Eucharist.

    The priest’s very first gesture, before he says a word, is to reverence the altar with a kiss: “before the entire community he manifests his love and his adoration toward Christ the Lord who seduced his heart” (Deiss). As Msgr. Joseph Champlin points out, this gesture arose at about the same time as the custom of placing relics of the saints and martyrs in the altar; “the kiss, therefore, is a special and solemn gesture of reverence for Christ, [and] for his special followers enshrined in the altar.” It reminds us that we are part of the great communion of saints; and when we gather to celebrate the Eucharist, we are already one in prayer with those who have joined the liturgy of heaven.

    The priest is the last to enter, for when he “joins the celebrating community, the Church, the Body of the risen Lord, with its head and its members, is signified in its totality” (Deiss).

A splendid entrance
Hippo, North Africa, Easter Sunday, 426. Two young people, a brother and sister, have been miraculously cured.

“On all sides, the church was filled with cries of joy and thanksgiving. We came forward toward the people.  The church was full: it resounded with cries of joy: Thanks be to God! Praise be to God! No one stays quiet; from the right, from the left, rose up cries! I greeted the people. The acclamation started again with redoubled intensity. Finally silence was established, and the passage from the Holy Scriptures was read which dealt with the feast.”

St. Augustine

Powerful Songs

    The song that accompanies the entrance of the ministers is an essential part of the gathering of the people of God. It doesn’t simply set the mood or explain the theme of the day (though it can do both of these); it accomplishes something. “It is the first liturgical action of a people among whom Christ is active and present…. Its role is to integrate” all—ministers and assembly—into the mystery (Johnson). Communal singing sounds like unity; and it helps to effect it. As the people join together in song, says Cardinal Lustiger, “a communion of prayer and adoration is formed between men and women until then separated and often strangers to one another. Together, with one heart, they begin to sing to God, the same acclamation or supplication.”

    There is good singing and bad singing, of course; but the Church makes it clear that there is no substitute for singing in divine worship. As the great Methodist preacher and composer John Wesley said, “Sing… let not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If singing is a cross to you, take it up, and you will find it a blessing. Sing lustily and with a good courage.” Wesley knew that those who have sung and prayed together are no longer strangers: they have begun to experience their oneness in Christ. And St. Augustine felt the same way. “How I wept,” he wrote, “deeply moved by your hymns, songs, and the voices that echoed through your Church! What emotion I experienced in them! Those sounds flowed into my ears, distilling the truth in my heart. A feeling of devotion surged within me, and tears streamed down my face—tears that did me good.”

Continue on to: Introductory Rites – the Sign of the Cross; the Penitential Rite; the Gloria; the Opening Prayer.

Some excellent books for further reading:

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (see especially Nos. 1077-1112).
Joseph Champlin. The Mystery and Meaning of the Mass.
Lucien Deiss. The Mass.
Lawrence J. Johnson. The Mystery of Faith: A Study of the Structural Elements of the Mass.
Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger. The Mass.
A. G. Martimort, Ed. The Church at Prayer.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI). The Spirit of the Liturgy.
Sacrosanctum Concilium: The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council.

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Seattle, Washington  98104
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