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Exploring the Mass

The Power of Sunday  It is the year 304. The Emperor Diocletian has forbidden Christians, on pain of death, to read the Scriptures, to celebrate the Eucharist, or to build places of worship. Nevertheless, one Sunday morning, some Christians are found breaking the bread together in a private home in Abitene, a village in present-day Tunisia. All 49 of them are arrested and dragged before the imperial authorities at Carthage. The proconsul interrogates them, asking how they dare to defy the orders of the Emperor. One of the Christians, Emeritus by name, replies simply: “sine dominico non possumus.” Without Sunday, we cannot live.

The Sign of the Cross

    At the very beginning of Mass, each member of the assembly—the priest along with the people—blesses himself with the sign of the cross. “The most basic Christian gesture in prayer is and always will be the sign of the Cross,” wrote Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) in 2000. “It is a way of confessing Christ crucified with one’s very body.” In making the sign of the cross as we begin our liturgical celebrations, not hastily, but slowly and with reverent awareness, we say, without uttering a word, who we really are; we utter “a visible and public Yes to him who suffered for us” (Ratzinger).

    The sign of the cross is also a statement of belief, our most fundamental one: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” We profess our faith in and invoke the protection of the blessed Trinity. These words also recall the sacrament that has gathered us into God’s family and brought us together in prayer and praise: the sacrament of baptism. For each of us was baptized “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Thus from the very beginning of Mass, we pray in the awareness of the cross of Christ, of the saving sacrifice it represents, and of our own share in that sacrifice through baptism. “We do not come to the liturgy… seeking the peace of Christ in order to avoid the cross,” writes contemporary spiritual writer Mark Nielsen, “but to find the strength and courage to embrace whatever is God’s will for us each day.”

The Greeting

    The greeting can take various forms, the most common of which is “The Lord be with you. And also with you.” This is not a liturgical way of saying “Good morning, how are you?” Rather, this simple formula “expresses the very mystery of Jesus, Emmanuel, that is, ‘God with us’” (Deiss). Cardinal Lustiger writes: “it is the ‘condensed version,’ so to speak, of the Covenant of God” with Moses, the God who in choosing a people for himself gave them the gift of his own presence. And it is a reminder, too, of those farewell words of Jesus: “Behold, I am with you always.” In confidence, then, the Church can say, “The Lord be with you. And also with you.”

Penitential Rite

    “The Church… clasping sinners to her bosom, at once holy and always in need of purification, follows constantly the path of penance and renewal” (Lumen Gentium, 1964). In the penitential rite, the Church itself, in its members, asks forgiveness and praises the God of mercy. This rite is not a “mini-confession,” nor are we expected to do an extensive examination of conscience at this moment in the Mass. This rite is not “a type of doormat where we wipe our feet before entering the sanctuary of God’s holiness,” as Lucien Deiss memorably puts it: i.e., we get the penitential part of the Mass out of the way before moving on to the joy of the Gloria. For the rhythm of penance and praise which we hear in the Penitential Rite will be repeated over and over in the Mass. Forgiveness, after all, is at the very heart of the Eucharist: at the moment of the consecration we hear that Christ’s blood “will be shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven.”

    There are several different forms for the penitential rite, and in the course of the year we pray almost all of them at St. James Cathedral. There is the Confiteor, the I confess. In this great prayer of confession, which we recite together, each one of us in the first person, we acknowledge that sin is not only personal—it is communal. The wrong I do diminishes me, and it diminishes the community of which I am a part. And so I acknowledge that I have sinned in thought, in word, in action, in failure to act—before God and before “my brothers and sisters.” And I invoke the prayers of the whole communion of saints—“blessed Mary, ever-Virgin, all the angels and saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God.”

    The penitential rite can also take the form of a litany, with invocations addressed to Christ, with the response “Lord, have mercy,” or, in Greek, “Kyrie eleison.” These invocations are less about us—our failures and shortcomings—than they are bursts of praise for the incredible mercy of God in Jesus Christ. “You came to call sinners.” “You plead for us.” “You heal the wounds of sin and division.” “You bring pardon and peace.” “You bring light to those in darkness.” “You give us yourself.” “You raise us to new life.” We are reminded that God—like the father of the prodigal son—runs to meet us when we turn towards him, even if we are “still a long way off.”

    The penitential rite can be replaced at times, especially in the Easter season, with the sprinkling rite, which powerfully reminds us of our baptism. The prayers for the blessing of water are also prayers for forgiveness. “Renew the living spring of your life within us that we may be free from sin.” “Bless this water: as we use it in faith forgive our sins and safe us from all illness and the power of evil…. admit us to your presence in purity of heart.” In a way, the penitential rite is always a sprinkling rite, in the sense that no matter which form this rite takes it is a reminder of baptism—the first sacrament of forgiveness.

Gloria in excelsis Deo

    Immediately following the absolution, the Gloria bursts into the liturgy. The Gloria is among the most ancient songs of the Christian people. It began as a hymn for the office of Morning Prayer, but gradually made its way into the Mass. At first it was sung only by bishops on special occasions (particularly Christmas); but gradually it came to be sung by the people with the presider on all Sundays, except in Advent and Lent.

    The Gloria is a hymn, an ode, “a symphony,” as Deiss calls it, in which the “dominant note… is the jubilation of praise.” It begins with the song the angels sang on the first Christmas night—“Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth”—and then comes a kind of rhapsody, as words and phrases “come crowding from the fullness of our hearts” (Lustiger). The Latin text is even richer than our English translation. It seems to be trying to exhaust the very vocabulary of praise: “Laudamus te. Benedicimus te. Adoramus te. Glorificamus te. Gratias agimus tibi.” We praise, bless, adore, glorify, give thanks! No one word can adequately express the response of the Christian people to the good news of the Incarnation, and so we use them all.

    The movement of this great ode, as many have observed, echoes the movement of the Eucharistic prayer itself. The opening rhapsody turns to a meditation on Jesus Christ, the word made flesh; and from the glory of the angels’ song we descend to the depths of Jesus’ sacrifice, and our praise becomes supplication. “Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world: have mercy on us… receive our prayer.” And in the last part of this hymn, we rise up again, with the risen Jesus, saying three times: “you alone,” “you alone,” “you alone.” We conclude with a splendid trinitarian expression of faith, and end where we began, “in the glory of God the Father.”

    In baptism, we are all given a vocation to praise: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood… that you may declare the wonderful deeds of God who called you out of darkness into marvelous light” (I Peter 2:9). And declaring God’s mighty deeds is precisely what the Gloria does. It is a prayer of “marvelous light” which at the same time recalls the shadows, the “darkness” out of which God called us. The Gloria, Cardinal Lustiger writes, “is truly a treasure that can nourish our personal prayer as well as our community prayer.”

The Opening Prayer – the “Collect”

    Following the Gloria comes the Opening Prayer, also called the collect, because this prayer “collects” or gathers the prayers of the community into one. These prayers are simple and short (with true “Roman brevity,” as one commentator put it). The collect follows a very clear plan. It begins with the invitation to prayer, the “Let us pray.” This is followed by a period of silent prayer (see below!). Then comes the spoken prayer, which first calls upon the Father (“God our Father”), then gives thanks (“your light of truth guides us to the way of Christ”), then requests (“May all who follow him reject what is contrary to the Gospel”), and then, using one of several formulas, invokes the Christ who said “whatever you ask of the Father in my name I will give you.”

    Within this pattern—which almost never varies—the Church provides an amazing diversity of prayers (there are nearly two thousand of them in the Sacramentary, as Father Champlin observes!). And they are well worth listening to. And as we listen, we can meditate in our hearts: “By these words spoken by the priest, it is I who pray in the name of the Church, and the Church that prays in my name” (Lustiger).

Liturgical Silence

    In the course of the Mass, the liturgy calls for seven moments of silence. Two of these take place at the very beginning: following the invitation to the Penitential Rite, and following the “Let us pray” of the collect. These moments of silence are not there to give the presider a chance to turn the page, or so that servers can get back to their places, or so readers can get to the ambo, or so latecomers can find seats. Rather, these silences provide some of the most significant moments for the assembly’s “full, conscious, and active participation” in the liturgy. They give us time to orient ourselves, to bring our own needs and concerns, our regrets, hopes, and prayers, to this liturgy, at this time, and to unite them with the prayer of the community. This is not the kind of silence where we empty our minds of thought, let distractions fade away, and simply be (though there is surely a place for that kind of silence in our lives!). Rather, we are given this silence in order to fill it with the intensity of our silent prayer. This is a charged silence. And in the course of the Mass, this silence takes on many different shades, as it were. Silence can be filled with repentance, with love and thanksgiving, with reflection and meditation, with supplication. But liturgical silence is never empty.

Without Sunday, we cannot live In a recent homily, May 29, 2005, Pope Benedict XVI told the story of the Abitene martyrs (see above), and said, “The Sunday precept is not… an externally imposed duty, a burden on our shoulders. On the contrary, taking part in the celebration, being nourished by the Eucharistic bread and experiencing the communion of their brothers and sisters in Christ is a need for Christians, it is a joy; Christians can thus replenish the energy they need to continue the journey…. We must rediscover the joy of Christian Sundays. We must proudly rediscover the privilege of sharing in the Eucharist, which is the sacrament of the renewed world.”

Continue on to: The Liturgy of the Word

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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