By Charles Johnston:
I have always been fascinated with liturgy and have been drawn to it since I was a child. While growing up I sometimes attended Mass with my mother and father (she is Catholic, he was Presbyterian) and sometimes the Sunday morning services at our local Presbyterian church (I’m not sure if all Presbyterian churches are liturgical but the one we attended was), so any time I’ve visited a non liturgical church -most non-denominational and mega churches fit this category- I’ve felt out of place. They always felt like they were missing something, something I couldn’t put my finger on.
As a teenager, and young adult, I attended non-denominational churches but always felt called back to liturgy, at first I thought this was just because it was what I grew up with, but as I studied and read, it became clear to me that it wasn’t just liturgy that was drawing me, but the ultimate pinnacle of the liturgy; the Holy sacrifice of the Mass.
All liturgy has meaning, and in the Catholic Church this meaning builds until it reaches the pinnacle of all our worship; the re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary! But even though the Eucharist is the pinnacle, and the consecration the path by which we climb to that pinnacle, all the motions and words of the liturgy are meaningful. Every action of the priest, the deacon, the alter servers, and the parishioners is filled with meaning and purpose.
I am writing this because I’ve been asked many questions about the Mass over the years, both before I was Catholic -because I’ve always been “Catholic-ish”- and now many more since my conversion. I am not writing this because of any kind of special insight that I have into the deeper meanings of the Mass, I’m only hoping that I can point out some things you’ve maybe overlooked or have simply forgotten.
Who I’m Writing This For
The people I’d like to reach through this series:
- The cradle Catholic that has attended Mass for decades, and now maybe just goes through the motions without seeing the depth and beauty of the mass as it unfolds around them. You may have learned everything that I write about years ago, but over time you’ve forgotten, as it all just became a Sunday routine. Any action performed over a long period of time can become habitual and lose its meaning, hopefully after reading this you’ll have a rekindled love for the Mass.
- The cradle (or convert) Catholic that wasn’t properly catechized and so has never heard the meanings behind the postures, words, and images of the Mass.
- The Catholic that knows what I’m speaking of, the beauty and depth of the liturgy and will only nod along in agreement. Even though you might not learn anything new by reading this, I pray that you will be encouraged to continue seeing the beauty in our church.
- The curious Protestant or non-believer who has an interest in the Mass but doesn’t know why. You want to know what is happening but don’t know who to ask, or if you do ask you don’t get satisfactory answers. Hopefully I can try to provide some answers for your questions.
Liturgy isn’t “cool”
Many contemporary Christians look down upon liturgy and say church worship should be spontaneous and “spirit driven.” To that I’d say two things; First is that if God disapproved of liturgy and ritualistic worship He sure had a strange way of showing it. The entire Old Testament economy of Salvation was based upon ritualistic worship and liturgical sacrifices, all laid out in precise details by God in the Torah. Second, “contemporary worship” is anything but spontaneous. It is ritual too, just less obviously so. Every Sunday the band spontaneously starts to play, and then the pastor just spontaneously decides to preach a prepared sermon, followed by a spontaneous altar call? No, it’s all preplanned and laid out before the first person arrives.
The Liturgy Is Not Empty Routine
What I want to point out in this series isn’t anything new, but maybe it will be new to you. As a convert to the faith I sometimes see things differently than a cradle Catholic may see them, sometimes things look different from another perspective. I’d love for even just one person to come away from this series with a deeper understanding and love for our liturgy. A deeper sense that there is more happening than what appears on the surface, and there is even more happening beyond what we can see. If that were the only result of this entire article, I’d say it was time well spent.
So after that lengthy introduction I’ll begin with the beginning of the Mass, the Introductory Rites.
(This whole article is written assuming the ordinary form of the Mass, in ordinary time, also with a deacon assisting. I’m not extremely familiar with the extraordinary form, and there are too many variables to account for in the different liturgical seasons… i.e. No Gloria in lent, or reading from Acts instead of the Old Testament during Easter season)
The Introductory Rites
The rites preceding the Liturgy of the Word, namely the Entrance, Greeting, Act of Penitence, Kyrie, Gloria, and collect, have the character of a beginning, introduction, and preparation.
Their purpose is to ensure that the faithful who come together as one establish communion and dispose themselves to listen properly to God’s word and to celebrate the Eucharist worthily.
General instructions of the Roman Missal, paragraph 46
I’ve heard it said that Mass begins the moment you leave your house, it begins with a heart that desires to worship God.
But before the actual start of Mass, be it leaving your house or the entrance procession, there are a few things that take place, things that aren’t part of the mass proper, but are part of the experience that is the Catholic Mass.
- Sign of the Cross with Holy Water
Although not required by canon law, doctrine, dogma, precepts of the church, or dictates by the local ordinary (the bishop), almost everyone crosses themselves with holy water when entering the church.
The reasons why we bless ourselves with the sign of the cross are many, far too many to go into and still keep this post under 10,000 words, but I’ll just say the most important one to me; it tells us by what price we were purchased. The price that Christ paid for us was an instrument of Roman torture, so painful that it is where we get the word “excruciating” from. That’s how much God loves us, that He would take on flesh and sacrifice himself in the most humiliatingly painful way ever conceived in the minds of men!
We use the holy water to make this sign of the Cross for a couple reasons; one is that holy water is a sacramental, and when used in a proper disposition, can confir upon a person actual graces from God. The other reason is to remind ourselves of our baptism, and the promises made, either by us or our parents on our behalf. In reminding ourselves of our baptism we renounce Satan, his works, his empty promises, and reaffirm our belief in God.
This literally means to bend the knee in Latin. We genuflect towards the tabernacle because we believe that Christ is physically present in the Holy Eucharist that is contained in the tabernacle.
Most of the time the tabernacle is behind the main altar, but sometimes it is off to one side or the other. Look for the red lamp that is always lit in front of the tabernacle to find it more easily when visiting a new church. This lamp has come along to our faith from our Old Testament roots, God commanded Moses to keep a lamp eternally burning (Leviticus 24:1-4) inside the tabernacle by the ark of the covenant ( read more about The Ark here), the tabernacle being a building back then and not a small box. What is very interesting is that we know the ark contained three objects that foreshadowed Christ; the manna, the law, and Aaron’s staff, and now we see the light shining just outside the ark, and Jesus is the light of the world (John 8:12 & 9:5).
The Mass Begins
- The Entrance Procession
One of the first things that immediately struck me as different about the Mass, in style not substance of course, was the entrance procession. The Presbyterian church I attended as a child had one, but every Protestant church I’d been to since then didn’t, it’s just not how “contemporary” Christians, of the Protestant variety, worship God. They are really missing out.
I once asked why there was a procession and why the priest didn’t just start the Mass up at the altar, the answer I received was a variation of “why do baseball players have ‘walking up to bat’ music?” If that doesn’t sound right to you it’s because it isn’t. The priest doesn’t just choose a snappy tune and then dance down the main aisle. Like I said before; everything in the Mass has meaning and purpose.
The priest and ministers (deacon, altar server and lectors) begin either just inside or just outside the rear door of the church. We stand at attention as a sign of respect for the priest, who during the liturgy will be representing Christ Himself, and for the book of the gospels that is usually carried aloft by the deacon. The procession is usually led by altar servers carrying candles that represent the Light of the World (Christ) and a crucifix is also carried.
So if you looked at it another way; Christ (represented by the priest) processes through the Body of Christ (the assembled church members) while a deacon carries the Book of the Gospel (The actual words of Christ. And Christ being the Word made flesh) while altar servers carry the light of Christ (the candles), and another altar server carries and image of the crucified Christ. Isn’t that symbolism just profoundly beautiful?!
The procession ends at the altar where all bow, and after climbing the steps, both the priest and deacon kiss the altar as a sign of respect for the sacred sacrifice that will be presented there.
- The Sign of The Cross
After the procession, the priest and deacon go to the presider’s chair. When the music ends he makes The Sign of The Cross on himself, and the people do also.
The reason he does this is because the entire Mass is a prayer, and as Catholics we usually begin prayers by reminding ourselves of who’s Name we are praying in.
Afterwards he greets the people by saying a variation of “the Lord be with you,” this is an ancient greeting found throughout the Old Testament, and we respond with, “and with your spirit”.
- Penitential Rites
Then the priest invites those present to take part in the Act of Penitence, which, after a brief pause for silence, the entire community carries out through a formula of general confession. The rite concludes with the priest’s absolution, which, however, lacks the efficacy of the Sacrament of Penance.
(General Instructions of the Roman Missal, paragraph 51)
The priest invites us to call to mind our sins and ask for God’s pardon, so as to prepare ourselves to take part in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
At this point the priest has a little leeway in how he chooses to proceed. He can either lead the people in the recitation of the Confiteor (I confess to almighty God…) or he can go straight to the Kyrie eleison (Lord have mercy).
Whatever one he chooses is followed by him granting absolution to the people. It must be noted though, as stated in the GIRM that I quoted above, the absolution granted by the priest during the penitential rite does not bring about efficacious absolution.
It is a common misconception that the Confiteor or Kyrie eleison cleanses us from mortal sins, thus making sacramental confession nothing more than a redundancy. This is not so. If you are not in a state of grace, by knowingly committing a sin of grave matter (also known as a mortal sin) then you still may not receive communion even after the penitential rite.
(For why we strike our chest during the confiteor go Here )
- Kyrie Eleison
After the penitential rite, the priest or deacon leads the people in singing or chanting the Kyrie Eleison. This is always said during Mass, but if used as the penitential rite instead of the Confiteor then it does not have to be said again.
Kyrie Eleison is Greek for Lord have mercy, some scholars point to the fact that this is one of the few remaining instances of Greek in the Roman liturgy, this being evidenced that the Kyrie Eleison predates the change in the western Church from Greek to Latin in the liturgy (5th or 6th century).
Even though this can sometimes be seen as groveling for mercy from a wrathful God, it really should be seen as prayer of praise for the mercy that God has shown us despite our unworthiness. This can be seen in the verses between the response, for example, “You were sent to heal the contrite of heart,” “You came to call sinners,” and “You are seated at the right hand of the Father to intercede for us.” All of these are praises and thanksgiving for God’s unending mercy.
- The Gloria
The Kyrie eleison gives way to the profoundly beautiful Gloria. The Gloria is an ancient hymn of praise for the Trinity, and has roots in the western Church from the mid 4th century when St Hillary of Poitiers translated it from its original Greek.
This hymn gets its name from its first line in Latin, “Gloria in excelsis Deo…” which is part of the greeting that an army of angels gave to the shepherds on that cold December night 2000 years ago,
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!”
Luke 2:13-14 (emphasis added) see also CCC#333
It is awe inspiring for me whenever I think that when we are singing the Gloria we are joining in with all the angels in heaven in thier hymn of praise that continues for all time.
One of most memorable times in Mass involved the Gloria. It was during the Easter vigil, when I was received into the church, when we started singing the Gloria, the veil that was covering the crucifix behind the altar was dropped. I’m not an emotional person, I can count the times I’ve cried as an adult, and this was one of those times. The image of Christ being unveild, just as we were singing that ancient hymn of praise (that we hadn’t heard for the entire forty days of Lent), struck me as the most profound and beautiful moment of worship that I’d ever been involved in.
There is more going on in the mass than what you can see with your eyes, we believe that angels and devils are real, that there is more in this world than can be experienced with our limited ability to feel it, there is an infinite metaphysical reality that just cannot be sensed with our finite senses. It is in this reality beyond our senses that the hymn of angelic Gloria never ends.
Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all therein, saying, “To him who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might for ever and ever!”
So the next time you don’t feel like singing along, or are distracted by someone else’s bad singing, or worry about your own, think of this scene from the Book of Revelation, and the “myriads of myriads” of angels and Saints praising God with you. And sing with all your heart!
- The Collect
Next the priest invites the people to pray. All, together with the priest, observe a brief silence so that they may be conscious of the fact that they are in God’s presence and may formulate their petitions mentally. Then the priest says the prayer which is customarily known as the collect and through which the character of the celebration is expressed. In accordance with the ancient tradition of the Church, the collect prayer is usually addressed to God the Father, through Christ, in the Holy Spirit, and is concluded with a trinitarian ending… The people, uniting themselves to this entreaty, make the prayer their own with the acclamation, Amen.
(General instruction of the Roman missal, paragraph 54)
After the Gloria the priest once again calls the people to pray. This prayer is known as the collect, because it collects all the prayers of the people as individuals, and brings unites us as a community in prayer.
The collect is sometimes called the “Opening prayer,” but this is a misnomer because it actually closes out, rather than opens, the Introductory Rites of the Mass.
End Of Introductory Rites
There’s a constant debate on the internet of when someone is actually late for Mass. Opinions range from the consecration of the Host, to the praying of the collect. With something of a consensus of opinions settling on the collect as the point at which one is late, but since we’ve spent this time on how significant and theologically rich the Introductory Rites are, I’d say that they are more important than something that can easily be missed and still fulfill our Sunday obligation.
Priests constantly try to say Mass and have people on thier way in a reasonable amount of time, and still if Mass goes beyond 60-70 minutes they is likely to be a riot in the parking lot (says a lot about us -me included- that we can sit through a 4 hour long football game or 2 hour movie, but God forbid Fr goes a little long in the homily). If the introductory Rites were so inconsequential, no more important than the opening credits of a film, wouldn’t the Church just remove them from the Order of The Mass and cut 10-15 minutes from the Mass? Since they haven’t done so, it would seem to be good evidence of their importance and indispensability.
So come early, sing along during the procession, search your conscience during the penitential rite, remember the mercy of God durning the Kyrie Eleison, praise the glory of God during the Gloria, and allow your personal prayers to be gathered in and made one with all the prayers of the people during the collect.
Next up; The Liturgy of The Word