Below is a series of homilies that look closely at some overlooked or not clearly understood parts of the Mass.
- Who is the audience?
I thought I might take the next few mornings to talk through some theology of the Mass with you. To begin, we ask ourselves who is the audience at a Mass? It might seem to be you in the pew with me as the actor, but this is not actually fitting with the teaching of the Second Vatican Council that each and every person here is a full and active participant. In any case, and this might damage my vanity a bit, but Pope Benedict XVI says, “The priest himself [is] not regarded as so important.”
The Trinitarian God is entirely involved in the Mass. The Holy Spirit blesses the gifts at the first ringing of the bell in what we call the “epiclesis” while the priest stretches out his hands. The priest is the sacramental icon of Our Lord, who actually offers the Mass as our great high priest, which is fitting because he is the celebrant of the very first Mass and each mass after that participates in that first mass because the sacrifice of our Lord is once and for all. He continues to be the priest at work in every Mass, and his prayer is a sober, reverent prayer of offering to his Father. His words, especially during the Eucharistic prayer, are directed towards heaven, not towards the pews specifically, meaning that the audience of the Mass is God the Father.
This, in fact, allows each and every one of you to, in the silence of your heart, join in the prayer of the priest either by memory, by looking at the book, or simply by silently preparing yourself for the consecration. Much like the Blessed Virgin wondered in silence while Our Lord remained in her womb, we too anticipate his arrival in the sacrament with reverence, awe, and silence. This is the point that Pope Benedict makes when he teaches, “What matters is looking together at the Lord. It is not now a question of dialogue but of common worship.”
You have a priestly duty at each and every Mass to join your sacrifice and prayer to that of Our Lord. My job is to give you breathing space, and your job is step into that space and fulfill that duty.
O Lord, pray in and through us and may our sacrifice be pleasing to God the Father.
- Why Latin?
Why pray in Latin if this is a language that we do not speak and do not understand? There are a few reasons.
Latin is the Mother tongue of the Church and is a language that no matter where you are in the world, you might hope to share with any Catholic praying the Mass. The Church is her own society and her own culture, Latin is a sign of her unity. This is why in the Second Vatican Council, we are directed to preserve the use of Latin in the Mass, particularly in what are called the “Ordinary” parts of the Mass. The Ordinary parts refer to – the Kyrie (which is a slight exception because it is Greek), the Gloria, the Nicene Creed, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and Dismissal. To me, the explanation can be as simple as, this is what the Church asks of us.
But there is always more to the story than blind obedience. To answer the question, “Why Latin?” we can refer back to our discussion from yesterday about how it is God the Father who is our audience. When we speak in Church it is to the God of the universe, so it is commendable that our language would be different than our ordinary language. It is meant to be set apart, a holy language for a holy God. This same principle extends even to our English prayers. The words and phrasing are slightly different than everyday use, pointing us to the fact that we are addressing our words not to an everyday God, but the one supreme God who is beyond our imagination and beyond the ability of words to describe.
O Lord, give us your words so that we might praise you.
- Why the silence?
There are a number of moments in the Mass that are silent, although not as many as you might think. In specific, there are a number of prayers that the missal instructs the priest to pray quietly, and if you watch during mass you’ll catch him in the act. These aren’t prayers that are too holy for you to hear or meant to be kept a secret from you, but are instead acts of quiet devotion on the part of the priest. We must always remember that the priest is not performing for us as audience but instead is praying the mass. Your own active participation in the mass is not held hostage to what the priest might say or do.
Another moment of quiet is at the elevation of the Eucharistic species after the consecration. This is so that we might gaze upon Our Lord together without distraction. He is the God beyond words, and the silence is a full silence, a moment in which we are reminded that all of the swirling bustle and maddening change of a transitory life in which we are assaulted by noise and busyness, that all of that is not our proper reason for being here. In the center of it all, there is a still place at the center of the universe, and in the stillness we find God. The fulcrum and anchor of our existence, and our resting place.
Cardinal Sarah, who is the head of the Congregation for Worship at the Vatican, teaches, “God is silence, and this divine silence dwells within a human being. By living with the silent God, and in Him, we ourselves become silent. Nothing will more readily make us discover God than this silence inscribed at the heart of our being. I am not afraid to state that to be a child of God is to be a child of silence.
It is the prophet Habakkuk who says, “The Lord is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him”
- Why the vestments?
Priests, you may have noticed, don’t wear jeans and t-shirt to celebrate Mass. We have a specific attire that is required of us that comes down through history from the same attire that the high priest was instructed to use by God in the Temple worship in Jerusalem. This attire also fits with the descriptions that St. John gives us of heavenly worship after his vision of the throne room of God. Here, he says, the saints wear long white robes, chant the sanctus, and use lots of incense.
Because we are not at complete freedom to choose our attire, it is clear that a priest is not representing a private person but rather is standing in place of Christ.
The human body itself is meant for resurrection, meaning that what we do with it and how we clothe it matters. When we clothe ourselves in beautiful garments, particularly for attendance at mass, we anticipate this future glory.
Pope Benedict XVI applies this theology of clothes specifically to vestments when he recalls how the Prodigal Father calls for the very best robe to be put on his son who has returned. The robe, he says, is symbolic of the return of our human dignity after Adam had lost it with the original sin.
O Lord, may we daily clothe ourselves with your presence.
- Purifying the Vessels
St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that, after the consecration, what looks like a bread crumb to the naked eye is still the Body of Christ and what looks like a drop of wine is still the Blood of Christ. This is why priests are so careful to hold their fingers together after the consecration and only release them after they’ve been washed. It is also why the sacred vessels are purified at the altar so deliberately and carefully and the corporal is spread out to collect any errant crumbs. Our Lord on no account should be suffered to be disposed of down a drain. It is our responsibility to protect him in his humility.
This is reminiscent of how our Blessed Mother and the other women carefully washed Our Lord’s body after the humiliation of his death. The time spent washing the vessels isn’t wasted, no time during Mass is, and you can use it to quietly meditate on a private devotion, or you may see in the way the priest treats the sacred vessels an encouragement towards that tenderness and faithfulness that Our Lord truly inspires in those who love him.
O Lord, may we be worthy guardians of your humble graces.
- Our Lord Whole and Entire
In a pattern that all his priests follow, Our Lord takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it. The completion of these sacramental actions in what is, I believe, only the second recorded Mass, accomplishes the revelation of Our Lord. He was known to them in the breaking of bread, meaning he is known as both the broken, or crucified, Lord as well as the Risen Lord. And this is what the catechism teaches us about the real presence in the Eucharist, it is Our Lord in his entirety – body, blood, soul, and divinity. It isn’t that he remains broken by our sins so much as that he has folded the evil of that moment into his greater goodness. A God with nail pierced hands is a God who loves us even more fiercely than a God who disdains such humility. And once he is revealed, he continues to love us, and makes of himself a gift to us, that we might consume him and so be united with him.
If you are looking for God, look no further than the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
- Sign of Peace
Our Lord says, Peace be with you, and he speaks with lips that have only recently exhaled the final breath of a dying man. The peace he offers is dearly won at the Cross.
Throughout history, Christians have offered the sign of peace. For instance, saints Felicity and Perpetua, as they are being led out from prison to their martyrdom, help to arrange each other’s clothing so that they can preserve their modesty even in suffering. They then bade each other farewell with the kiss of peace. This offer of peace, like Our Lord’s takes place in the shadow of the Cross.
Some people ask me why I omit the sign of peace at Mass. The answer is that I don’t. The act of turning and shaking a neighbors hand is an option in the Roman Missal, but if a priest doesn’t choose to use it, the sign of peace is still exchanged between priest, who stands in place of Christ in the Mass, and the Church, all of you. Our peace with each other came at great cost, and we are bound up together in a covenant sealed with blood. This moment isn’t merely a chance to greet each other, so what own particular habit is for the purpose of keeping our eyes focused on him. His presence among us is comforting and beautiful, but it is also startling and terrifying, and as St. Maximilian Kolbe says, when we pray, may it be in such a way that others are able to understand to whom it is that we kneel.
May your peace remain with us, O Lord