- Why are the candles lined up across the altar with a crucifix facing the priest?
To have the altar arranged in this way is called the “Benedictine” arrangement of the altar. It is highly recommended by Pope Benedict the XVI and is at least partly in use in St. Louis at, among other places, the Cathedral Basilica where you might notice a crucifix on the altar. It greatly helps the priest and the faithful alike to perceive and reverence the greatness of the altar of sacrifice, and to turn our interior gaze to Jesus Christ who stands at the very center of the Mass. I try to keep my eyes lowered during Mass because it helps me concentrate on praying (instead of being nervous), but when I’m standing at the altar, the few times my eyes are raised, it is tremendously helpful to see before my eyes the crucified Lord, a living picture of what is occurring in my very hands upon the altar.
To arrange the altar in this way is a centering of our community upon the One who offers Himself up for our salvation and makes us participants in His offering. The priest should not be the center of attention: he is only an instrument of the Eternal High Priest. He steps back, as did St. John the Baptist, saying: “He must increase, I must decrease.”
Pope Francis asks, “Is Christ the center of my life? Do I really put Christ at the center of my life? Because there is always the temptation to want to put ourselves in the center.” In whatever area we have that temptation, we will only find peace when we take a step back and allow Jesus to become our focus.
O Lord, may we follow you in all things.
2. What’s the deal with the hat?
Whenever I appear to offer Mass at a new parish, I notice that upon exiting people have questions for me. Specifically, they have one question, “What’s the deal with the hat?” I’m only too happy to answer questions of this sort. It is called a biretta and some of you may remember priests in the past having worn them. It’s less popular today but I’m always on the cutting edge of fashion (you know me) and I’m trying to bring it back.
St. Thomas Aquinas, in his commentary on the infamous head-covering passage in 1 Corinthians, part of which is St. Paul explaining that a man who prays ought to uncover his head, explains the spiritual meaning of the hat, writing, “First…man existing under God should not have a covering over his to show he is immediately subject to God… Secondly, to show that the glory of God should not be concealed but revealed; but man’s glory is to be concealed. Hence it says in Ps 115 (v. 1): ‘Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to thy name give the glory.’”
The biretta is worn specifically that it might be taken off. The Sacred Ministers wear it in procession to the foot of the altar and it is immediately removed. It is only recovered while seated, while preaching, and upon reaching the foot of the altar again for the recessional. The reason I wear a biretta is simple – it helps me pray better. I’m reminded that in approaching the altar I enter a sacred space – I am humbled before the presence of God. In offering the Mass I am not about to put on a show or draw attention to myself, I am here to intercede for the faithful and become a sacrificial victim.
O Lord, may your glory be revealed
Why does Father use incense at Sunday Mass?
You may have noticed that I have a bit of an attachment to using incense at Sunday Mass. Partly this is because I think it smells great and has been clinically proven to help relieve stress, but typically, I try to keep my own personal preferences out of the liturgy, so the reason I use incense isn’t simply because I happen to like it. We actually use incense at Mass because that is how God taught us to worship him.
In the Old Testament, God told Moses to burn incense in front of the Ark of the Covenant, and incense continued to be used in the Temple even during the time of Christ. Incense is also used in heaven itself during worship. We know this because St. John describes what he saw in the Book of Revelation, writing, “Another angel came in holding a censer of gold. He took his place at the altar of incense and was given large amounts of incense to deposit on the altar of gold in front of the throne, together with the prayers of all God’s holy ones. From the angel’s hand, the smoke of the incense went up before God, and with it the prayers of God’s people.”
The smoke symbolizes the prayers of the faithful drifting up to heaven, which is why Psalms 141 says, “Let my prayer come like incense before you.” The Mass is a transcendent experience that links heaven and earth, the smell of the incense brings about strong memories of praying in Church and the smoke creates a visual link and a sense of mystery that is fitting and proper to help us adore God.
O Lord, may our prayers rise up before you like incense
A number of times during Mass the priest says something that should strike you as a bit odd, he says “Let us pray” We have already been praying! But these words point us in the direction of what the prayer that follows it actually does. The first of these prayers is called a collect, meaning that it collects the prayers of the faithful and the priest visibly offers them to God. There is usually a small period of silence left by the priest before he begins the collect – use that moment to pray. After all, the priest has just said, “let us pray!” It seems like a little ritualistic formula, “The lord be with you, and with your spirit, let us pray” but hear those words again [repeat them to yourself slowly]. Let them sink into your heart. The Lord dwells with you. He has made his home with you and given you a share of his priestly character. When you pray, it is Christ praying within you. What to pray for? It can be as simple as your mass intention, a prayer for your family, or a prayer to keep you free from sin this day.
Notice that the prayers, are clear, concise, and rather beautiful. This is our worship; we stand to pray out of respect, the priest raises his hands in what is called the Orans posture to convey a lifting up of the heart to God, and we address our Father with tenderness and devotion as we would a cherished loved one. A quick note, the priest alone holds his hands in the orans posture, and when he does it means that he is praying with the whole community. He collects the prayers for us and is the only one to verbalize the words, but it is the privilege of all of us to offer up our prayers to the God who always hears us.