We Catholics know what is going to happen next. One of the basic, distinctive marks of our way of praying is ritual: We do things over and over. When the priest says, “The Lord be with you,” without any thought or hesitation the congregation responds, “And with your Spirit.” The priest says, “Let us pray,” and the congregation stands up.
You know, our daily lives have their rituals also: There are set ways of greeting people, eating, responding to a text. And when we are accustomed to a certain way of doing things, we seldom ask why we do it that way. In the Eucharist, too, we have many ritual actions which we perform without asking why.
What is the Mass or Liturgy? A good way to describe the Mass is to say that it is Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday made present today in ritual. It is not merely a meal which reminds us of the Last Supper, or a Passion play which helps recall Good Friday, or a Sunrise Service which celebrates the Lord’s Resurrection.
The basic “shape” of the ritual of the Mass can be described as a meal. This is not to say it is “just another meal” or that we are ignoring the Mass as sacrifice. Not at all. The point is, the shape of the Mass, even when viewed as sacrifice, is that of a meal.
When friends gather for a meal, they sit and talk: Eventually they move to the table, say grace, pass the food and eat and drink, and finally take their leave and go home. On our walk through the Mass we will follow this same map: we will see ritual acts of 1) gathering, 2) storytelling, 3) meal sharing and 4) commissioning.
Part one: Gathering rites
Gathering: Coming together, assembling, is at the heart of our Sunday worship. The reason behind each of the ritual actions of the first part of the Mass can be found in this word: gathering. The purpose of these rites is to bring us together into one body, ready to listen and to break bread together.
Greeters/Ushers: In many churches today, there will be someone at the door to greet you as you arrive for Sunday Mass: We all like to be greeted and welcomed when we gather for a celebration. When friends come for a meal or a party, we greet them at the door and welcome them into our home.
Use of water: One of the first things we Catholics do when we come to church is, dip our right hand in water and make the sign of the cross. This ritual is a reminder of our Baptism: We were baptized with water and signed with the cross. At every Mass we renew our promises to die to sin.
Genuflection: In medieval Europe, it was a custom to go down on one knee (to genuflect) before a king or person of rank. This secular mark of honor gradually entered the Church and people began to genuflect to honor the altar and the presence of Christ in the tabernacle before entering the pew. Today many people express their reverence with an even older custom and bow to the altar before taking their place.
Posture, song: When the Mass begins everyone stands up. Standing is the traditional posture of the Christian at prayer: It expresses our attentiveness to the word of God and our readiness to carry it out. Often, we begin by singing together. What better way to gather than to unite our thoughts and our voices in common word, rhythm and melody? (all the parts of music, harmony, melody, different instruments-separate they are not complete)
Procession: The Mass begins with a procession of, at minimum, the priest into the sanctuary. The priest and anyone who accompanies him represents the congregation, and their journey symbolizes the Christian journey through life to the heavenly courts. Oftentimes, at the front of the procession, one of the servers (a crucifer) carries a crucifix symbolizing that Jesus is our “leader to salvation” (Heb 2:10).
Sign of the Cross: The Mass then officially begins with the priest and people making the Sign of the Cross, a gesture that dates back to the first century of Christianity and summarizes the Christian belief in a Trinitarian God who descended from heaven to earth, who is now seated at the right hand of the Father, and whose death on a cross opened heaven’s gates.
Greeting: This is followed by a greeting. The priest may echo St. Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 13:13, “The grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Love of God, and the Communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” Or, he can simply say, “The Lord be with you.” Either way, the people respond, “And with your Spirit,” acknowledging that the priest stands there in the person of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Penitential rite: Next, following the example of the tax collector in Luke 18:10-14, who Christ commended for approaching God by first crying out, “O Lord, have mercy on me a sinner,” We Catholics acknowledge our sinfulness and ask God’s forgiveness. This can happen through the Kyrie — “Lord have mercy; Christ have mercy; Lord have mercy.” — an ancient penitential prayer with a petition for each of the Three Persons of the Trinity. It can also happen through the Confiteor, Latin for “I confess,” which calls us to admit we’ve sinned by our own free will (“through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault”).
Both expressions of contrition also call us to imitate the tax collector from Luke in another way, gently striking our breast in sorrow, demonstrating with actions as well as words, our remorse.
A third option, less frequently used, is sprinkling, with the priest casting holy water upon the people as a reminder of our baptism.
The Gloria: Part of the Church’s liturgy since A.D. 128, the Gloria is the hymn of praise the angels sang at Christ’s birth, and that John heard in heaven (Lk 2:13-14, Rv 15:4). The hymn is a doxology, literally “word of praise,” a prayer expressing the Church’s great joy in God becoming man and revealing himself to us.
Collect/Opening Prayer: At the close of this first part of the Mass the priest will ask us to join our minds in prayer, and after a few moments of silence he will collect our intentions into one prayer to which we all respond “Amen,” a Hebrew word for “So be it.”
Next week we will reflect on Part two: Story telling/Liturgy of the Word
Click below to read the rest of this 5 part series on the Eucharist...
Part two: Story telling/ Liturgy of the Word Liturgy of the Word: When we gather at a friend’s home for a meal, we always begin with conversation, telling our stories. At Mass, after the rites of gathering, we sit down and listen as readings from the Word of God are...
Part three: Meal sharing/ Liturgy of the Eucharist After the readings, we move to the table. As at a meal in the home of a friend, we 1) set the table, 2) say grace and 3) share the food (we eat and drink). At Mass these ritual actions are called 1) the Preparation of...
The Communion Rite The Liturgy of the Eucharist continues with the Communion Rite when the faithful immediately prepare themselves to receive the Body and Blood of Christ. The Lord’s Prayer is offered, signs of peace and reconciliation are made, the consecrated Host...
Part four: The Concluding Rites - Commissioning The fourth part of the Mass is the Concluding Rites which consist of announcements (if required), the final or solemn blessing, the dismissal, the procession and recessional chant. The Concluding Rites prepare us to be...