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One of the dangers of having a routine is you kind of lose sight of the real meaning of every little part of that experience. If you’re going to Mass out of habit and not of desire, you also run the risk of losing sight of the real meaning of Mass and the gestures therein.
We speak a lot of mysteries, I am sure you must have heard this word a million times in relation to the Church. “mystery” doesn’t necessarily mean an absolute absence of any form of understanding or a discouragement to make an attempt to know or understand what the Church does or teaches.
We speak of the “Eucharistic mysteries”, but what this means more than anything is participating in the life of God’s Son; his ministry, his life and his worship. It does not mean “stuff we can never understand”. Granted that complete understanding of every part of the Mass is impossible as it has a big spiritual dimension. However, there are things we need to know and keep in mind that will help deepen our experience and participation in the worship.
The Mass begins with the procession:
Many people have asked me when the Mass actually begins. Some say it is with the Sign of the Cross, even though the actual prayer begins them, the entire sacrifice of Mass begins with the procession. This procession is a symbol of Calvary and Christ’s willingness to die for us; a walk of obedience to “do this in memory of me”. When the clergy kisses the altar, it is a symbol of Christ himself as this is where Jesus dies for our sins every day, before our eyes, but in an unbloody manner.
The Sign of the Cross:
One of the oldest Christian customs was to sign oneself with the Cross of Christ. At Mass, we do this in two ways: at the beginning of the Mass, to receive God into our hearts who is present in the assembly, in the readings, in the priest and in the Eucharist. Then also before the Gospels when we mark our foreheads, our mouth and our hearts. This is also a way to make the Sign of the Cross and signifies sealing the Word of God in our minds, our lips and our hearts. This practice is almost as old as Christianity itself.
“At every forward step and movement, at every going in and out, when we put on our clothes and shoes, when we bathe, when we sit at table, when we light the lamps, on couch, on seat, in all the ordinary actions of daily life, we trace upon the forehead the sign.” Tertullian: De Corona, 30 (mid-3rd century)
It was customary for Christians to begin their every activity with the Sign of the Cross. This has great power when done with faith and attentiveness of mind. St Benedict, the powerful founder known for his power over evil spirits used the Sign of the Cross as a weapon even against poison:
“Taking counsel together, they agreed to poison his wine: which being done, and the glass wherein that wine was, according to the custom, offered to the Abbot to bless, he, putting forth his hand, made the sign of the cross, and straightway the glass, that was held far off, broke in pieces, as though the sign of the cross had been a stone thrown against it: on which accident the man of God by and by perceived that the glass had in it the drink of death, which could not endure the sign of life“
The Sign of the Cross is also a renewal of our baptismal promise to shun the devil and the world, to take up our crosses and follow in the footsteps of the Lord through adherence to his laws and obedience to his Church. So the next time you make the Sign of the Cross, remember that in that simple gesture lies the Cross of Christ, the greatest fear of the Enemy and the greatest delight of us Christians.
The Lord be with you, and with your Spirit:
Whenever I hear this, I rejoice in the power of the priesthood of Christ and I am filled with thanks for his will to extend this power to priests in our day. When the priest says “The Lord be with you” and we respond “and with your Spirit”, we should recognize the power and action of the Holy Spirit in the ministerial priest and in the faithful also who are priests by baptism too. “we give you thanks for you have made us worthy to be in your presence and minister to you”. It is a reason to be thankful for the privilege to be able to speak in God’s presence, to be able to ask, to give thanks and to share in the Communion of all the Saints. So when we say “And with your Spirit” we acknowledge the presence of the whole heavenly court: Jesus, his Angels, the Saints. We are open to all of heaven, anything is possible now for our actions and most importantly and uniquely, the actions of the Priest are no longer human actions. They are divine actions, performed by Christ himself. And we have the privilege of joining in this beautiful divine act. How many times does that ever happen? This is truly awesome!
If the Holy Spirit were not in this your common father and teacher, you would not, just now, when he ascended this holy chair and wished you all peace, have cried out with one accord, ‘And with your spirit.’
Thus you cry out to him, not only when he ascends his throne and when he speaks to you and prays for you, but also when he stands at this holy altar to offer the sacrifice. He does not touch that which lies on the altar before wishing you the grace of our Lord, and before you have replied to him, ‘And with your spirit.’
By this cry, you are reminded that he who stands at the altar does nothing, and that the gifts that repose there are not the merits of a man; but that the grace of the Holy Spirit is present and, descending on all, accomplishes this mysterious sacrifice. We indeed see a man, but it is God who acts through him. Nothing human takes place at this holy altar.”
The Altar Kiss, Christ’s eternal sacrifice:
As I said earlier, the altar itself is a symbol of Christ. This is where the reenactment of his suggesting and death is carried out. He does not die over and over at each Mass though, rather his one sacrifice becomes present to us so we too can benefit from the Eternal Sacrifice he is making to the Father for us:
“Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; 24 but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.
Such a high priest truly meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself. For the law appoints as high priests men in all their weakness; but the oath, which came after the law, appointed the Son, who has been made perfect forever. – Hebrew 7: 23-28
Ancient Apostolic writing:
“Assemble on the Lord’s day, and break bread and offer the Eucharist; but first make confession of your faults, so that your sacrifice may be a pure one. Anyone who has a difference with his fellow is not to take part with you until he has been reconciled, so as to avoid any profanation of your sacrifice [Matt. 5:23–24]. For this is the offering of which the Lord has said, ‘Everywhere and always bring me a sacrifice that is undefiled, for I am a great king, says the Lord, and my name is the wonder of nations’ [Mal. 1:11, 14]” (Didache 14 [A.D. 70]).
Active participation; gestures, words, everything:
One of the significances of the physical assembling of believers is to worship God in an organized, uniform way. The Sacrifice of Christ was one of obedience, of “your will be done not mine”. When we attend Mass and we do what we like, we are not properly participating in the “fiat” sacrifice of Christ. The beginning and end of the sacrificial work were centred around obedience. From Mary’s “fiat”, to Christ’s.
But, going through the motion isn’t enough either, it requires spiritual and mental involvement. So when we bow physically to Jesus, may our hearts bow to him too, bend to his will, accept him again, move with reverence and love for his presence in our lives, in our world.
“The venerable practice of genuflecting before the Blessed Sacrament, whether enclosed in the tabernacle or publicly exposed, as a sign of adoration, is to be maintained. This act requires that it be performed in a recollected way. In order that the heart may bow before God in profound reverence, the genuflection must be neither hurried nor careless” – Inaestimabile Donum 26
While at Mass, there are times when the Liturgy requires everyone to kneel or to stand. This is a sign of Faith; that we understand who we are encountering at Mass, especially at those specific moments. It could indeed be tasking for someone people who are accustomed to ease, however, this is a sign of faith. If you do not believe Jesus is really present at Mass, you’ll hardly understand what the big deal is.
The “Fraction Rite”:
For those paying attention at Mass, there are a number of things the priest does that brings questions as to the significance of those gestures. I remember as a boy, after Mass I always had a question for the priest. One of these was :
“Why do you break a piece of the Eucharist and put in the Blood of Christ?”
I never really got a comprehensive answer, or maybe I was too young to understand. But I later learned, this is the significance of the gesture:
You first of all have to bear in mind that breaking the Host doesn’t cut Christ’s presence in half. We believe that he is fully present: body, blood, soul and divinity in each molecule.
The actual “breaking” is called the “Fraction Rite”, and is from the action of Christ at the Last Supper, the “breaking of bread”. But the commingling of the broken piece with the blood signifies the reunification of Christ’s body and blood in the resurrection.
Water and Wine:
Commingling water and wine at Mass is a requirement that a priest may not ignore. Whilst it does not invalidate the Mass if the priest were to skip this but this tradition has been running since the beginning of the Church. However, the significance of adding water has evolved. At the time of the Last Supper, it was a tradition at the time to dilute wine before serving it, this was considered the civil thing to do. People who drank strong undiluted wine were considered barbarians at that time. This simple practice later started acquiring meaning in the Church from the earliest times of the Church:
“Because Christ bore us all, in that he bore our sins, we see that by the water, people are signified, while in the wine, indeed, the blood of Christ is shown. And when the water is mixed with the wine in the cup, the people are made one with Christ, and the multitude of believers is coupled and joined to him in whom it believes” – St. Cyprian of Carthage (A.D. 250)
Also, St Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica (Article 6) wrote:
Water ought to be mingled with the wine which is offered in this sacrament. First of all on account of its institution: for it is believed with probability that our Lord instituted this sacrament in wine tempered with water according to the custom of that country: hence it is written (Proverbs 9:5). Pope Alexander I says (Ep. 1 ad omnes orth.): “In the Lord’s chalice neither wine only nor water only ought to be offered, but both mixed because we read that both flowed from his side in the Passion.” Thirdly, because this is adapted for signifying the effect of this sacrament, since as Pope Julius says (Concil. Bracarens iii, can. 1): “We see that the people are signified by the water, but Christ’s blood by the wine. Therefore, when water is mixed with the wine in the chalice, the people is made one with Christ.” Fourthly, because this is appropriate to the fourth effect of this sacrament, which is the entering into everlasting life: hence Ambrose says (De Sacram. v): “The water flows into the chalice, and springs forth unto everlasting life.”