The Mass Series: Part 1 – Introductory Rites – Greeting
The first thing we do really even before the Introductory Rites, is prepare ourselves, to move into sacred space and sacred time, into the presence of God.
You see this in the great basilicas of Rome where you move through different spaces before you enter the Holy of Holies, as it were. Even physically.
At Mass we prepare ourselves beforehand, in prayer. But then when the community gathers, we begin with the sign of the cross. Now we begin in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, as a way of saying we are entering into sacred space and sacred time.
We’re not exactly leaving our everyday life but we’re entering into another depth and the depth we’re entering into is the depth of the Trinity because, again, it’s God who gathers us.
We might decide to go to Mass but, in the end, it’s God who is calling us to share His own life. And the life of God is what we call the Trinity which is perfect communion – a love that is completely unshadowed.
And then the priest greets the people who have entered that sacred space and sacred time, the presence of God, with words taken from the New Testament. And so much of the language of the Mass is biblical. The words of scripture are sacred words.
They’re words born of the Trinity. So therefore the priest, who isn’t just himself, when he puts on the vestments he becomes something more than himself – he remains himself but he becomes a figure of Christ in the midst of God’s people, and speaking words that are not his own, words that are given to him to speak, from the New Testament: “The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the Communion of the Holy Spirit be with you.” And, the people respond: “And with your spirit.”
This is the language of Communion, it’s the language born of the Trinity. And that’s where we start.
The Mass Series: Part 2 – Introductory Rites – Penitential Act and Gloria
As the people of God, gathered by God, we have entered the life of the Trinity with the sign of the Cross and the greeting.
But then, having entered the presence of God, we stand before the truth of ourselves and we acknowledge, all of us, that we have sinned. That’s really what the Penitential Act does but it’s not all that it does.
Because the first thing we say is ‘I have sinned’ but the second thing we say to God, whose presence we have entered, is that you are an infinite mercy far, far greater than any of our sins. So the acknowledgment of our sins gives way to the acclaim of God’s mercy and that combination is crucial.
To say we have sinned means we are very, very small in the presence of God, which is true. But when we acclaim God’s mercy we recognise that this God stoops down to pick us up and make the little ones great. So the truth of God and the truth of ourselves that we acknowledge, once we’ve entered the divine presence is that we are very small but we’re not nothing. We are very small but the mercy of God makes us unbelievably great.
We don’t become God but we become human beings possessed of a unique and magnificent dignity because of the mercy of God.
So the Penitential Act has those two aspects but, in the end, it’s all about the truth that we discover and acknowledge only once we enter the presence of God, once we enter the sacred space and the sacred time of the Trinity.
And, then, once we have acknowledged and acclaimed the mercy of God, the cry that breaks forth, particularly on more solemn feast days, more important feasts, is the Gloria, where we take up the song of the angels.
“Glory to God in the Highest, and peace to his people on earth”.
Peace will only come to me and to us – all of us – if we discover that truth that I have sinned but there is mercy. In a world that denies that there is sin and denies the possibility of mercy there can be no peace.
We save our high praise of the Gloria for the seasons that are not penitential. Therefore the Gloria falls silent in Lent and Advent, not because we don’t understand the mercy, but we’re focusing upon sin more than the mercy that provokes the great praise of the angels and the Church in the Gloria.
So the cry of the angels: Glory to God, Father, Son and Spirit – for this gift of infinite mercy which is the life that is bigger than death and the power that heals every wound of sin.
So the acknowledgement of sin, the acclamation of mercy and entering into the great song of the angels are all part of a single dynamic that leads us more deeply into the mystery of God.
The Mass Series: Part 3 – Introductory Rites – Opening Prayer
The Opening Prayer really concludes the arc of the Introductory Rites, and it’s one of the most important prayers of the Mass. In fact, if you take the Opening Prayers of the Missal, really they contain everything that the Church believes and teaches.
They’re incredibly rich and dense little texts. They’re a bit like a telegram, they’re highly concentrated in their language but, if you unpack them, they really do contain everything that the Church believes and teaches. They’re fascinating little prayers.
The priest begins by saying, ‘Let us pray.’ So he summons the whole community to enter into prayer.
And then there follows a moment of silence. Now, what’s happening in the silence? Everyone is praying in their hearts and in that silence having been drawn into the presence of God. And then out of the silence the priest gathers up the prayer of everyone in the community.
And that’s why the traditional name for the Opening Prayer was ‘the Collect’. Why? Because the priest collects the prayers of everyone there into a single voice and a single prayer.
The prayer is always addressed to God the Father, and it’s always through the Son and in the power and unity of the Holy Spirit.
So, we start the opening prayer by saying Almighty, Ever-Living God, God our Father. At the end of it we say through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, in the unity of the Holy Spirit.
So again there is that essentially Trinitarian structure. We who have been drawn into the life of the Trinity, are drawn more deeply into the life of the Trinity as we open our hearts in prayer.
The structure of the opening prayer, interestingly, looks back to the kind of prayer that you would have heard in Ancient Rome, in the state religion of Ancient Rome. And it’s a structure which early Christianity inherited and then baptised it. And this is what so often happens in the liturgy.
So these little prayers are not so little. They’re short but they are deep and they are rich. And what they do is gather up the prayer of the entire Church in every time and in every place
as well as the prayer of this particular community of prayer but also joining with the Church in Heaven because the prayer of the Mass at any point is the prayer of the Church in Heaven and on Earth.
So the Mass in that sense celebrates the marriage of Heaven and Earth.
The Mass: Part 4 – Liturgy of the Word – Readings
Once the arc of the Introductory Rites is complete, we begin the first of the two great sections of the Mass. That’s the Liturgy of the Word.
Now, the Liturgy of the Word is the Word of God speaking to the heart of God’s people and doing so primarily through scripture.
Now, we know the Bible was composed by human beings. It wasn’t dropped magically from some pink cloud or from heaven. But what we say is that in these human words there is contained the Word of the God who always takes flesh even in the words of a book.
So, if we have the ears that can hear there is a voice to be heard which is the voice of God.
So, in this moment God wants to enter into dialogue or conversation with His people. He speaks to us a word that is old but always new. It’s not that we’re passive in listening to
that Word – we have to listen with the ears of faith and enter into the dialogue or conversation.
Now, the first reading is usually taken from what we call the Old Testament. Now, sometimes in calling it the Old Testament we can give the impression that it’s really out of business. It’s finished. It’s old and worn out. But that’s not true.
The Old Testament, so called, is as much the Word of God to us here and now as it was ever once upon a time when it was addressed to people thousands of years ago. Once God speaks to us through that first reading, we have listened, and then we respond with the Responsorial Psalm which is our response to the word that God has spoken. So, again you have that conversational dialogue which continues.
And after the Responsorial Psalm you have the second reading, where the conversation continues, where again God speaks now through one of the texts of the New Testament – one of the letters of St Paul. Again, the words you hear are St Paul’s, but at a deeper point there is the voice of God that sounds. And that means the voice of Jesus Christ.
After the second reading we sing the Alleluia or we say the Alleluia which is a way of preparing to hear the words of Christ Himself. Alleluia simply means “Praise God”. Again we’re praising God for the gift of the words He speaks to us.
And then we hear the words of Christ Himself in the Gospel and that is the epicentre really of this Liturgy of the Word.
The Mass: Part 5 – Liturgy of the Word – Homily
After we’ve listened to the biblical readings, we have the homily.
Now, again, the priest isn’t speaking just as himself. The homily isn’t meant to be his word or his personal wisdom and insight – his helpful household hints. That’s not the idea of the homily at all. And it’s certainly not a moment the preacher should get up and moralise, telling people what they’ve done wrong.
It’s meant to be a proclamation of the Good News. Because, you see, if God speaks to us, it’s always Good News. Doesn’t mean to say it’s easy news but it’s Good News.
The homilist has listened to the Word of God with the people and now helps the people to take that word and apply it to their real-life situation as a community and as individuals. The problem with preaching can be that it becomes either too much the priest’s word and not enough God’s word and that can be very frustrating for God’s people because people come hungry for the Word of God and, if they get something other than the Word of God, they go home frustrated and angry, often.
So it’s really God’s word that they’re hungering for.
The proclamation of the biblical readings means that the homily has to be not a word of the priest but the Word of God. It is an essentially liturgical moment, the homily. Not personal to the priest but the Word of God spoken to God’s people and, if they hear the Word of God there really will be not frustration and anger but there will be that sense that I have heard the Good News that can sustain me in my life and even empower me for mission.
The Mass: Part 6 – Liturgy of the Word – Creed
Once the people of God have heard the Word of God, in the biblical readings, we stand up and we recite the Creed together.
And this is our way of saying “Yes, we believe the Word that we have heard. We put our trust in the God who has spoken to us.”
Now there are two Creeds that we use: one is the Creed of the Council of Nicea, which happened in 325AD so they’re very old words, the other one is the Apostles’ Creed we call it but it’s the baptismal creed used in the Church of Rome in the early centuries. They’re both similar in the sense that they say, we believe in God Father, Son and Spirit.
So we’re saying yes again to the Trinity. To the Communion of God here and now. The God who has called us into His own life. Who speaks to our heart. That we say yes to that God, in words that are very old but which are always new.
Some of the words are strange. We say, for instance, in the Council of Nicea’s creed that Jesus is consubstantial with the Father. Very strange word. It just means that He is united perfectly to the Father. And to say something so unusual, we need an unusual word.
In the Apostles’ Creed we say something strange too, where we say that Jesus descended into the realm of the dead, we say descended into hell. Which sounds strange to our ears but what it means is, He goes into the dark world of the dead and floods that world with the light of Easter.
So some of the language is strange but at its heart the creed, whatever its form, is the samein every age and every place.
It’s God’s people saying yes to the God who speaks and yes to the word that we’ve heard here and now.
The Mass: Part 7 – Liturgy of the Word – Prayers of the Faithful
We’ve said that we believe what we have heard, we’ve professed our faith and then our faith becomes a prayer.
But it’s a very particular kind of prayer that we sometimes call the ‘Prayer of the Faithful’ – those who have put their faith in the word they have heard.
This prayer is really a prayer of priestly intersession. Because you see, the whole community of the faithful is a priestly community and part of priestly service is to intercede for the people and for the world.
So that this is a prayer – the prayer of the faithful – that does look to the church and looks to ourselves as well, perhaps our families, whatever the needs might be, but essentially it is the priestly people – the Church – interceding with God, in the power of the Holy Spirit, in the power of faith, for the whole world.
And the prayer of intersessions is a mysteriously powerful thing.
It’s hard to know exactly how it works, it’s not twisting God’s arm, but God wants us to enter into dialogue with Him in prayer. He has spoken to us, now we speak to Him.
He wants us to be part of bringing peace out of violence, bringing joy out of sorrow, bringing life out of death. He wants us to work with Him.
And in a sense that’s what our prayer of intersession recognises, that the God who has called us to Himself, is the God who listens to our prayer and wants us to work with Him for the salvation of the world.
So that’s what the prayer of priestly intercession is all about.
Normally there is an intention, for the church in every place on earth and then a silence and then the prayer.
But whatever the form of these prayers of the faithful, it essentially a prayer of priestly intercession, in the power of faith, the faith of those who have said yes, to the Word of God that they have heard.
The Mass: Part 8 – Liturgy of the Eucharist – Offertory
Once we’ve prayed our intercessions we then begin the second great section of the Mass. We’ve had the Liturgy of the Word and now we move to the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
Now, Eucharist is an awkward Greek word which simply means thanksgiving. In Greek even now if I want to say thank you I say ‘efcharistó’. Which is the same word as gives us Eucharist.
Often these days instead of saying Mass we say the Eucharist. It’s the great sacrifice of thanksgiving.
First of all you have the procession of the gifts. The bread and the wine, and sometimes other gifts, are brought forward. But as the bread and wine are brought forward, so too are our whole lives.
The bread and wine are symbolic of many, many things. All that we are, all that we have, all that we’ve made. Even the whole cosmos. The whole material world is gathered up in those gifts of bread and wine. And they are brought forward not as something that we ourselves have created – they are brought forward from all the gifts of God.
So, in bringing those gifts forward one thing we are saying is that everything is a gift from God. Absolutely everything. We can claim nothing of our own.
So, we bring to God from the gifts that God Himself has given us. All of them. And, symbolic of all of them are the gifts of bread and wine.
Then the priest takes the bread and says: “Blessed are You, Lord God of all creation for through Your goodness we have received the bread we offer You” – it’s Your gift. Not our gift to You. This is Your gift to us. So, God owns everything. All we can do is receive the gift.
Similarly with the wine: “Blessed are You, Lord God of all creation for through Your goodness we have the wine we offer You”.
So, with the bread there is our whole life. With the wine there is our whole life. In other words, our whole life is a gift from God and once you see that you can live a life of thanksgiving. A life of real gratitude.
And that’s what it really means to be human to live within the life of God Himself.
The Mass: Part 9 – Liturgy of the Eucharist – Preface
Once the priest has set the bread and wine apart for the sacrifice and said the prayer over those gifts asking the power of God to come upon them, we begin what is the most sacred moment in the Liturgy of the Eucharist. And that is the Eucharistic Prayer itself. Or, as we used to call it, the Canon.
Now, it begins with a dialogue between priest and people: “The Lord be with you.” “And with your spirit.”
“Lift up your hearts”. “We lift them up to the Lord.”
“Let us give thanks to the Lord, our God.” “It is right and just”.
So, we say it is right to give thanks to God because everything comes from God as gift. And it is just. And we mean when we say just, that it gets right relationship right.
That when we give God the thanks that is God’s due that we’re in right relationship with God. We’re seeing things as they really are.
The whole point of sacrifice in the Bible was to acknowledge God as the giver of all gifts. We were simply returning to God what we had received from God as a recognition that God owned everything and we owned nothing. So, the same thing happens in the Mass.
We acknowledge that God is the giver of every gift and that everything comes to us as gift. That’s why we say it is right and just that we give God thanks and praise because God is the giver of all gifts and all the gifts are gathered up in the bread and wine now set upon the altar.
Then we have what’s called the Preface, which is really the beginning of this sacred prayer, the Eucharistic Prayer, and what it does is that it recalls some of the things that God has done. And, this again is deeply biblical because the Bible talks about a God who acts – in a sense the Bible is the story of what God does.
God doesn’t just speak. God acts.
So, the Preface will tell the story of what God has done.
And, then, it will say, having told the story, we gather up our prayer now. And, the Preface issues into the Prayer of the Angels when we say: “Holy, Holy, Holy” – these again are words taken from the Bible – and, what they are is the song of the Angels so that the Church, having acknowledged that it’s right and just to give thanks and told the story of what God has done, joins
the chorus of the Angels and singing of the infinite holiness of God whose glory fills all heaven and earth.
And that song of the Angels – the Holy Holy – really opens the door on to the Eucharistic Prayer that follows.
Part 10 – Liturgy of the Eucharist – Eucharistic Prayer (Part 1)
Having joined in the Song of the Angels in the Holy Holy, we then begin the great Eucharistic Prayer, which is always addressed to the Father.
Once we begin the Eucharistic Prayer we have the invocation of the Holy Spirit upon the gifts of bread and wine we have placed on the altar. And this is important. Because we’re calling down the Spirit of God on those gifts. They can hardly be more ordinary – gifts of bread and wine.
And, we’re saying to God, breathe in to these gifts to make them more than bread and wine. And the roots of that invocation of the Spirit are very, very deep. They take us way back to the beginning of the biblical story where God, we’re told, picks up a lump of earth – good, rich soil – and then breathes His breath, His Spirit, into the soil.
And, what do you get? The human being. The creation of the human being.
And, similarly, in the moment of Pentecost, we’re told Jesus breathes on the disciples. It’s the same breath. The same Spirit.
So, just as soil becomes a human being and these disciples, locked in their upper room because of fear, they become a Church that explodes out on to the streets of the world in mission. So, they are transformed by that breath.
And we’re saying to God, do what you have done before. Breathe upon these gifts of bread and wine to make them much more than bread and wine. Transform these gifts by the power of your Spirit as you’ve done before into the body and blood of Jesus Christ crucified and risen. Make Him here and now. Not once upon a time.
And we make that prayer in faith that God will do, here and now, what God has done before.
And then we tell the story of the Last Supper.
Now it can be tempting to think of the Mass as a kind of role play of the Last Supper but it’s much more than that.
It’s not just remembering something that happened once upon a time. It’s remembering with such power, in fact in the power of the Holy Spirit, that what we remember becomes present.
So that the words of Jesus are spoken by the priest. Again, the priest doesn’t have words of his own to speak.
He says: ‘Take this all of you and eat of it, for this is My Body’. He doesn’t say: ‘for this is the body of Jesus’. This is My Body.
So, it’s the word of Jesus being spoken through the priest over the bread and over the wine. This is My Body. This is My Blood.
And, what we believe, is that the word of Jesus here and now, not once upon a time, the word of Jesus has power enough to take bread and wine and transform them into the Body and Blood of Jesus crucified and risen.
So that the whole mystery of His death and resurrection, the whole event of His death and resurrection are present here and now, not just once upon a time.
So that just as the breath of God transformed a lump of soil to become the human being, just as the breath of God became the power that transformed the early Church from a cringing crowd into a powerful missionary community, so too the breath of God, the word of God spoken into the bread and wine, transform the bread and wine to become much more.
And, in transforming the bread and wine, the promise is made of the transformation of everything. Of us, our lives, all that we’ve brought with the bread and wine, even the cosmos itself will be transfigured.
St Paul says the creation itself groans in a great act of giving birth. So that just as the bread and wine represents so much more so too when we speak about the Spirit’s transforming of bread and wine, we’re looking to the final transformation of everything by the same power that raised Jesus from the dead.
Again, it was the Spirit, the breath, breathed into the corpse of Jesus that raised Him from the dead. So bread and wine are raised from being just bread and wine. And that becomes the promise that everything will be raised into the fullness of life in this great act of giving birth.
Part 11 – Liturgy of the Eucharist – Eucharistic Prayer (Part 2)
After the consecration we then remember – again remember is a crucial word – but it’s remembering with such power that it makes what we’re remembering present here and now.
So it’s not just remembering something that’s past it’s remembering in a way that makes the past present.
So, together we proclaim the Mystery of Faith, we say. Mystery is not Agatha Christie stuff. What we mean by mystery in fact is like sacrament. Let us proclaim the Mystery of Faith. Let us proclaim the Sacrament of Faith.
In doing that what we do is we remember something which is past, we acknowledge what God is doing here and now in the present and we look forward to something which we believe God will do.
We say ‘We proclaim your death O Lord’, so we look back to the death of Jesus and all that it represented, ‘We profess your Resurrection’, not just as a past event, something that happened once upon a time, it did happen once upon a time but the risen Christ is present here and now in His word and in the bread and wine and in the assembly.
So we’re saying the Resurrection which happened once upon a time is still happening here and now. And then ‘Until you come again’ we say, we look forward to that moment when Jesus Christ will return and that will be the moment of the final transfiguration of everything. Ourselves and the entire cosmos. All that bread and wine represent.
Once we have done that, for the rest of the Eucharistic Prayer we call upon the power of Christ as once more we intercede for the Church, for the world, for ourselves and the dead. Because, again, this prayer has a power that reaches beyond death and can embrace the dead.
So, that once again you see how the Mass is an experience of communion of the living and the dead. A communion of those who are in heaven and those who are still on earth. Communion of the Church in every time and place through history and across the planet.
So we’re not just talking about this particular community that gathers to celebrate the Mass, we’re talking about that community but gathered in this vast community that the communion of God has created through time and space. And then all of that remembering and interceding eventually issues into what we call the doxology that concludes the Eucharistic Prayer: ‘Through Him, With Him and in Him, To you O God Almighty Father, all glory and honour forever and ever.’
So, in other words, the great cry of praise. Praising God because once you have remembered and once you have seen the transforming power of God all you can do is issue into an ecstasy of praise and that’s really where the great prayer concludes.
Part 12 – Liturgy of the Eucharist – Communion Rite, Lords Prayer
The church has offered sacrifice to God. Has brought to God gifts which God Himself has given us. Gifts of bread and wine but symbolising so much more.
God then has touched those gifts of bread and wine with the power of the Holy Spirit and has transfigured those gifts into the Body and Blood of Christ.
And, when we finish the Eucharistic Prayer and move into what is the Communion Rite, the sacrifice becomes the feast.
This time not an animal but we feast on the Body and Blood of Christ. The Lamb of God we call Him. We feast on the Lamb. The Lamb whom we have offered to God from all that God has given God now hands back to us, as His Son.
So that the altar of sacrifice now becomes the table of the feast. God sits down with us and shares the feast with us to seal the bond of communion out of which the sacrifices come.
We begin that moment by praying the Lord’s Prayer. Again, we have no words of our own to bring. We have no gifts of our own to bring. The words that we have to bring to this moment of the feast are words which Jesus Himself has given.
So we pray to God in the words of Jesus as a way of saying, ‘You are the one who has provided the feast. Only You could do it. If You do not do it, not only is there no feast for us, we starve. If You don’t provide the words of our prayer, we have no prayer. There is only the silence.’
So we pray that the Kingdom of God may come and that the communion which now we share with God as we sit down with God at the feast will be a communion that embraces the whole world. A world that is so fractured and fragmented, will in fact be able to sit down with God and each other at the feast. That’s what it means when we pray ‘Your Kingdom come’.
Then we pray the prayer: deliver us Lord from every evil. This is an acknowledgment of truth that we celebrate the feast in the midst of that which is not the feast. That which is evil. We’re always under pressure and there’s always a threat that the feast will die.
In the midst of all of that we ask God to give us the peace that comes from God saving us from sin and distress as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Saviour. So that again we’re focused on past, present and future.
As we sit down for the feast we look to another banquet which will be the banquet of heaven at the end of time.
The Messianic banquet – the Banquet of the Lamb as it’s called in the New Testament.