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.