Monday, March 13, 2023
The Roman Rite Mass and Language of Ritual Part Two
Saint Ambrose, in writing “On the Sacraments” tells us that the Eucharistic celebration is a mystery of forgiveness and reconciliation. The entire celebration is filled with gesture and words about reconciliation and forgiveness. From what is properly called: “The Penitential Act” with its “Lord, Have Mercy” litany to those words spoken over the chalice: “Poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins, to the Rite of Peace, to the Lord’s Prayer, to the Lamb of God, it’s all about forgiveness.
The rites of introduction for the Eucharistic celebration have four elements: a greeting, the penitential act, the doxology, and the prayer. These are not separate actions. The purpose of this introduction is for us to enter into the presence of the Lord. The first authentic liturgical act the assembly is called to carry out is to approach God’s presence. There is a reciprocal presence here. The Lord is with his people and the people are before the Lord. Psalm 24 composed for the liturgical entry into the Jerusalem Temple goes like this: “Who shall ascend the mountain of the Lord? And who shall stand in His holy place? Then it continues: “Those who have clean hands and pure hearts.” Our “Confiteor” prayer expresses the same sentiments. Remember this, in the Scriptures, the “pure and just one” is not the one who is without sin but the one who recognizes their sin. When you remember this, those words: “Let us remember or call to mind our sins” become the first act of the assembly. Only the just one shall stand before the Lord, and who is the just one? It is the sinner who knows their own sinfulness. With that comes the great “doxology”. Doxos is a Greek word meaning “Glory.” Having been made pure by the mercy of God, the assembly expresses its intention to carry out an act of worship. In the Bible there are five cultic verbs:
We praise you
We bless you
We adore you
We glorify you
We give you thanks for your great glory.
Recognize the great hymn?
It goes on with what amounts to a Creed that expresses the Holy Trinity
You alone are the Holy One
You alone are the Lord
You alone are the most – High, Jesus Christ,
With the Holy Spirit
In the Glory of God, the Father.
With that said, the Introductory Rite finishes with a summary prayer that in every instance affirms how we pray and why we pray: Through Christ our Lord.
So, with that fresh in our minds, we must ask and wonder what it means spiritually. The answer, to put it briefly, is that we are both a holy people and a sinful people: holy by reason of the one who is in our midst and sinful by reason of what we have done and what we have failed to do. Humanity’s misery stands face to face with God’s mercy here. It’s like that woman caught in adultery. There she is standing before the Lord of mercy. The work of the Liturgy to come is to resolve that conflict. In our usual way of thinking everything is about us, the thought has developed that Liturgy or “Liturgia” in Greek refers to the words we say or what we do in ritual worship. Maybe we need to get over ourselves because, it also refers to the work of God and what God is doing. Instead of being all concerned about what we do and how well we do it, we might shift our thought to what God is doing which is far more important. Thinking of Liturgy as the work of God among us, as Benedict says in his rule, changes our whole perspective and perhaps our attitude about and our presence in the Liturgy. As I said at the beginning, God is doing something here. Pay attention.
An element in the Penitential Act that is more often ignored than observed is silence. It is essential. It must be austere, intense, and severe. It ought to last long enough to make us feel uncomfortable. Not uncomfortable because we want to get things moving, but uncomfortable because we are in shame. When I am presiding, I take this moment seriously. Why not take it seriously? I want God to take me seriously. I take God seriously. I once overheard of the servers at the last parish I served say to another one: “He must have a lot of sins to remember!” When that silence does conclude with the Confiteor or a litany of God’s merciful qualities, there comes a blessing prayer in which the attributes of mercy, compassion and holiness are expressed by invoking the name of the Lord. This is not absolution.
At this point then, it is necessary to resolve a confusion that often arises over this Penitential Act and the Rite of Reconciliation. We cannot reduce to a simple recited formula the powerful work of God moving a person to conversion and repentance. The Sacrament of Penance expects just exactly that, a period of conversion and penance. The naming of the sin, the recognition and the claiming of the consequences of specific sin, is the journey we might call Reconciliation. That is not what happens in the Penitential Rite introducing the Eucharistic Liturgy. In short, to put it in bad, but common language: Going to Mass is not an excuse for avoiding the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Listen to these words that conclude the Syriac Liturgy with which the celebrant dismisses the assembly:
Go in peace, beloved brothers and sisters; we entrust to you the grace and mercy of the Holy Trinity, and to the viaticum that you have taken from the purifying altar of the Lord, all of you, near and far, living and dead, saved by the glorious cross of the Lord and signed by the sign of holy baptism. May the Holy Trinity forgive your errors, remit your sins, and give you the repose of your soul at your deaths. Have pity on me, a weak and sinful servant, with the help of your prayers. Go in peace, content and joyful, and pray for me.”
It took me a long time to see it, so I’ll bet that most of you have never noticed that the only time Jesus reads the Scriptures is in the context of the Liturgy. He’s in the synagogue and he takes up the scroll. In the synagogue during the prayer it happens. In Luke’s Gospel, the ministry of Jesus begins with that scene, an act of worship. His first public act is liturgical in the synagogue not in the Temple. What happens in that synagogue is the institution of the Liturgy of the Word. What happens in an upper room is the institution of the Eucharistic Liturgy. Both moments of Institution happen in the same way and with the same words. “He took in his hands.” First, he took the scroll of the Prophet in his hands. Then he takes the bread and cup in his hands.
The Second Vatican Council proclaimed that it is himself, Christ, who speaks when the Scriptures are read in the church. For me, that is one of the most important and profound messages of the Council. When we read the Scriptures in the assembly, it is Christ who speaks proclaiming the Good News once again. If we really believed that, how could we sit back and not be on the edge of our seats with eyes and ears wide open. Jesus Christ is speaking to us right then and there. This is not some “back in the day” moment when we are recalling something Jesus said once long ago. It is now. Jesus Christ is speaking to us right then and there. This is the living Word of God, not some old diary or journal entry made 2,000 years or so ago. Think for a moment what effect this reality should have on the reader both in terms of their appearance, their preparation, and the sound of their voice. How does it happen? What does it mean? These are the questions to ask at this point.
We must notice a detail in Luke’s Gospel. He writes: “And Jesus went to the synagogue on the Sabbath.” He did not go into an empty room. He went into the midst of a people gathered together. This is not just describing a physical action like walking into a room. It means convening together with the believers in the same place in order to be a member of the gathering. For a Christian to enter a church, for every believer to enter his place of worship, means entering into and becoming part of a people’s entire history of faith. It means choosing to be a member of the historical body, present and past, of the community of believers. See how this anticipates and foretells the Mystery of Faith. God’s plan is to gather all people together with, through, and in Jesus Christ. It becomes a kind of sign of what is to come. So, the assembly gathered in worship is a sign of what is to come. Look around and use that gift we call, “imagination.” To summarize this simply, the assembly is the place where God continues to speak to us and Jesus proclaims the Good News. And so, when we hear the Gospel proclaimed, some event in the past is not being recalled as though it was history. The work of God through Jesus Christ is made present now. The assembly is essential. I came to this realization when I learned some time ago that to this day, in every synagogue of the world, the scroll of the Law may not be removed from the Arc unless there are ten adult men present. It is not enough for the book of the Law to be present and read. It is absolutely necessary that there be people present to hear it. Here is the difference between a Scripture Study class and the proclamation of the Word of God in the Liturgy.
This reality has implications regarding the assembly. They are there to listen not to read. It is about hearing, not about reading. It means that they ought to be able to hear which says something about a sound system and about the one who speaks. There are details in Luke’s Gospel that give us even more to attend to. The attendant hands the scroll to Jesus who is the lector. The scroll is not his property. In fact, to make the point more clearly, Luke tells us that when he finished, he handed the scroll back to the attendant. That scroll belongs to the community on whose behalf the attendant acts. The community is the care taker. So, in the Christian assembly, the lector receives from the church the Sacred Text to read. They do not bring their own. The book is on the ambo because it belongs to the church. When finished, the lector leaves it there because it is in the keeping of the assembly just as the Eucharist is in the care of the church. One other thing to note from Luke’s Gospel. When Jesus received the scroll, he read from the passage assigned for the day it tells us. He did not just pick out something he wanted to preach on or read. It is the same for the Lector in the Liturgy. They read the passage assigned by the church for the day. In reference to the lector, Saint Benedict had this to say, and I sometimes wonder how we could have ignored it: “No one shall presume to read or sing unless he is able to benefit the hearers; let this be done with humility seriousness, and reverence, and at the abbot’s bidding.”Watch this, remember, and think about this the next time you are at Mass. Those Sacred Scriptures are ours. God has given us his word. Think of that the next time you hear the words: “and the Word was made flesh.”
In the First Testament Book of Nehemiah another important element is passed on to us, the visibility of the Book of the Law of the Lord. In the 8th chapter it says: “Ezra brought the law before the assembly. The scribe Ezra stood on a wooden platform that had been made for the purpose. Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen. Amen.” lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.”
What is important here is the book must be seen before it is heard. The people express their faith because to be before the book of the law is to be before the Lord. It is a ritual action manifesting the presence of God in the midst of the people. Even today in a synagogue this ritual gesture is repeated. Before it is read, the scroll is held up open for the people to see, and then it is carried through the assembly as the people venerate it and sing. We declare by this gesture that the book belongs to all who have free access to the word of salvation. And so, when the reading is finished, the book stays where it is, where it belongs where all the people have access to it.
When it comes to the Book of the Gospels, the Good News, even more attention and more ritual behavior is evident. The Book itself is beautiful. It is always to be treated with great reverence. It is not tucked under the arm to carry around. It is held high, brought through the assembly, and it is enthroned on the altar which is free of any other object at this point. It has the same dignity as the Eucharistic gifts. It is not just an object used it in worship. It is an object of worship. Again, the Second Vatican Council put it this way: “The Christian is nourished by the Bread of Life …from the one table of the Word of God and the Body of Christ.” That is why the Gospel Book is on the altar – it will feed us. “Not on bread alone does one live, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” In the Eastern churches, the Book of the Gospels is enthroned on the altar even outside the liturgical celebrations. It is always there just as the Eucharistic consecrated elements are always in the tabernacle.
When it is time to feed the people with the Good News, the book is taken from the altar just as the Body and Blood of Christ are taken from the altar when it is time to feed the people. Remember these words from John 6, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life.” But just verses before that he says: “Anyone who hears my word has eternal life.” We cannot overlook that the Gospel is lifted up from the altar. Ultimately every Gospel leads to the proclamation of the Passion. The Gospel and the Cross cannot be separated, and for that reason, we sign ourselves at the time of the Gospel’s proclamation because this is the book of the crucified.
Tying all of this together I want to point out an interesting little part of this ritual that is too often ignored or just passed over without any question when we should be asking the question a child asks at the Passover: “What does this mean?” Just before communion begins, there is a little one-line verse often ignored. Why is it there and what does it mean? At the heart of the Eucharistic celebration, at the moment we receive the body and blood of the Lord, the Liturgy reminds us of the intimate relationship between the Book of the Gospels and the altar, between the Word and Eucharist. That’s where something called, “The Communion Antiphon” comes in, and what it does. It is a moment, just as communion is about to begin which is why it is called an “Antiphon” meaning that it comes “before.”
In the 13th century, the reception of communion by the faithful disappeared. With it disappeared the Communion Chant. Only the antiphon remained. A fragment of what it once was, it still reminds us that there is a connection between being fed and nourished by the Word and being fed and nourished by the Bread of Life. That little fragment is spoken or sung over, so to speak, the Eucharistic bread and chalice so that the broken bread and the broken word form a single reality in the sacrament. Hearing a verse from the Gospel of the day just proclaimed reinforces the unity of the table of Christ and the Bread of Life. That verse becomes an invitation to enter into deeper communion with God. But even more so, it says that the Gospel is fully realized only through the communion in the body and blood of Christ. Think of it this way: Pope Gregory the Great commented on the Emmaus story saying, “They…recognized in the breaking of the bread the God they did not know as he explained the Sacred Scriptures.”
Let’s turn our attention now to the gifts. There is here an unmistakable ritual act by which we say something in gesture about what we believe and who we are. There is a definite ethical dimension to this act. If you want to really get to the roots of this, the 26th Chapter of Deuteronomy will take you there. It calls into question the right to possess. It is an act of Thanksgiving that acknowledges both the obligations of those gifted and their responsibility for those who are without. This action of the Liturgy is not just a way to get the dishes to the altar. In Deuteronomy, all of the demands about tithing, first fruits, the sabbatical year, and gleaning are there to make certain that the poor do not have to beg.
Saint Augustine insists that when we make an offering, we are offering ourselves. This rite of presentation directly involves the faithful who are present even though only two or three may actually bring the gifts to the altar. This is in obedience to the Law of Moses (Deuteronomy 16) “No believer may come before the altar with empty hands, because the vocation of every person is to offer the world to God by her own hands.” When you realize that this is the law of Moses, you might begin to question how that law can be dismissed while Murder, Stealing, Lying, and Adultery get to be such big things. Who makes the priorities? This presentation of the gifts is a priestly act that demonstrates the priestly character of all the Baptized. In as much as these gifts represent ourselves and therefore it is we who are placed on that altar, it is we who are sanctified by and through these gifts which, by the power of the Holy Spirit will soon become the Body of Christ. (Read from the Maronite Rite the prayer of acceptance.)
Let’s think about what is offered: bread, wine, and water, but let’s do so because these are the elements Christ took into his hands. The prayer said by the priest is remarkable. “Blessed are you, Lord”. That is an acclamation and an affirmation of faith in the Blessedness of God. We are not “blessing something”. It is not the Bread and Wine that are blessed, but the God of the Universe, the God of all creation. When you stop to think about it, bread is extraordinary. In it we can recognize the fundamental elements of the world: the EARTH that receives the seed and makes it grow, the WATER and the ground grain mixed together into a dough, and the FIRE and hot AIR for baking. These are the elements of the universe. They are universal, and so is bread. Every culture has some form of bread as its staple. It is the most basic of foods, and everywhere it is a metaphor for food. To lack bread means to lack food to lack that on which we depend to live and without it we die.
Unlike bread, there is the wine which is not a principle of sustenance. We can live without wine. Yet, wine adds an element of gratuity and suggests a feast. It is a drink of joy and pleasure. It is call to community and festivity and it promotes a spirit of joy and fellowship. So, these two elements, bread and wine are the signs of human life, signs of work and signs of play, fatigue and joy, need and excess. I bake bread every week. I never buy bread in the store. When I started, I noticed that my bread would last about four days before mold begins to grow. I also noticed that bread from the store might last two weeks leaving me to wonder what chemical is in that long-lasting bread. So, out of some caution and some doubt that my life would be prolonged by that chemical, I have been baking a loaf about every five days. In doing so, I have begun to reflect and pray as I do so. It strikes me very powerfully, that the dough in my hands is alive. It rises, it eats the sugars in the grain and produces gasses that lift up the dough making what at first is heavy light and fragrant. Then I bake it, and it dies. Then I eat what has died and I live. It is a spiritual revelation worth turning you into domestic bakers. Try it.
Now, the presentation of the gifts is not limited to bringing bread and wine for the Eucharist. There are other gifts to relieve the suffering of the poor. To me, this makes the Eucharist a source of social transformation, and the source and power for that transformation is here in this ritual of sharing, out of duty and gratitude. It adds another dimension to the Eucharist that makes it the food of charity. If it is the Bread of Life, then it is also the Bread of Love. There is a connection between sacramental practice and the practice of justice. What is not shared is wasted. Our Sacred Liturgy offers a challenge to the church in the world. In a society dominated by the strongest among us, the Eucharist is a real threat. In a society where individualism triumphs, the Eucharist reminds us of the common destiny of all humanity. In a society where waste prevails, the Eucharist is a call to share. The Eucharist forges a theology of charity, for charity is a mystery that is both sacramental and prophetic. The Eucharist is just as social as theological. It is where the ethic of service is rooted. The truth is, there can be no communion with God without sharing with our brothers and sisters. To receive communion is to be a communion.
Maybe at this point we should think about this communion to which we belong. How the church prays determines what the church is. Consider this, there are three successive movements that make up the dynamic of a liturgical assembly – which is the Church.
God calls his people together
God speaks to his people
God enters into a covenant with this people.
The origin of every Liturgy is the call of God and response of the people. The first liturgical action is the response and gathering of the people.
John Chrysostom has some fascinating and enlightening comments about the Greek word: ekklesia. As some of you know, I get side tracked sometimes by words, especially nouns and verbs. Indulge me for a moment. Ekklesia is a noun composed of the preposition ek, which means from and the verb, “kaleo” which means call. Therefore, ekklesia is “the convocation”, the “call forth from” that leads us to understand ekklesia as those called together.
Now, back to Chrysostom. He says that the ekklesia is not the bishop’s house but the house of God’s people. With that he instructs in this way, “The Bishop is not to greet those who gather there like the head of a house might greet guests. Christians who gather in assembly are not the guests of the one who presides. Rather, they are gathered in their own house because the Church is the common home of all.”
The one who presides is also a member of the assembly. He too comes in response to the call of God to gather. He too confesses his sins, hears the Word of God proclaimed, offers thanksgiving and is nourished by the body and blood of the Lord in order to become, with the members of the community he serves, one body in Christ. What I think is important to point out here is that the Liturgy does not begin with the opening song or the sign of the cross. It begins with God calling together the people and the people responding to this call by gathering in assembly.
What makes an assembly an ekklesia is the Word of God. Hearing the Word of God is what made Israel “the people of God.” This is why God says through the Prophet, Jeremiah, (7,23) “This command I gave them, obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people.” It is the proclamation of the Word of God that gives birth to the church. This means that the assembly is the home of the Word. For that reason, the Ambo is the special place of the Scriptures. Observe this. The book is not held in the hands of the lector, because it does not belong to the lector. It is placed on the ambo and it remains there even when the assembly disperses. We are saying something by this behavior. Is anyone listening we might wonder?
At the same time what makes an assembly an ekklesia is also at the same time what makes an ekklesia is an assembly. That’s not doubletalk. This begins to unfold for us in the Epistle to the Hebrews chapter 10,” Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me.” This is not simply a reference to the historical body of Jesus but the body that is the church, the people God has gathered through him. Since the day of Pentecost, the work of the Holy Spirit has been to continue the mission of Christ, the gathering of the dispersed children of God giving the people a new covenant. The close connection between the Holy Spirit and the Eucharist cannot be ignored. The end purpose to which Christians are called in assembly is the body of Christ. The transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ by the action of the Holy Spirit is not, in fact, an end in itself; rather, the gifts are transformed so that those who eat them may become what they receive.
As I said yesterday, the Eucharistic prayers, all of them, will be more fruitful for us if we give them the same prayerful reflection we use on the Sacred Scriptures with Lectio Divina. If you do that, you will discover the dynamic of the two epiclesis of the prayer; one epiclesis over the gifts and a second over the assembly. An example: in Eucharistic prayer 2 the church prays: “Humbly we pray that, partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ, we may be gathered into one by the Holy Spirit.”The bodies are placed in relationship here: the Eucharistic Body of Christ and the Ecclesial Body. The goal of the first one is the second one. The whole purpose of the Eucharistic Body is the Ecclesial Body. “Why are we doing this, we should ask? The answer is to become what the Holy Spirit continues to do, gather into one the scattered children of God.
The church cannot be satisfied with having the Eucharist. It is not something to be possessed. The Eucharist serves no purpose if it remains simply an object to be possessed and adored. The church, however, is called to become the Eucharistic body of the Lord. The truth of the Eucharistic body is an ecclesial body. To receive communion is to be a communion. When we understand that the purpose of the Eucharist is to make us one body, a communion of brothers and sisters in faith, we will no longer view our participation in the Sunday assembly as a matter of obligation but rather as the expression of our identity. Being there is what makes us Catholic or Christian. If you’re not there, you can’t claim that identity. This is why we take great care to see that those who are too sick to be present must receive Holy Communion. Through no fault on their own are they absent. To make certain that they stay in communion, we reach out to them through the ministry of Extraordinary Ministers uniting them to the liturgy and to Christ and the Church. It is most important that this happen when the assembly is gathered together. Their sending forth is a powerful sign to all of us that some are missing, and as Jesus sought out the sick who, often because of their illness had been banned from Synagogue, we too as the Body of Christ still seek those who are missing to strengthen the bond we have through communion. Augustine, in one of his sermons tells a story about Victorinus who converted to Christianity around 355. He was in the habit of reading the Holy Scriptures and studied all the Christian writings intensively. He said to friend in a private conversation that he was a Christian. The other replied: “Until I see you in Christ’s church I will not believe that or count you among the Christians.” With that, Victorinus said: “Let us go to the church: I want to become Christian.” We know he was not talking about a building here, but rather an assembly gathered together in the name of Christ.
All of this leads us to confirm that the central issue for us today is to believe in the Church as communion, as the Body of Christ. In a culture marked by individualism, competition, affirmation of oneself at all costs, even at the expense of others, it is difficult to be church, to be truly a community. Only from the Eucharist, from the prophetic gesture of the breaking of the bread, can the Christian communities of the West renew their awareness that the Church cannot be the Body of Christ where Christians fail to turn away from egoism and refuse to share their goods with the poor. What is not shared with others in communion is taken from others in injustice. According to Sirach, God does not like a sacrifice that is the fruit of injustice toward the poor because: “Like one who kills a son before his father’s eyes is the person who offers a sacrifice from the property of the poor.” (Sirach 34, 24)