Tuesday, February 20, 2024
The Roman Rite Mass and Language of Ritual Part Three
In a conversation about the Liturgy with someone recently, they expressed some surprise and not just a little annoyance when a fairly young priest said to her: “The Mass is a sacrifice. That talk about a meal and the altar as a table is just some Protestant idea that is totally wrong.” I wondered to myself at the time why it was an either-or matter in his mind. Then I began to wonder if that priest had paid any attention to the narrative of the Last Supper. I don’t think we call it the “Last Sacrifice.” The more I thought about it I wondered if that young man had any knowledge of Covenant which happens to be what was instituted and sealed at that meal in an upper room. Every Covenant in the whole history of salvation as recorded in the Scriptures involves a sacrifice and a meal. They always ate. They always consumed something in accepting and entering into a Covenant. The Old Covenant was sealed by the sacrifice of a lamb, and then the act of consuming what has been sacrificed binds one into the Covenant.
It is entirely possible that one or the other of these realities: sacrifice or meal might gain more importance or receive more attention from time to time, but it’s not a good idea to exclude either one. Doing so distorts everything and interferes with the action of God. Both sacrifice and meal contribute to the things we say and do in our ritual response to God’s action and Word. Let’s sort that out tonight.
The Paschal Sacrifice of Christ cannot be understood at all without understanding the Passover Sacrifice. The whole new Covenant springs out of the fulfillment of the Old Covenant. It isn’t by chance that Matthew carefully casts Jesus in the image of Moses. It is entirely possible that Jesus saw Moses as his role model. Both what he says and what he does leaves little doubt about the influence of Moses and the Torah on Jesus himself. His life in the synagogue, his participation in the Feasts at the Temple root him firmly in Israel’s tradition.
There are some questions that can lead deeply into the profound meaning of what we say, what we do, and why. The first question is, “What does God ask of us?” The answer to that question is found in the Book of Exodus when Moses, at God’s insistence approaches Pharaoh petitioning for the freedom of the Israelites. In Chapter 8 it says: “Go to Pharaoh and say to him: ‘Let my people go so that they may worship me.” Right there you have the answer of what God asks of us. Worship. The whole point of saving people is for worship. We know how that story unfolds as Moses goes back and forth between plagues. Finally, near the end Pharaoh tells Moses it’s OK to go and take some stuff, sheep, and goats with them. Moses says, “No.” We need to take everything because we do not know what the Lord will ask of us. With the last plague, as we know, Pharaoh has had enough, and the Israelites take everything and head out into the desert. The first place they go is to Mount Saini. They don’t know how to worship. They have been slaves. At this point in the history of salvation, they are not really a people, but there they find out. They discover that the heart of religion is worship, and the heart of worship is sacrifice. What we give to God is sacrifice.
Let me remind you what they are instructed to do. They are to take a year-old lamb, and the first thing they are told to do is to take it into their home. Now, remember when we were little and would come home with a stray cat or dog and want to keep it? I’m not sure about your home, but I can tell, Ruth and Ted always said no, and that was the end of it. As an adult, I have begun to understand why it was “no”. They did not want us to become attached to it especially if the owner would show up and take it back breaking our hearts. Well, there are two reasons why God required that the little lamb be taken into the home: to keep it safe and unblemished, and to let a relationship of love grow.
Then, the instructions continue. When it was time for the Passover, the lamb was to be carried to the temple, carried, again to keep it unblemished. Once at the Temple, it was lifted up in a place with a high wall where someone opened its throat catching the blood in a bowl. By that lifting up, the lamb was presented. It was not offered. There is a difference. That bowl was then taken into the holy place and the blood was poured out onto the altar. At that moment, it was offered to the Father. It was an “oblation.” That somewhat technical word means it was offered to God, offered in such a way that there was nothing left. God was given it all. That’s an oblation. There can be all sorts of sacrifices for all sorts of reason. An athlete makes sacrifices in training to become better. That’s not an oblation. Notice and hear the language we use in the Liturgy. After the Oblation takes place, the dead lamb was taken home to be roasted and a feast was held to which others were invited who might not be able to afford a lamb. The story of the Passover was told again beginning with the youngest person present asking a question: “What does this mean?” The point of worship, the whole point of sacrifice is that you give up something you love. You give it all.
The question still stands for us: How has God asked us to worship him? In the Old Covenant, Take a lamb and slaughter it. In the New Covenant, how does he ask for worship? Do this in memory of me. That’s how God wants us to worship: Do This. At the moment in the Liturgy when the Words of Institution are spoken, that is the presentation. That is when the lamb is lifted up to the wall. When those sacred elements are held up in the hand. At that moment, we are confronted with the Mystery of Faith. It is presenting. It is not worship.
Worship is offered when the priest takes the body and blood of Christ and lifts it high with these extraordinary words that say it all: Through Him, With Him, and In Him, God, Almighty Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirt, all glory and honor is yours forever and ever. That is the moment of fulfillment. That is the moment of true worship. It is the moment when the Father is glorified. And what do we say at that moment? Amen. The instructions call it “The Great Amen.” In my experience as priest it is more like the “Lame” Amen. It is just a signal to get off our knees. If there is ever a time for bell ringing and incense smoking, it is right here, at this moment, not at the presentation moment. The whole purpose of the presentation is the oblation. The whole purpose of the consecration is the offering of Christ’s Body to the Father. Through Him. With Him. In Him. Do you remember what is said after that? (All Glory and Honor) Isn’t that exactly what you said you were going to do after the gifts were placed on the altar?
Let’s review that just for the sake of emphasis. Just before the Eucharistic Prayer’s Preface begins, the priest says to the assembly: Let us pray that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God the Almighty Father. Then, what does the assembly say? “May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands for the praise and glory of his name, for our good and the good of all his holy church.”
My friends with those words those present are exercising the priesthood into which we were all called and anointed at our Baptism. You cannot waste your priesthood by watching. You have to get into the worship giving glory and praise to God. People may not sit in a pew and watch as though they were watching the Super B owl. In fact, when I think about it, those watching the game are probably on their feet shouting and excited way more excited than most people taking up space in a church on Sunday. The Father asks us to worship and give glory. The Father is glorified and the world is saved only if we stop watching and start worshipping.
We are not re-enacting the last supper. For me, the prefix “re” suggests doing something again. We are not doing something over again. We have to be careful with that word, “remember.” We are not repeating something that happened in history. In the experience of the liturgy, there is no past. We are in a sense, in the future. This is why I think having a clock in the Church is a bad idea. The moment we step across the threshold of worship in the liturgy, we are outside of time. There is no time in the presence of God. We are actualizing the same gracious deeds God accomplished for us and for our salvation. In the liturgy, the notion of time is one in which a saving act that occurred once and for all at a time and place in saving history is experienced still, here and now, in a new experience until it is fulfilled at God’s saving initiative and in God’s good time at the end of time.
There are three final ritual gestures important to understand and reflect upon: the fraction rite, the greeting of peace, the reception of Holy Communion with the conclusion of the Sacred Liturgy, and what we begin to see with these final actions is something that is not too surprising. The longer something is done, the more we have to say about it. Just like it is in our lives, the longer we live, the more stuff we accumulate. The oldest of prayers are always shortest until someone decides to revise them and then they get longer: more words! If you just look at the Eucharistic Prayers in the Latin Rite, you can see it. Eucharistic Prayers Two and Three which have their origins in the 4th and 5th century, they are much shorter than the Roman Canon that comes from the 16th century. Longer still is Eucharistic Prayer Four which was adapted from a Swiss Canon composed in the 20th century.
In the very early days as Christian communities were forming and multiplying, it became increasingly possible for the one responsible for teaching, leading, and sanctifying to be present at each assembly. There developed the custom of distributing a portion of the Body of Christ consecrated at the Principal celebration to the outlying communities as a sign of their unity all together. Someone designated would take a small portion of the Consecrated Bread to other places where it would be mixed in or added to what was on the altar in the outlying place. It was either dropped into the Chalice or mixed into the Consecrated Bread already on the altar. Obviously uniting them in a visible and powerful way to the Leader, (Bishop) and the principal church or “Mother Church” as it was sometimes referred to. As an aside, we accomplish today with the Holy Oils. After the Chrism Mass, every community takes some of the Oil Blessed or Consecrated by the Bishop back home to the local church. It provides for us the same sign that was made with this ancient “Fraction rite.”
As that custom of sending out a small portion of the Consecrated Bread to each of the communities became increasingly difficult to maintain, an allegorical meaning was attached to the action. The church has always seemed to have a problem recognizing practical things as simply that. For instance, in some Byzantine Rites, there is a ritual gesture of adding hot water to the consecrated wine just before Communion. The water sits over a candle warming all through the liturgy. The purpose of adding the water is to thaw, or soften, the wine which has become somewhat congealed during the long liturgy in frigid cold climate and church. It’s simply a practical matter introduced to solve a problem. Once the liturgy was celebrated in a warm climate and once churches had some heat, the purpose has to be repurposed to make sense. Water gets added to the wine for us in the Latin Rite simply because the wine used early on tasted terrible. It was a crude drink always on the edge of being spoiled because there was no refrigeration. To make it palatable, they diluted it. The elegant blends of fine wines had not yet been considered. They used what they had. Historians tell us that no one today would drink that stuff.
It’s the same thing with the washing of hands in the Latin Rite. Early in the formation of the Eucharistic Liturgy, the gifts brought to the altar were many, messy, and varied. After receiving and handling all of that stuff, hand washing was appropriate. When the custom of bringing something out of everything you had had passed away, the hand washing continued now with a prayer to shift the action from practicality to piety. The result is now reflected in the prayer the priest says as water is poured over his hands. It comes from a Psalm, “Wash me, O Lord, from my iniquity and cleanse me from all my sins.” A practical custom of cleaning up has become a prayer for forgiveness and purity.
The same thing has happened with the fraction rite. First of all, the bread had to be broken up into serving sized pieces. There was also that old custom of adding a portion from the Bishop’s Liturgy that had been brought there. Suddenly, or perhaps gradually, when the practical matter no longer was necessary, an allegorical reason gets added in the form of a prayer which completely changes the meaning of the ritual action.
With the typical efficiency of the Western, Latin, Roman rite, the priest says these words which you rarely hear because a Litany is being sung (Lamb of God). As he breaks off a small piece of the larger portion, (think of the original action) he drops it into the chalice with these words: “May the mingling of the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ bring eternal life to us who receive it.”
The Eastern Churches which, by culture, are far more inspired by allegorical ideas, have an even greater and more spiritual dimension to this breaking and mixing. In the Maronite Rite with which I am more familiar, the assembly begins to sing, and the priest, with the large consecrated host in his right hand breaks it over the chalice in two parts; then he breaks a piece from the edge of the half remaining in his left hand saying: “We have believed and have approached and now we seal and break this oblation, the heavenly bread, the Body of the Lord, who is the living God.” Then he dips the small piece into the chalice in the form of a cross saying: “We sign this chalice of salvation and thanksgiving with the forgiving ember which glows with heavenly mysteries.” Then he dips the Body of Christ into the Blood three times saying: “In the name of the Father, the Living One, for the living; and of the only Son, the Holy One, begotten of him, and like him, the Living One , for the living; and of the Holy Spirit, the beginning, the end, and the perfection of all that was and will be in heaven and on earth; the one, true and blessed God without division from whom comes life forever.” Then, he sprinkles the Body three times, using the small piece that has been dipped into the Blood saying: “The Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ is sprinkled on his holy Body, In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Then, he drops the small piece into the Blood of Christ and says: “You have united, O Lord, your divinity with our humanity and our humanity with your divinity, your life with our mortality and our mortality with your life. You have assumed what is ours and you have given us what is yours for the life and salvation of our souls. To you be glory forever.” The priest then presents the consecrated host and the chalice to the people who together say: “O Lord, you are the pleasing Oblation, who offered yourself for us. You are the forgiving Sacrifice, who offered yourself to your Father. You are the High Priest, who offered yourself as the Lamb. Through your mercy, may our prayer rise like incense which we offer to you Father through you. To you be glory forever.”
This is the Eastern Church’s way of worship – the giving of Glory and Praise to God. It is that elevation of the Sacrament with the words Through, With, and In – To you be glory forever. That is worship!
What does the action mean we could ask as the child asks at the Passover Meal. That lifting up and those words mean that God is worshiped, praised, and glorified by God’s Son Jesus and by all of us through, with, and in him. This cannot be observed or watched. The fraction rite does not mean that the sacrifice of Christ was the breaking of his body. The Body of Christ must be broken, yes; but that Body is the ekklesia, the church. We have to be broken in service, and when we are, we are one with Christ. If we are doing nothing, if we’re sitting there watching, there is no worship.
Before we can get to the moment of union, we have to deal with something that is very real and somewhat contradictory. We have to deal with, acknowledge and ritually address our sinful brokenness. Just before the distribution of Communion, the Liturgy, or is it God, invites us to exchange a sign of peace with our brothers and sisters in faith many of whose names we do not even know. The peace that Christians offer each other is a divine gift, never simply the fruit of personal sentiments or feelings. The person with whom I exchange peace is a symbol of the person whom I most need to forgive and the person from whom I hope to receive forgiveness. This is a profound and sacred act. It is not time to be looking around for your friends. You don’t need to be reconciled, forgive, or be forgiven by your friends. Likewise, introducing yourself to someone behind or in front of you is not for this time. You should have already done that when you arrived. This is a time for husbands and wives to simply say, “I’m sorry” and mean it. It is a time for children to look up to their parents and feel the same sorrow, or to look at one another to forgive and find forgiveness for their fights and lies, and meanness. This is about seeking and giving pardon because, we are about to approach the altar of forgiveness, and we had better be at peace, for there might be consequences if we are not. To say to one another, Peace be with you,” means to recognize in each other the need for and the gift of forgiveness. We began the Liturgy by accepting the Lord’s forgiveness. Near the end, give what we have received.
In the logic of the Liturgy, the two or three people standing near me with whom I exchange peace become in that moment a sign of the real person with whom I recently reconciled or with whom I hope to reconcile soon. In that gesture of peace, I express my openness to peace and reconciliation, received from God. I receive, so to speak, a mandate that I am called to make a part of my daily living. I receive the gift of peace that I am also called to give. The truth of the sign of peace is made manifest by the respect and seriousness with which I give it. If I exchange peace in a superficial and thoughtless way, I run the risk of banalizing so great a gift. It might mean that I have lived this peace in a superficial and thoughtless way as well. If I exchange peace with all, in reality I give it to no one, in the rite and in life. This is personal. It is immediate. It is real.
With peace and forgiveness established, we may now approach the God of mercy and love to be fed, and to become what we eat. There is a procession, seeing it and joining it pulls us deeper into the church. We are a people on a journey toward the Kingdom of God. The procession is an image of all humanity on the way toward God, each of us in our own circumstances and states of life. All go toward the altar. Each of us just as we are with our burdens, our misery, our labors because we are hungry for the bread of mercy, the bread of eternal life that only God can give. In some ways, it is a vision of things to come.
A French writer named: Christian Bobin describes the Communion Procession of the Faithful on Easter morning. Close your eyes and imagine:
“At the moment of Communion, at the Easter Mass, the people got up in silence, walked down the side aisles to the back of the church, then turned one by one up the central aisle, advancing to the front. Where they received the host from a bearded priest with silver-rimmed glasses, helped by two women with faces hardened by the importance of their role, the kind of ageless women who change the flowers on the altar before they wilt and take care of God like he was a tired old husband. Seated at the back of the church, waiting my turn to join the procession, I looked at the people, their postures, their back, their necks, the profiles of their faces. For a second my view opened and I saw all of humanity, its millions of individuals, included in this slow and silent flow; old and adolescent, rich and poor, adulterous women and earnest girls, crazies, killers and geniuses, all scraping their shoes on the cold, rough stone tiles of the church floor, like the dead who will rise patiently from their darkness to go receive the light. Then I understood what the resurrection will be like and the stunning call that will precede it.
There is not much more to say after that except to remind you that there is one final intense gesture, raising our arms and opening our hands to receive the Body of Christ. Open hands like people about to receive a gift. It is a gesture that must reveal an interior attitude. It is an act of the Spirit. To open one’s hands is the purest human gesture one can make to represent openness to receiving a gift. The posture of one who is standing, with arms out and hands open, signifies not only openness to receive but also total vulnerability and inability to harm. Open hands are confident hands. One who wants to take something from someone, to take possession, does not open their hands but tightens them. We do not grab. We do not take. We receive from someone else. What we receive is salvation in the Eucharistic Bread, a sacrament freely given by the Father.
Liturgy then, is heaven on earth and at the same time also the threshold of heaven. It is the most sacred thing we do, because through and in it, we humans touch God and are embraced by God. Liturgy is the breaking into our world of all that is of God and of the kingdom of heaven. What we have in the Liturgy, my friends, is a dynamic school of prayer in which the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit teach us, the believer, how to pray with three important elements: Hearing, Interiorization, and Interpretation. Teaching someone to pray also is teaching someone to believe, and in learning to pray, we learn to believe. I can’t think of a better way to conclude this day than by taking the concluding prayer from the Divine Liturgy of the Maronite Rite. “I leave you in peace, O holy Altar, and I hope to return to you in peace. May the offering I have received from you be for the forgiveness of my faults and the remission of my sins, that I may stand without shame or fear before the throne of Christ. I do not know if I shall be able to return to you again to offer another sacrifice. I leave you in peace. “