THE HOLY SACRIFICE OF THE MASS
|The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass begins with the Sign of the Cross. How fitting to begin the Mass with this sign. The Sign of the Cross is a prayer in itself, a most powerful prayer used in everything the Church does. It is a great weapon against the devil who hates the Mass so much. In fact, within the course of the Mass the Sign of the Cross is made a total of 57 times! It should always be done with great reverence, not quickly and carelessly as if we were swatting flies. Making that first Sign of the Cross along with the words Introibo ad altare Dei, “I will go unto the altar of God,” should remind us what it is we are about to partake in the holy sacrifice of the Mass, which is the very same sacrifice as that on Calvary.
The priest then recites Psalm 42, a prayer written by King David when he had been driven out of Jerusalem: Deliver me, O God, from the unjust and deceitful…Thou, O God, art my strength. Here we ought to recall how merciful God is to come to us in the midst of this wicked world, and how we can run to Him Who comes down upon our altars. Recognising that our only help in the midst of this world is in God, we then pray Adjutorium nostrum in nomine Domini, “Our help is in the name of the Lord”; and then the Confiteo r ("I confess"), where we acknowledge our sinfulness and ask God to forgive us before we partake in these most holy of mysteries, calling upon the saints and angels to intercede for us before the throne of heaven. With what holy fear and awe ought we to approach the altar! The priest then goes up to the altar saying silently two prayers as he goes, imploring God once again to “take away our iniquities, that we may be worthy to enter into the Holy of Holies.” In the ancient Temple in Jerusalem only once a year did the high priest enter the Holy of Holies, so much was it held in awe, and that was only the sacrifice of animals. The priest then kisses the altar while he says the second prayer. He kisses the altar since the altar represents Christ the Cornerstone of the Church, and also because it contains the relics of at least one saint—a requirement for all altars up until Vatican II.
This practice of having relics of the saints in the altars goes back to the first days of Christianity when Mass was celebrated on top of the tombs of the martyrs in the Roman catacombs. Having kissed the altar the priest then offers up incense, which represents our prayers rising up to the heavenly Father. He then recites the Introit, the first of what is called the Proper prayers, those parts of the Mass which change from day to day.
The Kyrie is then recited in three sets of three—the number three representing the Holy Trinity. The Kyrie is the first of what is called the Ordinary Prayers, those parts which remain the same from day to day. It means “Lord have mercy” and is the only Greek found in the Latin Rite Mass, signifying here the universality of the Church. Then comes the Gloria, called the Hymn of the Angels since its opening words were sung by the angels at our Lord’s Birth: “Glory to God in the highest.” We ought to remember at this point that a host of angels will be present when Christ is born again on our altars at the moment of the Consecration. At the end of the Gloria the priest pays homage to the Church Triumphant—Christ and the saints—by kissing the altar once again, and then greets the Church Militant with Dominus vobiscum ("The Lord be with you").
The Collect then follows, a prayer which offers to God the general petitions for that particular Mass. The priest prays this prayer, as he does others, with arms outstretched, representing the Cross of Christ.
After the Collect the priest reads the Epistle, followed by the Gradual (a small section of one of the Psalms) and the Alleluia. After which the Missal is moved to the left side of the altar, an action symbolising the transition from the Old Covenant under Moses to the New Covenant in Christ.
The Missal is then turned slightly so that the priest reads the Gospel facing North (the main altar in every church traditionally faced East, since it’s always been held that Christ, the Sun of Justice, would come from that direction at the end of the world). So the priest then reads the Gospel facing the North. The North, where it is cold, represents the powers of darkness; the Gospel, then, is read into the North, scattering the powers of darkness. After the Gospel, the sermon follows along with the Credo, or Creed.
Following the Credo we begin the most important part of the Mass, which is called the “Mass of the Faithful”; and this begins with the priest kissing the altar and the recitation of the Offertory verse. The priest then offers up the bread and wine accompanied by some of the most beautiful prayers ever written. The host is laid on the corporal, a small piece of starched linen which represents the shroud in which our Lord’s Body was wrapped. The water mixed with the wine represents Christ’s Sacred Humanity united to His Divinity. This section ends with the silent praying of the Secret; then follows the Preface, which, along with the Sanctus acts as a sort of prelude to the Canon of the Mass. The ringing of the bells calls our wandering minds back to the altar as we prepare for this most solemn part of the Mass; the bells also represent the angels who are ever present, worshipping their Lord and King.
The Canon of the Mass, said secretly by the priest, is centred around the Consecration, when the bread and wine become the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ. The only words of the Canon said aloud are the words Nobis quoque peccatoribus, “and to us sinners.” Here the priest acknowledges out loud his own sinfulness and his need for God’s mercy. This can serve as a reminder for you to pray always for your priests. The Canon comes to a close with words the per ipsum…etc., “through Him with Him in Him,” offering up the Hidden Christ to the Heavenly Father.
Soon after we come to the Agnus Dei, asking the Lamb of God, Christ, to have mercy on us once again before we receive Him in Holy Communion. Here the priest breaks the Host in two and then another small particle from one of the halves which he drops into the chalice. The breaking apart of the Host represents our Lord’s violent Death and the dropping of the particle into the chalice the His glorious Resurrection. Holy Communion soon follows preceded by the Domine non sum dignus, “Lord I am not worthy,” said not once, but three times. Here we ought to acknowledge before God how unworthy we are to receive Him and we ought to pray to grow in humility with every Mass.
The Mass ends with the final blessing, before which the priest bows down before the altar asking God that this Sacrifice be pleasing in His sight. After the blessing the Prologue to St. John’s Gospel is read -- a portion of Scripture which sums up the entire history of salvation, ending with the word veritatis, “truth”: most appropriate, since Christ is the Truth. The Mass has been called “the most beautiful thing this side of Heaven.” This brief exposition certainly does not do justice to it, but please God it will at least draw you one step closer into this most wonderful of mysteries, the Supreme Sacrifice of Christ, to Him be all glory and honour. Amen.