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Liturgy of the Eucharist - Liturgy of the Word

hyssop, asperges, liturgy of the word

mass of the catechumens, mass of the faithful

gospel, offertory, gloria, kyrie, introit, angels


Rev. Rama Coomaraswamy


The traditional Mass is divided into the 'Mass of the Catechumens' and the 'Mass of the Faithful.' The Novus Ordo Missae is divided into the 'Liturgy of the Word' and the 'Liturgy of the Eucharist' (which word means 'thanksgiving'). Now the Mass of the Faithful refers to those that believe in the Real Presence, which is the Mystery of our Faith, 'the Word made flesh.' The Novus Ordo Missae has shifted the sense of the 'Word' to the reading of Scripture, while teaching that the Mystery of the Faith refers to the historical Life, Death and Resurrection of Our Lord. The new mass retains a certain teaching and instructive role (readings from Scripture and the Sermon) but, having deleted every reference to immolation and propitiation, has altered the nature of the sacrifice that follows.23 The distinction is important if one is to understand how all that we have said manifests itself in the traditional Mass.

Let us take the Catholic ritual in sequence starting with the Asperges, sung prior to the principle Mass on Sunday: 'Thou shalt sprinkle me with hyssop, O Lord, and I shall be cleansed; Thou shalt wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.' Hyssop was used to place the blood of the Lamb on the portals of the homes of the Jews in Egypt, thus signaling to the angel of death that the inhabitants were protected. Similarly, the High Priest, before entering the Holy of Holies, slew a lamb, dipped his hands in the blood, and used hyssop to sprinkle the blood of the Sacrifice on the congregants. This is a reminder of both the need for purification and of baptism. By the sprinkling of Holy water - once again with a branch of the Hyssop, we are purified and sanctified, which is to say, separated from the impure or 'old man.' It is an indispensable condition for the offering of and participation in the sacrifice.24

The priest, having vested, now approaches the altar.25 'Out of the Mount of Sion, out of her fullness of beauty, God has shone forth' (Psalm 49). After bowing, making the sign of the Cross, he ascends the triple steps of the altar as Our Lord climbed the slopes at Golgotha, saying 'introibo ad altare Dei'. Every true sacrificial altar, being 'central,' is both elevated and set apart. Moses, Lot, Aaron, Abraham and Elijah were all commanded by God to go up to 'the mountain of the Lord... His holy place. It was, as Cornelius Lapide points out, on Mt. Tabor that Christ selected the twelve disciples whom he ordained and called apostles. It was on the Mount that he taught that compendium of the new law which is called the Sermon on the Mount. Moreover, the 'rock' and the 'mountain' are symbolic equivalents which explains why the altar is also considered as the body of Christ. And so it is that the Catholic altar is placed 'on high' and draped with the richest of cloths.26 The priest mounts up above the three choirs of angels, for the Sacrifice is one that occurs perpetually in heaven. The triple steps also remind us of the three stages of the spiritual life which we all must follow - purgative, illuminative and unitive. How unlike the plain and often ugly Novus Ordo table, no longer set apart, but rather placed outside the sanctuary among the people. (Imagine the Jews placing the Arc of the Covenant in the market place!)

During the first part of the Mass - the Mass of the Catachumens, the faithful are confessed and instructed.27 The prayers at the foot of the altar are extraordinary; they set the tone or proper attitude for both priest and congregation. How appropriate is the recitation of Psalm 42 (dropped in the Novus Ordo) which reminds us of both the last judgment and of the fact that we are in this world, but not of this world. 'Judge me O God, and distinguish my cause from the nation that is not holy; deliver me from the unjust and deceitful man.' This text evokes the harsh combat engaged in by the catechumens against the powers of evil in preparation for their baptism. The unjust man is of course 'fallen man' as opposed to the 'new man.' Once again we are reminded of the need to renew our baptismal commitments. Just as we must all constantly return to the senter, so also must we constantly discared the 'old man' and 'put on Christ.'

After all have confessed and received absolution, the priest approaches the altar between two servers symbolizing Christ between the Ancient and New Testaments, or between the prophets of the Old and the Bishops, descendents of the Apostles of the New dispensation. The first thing he does is to kiss the altar stone showing his respect for Jesus Christ, who will soon descend there, and his veneration for the holy martyrs whose relics are deposited there. He accompanies his action with the following prayer: 'We beseech Thee, O Lord, through the merits of Thy Saints whose relics are here, and of all Thy Saints, that it may please thee to forgive me all my sins.' In placing the relics of martyrs under the table of the altar, the Church on Earth wished to imitate what St. John had remarked in Heaven: 'I saw under the altar of the Lamb the souls of them that had been slain for the name of Jesus' (Apoc., VI, 9). Next, In solemn masses the altar is incensed. This also is derived from Jewish custom, for it was used in the temple and God Himself instructed Moses in the preparation of incense (Exod XXX, 34). Incense is not only a symbol of prayer, it also reminds us that we see and understand the mystery of the Mass as through a dark cloud - for God and His ways are obscure. So important is incense that God inspired the Magi to bring it as an offering before the crib - Gold for His royalty; Frank incenses for His Sacred Nature, and Myrrh for his passion and burial. The priest then moves to the Epistle side of the altar, opens the Missal, and says the Introit or entrance prayer. Taken from the Psalms, the Introit represents the cry by which the ancient world called for Our Lord, the Desired of Nations. Next follows the nine-fold Kyrie - said nine times in imitation of the nine choirs of angels, or three times each in praise of each Person of the Blessed Trinity.

Next comes the Gloria, first sung by the Angels at the time of Christ's birth and reminding us how the Mass is a mini-drama of the life of Christ. This is made strikingly clear in the Eastern rite. As Cabasilas explains, in the first stage of the Mass, the oblations represent the Body of our Lord in His youth, because they are not yet consecrated. The hosts are prepared in the following manner. The specially prepared loaf is placed under an open pedestal with a cross over it and within which, from the vertical axis of the cross, there hangs a small star. This is called an astiriskon which the Greek word for a star. When the priest places the asteriskon over the offering he pronounces the words of St. Matthew: 'behold the star... come and stood over where the child was.' Furthermore, the paten is assimilated to the cradle and the side altar where this ceremony is carried out is called the prosthesis and is assimilated with the grotto of the nativity. Finally the priest covers all this with a veil because, prior to Jesus' public life, His power was hidden.

Recalling for us the need to pray, the priest next returns to the Epistle side of the altar and reads the collects with his hands outstretched in imitation of Our Lord on the Cross. The collects are usually addressed to God the Father, for it is to Him that the Sacrifice is offered. After the Collects the Epistle is read - the Apostles preparing us for the Master's voice which will be conveyed to us through the Gospel. Now, as will be explained below, the transference of the Missal from the Epistle to the Gospel side of the altar represents the transition of Christ's life, which is to say, His 'going public.' It is a matter of great joy and during the process Responses reflecting the Epistle reading are sung followed in non penitential seasons by Alleluias. In the Eastern rites there is a formal procession of the Gospel called the 'Little Entrance.' After the antiphons have been sung, the officiant displays the Holy Book to signify the commencement of christ's public life.

Prior to the reading of the Gospel we bless ourselves with the triple blessing -making the sign of the Cross on our foreheads, lips and heart. During the reading of the Gospel we stand, showing respect for Our Lord, for it is His very words we hear. This is followed by the sermon in which the Epistle and or Gospel is explained. This section of the Mass is concludes with the Credo. At this point the catechumens were dismissed, for the Sacrifice which followed was only for those who were baptized.

During the Offertory the priest offers up, not 'the work of human hands,' as in the Novus Ordo, but rather a spotless host, later referred to in the Canon as an unblemished sacrifice. And this is because it is not the work of human hands, but Christ Himself, prefigured in the unblemished sacrifices of the old testament that the priest offers up.28 As Father Schouppe, S.J. states, the Offertory represents the history of the world from creation to the Passion of Christ. In the Eastern rite the offering is brought from the side altar or prosthesis, to the main altar. This is done with singing and incensing and symbolizes the triumphant entrance of Our Lord into Jerusalem.

In the Offertory, the priest, after placing the host upon the corporal, goes to the epistle side of the altar and pours wine and water into the chalice. He blesses the water before it is mixed with the wine, praying that by the mystery of this water and wine we may be made partakers of His divinity, Jesus Christ, Who became partaker of our humanity. The wine is not blessed, because it represents Christ, the Eternal Son of the Father, the source of benediction. The water represents our human nature, which stands in great need of blessing.29 The mixture of wine and water is said by theologians to represent the union of the divine and human natures in Our Lord. But this added water also represents our human natures which we offer up along with Christ. All this is made clear by the prayers accompanying the action: 'O God, Who in creating human nature did wonderfully dignify it, and (by the Incarnation) hast still more wonderfully renewed it, grant that by the mystery of this Water and Wine, we may be made partakers of His Divinity, Who vouchsafes to become partaker of our humanity, Jesus Christ, Thy Son, Our Lord, Who liveth and reigneth with Thee in the unity of the same Spirit world without end.' Then the priest offers the chalice and prays that it may be accepted by God in odorem suavitatis. That the wine represents Christ, the water represents the people, as was said by St. John in the Apocalypse and was confirmed by the Council of Trent: 'Aquae populi sunt' (Apoc. XVII, 15).

In the Eastern rite, this union of the faithful with Christ in His offertory sacrifice is expressed in a most vivid manner. At the beginning of Mass, the priest, with a small golden lance, divides the bread into several fragments and assigns to each of them, in a special prayer, the part of representing the personages for whom the sacrifice is to be offered up, or for the various members of the Christian community. The first fragment represents Christ; another the Virgin, others the apostles, martyrs, virgins, the saint of the day, and the entire Church triumphant. Next come the fragments reserved for the Church suffering and the Church militant; the supreme Pontiff, the bishops and the faithful who are present. These are then united once again and placed upon the altar to be consecrated.

Intimately tied to the Offertory is Our Blessed Lady. She has been referred to by the Church Fathers as a 'spotless host' and an 'unblemished sacrifice.' In the words of St. Tharasius she is 'the clean offering of Abel, chosen out of the firstlings of the flock, a pure sacrifice'(Breviary, Dec. 12). St. Symeon, the New Theologian describes her as 'a kind of leaven and a certain beginning from the dough of our nature' (On the Economy of the Incarnation). Michel Scheeban tells us that 'the changing of the bread into the body of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit is a renewal of the wonderful act by which, in the power of the same Holy Spirit, He originally formed His body in the womb of the Virgin and took it to His person.' As Augustine said, 'O truly reverend dignity of the priests, in whose hands the Son of God becomes flesh as once in the womb of the Virgin.'30 It follows from this, as well as from the very nature of Our Lord's Body, that in partaking of the Body of Christ, we also in a manner partake of her body.31

Further, as the prayer Memento Domine makes clear, we are also meant to offer ourselves along with the 'gifts,' 'for the redeeming of our souls, for our hope of safety and salvation.' As St. Ambrose says, 'Christ will not be a true victim in our behalf if we do not sacrifice ourselves with Him.' If however we are to be worthy of such an offering, it is precisely because, and in so far as we try to adopt the qualities of Our Lady, qualities made clear in her Magnificat, every sentence of which is drawn from the Old Testament. Should we fail to approach the wedding feast - for every soul should be a bride of Christ32- united in one flesh - than we risk being cast out into the 'outer darkness.' As many saints have said, if we would bear Christ, we must become the Blessed Virgin, and As the Pusillum instructs priests: 'You resemble the Mother of God when the Son of God becomes present in your hands at the altar. Seek to resemble Mary also in purity. Offer yourself to God as a clean oblation together with the mystic gifts upon the altar.'33

Father Muller instructs us still further on this point. 'many offer to God their prayers, alms, fasts, and mortifications; but few offer themselves, and make an oblation of their hearts. They always secretly reserve to themselves the disposal of their own will. This division is displeasing to God; it is not the sacrifice of Abel, but of Cain, who offered to God the fruits of the earth, but reserved to himself his heart and will, as St. Augustine says. We should remember, therefore, that as we are associated with the priest of Christ in offering the adorable Victim to God, so should we be associated with the divine Victim in the spirit of self-sacrifice; we should offer ourselves to Him; we should lay on the altar the oblation of our soul and body, our memory, will, and understanding; our thought, words, actions and intentions of the day; our life, death and whole being, that all may be sanctified by union with Him who is immolated for the love of us.'34 The replacement of the 'spotless host,' and 'unblemished sacrifice' by 'the work of human hands' in the Novus Ordo Missae is highly significant precisely because the absence of a true 'victim' precludes the possibility of our self-immolation. The Novus Ordo is but a 'Mass of praise and thanksgiving,' and such it must be if it is but the retelling of an event that occurred 2000 years ago. If there is no victim and no immolation, than we cannot offer or unite ourselves to Him as a holocaust. We are limited to joining the president in an praise and thanksgiving, worthy acts in themselves, but a far cry from Sacrifice of Christ. Father Olier (of the Oratory) comments on this issue and tells us Abel offered up a living sacrifice to which he joined himself, but Cain only offered up fruits and inanimate objects, without offering himself, and such a sacrifice was unacceptable to God. If the Novus Ordo can be likened to the sacrifice of Cain, will Our Lord find it acceptable? One may be permitted to doubt it.35

Scripture and the liturgy further confirm this interpretation. If the faithful share through baptism, in the priesthood of Christ, it is, says St. Peter, that they may 'offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God by Jesus Christ' (I Pet. II,5). In the Secret of Whit Monday and Trinity Sunday we find the prayer 'Vouchsafe, O Lord, to sanctify these gifts, and receiving the oblation of this spiritual victim, make us (in Latin, the emphatic Nosmetipsos) an eternal sacrifice to Thyself.'36

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