The Mass ... The Liturgy ... The Work of the People
What is the Mass?
One of the most important things we do as Catholics is to come together to celebrate liturgy. Liturgy means "work of the people." Mass is not something done to us, or for us, but something we must enter into with active and full participation.
We ask God's forgiveness, praise God, listen to God's Word, profess our faith, petition for our needs, support and pray for one another, and share in the Eucharistic meal.
But the Mass is not merely a meal that reminds us of the Last Supper, or a Passion play that helps us remember Good Friday, or a Sunrise service that celebrates the Lord's Resurrection. In the Eucharist, when we recall these mysteries of redemption, "the Church opens to the faithful the riches of the Lord's powers and merits, so that these are in some way made present in every age in order that the faithful may lay hold of them and be filled with saving grace" (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, #102). At every Eucharist, in a real, yet mysterious way, we become present to these central mysteries of our Faith.
"At the Last Supper, on the night when He was betrayed, our Savior instituted the Eucharistic sacrifice ..." The events of Holy Thursday give us the key for understanding our eucharistic ritual.
What do we do at a formal meal? We gather with our family and friends, we talk and share our stories, and then we move to the table. The food is brought to the table, we say grace, and we pass the food and eat and drink. Finally, we take our leave and return to our homes. The Mass has these same four movements: 1) Gathering, 2) Storytelling, 3) Meal sharing, and 4) Commissioning.
In a sense, the Gospel of Saint Luke walks us through the Mass in the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-45). The disciples are walking along and the stranger catches up to them; 1) they gather together; 2) they tell their story and recall the Scriptures; 3) they recognize Him in the "breaking of the bread," and 4) they dash back to Jerusalem to share their joy with the other disciples. Notice the same four movements: Gathering, Storytelling, Meal sharing, and Commissioning.
Part I - The Gathering Rites
Gathering for Mass begins long before we enter the worship space. Good preparation for liturgy ... mentally, spiritually, and physically most often will make the experience richer and more rewarding.
Coming together, assembling, is at the heart of our worship as Catholics. The reason behind each of the ritual actions of the first part of the Mass can be found in this word: gathering. The purpose of these rites is to bring us together into one body ... the Body of Christ ... ready to listen to God's word and to break bread together.
In many churches today, there will be someone at the door to greet you as you arrive for Mass. We all like to be greeted and welcomed when we gather for a celebration. If the greeters (and we all should serve this function for one another) recognize that you are new to the Parish, they should give you a special hello and make sure that you have the service books (or missalette or hymnal) and participation aids necessary to pray well with the assembly.
Use of Water:
One of the first things Catholics do when they come to church is dip their right hand in water and make the Sign of the Cross. This ritual is a reminder of our Baptism. We were baptized with water and signed with the cross. At every Mass, we renew our promises to die to sin. The Eucharist begins in Baptism. It is Baptism that brings us to church.
In medieval Europe, it was a custom to go down on one knee (to genuflect) before a king or person of rank. This secular mark of honor gradually became part of the tradition of the Church, and people began to genuflect to honor the Altar and the Presence of Jesus Christ in the Tabernacle before entering the pew. Today, many people express their reverence with an even older custom and bow to the Altar before taking their seat.
Posture & Song:
When the Mass begins, everyone stands up. Standing is the traditional posture of the Christian at prayer. It expresses our attentiveness to the Word of God and our readiness to carry it out. Often we begin by singing together. What better way to gather than to unite our thoughts and our voices in common word, rhythm, and melody.
The Priest begins by kissing the Altar as soon as he approaches it. This is because it is a symbol of Jesus and the Eucharistic Sacrifice will be offered on it. It is the symbol of Christ at the heart of the congregation and so deserves this special reverence. Each altar may also contain relics of martyrs who gave their lives for Christ.
The Priest will ask us to begin with the Sign of the Cross, again reminding us of Baptism, and will greet us saying, "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all." You will hear this greeting, or "The Lord be with you," frequently. It means many things like "good day." It can mean both "hello" and "good-bye." It is both a wish, "May the Lord be with you" and a profound statement of faith ... as you assemble for worship, "the Lord is with you."
It is an ancient biblical greeting. Boaz returned from Bethlehem (we read in the Book of Ruth 2:4) and said to the reapers, "The Lord be with you!" The ritual response to this greeting is the formula, "And with your spirit," by which we return the hello, the good wishes, the statement of faith.
Penitential Act & Gloria:
All the other ritual acts of this first part of the Mass are intended to gather us together into a worshipping assembly. Sometimes we are asked to pause and to recall our common need for salvation (the Penitential Act). During Easter time or if a Baptism occurs during Mass, the faithful renew their baptismal vows and the sprinkling with Holy Water may take place. On Sundays outside of Advent and Lent, during Solemnities and Feasts, the hymn "Glory to God in the highest" is sung or recited at this point. The "Gloria" has been a part of the Mass since the sixth century! All of the longer hymns and responses are found in the service book or missalette (or on a prayer card) at your seat.
Collect Prayer or Opening Prayer:
At the close of this first part of the Mass, the Priest will ask for all the faithful in attendance to join their minds in prayer, and after a few moments of silence, he will collect our intentions into one prayer to which everyone responds "Amen," a Hebrew word that means, "So be it."
When we gather for Mass we should choose modest clothing that will not be distracting to you or to others. If at all possible, dress up rather than dress down.
Allow enough time to account for traffic and parking. Arriving a few minutes early, unrushed and able to welcome one another and to quiet your heart in prayer can make all the difference. Turn off any electronic devices before entering the Worship Space.
For those unavoidable times when you are late, it is best to wait for the right moment to enter. An appropriate time would be after the Opening Prayer, the Collect, and before the First Reading, or during a song. It is not appropriate to enter the Worship Space during the Liturgy of the Word or during the other prayers of the Mass.
Part II - Storytelling ... The Liturgy of the Word
When we gather at a friend's home for a meal, we always begin with conversation ... telling our stories. At Mass, after the Rites of Gathering, we sit down and listen as readings from the Bible ... from the Word of God are proclaimed. They are the stories of God's people ... they are our story.
We are called to listen attentively and actively to the readings, the homily, and the prayers. The Word of God is proclaimed, not read. We should look at the Lector and the Presider (the Priest) and listen closely, unless a physical issue requires that you read along. If you prefer to read the Scriptures yourself, consider doing this before Mass.
Periods of silence are also a form of listening. This is a time for us to absorb what we have heard and reflect on what we have experienced. Be as quiet as possible during periods of silence, take care with kneelers and books, and avoid fumbling in pockets or purses, etc. Respect the silence for yourself and for others.
Three Readings and a Psalm:
On weekends (Sundays) there are three (3) readings from the Bible. The First Reading will be from the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament), except during the Easter Season when it is from the New Testament. We recall the origins of our covenant with God. It will relate to the Gospel selection and will give background and insight into the meaning of what Jesus will do in the Gospel.
Then we will sing or recite a Psalm ... a song from God's own inspired hymnal, the Book of Psalms. The Second Reading will usually be from one of the letters of Saint Paul or another apostolic writing. The third reading will be taken from one of the four Gospels.
When the faithful hear the Word of God proclaimed at Mass, they respond in word and in song, in posture and in gesture, in silent meditation and, most important of all, by listening attentively to that Word as it is proclaimed. Unless one is unable to hear, one should not be reading along with a text from a missal, missalette, or cell phone. The congregation should be listening as if Christ Himself were standing at the ambo.
Standing for the Gospel:
Because of the unique presence of Christ in the proclamation of the Gospel, it has long been the custom to stand in attentive reverence to hear these words. We believe that Christ "is present in His Word, since it is He Himself who speaks when the holy Scriptures are read in the church" (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, #7). The proclamation of the Gospel is surrounded with marks of respect and honor because the Church is paying homage to Jesus Christ who is present in His Word and who proclaims His Gospel.
The Priest will again greet those in attendance with "The Lord be with you." He then introduces the Gospel reading while making a small cross on his forehead, lips, and heart with his thumb while praying silently that God cleans his mind and his heart so that his lips may worthily proclaim the Gospel. In many places, the congregation performs this ritual action along with the Priest.
The Gospel is the highpoint of the Liturgy of the Word, the first part of the Mass, but since all of the readings are linked, it is important to be present for all of them, not just the Gospel. The readings follow a three-year cycle, so it will be three years before you hear these readings proclaimed in Church again.
The Gospel reading concludes with the ritual formula, "The Gospel of the Lord" and the congregation responds, "Praise to You, Lord Jesus Christ," again proclaiming our faith in the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Word. Then the congregation sits for the homily.
The Homily is more than a sermon or a talk about how we are to live or what we are to believe. The Homily is an act of worship rooted in the texts of the Mass and especially in the readings from Scripture that have just been proclaimed. The Homily takes the Biblical Word and applies it to our life situation today. Just as a large piece of bread is broken to feed individual persons, the Word of God must be broken open so it can be received and digested by the congregation.
The Profession of Faith or the Creed:
The Homily is often followed by a few moments of silence during which the congregation thanks God for the Word we have heard and apply the message of the day's readings to our daily living. The congregation then stands and together recites the Profession of Faith or the Creed. (Individuals will probably want to use the missalette or the pew card for the text of the Creed until they know it by heart.)
The Creed is more than a list of things which we believe. It is a statement of our faith in the Word of God we have heard proclaimed in the Scripture and the Homily, and a profession of the faith that leads us to give our lives for one another as Christ gave His life for us. Originally, the Creed was the Profession of Faith of those about to be baptized a this point in the Mass. The Nicene Creed is a statement of faith dating from the fourth century, while the Apostles' Creed is the ancient baptismal creed of the Church in Rome. When renewing our baptismal promises, these promises are based upon the Apostles' Creed.
The General Intercessions:
The Liturgy of the Word (our "storytelling" part of the Mass) comes to an end with the General Intercessions, also known as the Prayers of the Faithful.
The General Intercessions help us become who God is calling us to be. We are the Body of Christ by virtue of our Baptism. Now, as we prepare to approach the Altar for Eucharist, we look into the readings, like a mirror, and ask: Is that who we are? Does the Body of Christ present in this assembly, in this congregation, resemble that Body of Christ pictured in the Scripture readings? Usually not! And so, we make some adjustments: we pray that the congregation comes to really look like the Body of Christ ... a body at peace, with shelter for the homeless, healing for the sick, and food for the hungry.
We pray for the Church, nations and their leaders, people in special need and the local needs of our Parish ... the petitions usually fall into those four categories. A minister will announce the petitions and we are usually given an opportunity to pray for the intentions in our hearts, then make some common response aloud like, "Lord, hear our prayer."
Part III - Meal Sharing ... The Liturgy of the Eucharist
After the readings, the congregation moves to the Altar ... to the table of the Lord. As at a meal in the home of a friend, we 1) set the table, 2) say grace, and 3) share the food [eat and drink]. At Mass, these ritual actions are called 1) the Preparation of the Gifts [the Offertory], 2) the Eucharistic Prayer, and 3) the Communion Rite.
The Preparation of the Gifts:
The early Christians each brought some bread and wine from their homes to the church to be used for the Mass and to be given to the clergy and the poor. Both bread and wine are the "work of human hands," so in presenting the bread and wine to God we are presenting something of ourselves. Today, a similar offering for the Parish and the poor is made with our monetary contributions. Members of the Parish bring these offerings to the Altar with the bread and the wine to be used for the sacrifice of the Mass.
The Priest places the bread and wine on the table. He then mixes water with the wine and washes his hands. (Mixing water with wine and washing hands are things all Jews did at meals in Jesus' time. Today, they remind us of the origins of the Eucharist at a Jewish meal ... the Passover meal. We believe that God became human ... Christ became one of us ... and we ask Him to help us to become more like Him, more Christ-like. The mingling of the water and wine also symbolizes the mingling of Jesus and His Church, that Jesus and the Church are one.
Finally, the priest invites us to pray that the sacrifice may be acceptable to God. We respond "Amen" to the Prayer over the Offerings and stand to participate in the central prayer of the Mass.
The Eucharistic Prayer:
The long prayer which follows brings us to the very center of the Mass and the heart of our faith. While the words of the prayer may vary one week to the next, the prayer always has this structure: 1) We call upon God to remember all the wonderful saving deeds of our history, 2) We recall the central event in our history, Jesus Christ, and in particular, the memorial He left us on the night before He died. We recall His Passion, His Death, and His Resurrection, 3) After gratefully calling to mind all the wonderful, saving acts God has done for us in the past, we petition God to continue those deeds of Christ in the present. We pray that we may become one body, one spirit in Christ. It is not a time for movement or to leave the Worship Space. It is especially not appropriate to leave or to enter the Worship Space during the Institution Narrative (the Consecration).
The prayer begins with a dialogue between the leader and the assembly. First, the Priest greets us with "The Lord be with you." He then asks if we are ready and willing to approach the table and to renew our baptismal commitment, offering ourselves to God: "Lift up your hearts." And we say that we are prepared to do so: "We lift them up to the Lord." We are invited to give thanks to the Lord our God. And we respond: "It is right and just."
To "give thanks" translates the traditional Greek very which now names the whole action: Eucharist.
Preface and Acclamation:
The Priest enters into the Preface, a prayer which prepares us to come before the face of God. We are brought into God's presence and speak of how wonderful God has been to us. As the wonders of God are told, the congregation cannot hold back their joy and sing aloud: "Wow! Wow! Wow! What a God we have!" In the ritual language of the Mass, this acclamation takes the form of "Holy, holy, holy Lord God of hosts. / Heaven and earth are full of Your glory. / Hosanna in the highest. / Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. / Hosanna in the highest."
The Institution Narrative:
The Priest continues the prayer, giving praise and thanks, and calling upon the Holy Spirit to change our gifts of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ. The Priest prays with both hands stretched over the gifts. At this time, he prays that the Holy Spirit may come upon the gifts and make them holy. The bread and wine now begins changing into the Body and Blood of Jesus, and not only at the Consecration. He then recalls the events of the Last Supper ... the Institution of the Eucharist.
At this important moment in the prayer, we proclaim the mystery of our faith. There are several texts possible, for example: "Save us, Savior of the world, for by Your Cross and Resurrection, You have set us free." The Priest continues recalling the wonderful deeds of our salvation: the Passion, the Death, and the Resurrection of Christ.
Prayer for Unity and Intercessions:
The grateful memory of God's salvation leads us to make a bold petition, our main petition at every Eucharist: We pray for unity. "Humbly we pray / that, partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ, / we may be gathered into one by the Holy Spirit" (Eucharistic Prayer II).
To this petition, we add prayers for the Bishop of Rome (the Pope) and for the Bishop of the local church. We pray for the living and the dead and especially for ourselves, that through the intercession of the Saints we may one day arrive at that table in heaven of which the table on earth is only a hint and a taste.
We look forward to that glorious day and raise our voices with those of all the Saints who have gone before us as the Priest raises the consecrated bread and wine and offers a toast, a doxology, a prayer of glory to God in the name of Jesus Christ: "Through Him, and with Him, and in Him, / O God, almighty Father, / in the unity of the Holy Spirit, / all glory and honor is Yours, / forever and ever." Our "Amen" to this prayer acclaims our assent ... our agreement ... and our participation in the entire Eucharistic Prayer.
The Communion Rite - Our Father, the Sign of Peace, and the Fraction Rite:
We prepare to eat and drink at the Lord's table with words taught us by Jesus: "Give us this day our daily bread, / and forgive us our trespasses, / as we forgive those who trespass against us." Keenly aware that Communion (the word means "union with") is the sign and source of our reconciliation and union with God and with one another, we make a gesture of union and forgiveness with those around us and offer them a Sign of Peace.
In the Fraction Rite, the Priest breaks the consecrated bread as the people sing the "Lamb of God." The action of breaking the bread recalls the actions of Jesus at the Last Supper. One of the earliest names for the Eucharistic celebration is the breaking of the bread (Lk 24:35; Acts 2:42, 46).
Invitation to Communion:
The Priest then shows us the Body of Christ and invites us to come to the table: "Behold the Lamb of God, / behold Him who takes away the sins of the world. / Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb." The members of the congregation now approach the altar in procession.
Before receiving Holy Communion, the Celebrant and congregation acknowledge their unworthiness to receive so great a gift. The Priest receives Holy Communion first and then the people come forward.
Those who receive Holy Communion should be prepared to receive so great a gift. They should fast (except for medicines) for at least one (1) hour before receiving the Eucharist and should not be conscious of having committed serious sin.
As God fed our ancestors in the desert on their pilgrimage, so God gives us food for our journey. We approach the minister who gives us the Eucharistic Bread with the words, "The Body of Christ," and we respond, "Amen." If Holy Communion is being offered under both species (the Body and the Blood of Christ), we then go to the minister with the cup who gives it to us with the words, "The Blood of Christ," to which we again profess our "Amen."
During this procession, we usually sing a hymn which unites our voices, minds, and thoughts, as the Body and Blood of Christ unites us into the Body of Christ. Then we pray silently in our hearts, thanking and praising God and asking for all that this Sacrament promises. The Priest unites our prayers in the Prayer after Communion, to which the congregation responds, "Amen."
Part IV - Commissioning
Finally we prepare to go back to that world in which we live for the coming week. Strengthened by the Eucharist, we are better prepared to take up the burdens and crosses of our daily lives.
There may be announcements at this time which remind us of important activities coming up in the Parish. The Priest again says, "The Lord be with you," and this time the ritual phrase serves as a farewell.
Blessing & Dismissal:
We bow our heads to receive a blessing. As the Priest names the Trinity ... Father, Son, and Holy Spirit ... we make the Sign of the Cross. The Priest or Deacon then dismisses the assembly: "Go in peace." And we give our liturgical "yes" by saying, "Thanks be to God."
Living the Eucharist in the World:
We leave the assembly and the church building ... but we carry something with us.
What happens in our lives during the week gives deeper meaning to the ritual actions we have celebrated at Mass, whether it's family, work with the poor, or just plain work. It is only in relation to our daily lives that the fuller meaning of the ritual actions of the Mass become clearer to us.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1997
Catholic Update: A Walk Through the Mass, Saint Anthony Messenger Press, September 2011
Lane, Fr. Tommy: A Simple Explanation of the Mass,
The Mass: A Guide for Beginners and a Refresher for Everyone Else ...
Our Call to Liturgy: "The Work of the People"