The Mass is the heart of Catholic life. In it, we participate in the saving events of Jesus as they are made present again in our lives. Like our Lenten journey, the order of Mass can be seen as an ascent from the River Jordan to Jesus’ teaching ministry to Jerusalem and the Cross and empty tomb, and finally to the mountain where Jesus commissioned his disciples to be his witnesses before ascending to heaven.
It all actually begins before the liturgy, when people first enter the church and make a Sign of the Cross with holy water, recalling Christ’s baptism and our own. The opening procession, accompanied by a hymn or a simple prayer, then symbolizes our earthly pilgrimage toward heaven – we are a pilgrim people making our way through life to God. After the priest celebrant kisses the altar, the introductory rites continue with the Sign of the Cross, the Church’s most basic blessing and fundamental prayer by which we acknowledge the means of our redemption and proclaim the Holy Trinity. What follows is a greeting drawn from scripture, to which the people respond, “And with your Spirit,” acknowledging the role of the Holy Spirit in the Mass.
Next, we recognize our failings and ask God to cleanse us of all that might hold us back from the celebration of the Eucharist. Sometimes this takes the form of the celebrant offering a special prayer and then sprinkling the congregation with holy water as a memorial of our baptism and renewal of the living spring of grace within us. More often there is a penitential act to acknowledge and take full responsibility for our sins, which may involve saying the Confiteor, “I confess to almighty God . . .” After we say the ancient prayer known as the Kyrie – “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy” – the priest asks God to “have mercy on us, forgive us our sins, and bring us to everlasting life,” to which the people affirm with, “Amen.”
From acknowledging our lowliness, in the Mass we then rightly praise the greatness of God the Trinity with the Gloria except during the seasons of Advent and Lent, when the liturgy is more subdued and penitential. Typically sung or chanted, the Church takes the opening lines from the angels’ song at the birth of Jesus, “Glory to God in the highest,” which in a sense was the first Christmas carol. This prayer of praise, with its litany of scriptural titles for the Lord, brings a spirit of exultant joy to the Mass, celebrating the glory of God who for our sake has taken flesh in Jesus Christ, the Son of God who became man for our salvation, in the unity of the Spirit.
To humbly glorify God is the hallmark of faith and it is fitting to observe a moment of sacred silence after praying the Gloria. To conclude this introductory part of Mass and to set the stage for the Word of God, the priest says, “Let us pray,” offering an opening prayer which emphasizes the day’s theme, to which the people say, “Amen.”
This is the first installment of a series drawn from the book that Mike Aquilina and I wrote, “The Mass: The Glory, the Mystery, the Tradition.”