When does the Mass begin? It might seem like a silly question, but liturgically, there really isn’t a clear answer. If we say that the sign of the cross by the priest is the beginning, then does that mean that the opening hymn and procession really weren’t the Mass? Well that’s not good (and probably why presiders shouldn’t start “we begin in the name…”) So, what if we say that the opening hymn is the beginning? Well, a few problems. For one, a hymn technically isn’t required, so, at some masses that would mean that mass never officially begins… Besides this, it still ignores the important things that happen before this point—blessing ourselves with holy water, praying silently in our pew, greeting those around us.
To answer this question, it can be helpful to ask a more general one: what is the purpose of the Introductory Rites in the first place? The answer to this question is obviously to gather us in and prepare us for what is about to happen: we join our voices together, greet one another, call to mind our sins, give God praise, and declare our intentions through a singular prayer. Beautiful and important in themselves, for sure, we can see that none of these acts are necessarily the reason we come to mass, but rather prepare us for that purpose.
So, if the point of the Introductory Rites is to gather us in and prepare us for what is about to happen, when does the Mass begin? Some will suggest, and I tend to agree, that the Mass begins when we leave our homes and start our journey to the church. From the moment that we make it our intent to go to church, leaving our lives and secular responsibilities behind for a short while, we being the process of gathering together and preparation needed for the Mass. Those individual journeys we all make are our own processions to the altar.
The reason I find this a significant question to ask is because it changes our whole approach. If we believe that the Mass begins with the sign of the cross, then we might be tempted to skip the song, to not care about reverence in the Church, or to simply act inappropriately walking in the church. But if our mindset is different and we view the entire journey to the church as part of the Mass, think about how different our experience will be in the car, in the parking lot, walking through the doors, greeting those around us. These actions are not just normal, ordinary, boring events, but the very act of communion.