Going to church… can be a bit boring. Look out into the congregations of many churches and you will not find hoards of smiling faces, upbeat and excited about what they are doing. No, quite unfortunately, you will find many dour faces and low energy. The problem is so common, in fact, that Pope Francis even addressed it in one of his apostolic exhortations, bemoaning the loads of “sourpusses” he sees coming up for communion.
What a tragedy!
For me, there is nothing more life-giving in all the world than the community gathered for this sacrificial meal. It is the “source and summit” of our lives as Christians, the inspiration and strength we need to go out into the world. Catholics do not attend mass simply to get into heaven, as if it were something to be endured before we received our reward; no, we attend mass because it is a small taste of heaven itself. For those who know what is happening at the mass, it is the highlight of their week.
And I think that’s the key: “for those who know what is happening.” When you know what is happening, when you can follow the internal logic of the rite and can enter fully into the mystery before us, the experience is anything but boring. While the execution of the rite (stylistic choices, skill, personality, ability to follow rubrics) can obviously have an effect on the congregation’s experience (there are such things as bad presiders and choirs…) the Mass itself will always give life to those who understand.
And since I cannot fix every presider and choir or force every parish to be filled with joy and energy… the only thing I can do is shed some light on the rite itself, hopefully instilling in others the same love for the Mass that I have. With this series, my goal is to break the whole liturgy down to its individual parts, explain what each mean, and put them back together to reveal a coherent, artfully crafted act of worship that gives glory to God.
There are many ways that this can be accomplished. Some would explain the Mass in two parts, separating the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist; others would build the series around the three processions found in the mass; others still might focus entirely on the complexity of the Eucharistic prayer, breaking that down into four parts, with the Liturgy of the Word and Concluding Rites as bookends. All of these would make for fine explanations of what is going on in the rite, but they are not what I have chosen.
This series will be divided into six parts, a double series of three, following the same structural arc: Called in and prepared, Given a gift, and Sent out.
Beginning first with the Liturgy of the Word, the first arc will begin with the gathering, call to worship, penitential rite, gloria, and collect. Through this series of actions, the congregation will be called in from their disparate lives and prepared to enter the worship. This will give way to the reading of Scripture and the recitation of a psalm, reaching its pinnacle in the reading of the Gospel. In this way, the congregation will be given the gift of Christ’s true presence in the Word. Bringing the first arc to a close, the homilist will make sense of what has been given, offering practical applications for lessons, and the congregation will respond with the prayers of creed and prayers of the faithful. All three components focus the attention of the congregation to the outside world where they are sent out to live what they’ve heard.
The structural arc will begin again with the preparation of the gifts, in which the congregation literally prepares for what is coming next: they not only prepare the altar for the physical sacrifice, but prepare their hearts for a spiritual one. The Mass then reaches its high point in the Eucharistic Prayer and reception of communion, in which the congregation is given the gift of Christ’s very presence in sacramental form. Having received this gift, the congregation has not just eaten a meal, but has become what it received: they constitute the body of Christ themselves. In this way, then, they are sent out to live as such in the world, announcing the Good News with their lives.
Called in and prepared, Given a gift, and Sent out.
Obviously, the Mass is a complex act of worship filled with more rubrics, history, and symbolic significance than can fit into a six-part series of 10 minutes videos. In preparing for this series, I read multiple Vatican documents, three different commentaries on the mass, consulted liturgists, and built upon my four years of theological study. Regrettably, there was a lot that I had to leave out, and decisions had to be made as to what to keep in. This series will not be the end-all-be-all of mass commentaries, nor will it be without its own flaws and personal biases. Since I had to choose what to include and what to leave out, this series, like any project, will ultimately be incomplete.
And I’m completely fine with that. My goal in sharing this work is not to provide the most complete, objective recitation of facts possible. No, my goal is to share the love that I have for the liturgy so that others may have faith. I do my absolute best to stick to the facts, never outright sharing my opinion on any topic, but there’s no question that my own experience and theology is behind the whole creative process. This series is about telling a story, not about reciting the official rubrics one by one. My hope is that, in sharing my passion for this great communal worship and offering the foundation for its logic, that others will be inspired enough to study the documents themselves and come to their own conclusions of what each part means, why they’re important, and how to share that experience with others.
If that sounds like something you’re interested in, or maybe something that would benefit someone else, I encourage you to join me each Friday for a new installment.