After being “sent out” with the homily, creed, and universal prayer, bringing the Liturgy of the Word to a close, the Mass begins again (in a sense) with the Liturgy of the Word. And just as the congregation was gathered in and prepared, given a gift, and sent out to share that gift in the Liturgy of the Word, so, too, will it be with the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

In many ways the most practical part of the Mass—the altar needs to be set in order for the sacrifice to take place—many forget that every action in the mass is filled with symbolic meaning that help the congregation enter more deeply into the mystery. Sure, the practical reality is that we need to get the gifts from point A to point B, but do we ever stop to wonder why? Do we stop to ask how it should be done? Too often, I see parishes diminish the preparation of the gifts to a merely practical act and the richness of the gesture is lost. Here are a few “pet peeves” that I notice.

The collection is not brought to the altar, or if it is, it is brought up afterwards and not acknowledged by the priest. While, yes, the overall point of the collection is to raise money for the church and its needs, there is also a sense that it is a symbolic act of participation on behalf of the whole congregation. We are quite literally giving from ourselves what is necessary for the sacrifice before us and life of the church. It is not simply a practical necessity that we throw into the liturgy at this time because the people have nothing to do; it is integrally connected to the preparation of the altar and offering sacrifice. In this act, the congregation offers its own sacrifices in the form of donations, symbolic of our spiritual sacrifices. For this reason, it is very important that the collection be brought to the altar and received by the priest along with the bread and wine.

The gifts are all stacked on the altar by the altar servers so that they can go do other things. Just as it is the priest who receives the gifts from the congregation, it is the role of the priest to pray over them and place them on the altar. Placing them on the holy altar is a serious act of bringing the preparation to a conclusion, a concrete act of beginning the sacrifice. To simply stack the bread off to the side or place the wine down indiscriminately without any prayer or intention diminishes this act. There should be intentionality to this act, which means that only that which is being offered as sacrifice should be placed on the altar, and only when it is ready to be offered should it be placed down (and not moved or fiddled with until the actual institution narrative.)

The gifts are “offered” to God during the preparation. Often you will see at this time the priest holding the bread and wine above his head while raising his eyes. While no words are spoken, the gesture seems to indicate that he is raising the gifts to heaven, “offering” them to God. While seemingly intuitive, this is actually not the point of this part of the mass; the priest does not “offer” the gifts to God at this moment (this will come later with the anamnesis.) His purpose is to begin the fourfold act of Jesus: Take, Bless, Break, and Give. At this point, he is merely completing the act of taking, and blessing what has been received, offering a brief word of thanksgiving to God. For this reason, the Roman Missal is clear that when saying a prayer over the gifts, he “holds it slightly raised above the altar with both hands.”

Washing one’s fingertips alone. This final one may not make a lot of sense to the congregation as it is almost never seen, but it is still a weird pet peeve. After the gifts have been placed on the altar, the priest turns to the side and washes his hands. Starting in ancient times as a literal act of washing hands (because he has just received assorted gifts from the people that are no doubt dirty), today, we recognize this as a symbolic act of purification before offering the sacrifice: the priest asks to be worthy of what he is about to do. Some priests, however, taking the washing too literally, pour water simply on their fingertips, as, I guess, they believe that this is the only part of them that will actually touch the bread and chalice. This greatly diminishes the power of the sign and runs the risk of perpetuating a very narrow theology of cleanliness as we approach the body and blood of Christ. Is the host such that we should be afraid to touch it outside of our fingertips? Are we only to cleanse that which will touch it and not our whole selves? Wash your whole hands. And use lots of water.

In any event, I’m sure this post of pet peeves could go on for a long time and I could make an entire series out of it, but in the interest of time and charity, I will stop here. My point, I hope you understand, is not to go on a rant or to criticize churches that do any of these things, but to show that even the most practical acts can have tremendous symbolic importance, and if we are not careful to understand why we are doing what we do, the entire Mass may sink into one giant practical act. When people claim that they are bored at Mass or that their liturgy is unengaging, this is generally why: shortcuts are made for practical reasons, keeping only what it necessary and losing what is beautiful. Brevity is wonderful, but when something is meaningless, no matter how short, it will always be more of a chore than something that is lengthy but full of beauty and significance.

No.

Not even a little bit.

And I’m not saying anything against Catholic theology.

You see, whenever we get into important theological definitions, the language we use is incredibly important. Precision matters, and while it may sound like two explanations are saying the same thing, they might be actually quite different.

Take, for instance, the Catholic stance on justification. For many, the difference between us and Lutherans is that they believe in “faith alone” while Catholics believe in “faith plus works.” You’ve probably heard this before. And it’s… sort of true. More precisely, Catholics believe that justification is through faith, something that issues forth in works. We could simplify it to say that Catholics believe in “faith plus works,” but it might imply that what we are saying is that we can do good works to achieve our own salvation, something that is actually heretical. Rather, salvation is through faith, and if it is a true faith, it will manifest itself in the form of good works. Similar to “faith plus works”? Yes. A bit wordier? Absolutely. Theologically different? You betcha.

Whew. That was a long example to make a point. I hope I didn’t lose you.

The reason I say this is because Catholics do not believe that the pope is infallible. Rather, Catholics believe that the teaching authority of the papacy enjoys infallibility. It may sound like the exact same thing and that we are needlessly splitting hairs, but it’s actually quite significant. In the latter, what we are saying is that the office of the papacy, regardless of who holds it, may speak without error under specific circumstances; in the former, what we are saying is that the human person who is the pope cannot be wrong. This is a major difference, and why I believe that so many people scoff at the idea of papal infallibility. Frankly, they just don’t understand it.

But this is not the case for you! At least, it won’t be the case after you watch this week’s Catholicism in Focus. More than anything, I hope that it will serve as another example of how important it is that we get our language right and are attentive to the words we are saying. Too often we get trapped standing by things that are false, rightfully attacked by non-Catholics for our beliefs, simply because we have used sloppy language. These things are important, and we must take them seriously!

After being called in and prepared in the Introductory Rites, and given a great gift in the Word of God, the congregation now sits for what is ultimately the most interesting—or most excruciating—part of the mass: the homily.

Theologically speaking, the homily is far from the most integral part of the Mass (it may even be omitted for serious reason); surely the reading of Christ’s words and receiving the body of Christ are more essential to the act of worship than what the priest comes up with each week. And yet, survey after survey marks the homily as one of the most important aspects of a good worship experience for church goers, and one of the most common reasons people choose to stop coming to Mass if they’re lackluster. It is something that pope Francis has spoken of multiple times:  our homilies must be more engaging.

It is a shame, frankly, that more people do not hear great homilies on a regular basis because it serves such an important role in the liturgy. In the words of the priest (or deacon), the world of Scripture intersects with our own worlds. It is his duty as the homilist to explain what we have just heard, giving context to the reading, while also showing how the readings are not simply 2000 year old stories but living accounts of God’s work in our world today.

For that is what this entire section of the liturgy is meant to do: to send us out. The homily, Creed, and General Intercessions serve to connect our own personal experience, in our own worlds, to the living Christ. In hearing the homily, actualizing our faith in the here and now, and calling to mind the places in the world that need Christ, we are given an opportunity to take what we’ve heard and put it into practice. While we do not physically leave the church just yet, our focus at this point is outward.

From the stern and oppressive theology that made everyone afraid of God, to hippie-inspired self-love  homilies that made sin irrelevant, the topic of sin has swung the pendulum back and forth over the past few generations leaving some to wonder, “What is sin?”

Really. I’ve had people ask me questions along these lines on multiple occasions. When we go from talking about it too much to never talking about it at all, people get confused.

It’s no wonder, then, that good and faithful people are looking to strike a balance between God’s law  and God’s mercy, emphasizing forgiveness while also trying to do everything they can not to need it. Sin is a serious problem, and some priests are rightfully preaching in a way to recapture an appropriate aversion to it in our lives. God may be forgiving, but that should not make us any more apt to sin.

I saw one such attempt recently on Twitter, and I thought that it’s intentions were right. At its core was a desire to please God, to inspire people to take their lives seriously, and realize that sin is nothing to mess with. Everything we do should reflect the fact that God is our greatest desire. That tweet? “A friendly reminder that whenever we give into sin we are saying ‘I want this more than God.”

So, yeah. As you can imagine, whenever someone compliments something for having the right intentions… you know that there’s a going to be a “but” to follow. This is no exception. I find this to be a really helpful reminder for certain people in certain situations (namely, those who do not take their lives seriously) but… I also think that it can be problematic, even harmful to others in a different situation (namely, those who are trying their hardest to please God but still struggling to overcome temptation.) Sin is always a turn from the will of God, but it does not necessarily say that we want our sin more than God. Sometimes, we need to remember that our will has been weakened, that our freedom is not perfectly intact, and that, even with our eyes fixed on God, we can make mistakes.

In this video, I do not completely disagree with this fellow evangelist’s words, but I wish to offer some nuance to them. I fear that, taken as it is, in only so many words, this very true and well-intentioned tweet might do harm to people already burdened by sin. To them, I want to offer a simple message: even if you sin, God still loves you. Never forget this.

A number of years back, I was at a parish for mass on Sunday when I heard something that shocked me to the core: the priest, referring to the Holy Spirit, said “she.”

Gasp!

At this point I can’t remember when exactly this was or when I first heard it, but I remember being very confused, even offended by it. Who did this priest think he was? God is not a “she.” He’s just trying to be hip or go with the trends of the world. Stick to the faith father and stop pushing an agenda.

Over the years, I began to hear this more, both by priests within Church and by other faithful Christians in other contexts, and I began to question my feelings on the matter: why does this offend me? I remember someone asking me one time, “You believe that God is neither male nor female, right? God is above gender? Then why does it offend you when we use the analogous language of “she” but not when we use “he”?

Fair question. God is not masculine by nature. God is not an old guy with a beard. God is pure being, completeness, beyond any particulars or potencies. Sure, God is often depicted in Scripture in traditionally masculine terms (most notably as “father” by Jesus), but God is also described in traditionally feminine terms as well. We tend to latch on to one, but not the other.

So, what’s my response today? Am I an advocate for beginning prayer “In the name of the Mother…” or “following her word”? Not necessarily. But I am more conscious of the fact that our language is wildly insufficient. I fear, sometimes, that we forget that we are using an analogy and begin to deify the wrong aspects of God. I fear, sometimes, that the title “Father” has become less of a term of endearment and more of an idol. For what is an idol but making something that is not God into God? If we believe that God is beyond gender, then what does it mean when we insist that God only be referred to through one gender?

Interesting questions for sure, and hopefully something that we can continue to approach with humility in the future!