Saturday, October 8, 2011

A Little Guide to the Mass: The Liturgy of the Word, Part 1

I can't tell you how tempted I am to start into more introductory material.  Why? I'm scared to go into the Mass itself.  It's so big, so deep, so wonderful, that how can I hope to do it any justice at all? Not only that, but these are just my own personal thoughts on the Mass, and I don't want to take anyone down some strange path. However, in this post, I'm going to at least try to get you into the door of the church, and maybe farther.

Keep in mind as we go through this that the Scripture isn't just a really informative book.  It's the Word of God.  It is living through us in each of our daily lives, and we are living it in the Mass as well.  The Scripture tells us the story of our salvation, and in the Mass we are living our salvation, and working out our salvation* all at the same time.

As Catholics walk through the door, we bless ourselves with holy water.  Seriously!  A whole post right here, folks! I love the Sign of the Cross.  If we think about what we are doing, it is not a mere gesture.  It is a prayer in and of itself.  It is a profession of faith.  It is a petition for mercy.  It is an acceptance of love freely offered.  We begin the Sign of the Cross "In the name".  Think about that for a moment.  One name, but three persons. Then we continue as we touch our foreheads, "of the Father", then our hand goes down to the breastbone, "and of the Son", and we touch our left shoulder "and of the Holy" and our hand moves to the right shoulder "Spirit."  We profess our faith in the Godhead, each of the three persons of the Trinity. Maybe another thing to think about as we touch our heads is to open our minds to understand, and moving on, our hearts to love Him, and offering our shoulders to serve Him.

We have professed in our words the belief in the Trinity.  We have shown by our actions our belief in the cross that saves us.  We beg mercy for our sins by placing ourselves under the cross, and we accept the love of Christ on the cross by recognizing and receiving the salvation that is found at the cross.  When we add in the holy water as at church, we are reminded also of our baptism that has saved us (keep in mind that Catholics believe that " saves us" -1 Pet 3:21- and that we are born again- or from above- of water and the Holy Spirit- Jn 3:5).

See how long this post is already?  And we haven't even walked all the way into church yet, let alone started Mass!

Often, as you walk into a Catholic church, there is a large, prominently displayed crucifix (a cross with an image of the crucified Christ on it).  It is often said that Catholics should take Jesus off the cross and recognize that He is risen.  We do recognize that.  We would be fools to follow a Christ who's passion ended not with the resurrection but with His death.  Yet how can the resurrection come about without first having His death?  Not only that, but as one priest said, if we were going to follow that logic to the end, we should take baby Jesus out of the manger and leave a sign that says "He is risen!" Rather, we leave Him up there.  Not to trap Him on the cross, but to capture our attention.  To remind us of the scope of our sins and the enormity of His love.  It is the gospel being preached in the silence. It's funny, I don't realize how much I look to the crucifix until I'm in one of the churches that doesn't have one, or only has a small one off to the side. Then I'm searching until I find it.  I want to be at the foot of the cross, and though I know a crucifix is a mere image, it is an image that helps to ground me in the reality that is to come in the Mass.

Now we are in the main part of the church. Some Catholic churches are now pretty simple.  If you love simple and minimalist, that's got its advantages.  I, on the other hand, love the ones that still surround us with the statues of the saints.  We are literally surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, who cheer us on in our own race, knowing full well what it takes to run this race (Heb 12:1).  It is true that the statues themselves are not witnessing a thing (seems silly to have to say that, but be accused of worshipping statues enough times and you learn to over clarify).  But they remind us of the people that they signify, who are truly witnesses to us, helping us and cheering us on.

We are surrounded by witnesses and in front of us is the tabernacle containing Jesus.  Unlike the ark of the Old Covenant that contained the manna of Moses, this is the true Bread from Heaven. (See John 6) Therefore, before stepping into the pew, we genuflect, or bend our knees before Him (Phil 2:10).  We bend our right knee, because the left knee was what you used to bow before a king, but the right knee is what you use to bow before divinity. Once in the pew, we kneel for a few moments of prayer, to collect ourselves and our thoughts for what is to come. Kneeling and genuflection is a sign of humility, a recognition of what He is and we are not.  It is not servile, because if we didn't believe in His love, how would we dare to come before Him at all?

In a moment, Mass actually starts.  However, I'm going to have to leave that for the next post, because this one is getting out of hand.  So much for my plan of doing this in a total of three posts!

*No, not salvation by works.  Salvation by grace, but like Paul tells us "So then, my beloved, obedient as you have always been, not only when I am present, but even more now when I am absent, work out your salvation in fear and trembling. For God is the one who, for his good purpose, works in you both to desire and to work." (Phil 2:12-13)


  1. Hmmm, I didn't know about the right knee being for divinity and the left knee being for royalty! Neat! I'll be thinking about this the next time I genuflect. :)

  2. So interesting and informative! I'm toying with the idea of sharing this with my parents, so they have some idea of what the heck we're doing on the rare occasion that they come to mass with us.

    It's kind of a silly thing to stress about, but we hadn't been making the sign of the cross for prayers until Miriam came along, and now we don't know whether or not to do it when we're with my family? I think we'll end up doing it all the time, but right now we're at this awkward point where we'll do it sometimes (like at our house) but not others (at their house) and others are a crapshoot (at restaurants). Are there any "rules" about when the make the sign of the cross when praying?