On the other hand, I guess it takes the pressure off. There is no possible way that I could explain it adequately, so I guess I'll have to try to do my best at a poor explanation.
The very beginning of the Liturgy of the Eucharist is the Presentation of Gifts/Preparation of the Altar.
Priest: Blessed are you, Lord, God of all creation. Through your goodness we have this bread to offer, which the earth has given and human hands have made. It will become for us the bread of life.
All: Blessed be God forever.
Whatever we have, whatever we bring to the altar, comes because of His grace for us. I can't remember where I heard it, so take it with a grain or two of salt, but I heard that when the priest lifts the gifts up as he prays these words, it is thought to be like the wave offerings of the Old Testament. I also remember a story about a woman with a Jewish background, who, hearing these words (particularly our response) thought that it sounded very familiar, because that is a frequent response in Jewish prayer as well.
Next, the same prayer is prayed over the wine.
Then, the priest "washes" his hands. This is very much a ritual washing, because no one would get clean with the typical way this is done, but it's not about proper handwashing. It's about the priest acknowledging that he is a sinner and turning humbly to God for forgiveness before he offers the greatest sacrifice.
(Usually said quietly) "Lord, wash away my iniquity, and cleanse me of my sin."
Then the priest turns back to us.
Priest: Pray, my brothers and sisters, that our sacrifice may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father.
All:May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands, for the praise and glory of his name, for our good and the good of all his holy Church.
I used to wonder a bit about this. If we believe what the Catholic Church teaches, that this really is the Body of Christ and His one and perfect sacrifice that we are offering, why wouldn't it be acceptable to God? But when I think about it, it's really more about the fact that we are not just offering Him, we are offering ourselves. The Mass is not a one way street. And let's face it, all we have to offer of ourselves is none too pretty, seeing as how any good in us is from Him, so all we have to offer is our sin and weakness. You know what? That's exactly what He wants from us. We bring ourselves, and our problems and we offer them at the altar, uniting ourselves with His sacrifice, and His perfect sacrifice transforms ours.
The Preface Dialogue is as follows:
Priest: The Lord be with you. All: And with your spirit.
Priest: Lift up your hearts. All: We lift them up to the Lord.
Priest: Let us give thank thanks to the Lord, our God. All: It is right and just.*
After the priest prays over the gifts of the altar, and the Eucharistic prayer begins. Pay attention. Remember that the Mass is not just for the people sitting there in the pews. The Mass is about the entire mystical Body of Christ. Pay attention in the Eucharistic prayer, and you will hear many people mentioned. We pray for the pope and the bishops, we often ask for the prayer of the saints who have gone before us, as well as our fathers in faith, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Different Eucharistic prayers emphasize different aspects, but remember that the Mass is always prayed in community.
Next is one of my favorite moments of the Mass, the Holy, Holy, Holy.
Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of hosts,
Heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.
Isaiah 6:3-4 (Note: "They" refers to the seraphim surrounding the Lord's throne and serving at His altar):
"Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts!" they cried one to the other. "All earth is filled with his glory." At the sound of that cry, the frame of the door shook and the house was filled with smoke.This is the beginning of the call of Isaiah. Shortly after this description of his vision of heaven, one of the seraphim brought a burning coal from the altar to his lips to purify him for his mission as prophet of Israel.
This means that we are joining the cry of the angels in heaven. Do not be fooled by the plain pews and the seemingly mundane routine. As we join the chorus, the heavens shake. When we receive the Bread of Life from the altar, we, too, are purified and sent to be prophets to the world. This cry is repeated in John's vision of heavenly worship in Revelation 4:8.
Next, let's look at Psalm 118: 19-29:
Open the gates of victory;
I will enter and thank the Lord.
This is the Lord's own gate,
where the victors enter.
I thank you for you answered me;
you have been my savior.
The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone.
By the Lord has this been done;
it is wonderful in our eyes.
This is the day the Lord has made;
Let us rejoice in it and be glad.
Lord, grant salvation!
Lord, grant good fortune!
Blessed is he
who comes in the name of the Lord.
We bless you from the Lord's house.
The Lord is God and has given us light.
Join in procession with leafy branches
up to the horns of the altar.
You are my God, I give you thanks;
my God, I offer you praise.
Give thanks to the Lord, who is good,
whose love endures forever.
I am not looking tons of stuff up, but if I remember correctly, this was a psalm that the Jews felt referred to the Messiah. That is why they greeted Jesus with the words "Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" when he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. They were proclaiming their belief that He was the Messiah. Note that the Psalm refers to a procession with leafy branches. Accident? I think not. (By the way, the Hebrew phrase that means "grant salvation" is translated into English as "hosanna".)
It is a joyful, thankful psalm, rejoicing in the day of salvation. Rejoicing that the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. Little did the Jew suspect that even though they were so right in identifying the Savior and the day of salvation, how it would all come about in the Crucifixion.
As we conclude the Holy, Holy, Holy, we join with the Jews in recognizing the Messiah, in recognizing our salvation. Just as their proclamation on His entry into Jerusalem leads into the story of His sacrifice on the cross, our proclamation leads us into the sacrifice of the Mass. (They are one and the same, just to be clear. The Mass makes present Christ's sacrifice on the cross. He is most definitely not re-sacrificed at every single Mass!)
The very end of the psalm returns us back to our previous prayer (that it is right and just to give Him thanks and praise.) It answers the why: because He is good, and His love endures forever.
Okay, I think that's more than enough for one day! Sorry this "little" guide is so long!
*I had a friend that left the Catholic Church, and this response really bothered her (or rather the previous response, "It is right to give him thanks and praise.") This was not why she left the Church, of course, but she didn't like it. The best that I could tell was that this bothered her because she didn't want to be told to do it because it was right. She wanted to give thanks and praise out of the sincerity of her heart. I agree that it is more pure to pray this out of love, but it truly is right and just to give thanks and praise to the One who gives us so much. It doesn't bother me, even with my jokingly diagnosed ODD (oppositional defiant disorder; the more you tell me what to do, or try to guilt trip me, the less likely it is to happen.) I guess this note isn't important, but I think of her every time we say this part of the Mass, especially with the new translation.