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The Mass: Liturgy of The Eucharist I

By Charles Johnston:

In the first installment of this series we looked at The Introductory Rites , in the second installment we explored the Liturgy of The Word, now we reach the pinnacle of the liturgy of the Church; The Liturgy of The Eucharist.This part of the Mass, and it really isn’t a part at all, it is actually a realization and a culmination of all that came before it, is the most sacred liturgical action performed for our God. Of all the many sacrifices and liturgies that have ever been offered to God, from Abraham’s offerings in the deserts of the Levant, to the Tabernacle at Shilo, and the Temple in Jerusalem, to the present day, the liturgy of the Eucharist is the most sacred because it is a re-presentation (not a representation) of the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary.

CCC 1330: The memorial of the Lord’s Passion and Resurrection.The Holy Sacrifice, because it makes present the one sacrifice of Christ the Savior and includes the Church’s offering. The terms holy sacrifice of the Mass, “sacrifice of praise,” spiritual sacrifice, pure and holy sacrifice are also used, since it completes and surpasses all the sacrifices of the Old Covenant.

It’s a moment that we “join all the angels and saints” outside the limitations of time and space, and mystically be made present at the foot of the cross where Christ offers Himself as the sacrificial victim to ransom us from the bond of death.

To understand the Mass you must understand the priesthood, and to understand the priesthood you must understand the Eucharist.

CCC 1324: The Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life.” “The other sacraments, and indeed all ecclesiastical ministries and works of the apostolate, are bound up with the Eucharist and are oriented toward it. For in the blessed Eucharist is contained the whole spiritual good of the Church, namely Christ himself, our Pasch.”

Without Christ’s real presence in the Blessed Sacrament, then the Mass is nothing more than just another “church service” among thousands of other denominations. And at the center of it all is the Eucharist, it is the lynchpin of the other six sacraments, and all the works of the Church.

But if you understand what is happening before your eyes, you will understand that you are witnessing a miracle at every Mass you participate in.

CCC 1367: The sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice: “The victim is one and the same: the same now offers through the ministry of priests, who then offered himself on the cross; only the manner of offering is different.” “And since in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass, the same Christ who offered himself once in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross is contained and is offered in an unbloody manner. . . this sacrifice is truly propitiatory.”

CCC 1410: It is Christ himself, the eternal high priest of the New Covenant who, acting through the ministry of the priests, offers the Eucharistic sacrifice. And it is the same Christ, really present under the species of bread and wine, who is the offering of the Eucharistic sacrifice.

Without taking into account the sacrificial nature of The Mass, we can never fully grasp and understand what is taking place before our very eyes. The Mass becomes just another church service, and in a world where church services are loud, exciting, using fog machines and strobe lights, then the mass is a comparatively boring service. But if we realize what is taking place, we can appreciate that the Mass is anything but just another “service.”

I’m convinced that properly, and thoughtfully catechizing lay Catholics on the nature of The Mass would make a major impact on keeping bodies in the pews, and helping souls to heaven by remaining in the Church founded by Christ. The General Instruction Of The Roman Missal (GIRM), when speaking about the centrality of the Mass, has this to say,

…the other sacred actions and all the activities of the Christian life are bound up with it, flow from it, and are ordered to it.

GIRM 16

It’s with this in mind that the Second Vatican Council declared that we should have “full, active, and conscious participation” in The Mass.

At the Last Supper, on the night when He was betrayed, our Saviour instituted the eucharistic sacrifice of His Body and Blood. He did this in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the Cross throughout the centuries until He should come again, and so to entrust to His beloved spouse, the Church, a memorial of His death and resurrection: a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, a paschal banquet in which Christ is eaten, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us.

The Church, therefore, earnestly desires that Christ’s faithful, when present at this mystery of faith, should not be there as strangers or silent spectators; on the contrary, through a good understanding of the rites and prayers they should take part in the sacred action conscious of what they are doing, with devotion and full collaboration. They should be instructed by God’s word and be nourished at the table of the Lord’s body; they should give thanks to God; by offering the Immaculate Victim, not only through the hands of the priest, but also with him, they should learn also to offer themselves; through Christ the Mediator, they should be drawn day by day into ever more perfect union with God and with each other, so that finally God may be all in all.

SACROSANCTUM CONCILIUM, paragraphs 47 & 48, Pope Paul VI 1963

(Emphasis added)

So let’s dive deep into this sacred moment that we have the joy of witnessing every time we attend Mass.

  • The Offertory

At the beginning of the Liturgy of the Eucharist the gifts, which will become Christ’s Body and Blood, are brought to the altar…

The offerings are then brought forward. It is praiseworthy for the bread and wine to be presented by the faithful. They are then accepted at an appropriate place by the priest or the deacon and carried to the altar. Even though the faithful no longer bring from their own possessions the bread and wine intended for the liturgy as in the past, nevertheless the rite of carrying up the offerings still retains its force and its spiritual significance.

It is well also that money or other gifts for the poor or for the Church, brought by the faithful or collected in the church, should be received. These are to be put in a suitable place but away from the Eucharistic table.

GIRM, 73

After the prayers of the faithful, the gifts are brought to the altar. These gifts are the bread and wine, the elements that will be offered to God as a sacrifice and will miraculously become the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

In days gone by, the faithful baked the bread and made the wine that was used by the priest during the Mass, but today the hosts are purchased from special manufacturers and the wine is often bought in a supermarket. The faithful still brings these gifts to the altar to represent the “gifts” that each Catholic brings to the Church, and gives it willingly as their time, talent, and treasure, to be used to build up the Kingdom here on earth. It also represents our participation in the sacrifice that will take place, as the priest later says, “that my sacrifice and yours…”

The use of bread and wine actually has more than the obvious meaning of it being what Jesus consecrated at the Last Supper. Bread and wine, especially in the context of a covenant meal, has very deep roots in the Old Testament. The very first person to be called a priest in the Bible, Melchizedek the King of Salem, brought out bread and wine when he blessed Abraham.

And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High.

Genesis 14:18

Melchizedek is a type, in typological terms, of Christ (with some people even taking the position that he was a pre-incarnation appearance of the Logos of God, Jesus). Also, when a priest is ordained, he is ordained into the priestly order of Melchizedek and not of the Aaronic priesthood (Hebrews 6:20). This sacrifice that is offered by the priest is a sacrifice of thanksgiving, just like the sacrifice of Melchizedek, because the word Eucharist means “thanksgiving” in Greek.

CCC 1333: …The Church sees in the gesture of the king-priest Melchizedek, who “brought out bread and wine,” a prefiguring of her own offering.

As GIRM 73 states, it is ordinarily the role of the faithful to bring the gifts forward to the altar, and this action is symbolic of the people presenting both their sacrifices and prayers on the altar of God.

  • The Preparation of The Gifts

In the preparation of the Gifts, especially the prayer over the gifts, we see clearly that the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is also inextricably linked to the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. Since the Last Supper was a Passover celebration, it only makes sense that many elements in the Liturgy of the Eucharist shares themes and symbols with the Jewish Passover.

Saint Paul likened our Eucharistic celebration with the feast of Passover, and the early father’s called the Passion and resurrection of Christ, and by extension the Eucharist, “the Passover of Christ.”

Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be new dough, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Paschal Lamb, has been sacrificed.

Let us, therefore, celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

1 Corinthians 5:7-8

During the preparation of the gifts, and the instruments on the altar, such as the paten and corporal, you may notice the deacon, or the priest, pouring a small amount of water into the wine in the chalice.

The are several reasons for this mingling if water and wine, but the primary reason is because that’s how Jesus would’ve prepared the cup that He gave to His disciples at the Last Supper. It was a common practice in the ancient world to dilute wine before serving it, but it was especially prescribed in the Passover liturgy that Christ and His disciples were celebrating on the night of the last supper.

The Haggadah (the book that lays out the liturgy of the Seder meal, or you could say it’s the Jewish equivalent of the GIRM) prescribes the way the meal is to be eaten, and the dishes to be served, including the mingling of water and wine. The Babylonian Talmud even says exactly how much water to put into the wine.

This all took on deep messianic symbolism by the early Church Fathers; with some seeing it as a representation of the water and blood that flowed from Christ’s side on the cross; others seen the wine as a representation of Christ, and the water as the Church, joined together in one cup; and still others seen it as the hypostatic union of Christ’s divinity and humanity.

I think it represents all of those opinions, but when it is mixed, a prayer is prayed that gives light to how the Church sees it. Not that it invalidates the other symbols, but that it chose this one symbol to highlight in the liturgy. As the priest or deacon mixes the two, he prays these words quietly,

By the mystery of this water and wine

may we come to share in the divinity of Christ

who humbled himself to share in our humanity.

These words are not usually heard by the faithful, unless the church is silent, and you are sitting very near to the altar, but they are exceedingly rich theologically. The fact that God became man to allow us to have a share in His divinity is one of the central mysteries of faith. We become “partakers of the Divine Nature” (2 Peter 1:4) of God every time we receive Him the the Most Holy Eucharist. (CCC 1129 & 1997)

(This next portion, from this point until the priest says “pray brethren…”, may be said aloud for the congregation to hear, or may be said quietly while a song plays and the offering is taken up. It’s up to the discretion of the celebrant)

After the gifts are brought forward, the priest prays over them with these words. First taking the bread he prays,

Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation,

for through your goodness we have received

the bread we offer you:

fruit of the earth and work of human hands,

it will become for us the bread of life.

And the people respond with “Blessed be God forever.”

Then the priest takes the chalice and prays over it,

Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation,

for through your goodness we have received

the wine we offer you:

fruit of the vine and work of human hands,

it will become our spiritual drink.

And once again we respond with “Blessed be God forever.”

When Jesus and His disciples ate meals together, and when they celebrated the Last Supper, He would have said blessings over the bread and wine that would sound very similar to the prayers over the gifts that we hear at every Mass. Since Christianity comes from Jewish roots, this similarity shouldn’t surprise us at all.

Here is the Jewish blessing of bread and wine to compare with the prayer over the gifts,

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the
Universe, Who brings forth bread from the earth.

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the
Universe, Who creates the fruit of the vine.

After these prayers of blessings over the bread and wine, the priest bows and says in a low voice,

With humble spirit and contrite heart

may we be accepted by you, O Lord,

and may our sacrifice in your sight this day

be pleasing to you, Lord God.

This is another of the several quiet prayers that the faithful rarely hear. And like the last one, it is a very beautiful prayer that shows the servant heart that the priest is supposed to have. A Catholic priest is not the high official, like pagan priests were in the ancient world, he is a servant of the people, and he reminds himself of this fact at every Mass. This is why one of the Pope’s titles is “Servant of the Servants of God” because he has an important job to shepherd the people, but not to rule them as an absolute tyrant.

This prayer is very similar to prayer that Azariah prayed while in the furnace in the Book of Daniel,

Yet with a contrite heart and a humble spirit may we be accepted,as though it were with burnt offerings of rams and bulls,and with tens of thousands of fat lambs;

Daniel 3:39

  • Lavabo

At this part of the Mass, the priest turns from the altar and washes his hands with the help of the altar servers or the deacon. This may come as a surprise to many, but this hand washing is actually the second time the priest washes his hands as part of the Mass; the first time takes place when he is vesting (putting on his liturgical clothing) and is part of a series of prayers called the vesting prayers.

While he washes his hands, he says this prayer that is taken from Psalms 51:2,

Wash me, O Lord, from my iniquity

and cleanse me from my sin.

This is a classic penitential psalm, asking God to renew the psalmist’s heart and cleanse him from his sins.

Many Catholics will link this hand washing to the way Pilate washes his hands during Christ’s Passion. But the priest is not acting “in persona Pilate” as it were, he is performing his priestly duties of offering sacrifice to God In Persona Chisti.

In the letter to the Hebrews, it is said that Christ is our High Priest, and He is also the sacrificial victim, who offers Himself on the altar for the atonement of the whole world.

Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.

Hebrews 14:4

So for the priest to wash his hands of the “guilt” of the sacrifice doesn’t make sense. But hand washing, as a liturgical act, actually predates the Passion of Our Lord by about 1300 years.

The LORD said to Moses,

“You shall also make a laver of bronze, with its base of bronze, for washing. And you shall put it between the tent of meeting and the altar, and you shall put water in it,

with which Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet.

When they go into the tent of meeting, or when they come near the altar to minister, to burn an offering by fire to the LORD, they shall wash with water, lest they die.

They shall wash their hands and their feet, lest they die: it shall be a statute for ever to them, even to him and to his descendants throughout their generations.”

Exodus 30:17-21

After the First council of Jerusalem, that is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, the Church declared that we are no longer bound by the ceremonial Law of the Old Covenant. So then why did we keep this ceremonial act of washing, and why is it done so publicly beside the altar? Because the Church is reminding us, not with words, but with actions visible before us, that the Mass is a sacrifice, and the priest is preparing himself to offer that sacrifice!

  • Orate, Fratres

This prayer is named such because of the opening words, “pray brethren” in English, and at this command we stand at attention.

When we pray at Mass, there are two possible positions, one is standing, and the other kneeling. During the coming Eucharistic prayer, we will employ both positions. Kneeling in reverence and petition during the Epiclesis and Anamnesis, and standing as the body of Christ, the Church Militant, at the Lord’s Prayer.

What is often overlooked is that the priest says “my sacrifice and yours.” What then is our sacrifice? Our sacrifice is the daily crosses that we carry, all our cares and our worries, all our sufferings, and all our intentions. (See Mediator Dei, 91-93)

The Saints have said that if you could see with spiritual eyes, you’d see your guardian angel walking up to the altar and offering your intentions with those of the priest, uniting our sacrifice with that of the Mass (Colossians 1:24).

Also in this prayer, the priest is preparing to bring the offering of this sacrificial victim to the very throne of God, he is preparing for this miraculous moment by petitioning God to accept this sacrifice on behalf of His people, and preparing for the moment when we enter into the timeless sacrifice of Calvary.

Pray, brethren (brothers and sisters), that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father.

The people rise and reply:

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.

After this prayer, the priest extends his hands over the gifts and prays over them.

The people, uniting themselves to this entreaty, make the prayer their own with the acclamation, Amen.

GIRM, 77

We pray that the Lord will accept the sacrifice at the hands of the priest, and as the Girm puts it, we are ‘uniting ourselves to this entreaty’ that the the sacrifice is both ours and the priests and it is being accomplished for not just all present, but for the “the good of all His {God’s} holy Church.”

(In the next installment, we will go over the Eucharistic Prayer itself)

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