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The Mass: The Liturgy of The Eucharist III

By Charles Johnston:

This post will be the fifth in this series overall (posts about The Mass), and the third on the liturgy of the Eucharist.

In the first installment we looked at the Introductory Rites , in the second we went over the Liturgy of the Word, and the the Third and Fourth looked at the Liturgy of the Eucharist up until where we are now at the Communion Rite.

The Communion Rite

  • The Lords Prayer

After the Great Amen, we all stand, and transition into the Communion Rite. We join in the great prayer that Christ taught us. In fact, this is the only prayer that Jesus taught His disciples during their three years together (as far as we know).

It always struck me as odd, that the priest says “we dare to say…” right before we pray the Lord’s Prayer. But when you think on the words of the prayer, we are daring to call the Creator of the universe “Our Father.” This was somewhat edgy for Jewish Christians, they seen God as Father, but in a far less familiar way than we do today, but gentile converts would most likely be shocked by this idea that the most powerful being in the universe, the one and only God of all creation, could be conversed with as “Father.”

Such a concept would be unimaginable to the people accustomed to the Greek and Roman paganism of the gentiles. Their gods were cruel and petty, they had little or no care for the people who worshiped them, and only restrained themselves from smiting their worshipers because they brought gifts of wine and gold. But this Christian God was approachable, loving, caring, and didn’t require extravagant sacrifices to satiate His hunger, He only wanted a relationship with His creation and for them to love Him. Had it not been at “our Savior’s command, and formed by Divine teaching” they may have rejected this idea all together.

In that light, saying that we “dare” to call God “Father” makes a lot more sense.

(The Lord’s Prayer deserves more space than I can dedicate to it here, but I wrote a separate piece on it, that you can find at this Link)

  • Sign of Peace

Jesus promised to give us “peace that surpasses all understanding,” so it’s fitting that the liturgy has us exchange a sign of peace while Christ is physically present on the altar in the form of the consecrated Host and the Precious Blood. It is the presence of Christ in our lives that brings peace, and it’s the manifested physical presence that we recognize by sharing this sign of peace.

The words that the priest quotes, when inviting us to share in Christ’s peace, come from the Gospel of John. We should take a moment to explore this verse and it’s deeper meaning,

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.

John 14:27

Notice that Jesus makes a distinction between the peace that the world offers, and the peace that He gives.

The peace that the world offers isn’t true peace, it’s a momentary absence of conflict. Just look at what’s commonly known as the “Pax Romana,” it was a time of less war, and less conflict, but it wasn’t absolute peace. The peace of the world is wrought by the strong subjugating the weak, it’s brought about by force, either political force or on the battlefield. It’s tenuous, it’s fragile, and it’s illusory. As soon as the enemies of Rome sensed weakness they invaded and sacked the city, bringing an end to the “peace” that the Roman Empire brought to the world. A peace, you will remember, that was enforced by a Roman governor, consenting to the brutal execution of a man he knew was innocent, all in the name of “keeping the peace.” Pilate was more concerned about a potential disruption of this fragile “peace” that he handed Christ over to be crucified. That’s not real peace.

The peace of Christ is a peace that is unlike the peace the world offers, because it is permanent, it’s robust, and it’s is concretely real. The peace that Christ offers is a peace that is quite literally out of this world. The peace of Christ, is a peace that surpasses all understanding (Philippians 4:7)

It is also a reminder of another teaching of Christ, that we are to reconcile with our brothers before making an offering on the altar, and as we just said minutes earlier, the offering on the altar is Christ and is offered by the priest on our behalf, so we reconcile with those around us in a real and symbolic way before we approach the altar of the Lord.

So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

Matthew 5:23-24

  • Fraction Rite & Agnus Dei

After the sign of peace, two simultaneous actions take place; The priest carries out the Fraction Rite, and the people sing the Agnus Dei. We’ll explore each, as though they were separated, but they actually are a single movement of the liturgy.

Fraction Rite

The priest takes the Host, he breaks it over the patten, and places a small piece in the chalice.

The priest breaks the Eucharistic Bread, assisted, if the case calls for it, by the deacon or a concelebrant. Christ’s gesture of breaking bread at the Last Supper, which gave the entire Eucharistic Action its name in apostolic times, signifies that the many faithful are made one body (1 Corinthians 10:17) by receiving Communion from the one Bread of Life which is Christ, who died and rose for the salvation of the world. The fraction or breaking of bread is begun after the sign of peace and is carried out with proper reverence, though it should not be unnecessarily prolonged, nor should it be accorded undue importance. This rite is reserved to the priest and the deacon. The priest breaks the Bread and puts a piece of the host into the chalice to signify the unity of the Body and Blood of the Lord in the work of salvation, namely, of the living and glorious Body of Jesus Christ.

GIRM 83

The reason he breaks the bread is twofold, one is because that is what the Gospels say Jesus done at the Last Supper (Luke 22:19), and the other is to symbolize how Our Lord’s Body was broken for us.

Placing a piece of the Host into the chalice is called “commingling” and it comes from an ancient practice of the Church. Back in the earliest days of the Church, the celebration of the Eucharist was carried out by an apostle, or by an appointed successors of an apostles who were the first bishops. When the bishop’s church grew large enough that there would be multiple Eucharistic celebrations, he would appoint priests to celebrate the Eucharist.

To maintain a connection to the bishop, his liturgy, and his apostolic succession, he would break off a small piece of consecrated Host called a Fermentum, and this would be sent out to all his priests to be commingled with the chalice at their Eucharistic celebrations.

The Pope would also send out a Fermentum to other bishops, this being a show of unity, and their acceptance showed they were in communion with the successor of Saint Peter, The Bishop of Rome.

As the Church spread, and dioceses grew much larger, and persecutions forced the Church underground, this practice fell out of use, but’s its legacy lives on in the Mass to this day.

The commingling of the Body and Blood of Christ has come to take on another spiritual meaning, apart from the ancient practice of Fermentum, and is seen to represent the Resurrection of Christ, when His Body and Soul were reunited in the tomb.

While he does this, the priest says in a low voice,

May this mingling of the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ bring eternal life to us who receive it.

Agnus Dei

While the priest is breaking the Host, and mingling it in the chalice, the congregation sings (or recites) the Agnus Dei.

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace.

This prayer is based partly on the words of John the Baptist in the Gospel of John, and these word are repeated verbatim by the priest a little further on in the Liturgy,

The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!

John 1:29

Jesus is our Passover Lamb, and is depicted as a Lamb by Saint John in Revelation 29 times. The reason this image of a lamb is repeated so many times in Revelation, and in our Liturgy, is because Jesus went to the altar of His Cross as the High Priest (Hebrews 5:10) and gave Himself as a sacrifice that could actually cleanse us of our sins, unlike the lambs and bulls of the Old covenant that only covered up sins (Hebrews 10).

Throughout the liturgy, just like it is throughout the New Testament, the image of the lamb that was slain is very prominent. This makes sure that the reality of Christ’s sacrifice as our Passover Lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7) is enshrined in our hearts and minds.

Silent Prayer of the Priest

After the singing or recitation of the Agnus Dei, and after he finishes the Fraction Rite that takes place simultaneously, the priest prays this prayer quietly (sometimes not so quietly):

May the receiving of your Body and Blood,

Lord Jesus Christ,

not bring me to judgment and condemnation,

but through your loving mercy

be for me protection in mind and body

and a healing remedy.

Behold

At this moment, the priest genuflects to show reverence to the person who’s sacrificed is present on the altar. He then elevates the consecrated elements, elements that have been substantively changed from mere bread and wine, into the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, and says,

Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb.

This is a conjunction of two verses of scripture. The first part are the words of Saint John the Baptist when he seen Jesus coming down to the Jordan river,

The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!

John 1:29

The second part comes from the Revelation of Saint John,

And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are true words of God.”

Revelation 19:9

The “supper of the Lamb” that this proclamation is referring to is not just the eating the flesh of our Passover Lamb at Mass, it’s not just our participation in the sacrifice of Calvary, and it’s not just the earthly participation in the heavenly liturgy, but it’s also a hopeful anticipation of being partakers in the “marriage supper of the Lamb” that is mentioned a couple verses earlier in Revelation.

Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory,for the marriage of the Lamb has come,and his Bride has made herself ready;

Revelation 19:7

Throughout the Scriptures, both in the Old and New Testaments, the image of God and His people is portrayed as a Bride and her Groom. Jesus Himself used this imagery, and so did Saint Paul throughout his epistles. The Church is the bride of Christ, and our eternity with Him is the great wedding feast that we have been called to, if we persevere and remain in a state of grace and friendship with God. If we keep our lamps filled with oil and their wicks trimmed, we will be blessed to enter this feast on the last day (Matthew 25:1-13).

This “blessed are we who are called” statement is one of the many multivalent declarations in the Mass. We are blessed to be called to have faith in Christ and be members of His Church; We are blessed to receive the Eucharist and consume the Lamb of God; We are blessed to called to partake of this heavenly feast, where we will eat the bread of life for all eternity.

A feast described by the prophet Isaiah 750 years before the Groom took on human flesh and came to establish His Church to be His bride,

On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of fat things, a feast of choice wines-of fat things full of marrow, of choice wines well refined. And he will destroy on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death for ever, and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken. It will be said on that day, “Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the LORD; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”

Isaiah 25:6-9

The prayer of the Centurion

But the centurion answered him, ” Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only say the word, and my servant will be healed.

Matthew 8:8

As the priest raises the Host and Chalice, the faithful pray the prayer of the centurion from the Gospels. The centurion was a righteous man according to Saint Luke’s account, and heard of Jesus healing people so he sought Him out. But the centurion’s faith was so strong that when Jesus offered to come to his house, the centurion said that he believed Jesus’ words were enough to heal. This was a prophetic statement from this man, because Jesus’ word is what created the universe according to the prologue of the Gospel of John.

This is the same faith that we must have when we earnestly pray the words of this faithful man. We pray his words with only the slight change of “my servant” to “my soul,” and we have to realize that every time we receive the Eucharist, Christ does heal us, but although this healing isn’t alway physical – though He is more than capable of healing our physical bodies if He willed it- our souls are always healed through the reception of His Body and Blood. We receive grace upon grace through this precious gift, and become more ordered to His will, and strengthened against our inclination to sin due to our fallen nature.

By consuming the flesh of Christ, and asking Him to enter under the roof of our soul, we become partakers of the Divine Nature (2 Peter 1:4) and just as he transsubstantiates the bread and wine into His Body and Blood, He will transform our human nature to be more like the Divine Nature.

Receiving the Eucharist

After we all pray the prayer of the centurion the priest gives himself communion. He, and any concelebrating priests, are the only ones who can give themselves communion. This act is called self communication, and is not allowed under any other circumstances.

The reason being that the Eucharist is a gift, and the gift must be given and then received. We receive Jesus, and His Body and Blood, by the will of God, as a gift from God, and through the ministry of the Church.

As the priest consumes the Eucharist under both species, he quietly prays this prayer,

May the Body of Christ keep me safe for eternal life.

May the Blood of Christ keep me safe for eternal life.

Just as the people of Israel were sustained in the desert by the manna that fell from heaven (Exodus 16), giving them food for the journey and nourishment to reach the promised land, we too have been given food for our souls to help us on our journey here on earth, until we reach the ultimate promised land of heaven.

The Manna that the Jews ate in the desert was bread from heaven, but it was only a foreshadowing of the Living bread from heaven. It sustained them in the desert, but it only nourished them physically, the Bread that Christ will give us, will nourish us spiritually and for all eternity. This what Jesus promised us when He told us that if we eat the “living bread come down from heaven” we would have eternal life,

I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die.I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

John 6:48-51

Purification of the Vessels

After the reception of Holy Communion, we return to our pew and kneel in a moment of silent reflection, giving thanks for the gift He gave us in the Eucharist.

While we are praying, the priest or the deacon, is busy at the altar purifying the vessels that were used during communion. This is not just “doing the dishes” as some people call it. This is actually a very important, and extremely reverent part of the liturgy.

Christ is physically present in every drop of His Precious Blood that remains in the chalice, and every crumb of Host that is in the ciborium or on the patten. Because of this, and because of the reverence that is due to our King and our Creator, we should remain in a posture of reverence (usually kneeling), an attitude of reverence, and maintain a reverential silence.

The time that is used for the purification of the vessels is not a time to socialize, to check your emails, or to get up and walk out of Mass. We should behave in a way that gives the respect and honor to Our Lord, present in the Blessed Sacrament, that He deserves.

While purifying the vessels, the priest of deacon prays a beautiful and profound prayer. This prayer is very ancient, and according to some liturgical scholars, it was once a prayer that all the faithful prayed after communion,

What has passed our lips as food, O Lord, may we possess in purity of heart, that what has been given to us in time may be our healing for eternity.

We receive the Eucharist “in time” but the sacraments graces and highest purpose are to take us out of time, and set us on a course for eternity.

(In the next installment we will briefly look at the Concluding Rites and some final thoughts on the Mass)

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