There are two main parts of the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass: the liturgy of the Word and liturgy of the Eucharist. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that these two main parts “together form ‘one single act of worship… (CCC 1346).’” Let’s explore the four main subdivisions of the Roman Rite Mass: the Introductory Rites, the Liturgy of the Word, the Liturgy of the Eucharist, and the Concluding Rites. All of these, taken together, are the Mass, the one perfect prayer of Christ from beginning to end.
The Mass begins with an entrance antiphon or a hymn. The celebrant (the priest celebrating Mass) and other ministers, such as the altar servers and deacon, enter in procession with him. The priest then reverences the altar with a bow and kiss. This is done because the altar is not merely a table. The altar is Christ standing sacramentally in the midst of His people.
The priest then makes the Sign of the Cross, greeting the people in words from Sacred Scripture. The priest says, “The Lord be with you,” and we the people respond: “and with your spirit.” This is actually a profound theological statement. We are praying for the soul of the ordained priest who we believe has been configured, through Holy Orders and the power of the Holy Spirit, to Christ in a special way. When we say, “and with your spirit,” we are not simply wishing him well. We acknowledge his priestly soul and the fact that he is acting in the Person of Christ.
Then comes the Penitential Act. We call to mind our sins and trustingly place them in God’s mercy. We say the Confiteor prayer: “I confess to Almighty God and to you my brothers and sisters…” Then we conclude with the chanting of the Kyrie Eleison which is Greek for “Lord, have mercy.”
On Sundays, solemnities, and feasts, then we sing the hymn of “Glory to God in the highest,” echoing the angels at the birth of Christ in the Gloria. We are offering our praise, adoration, and worship to Father, through the Son, in the Spirit.
The celebrant invites those gathered to pray and then proclaims the prescribed prayer for the day from the Roman Missal called the Collect. The Collect literally collects the prayers of the people and the priest offers these prayers to God. The Collect also disposes those present to be made ready to hear the Word of God proclaimed in the following part of the Mass: the Liturgy of the Word.
Next comes the Liturgy of the Word. On Sundays and solemnities, there are four Scripture readings. Most of the time, this is one reading from the Old Testament, a Responsorial Psalm, a New Testament reading, and a Gospel reading from Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.
The Second Vatican Council says that, in the Liturgy of the Word, “The treasures of the Bible are to be opened up more lavishly, so that richer fare may be provided for the faithful at the table of God’s word (SC, 51).” We are fed by the proclamation of the Word, especially in the reading of the Gospel, where we stand out of respect for Christ and His words and deeds. We also acclaim “Alleluia” before the Gospel which means “Praise the Lord!”
After the Gospel reading, all are seated, and the priest delivers a homily. A homily is given by a priest, deacon, or bishop which focuses on the texts of Sacred Scripture of the day, the Roman Missal itself, or some other aspect of Christian life.
After the homily, we make a Profession of Faith, usually the Nicene Creed. This statement of faith is 1,600 years old! In the profession of the Creed, we are giving a personal declaration of what we believe as followers of Christ. By professing the Creed, we reach the apex of our participation in the Liturgy of the Word.
The conclusion of the Liturgy of the Word is the Universal Prayer, which is also sometimes called the Prayers of the Faithful. In the Universal Prayer, we lift up the prayers and intentions of the whole world. We always pray for our Holy Father, the Pope, as well as our local bishop. We pray for our world leaders that they may be guided by God’s Wisdom. We pray for those who struggle and toil. We also pray for the local community, when it is especially needed. The Universal Prayer is a time for us to offer our communal needs to the Father, through Christ, in the Holy Spirit.
The Liturgy of the Eucharist is an inexhaustible treasure trove of mystery, beauty, and truth. Gifts of ordinary bread and wine are offered. The altar is prepared, the gifts are blessed, and the priest praises God for these gifts. After the Prayer over the Offerings comes the heart of the Liturgy of the Eucharist: the Eucharistic Prayer.
In the Eucharistic Prayer, Christ is actively and personally guiding the Church, His Body, through the priest. The priest, acting in the Person of Christ the Head, gathers together the gifts on the altar, as well as our selves and joins them to the perfect sacrifice of Christ.
While there is a richness and depth to the Eucharistic Prayer, our part is clear. We are called to offer our whole selves to the Father in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. Even though we are imperfect, our offerings become perfected by Jesus. If we intentionally enter into the Sacred Mysteries and fully, consciously, and actively participate in the Eucharist, we are allowing Christ to transform us, our whole lives. Let me put it this way: if ordinary bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Jesus, imagine what happens our own self-sacrifices at Mass. We have the opportunity to offer our joys, sorrows, wishes, dreams, disappointments, etc. to the love of Jesus.
Following the Eucharistic Prayer is the Communion Rite. This Rite leads the faithful to the Eucharistic feast. We begin by reciting the prayer Jesus taught us, the Lord’s Prayer. In the Lord’s Prayer, we are joining the whole universal Church in praying for our needs, for the Father’s mercy, for guidance to heaven, and deliverance from evil. Then, the peace of Christ is extended to us from the priest and we extend that peace to those around us, in Christ’s name.
Next, in the Fraction Rite, we exclaim that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world and we ask Him to grant us peace. The priest breaks the Host, which is Jesus’ Body to show that He is broken and shared with many. This is reminiscent of the Last Supper when Jesus broke the bread before giving it to His disciples.
Before receiving Holy Communion, all of us gather together to acknowledge that we are unworthy of such a magnificent gift. Then, those who are practicing Catholics, in good standing with the Church, who have observed the Eucharistic fast, of at least one hour prior, present themselves to receive Holy Communion. This Communion Rite ends with the Prayer after Communion which asks God that the benefits of the Eucharist might remain active in our daily lives.
We have just taken part in the Liturgy of the Eucharist in which Jesus Christ became physically, substantially, truly, and really present. Having just received Him in His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in the Eucharist, the faithful are living tabernacles. The word Eucharist actually means thanksgiving in Greek, and this is what we are doing during the Concluding Rites.
Out of deep gratitude for what our good God has done, we spend some time in silence following the Communion Rite, reflecting on the gift of the Most Holy Eucharist. Then, the priest blesses the people assembled. There is great power in this blessing. The priest, acting in the Person of Christ the Head, is blessing the people. In other words, it is Christ Himself who blesses us at the end of Mass. During Mass, where the priest is, there is Christ.
The priest, acting in the Person of Christ, blesses those gathered with the power and might of the Most Holy Trinity: “May almighty God bless you, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” By making the sign of the Cross and invoking the Trinity, the priest is sealing us with God’s presence. We have been shown mercy in the Introductory Rites and we glorified God. We were fed with His adorable Word in the Liturgy of the Word. And we received Jesus Christ Himself in the Holy Eucharist in the Liturgy of the Eucharist. This one, single act of worship began with the sign of the Cross and it ends with the sign of the Cross.
Following the final blessing, the dismissal is given by the priest or deacon. This is, in fact, where the word Mass comes from. The words in Latin “Ite, missa est” literally means “Go, she (meaning ud, the Church) – has been sent”. This word is related to our English word “mission.” Fed by the Word and the Eucharist, Jesus fills us with Himself and we are strengthened to go out and share Him with the world.
Then, the priest, still acting in the Person of Christ the Head, then processes down the center aisle towards the narthex as a recessional hymn is sung. Technically speaking, the one, single act of worship – the Mass – ends with the dismissal. Practically speaking, our celebration of the Sacred Mysteries end on that occasion when the priest reaches the narthex of the Church. This practice of waiting until the priest reaches the narthex highlights the reality that Christ is the presider at Mass, acting through the priest.
The mystery of God is inexhaustible and the Liturgy beautifully mirrors this. We will never exhaust the mysteries of the Holy Mass!
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