Order of the Mass
At the Eucharist, God's people come together to hear the word of the Lord, to pray for the world's needs, to offer the sacrifice of the cross in praise and thanks to God, to receive Christ Jesus in Communion and then to be sent forth in the Spirit as disciples of the Gospel. These central elements of the order of mass have changed little throughout history, but variable elements help accommodate this mystery of faith to local church needs and to the feasts and seasons of the liturgical year.
"The purpose of these rites is to make the assembled people a unified community and to prepare them properly to listen to God's word and celebrate the Eucharist".
The people stand and sing a song or recite a prescribed antiphon as the priest and ministers enter. This action "introduces them to the mystery of the season or feast" and sets the tone and mood of the celebration. (a particular variation of this "rite" is "antiphonal singing" which dates to the fourth century. If this variation is used, a psalm is sung by alternating verses between a cantor and choir or congregation.)
Upon entering the sanctuary the priest and ministers kiss the altar – a gesture of reverence acknowledging the altar as a symbol of Christ. The priest then leads the people in making the sign of the cross. This signing symbolizes two beliefs central to Christianity: God is one, Father, Son, Holy Spirit, and we are his people saved in, with and through Christ. Our signing ourselves with the cross proclaims our belonging to Christ and our faith in Christ as a way to share in the life of God and the way to establishing a true human community on earth, the kingdom of God.
One of the earliest references to the sign of the cross is found in the writings of Tertullian: "At every forward step and movement, at every going in and out, when we put on our clothes and shoes – in all the ordinary actions of everyday life, we trace the sign of the cross."
Mass begins by this invocation of the triune God, praises God in, with, and through Christ and ends as the celebration begins – with a blessing invoked over the people in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
In any human relationship a greeting is the first attempt to welcome another with graciousness and warmth. The three standard scriptural greetings in the ritual express "the presence of the Lord to the assembled community" and, in this greeting by the celebrant and response by the people, "the mystery of the Church that is gathered together" and the people's awareness of the reality that they are a community is deepened.
All make the sign of the cross
Priest: The grace and peace of God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
People: And with your spirit.
The Mass celebrates the love and forgiveness by which Jesus destroyed the power of sin and death and united all people to himself as a perfect gift to his Father. In an active thanksgiving for love and as an admission of our need for continual conversion, the people join with the priest in the penitential rite in asking God for mercy, forgiveness, and healing.
This rite is the community's statement of confidence that God is with them. Fittingly placed at the beginning of the celebration, the penitential rite prepares the community to hear God's word, profess its faith, join in prayers of thanksgiving, and share in communion in the life of God.
The most familiar of the variations in the penitential rite is the Kyrie eleison, or "Lord, have mercy" which is a litany-like petition for God's mercy dating from the fourth century Antioch Jerusalem liturgy.
The sprinkling and blessing of the people may replace the penitential rite. This ritual recalls their initial conversion and baptism and symbolizes new birth, regeneration, cleansing and healing.
Priest: My brothers and sisters, to prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries, let us call to mind our sins.
You were sent to heal the contrite:
Lord, have mercy.
People: Lord, have mercy.
Priest: You came to call sinners: Christ, have mercy.
People: Christ, have mercy.
Priest: You plead for us at the right hand of the Father:
Lord, have mercy.
People: Lord, have mercy.
Priest: May almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins, and bring us to everlasting life.
Gloria (Glory to God)
The Gloria is an ancient hymn of praise, full of joy and life whose theme is the reconciliation of God and humankind in peace and love. The origins of this hymn are uncertain, but it surely dates back to the fourth century. It is probable that the Gloria was first used in the celebration of the Eucharist at the Christmas Midnight Mass, and was originally only sung by bishops. In the fifth century the use of the Gloria was extended to Sunday and feast day Masses. This custom continues today. The Gloria is not said or sung during Advent or Lent. Its absence from the liturgy during these two seasons deepens our preparation and anticipation of the coming of Christ into our lives at Christmas and Easter.
Glory to God in the highest,
and peace to his people on earth.
Lord God, heavenly King,
almighty God and Father,
we worship you, we give you thanks,
we praise you for your glory.
Lord Jesus Christ, only Son of the Father,
Lord God, Lamb of God,
you take away the sin of the world;
have mercy on us;
you are seated at the right hand of the Father;
Receive our prayer.
for you alone are the Holy One,
you alone are the Lord,
you alone are the Most High,
with the Holy Spirit,
in the glory of God the Father, Amen.
The priest speaks the opening prayer for the people. In and through this prayer, the theme, mood and focus of each particular celebration of the Mass is summarized. Everyone stands, and the priest, as the person presiding over this particular community, stretches his arms out in a symbol of the new person who stands upright and freed by the power of Christ's resurrection. He then invites the community to prayer, and after a brief moment of silence, during which the community gathers itself, he officially leads them in prayer.
Introduced into the liturgy in the mid-fifth century, this prayer was originally called "the collect" and served as a conclusion of a litany of prayers in which the celebrant collected and summed up the intentions of the people.
The people's response, "Amen" is a biblical affirmation meaning "So may it be". The word is used in the liturgy as an expression of ratification, assent or acceptance. At this point in the liturgy, it is the people's ratification of all that has been celebrated. It marks the conclusion of the introductory rites and the transition into the liturgy of the word.
Liturgy of the Word
The Lectionary (book of readings) and the Book of Gospels open the rich treasure of God's word from the Jewish and Christian Scriptures. In the liturgy the Church faithfully adheres to the way Christ himself read and explained the Scriptures. The unfolding mystery of Christ is recalled by the Christian faithful who respond to the Holy Spirit working within them.
First Reading: Old Testament
From the earliest days, the Church has believed in the continuity between the Old and New Testaments. Both focus on the kingdom of God-the reign of God active in the world which will be realized in all its perfection at the end of time. This and other Old Testament themes, such as creation, salvation, prophecy, law, wisdom, etc are all recapitulated in the person of Jesus, and help to form the presentation of Jesus, his person, life and ministry, by the New Testament writers. So close is the connection between the Old and New Testaments that Christians can not fully understand the New Testament presentation of Jesus unless they reflect on the Old (Hebrews 1:1-3). For this reason it is an essential component of the liturgy of the word.
The responsorial psalm comes after the first reading and provides a peaceful and meditative response to God's word. In the synagogue at the time of Jesus, the Jews followed the readings of Scripture with the singing of psalms. Christians borrowed this practice and continue it to the present day in the form of the responsorial psalm.
Second Reading: New Testament
This reading is often called the "epistle" because it sometimes is part of a letter written to the early Christian communities or to individual persons to strengthen their faith, to instruct, to guide, to admonish, or correct errors. The second reading performs a similar function today. While addressed originally to a particular situation in the early Church communities, the message of these writings transcends the centuries to motivate contemporary Christians and to deepen their appreciation of the mystery of Christ.
Alleluia or Gospel Acclamation
"Alleluia" or "praise God" announces or acclaims delight and joy in God's wonderful deeds for his people. The people stand, and make this acclamation in song to proclaim the most wonderful deed of God among humankind, Jesus Christ, visually symbolized by the Gospel book held high by the celebrant or deacon.
The Alleluia became part of the Mass in the fourth century by order of Pope Damasus. It was originally used only during the Easter liturgy, but St. Gregory permitted its use throughout the Church year except during the Church's penitential seasons. This usage continues today. And when the Alleluia is not used during Advent and Lent it is replaced by a verse which is closely connected in theme with the Gospel reading.
The Gospel, the focal point of the liturgy of the word, is a reading from one of the four accounts of Jesus' life, death and resurrection. The use of readings from the Gospels ("the memoirs of the apostles") in the Mass is confirmed by Justin Martyr in his First Apology. And the significance of the Gospel proclamation in Catholic liturgical tradition is its reservation since the fourth century to those persons sharing in the sacrament of orders namely deacons, priests and bishops.
Because of the Gospel's prominence, its proclamation is often honored on Sundays and feasts by great solemnity. There is a procession in which the Gospel book is preceded by servers carrying candles which symbolize the risen Christ as the Light of the World. Upon arrival at the place of proclamation, the Gospel book is incensed, symbolizing both the community's prayer ascending to God and the mystery of God coming to the community. The sign of the cross is always traced upon the forehead, lips, and heart by everyone in the assembly. This signing identifies the readings with the teachings of the Lord Jesus who is the source of our faith as it is heard, spoken and given root in our hearts.
Preceding the proclamation a prayer is said by the deacon or priest who bows in recognition of the privilege given to him: Almighty God, cleanse my heart and my lips that I may worthily proclaim your Gospel.
So life-giving is the experience of listening to the Gospel that the deacon or priest concludes by proclaiming "This is the Gospel of the Lord", to which the community responds "Praise to you Lord Jesus Christ". The minister, as a symbol of reverence, then kisses the Gospel book which is a symbol of the Lord, Jesus himself.
Central to the Christian tradition is the belief that "faith comes through preaching" (Romans 3:13-15). This belief has its roots in the Jewish faith and in the creative power of the word of God to transform human life. In the Jewish synagogue service the Scriptures were read, followed by instruction. Both Jesus and Paul were invited to speak during one of these services (Luke 4:16ff; Acts 13:15). The earliest Christians were Jewish converts who, accustomed to this practice, very naturally continued it in their own Eucharistic gatherings.
While the tradition of preaching in Christianity has had its ups and downs, and the liturgical sermon or homily has had its moments of acclaim as well as discredit, the ministry of preaching is basic to the mission of the Church. Because of this the liturgical movement of the twentieth century has striven to renew the homily's essential importance to the Mass. This importance is clearly summarized in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal: "The homily is strongly recommended as an integral part of the liturgy and as a necessary source of nourishment of the Christian life."
Profession of Faith (Creed)
Creeds are symbols of faith. They are written professions of faith summarizing the faith community's search for an ever deepening understanding of Jesus and his message. There are three main versions of the Creed which were formulated during the first four centuries, namely, the Apostles' Creed (which was not written by the apostles), the Nicene Creed (325), and the Constantinopolitan Creed (381).
An ancient formula, the original use of the Creed was a profession of faith for those to be baptized during the Easter Vigil. It was only in the sixth century that the Creed was introduced into the celebration of the Mass. Today, the Creed is recited on Sundays and feasts in the Roman rites, while it is recited at every Mass in the Eastern rite liturgies.
General Intercessions (Prayers of the Faithful)
The Prayers of the Faithful are one of the true restorations in the revised rites for the celebration of Mass. These prayers have had their place throughout the history of the Christian liturgical tradition. They are of Jewish origin, coming to Christianity from the synagogue liturgy. For centuries these prayers ceased being part of the Mass. A remnant of them, however, always remained in the Good Friday Service and at one point in history, in the Eucharistic Prayer (Canon).
They reflect a simple, direct personal approach to God. Through them the people petition God for the needs of the Church, society, their own parish, persons in need, the sick and suffering, and those who have died. The General Intercessions coming at the end of the liturgy of the word are a faith-filled statement of trust in all that God has told us and done for us: If two of you join your voices on earth to pray for anything whatever, it shall be granted to you by my Father in heaven (Matthew 18:19-20).
Liturgy of the Eucharist
Christians are baptized into the paschal mystery of Christ's death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sin and fullness of salvation. This mystery is celebrated at every Mass, remembering Christ's loving deed and giving thanks and praise to God. The celebration reaches its high point as the priest concludes the Eucharistic Prayer, lifting up the vessels containing the Body and Blood of Christ, giving all glory and honor to the almighty Father through Christ in the unity of the Holy Spirit.
Preparation of the Gifts
The Preparation of the Gifts has a twofold purpose: (1) to prepare the bread and wine which will be offered as gift and sacrifice to God, and (2) to prepare the priest and the people for the self-offering of their words and deeds, that is, their very lives.
Originally the preparation rite was very simple. People gathered around the table and placed food upon it in a spirit of gratitude and thanksgiving. With time, however, the simple rite became more embellished. Already by the third century, a procession accompanied the presentation of the gifts. Gifts for the poor and the Church were also eventually included in the offerings. By the Middle Ages, however, as the "communal" dimension of the Mass was less evident, the processions ceased, and the preparation rites became "offertory rites" centering around the prayers of the priest.
The Second Vatican Council has restored the "preparation" dimension of these rites as well as the ancient custom of the procession for presenting the gifts of the community to the priest.
Commingling of the Water and Wine
The priest puts a drop of water into the wine as he prays: "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."
This simple rite is rich in symbolism. In it are symbolized the mystery of Christ and the Church. In Eastern Christianity this mingling symbolizes the mystery of Christ, the water signifying Christ's humanity, and the wine his divinity. In Western Christianity, the mingling symbolizes the union of Christ (wine) and his Church (water). Fittingly, the prayer which is recited as this gesture is carried out is a remnant of a much longer Christmas prayer dating from about the year 1000.
Washing of Hands
This rite reflects a practical need, namely, the washing of dirty hands. In earlier Christianity, the minister who received the gifts from the people needed to wash his hands before participating in the remainder of the Mass, since the gifts were not limited to bread and wine nor collected in "money baskets." Whatever practical reasons the washing of hands had previously, it is now a symbolic action of preparation. The priest says: "Lord, wash away my iniquity, cleanse me from my sins."
Invitation to Prayer
After preparing the altar table, the blessing and thanking God for his gifts, the celebrant invites the congregation to pray that the gifts will be acceptable to God. The priest says: "Pray my brothers and sisters, that our sacrifice may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father.
The people respond in prayer: "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 Church."
Prayer Over the Gifts
The Prayer Over the Gifts is said by the priest after the congregation stands. Once called the "Secret Prayer," it was previously recited in a quite voice – a gesture emphasizing the mystery and sacredness of the actions of the Mass. Now, the Prayer Over the Gifts is said in a loud voice. This small change in the revised rite of the Mass highlights the Church's teaching that the Mass is a public, community action in which all members have a truly participatory function. This prayer concludes the Preparation of the Gifts and serves as a transition to the second movement of the liturgy of the Eucharist, namely, the Eucharistic Prayer.
The Eucharistic Prayer is the Church's great thanksgiving prayer praising God the Father for his wonderful deeds among humankind, especially for the expression of his love in Jesus Christ. The word "Eucharist" comes from the Greek eucharistien, meaning "to give thanks with praise and favor," and was a translation of the Hebrew barak meaning "to bless" in the sense of praising the goodness of God. It was in this sense that the one who presided over the Passover meal "blessed" God. It was in this sense that Jesus "blessed" his Father as he presided over the Last Passover Supper which he shared with his disciples, gave thanks over the bread and wine, and blessed God for his constant love and mercy.
The first Christians followed Jesus' example and employed the patterns of the Jewish "blessings" in their celebrations of the Eucharist. At first these "blessings" or Eucharistic prayers were improvised by the celebrant as he recalled the Lord's celebration of the Last Supper. But by the third century, we have documentation that these prayers were being handed on in written form. Today there are four Eucharistic Prayers commonly used in the Roman Liturgy.
The preface contains the reasons why the Church has gathered to give thanks. Since these reasons are many, a number of prefaces have been used over the centuries to introduce the Eucharistic Prayer of the Church. The present Preface prayers are in keeping with the liturgical seasons, feast days, and special liturgical celebrations of the Church.
The Preface begins with an introductory dialogue between the priest and people. This dialogue, like other parts of the Mass, has Jewish roots. It reflects Jewish prayers of greeting and invitations to join that were used in giving thanks after meals. The Preface ends in a hymn proclaiming the holiness of God which is adapted from the vision of the prophet Isaiah and Psalm 117.
As the Preface acclamation "holy, holy, holy…" draws to a close, the priest continues to speak on behalf of the people by praising God for the gift of life and holiness. He then "joins his hands and, holding them outstretched over the offering" of bread and wine, prays an epiclesis prayer (from the Greek, meaning "to call down") asking the Father to let his Spirit "come down upon these gifts to make them holy so that they may become for us the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ."
This prayer is the first of the epiclesis prayers to be prayed during the Eucharist Prayer. The second will ask God to unite those who are celebrating the Eucharist.
During the Last Supper, Jesus focused all God's dealings with humankind into the present by identifying himself with the bread and wine, saying, in effect, that he is the new Passover. In him and through his death and resurrection, humanity experiences the Passover God intends for all humankind – the crossing from the slavery of sin to the freedom of love, from the death of disobedience to the life of grace.
Jesus transformed this ancient festival of national liberation to one of universal deliverance. Jesus' transformation of the Passover, however, was not merely one of words. It was a transformation by deeds, namely, the deeds of his own death-resurrection. Jesus became the Paschal Lamb who offered himself in sacrifice to the Father. His blood became the new protector of humankind from the power of death.
Christians remember this new Passover in the celebration of the Eucharist. By remembering, Christians enter into and become part of Christ's sacrifice. In remembering Jesus, crucified and risen, Jesus becomes really present with the Christian community, and shares his gift of new life. By sharing in the sacrificial meal of the Eucharist, Christians reaffirm the new covenant God has entered into with humankind, that is, the never-ending love that binds God to humankind in relationship which death cannot destroy.
Elevation of Bread and Wine
There is both a practical and theological reason for the elevation of the bread and wine after the words of institution. In the Middle Ages, Christians viewed themselves as "unworthy" to receive Communion. This led to the practice of infrequent reception of Communion – a practice which did not satisfy the hunger of people for communion with God. The elevation of the consecrated bread and wine helped to satisfy this hunger.
A second reason for the inclusion of the elevation of the consecrated bread and wine is that it is a sign of the Church's belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharistic bread and wine. This belief was openly denied in the thirteenth century. To counter this denial, Church leaders encouraged the practice of raising the bread and so that the people could make an act of faith in Jesus now truly present among them.
Although these situations are not as prevalent today the Church still continues this centuries-old custom of showing the consecrated host and chalice to the people. Why? This is a moment of faith for Christians! It is a moment of entrusting ourselves to Jesus and committing our lives to the pattern of his Passover. Through the power of the gift of faith, the community and each member of it thrust their lives into the hands of Jesus as he thrusts himself into the hands of the Father. This brief "showing" remembers all there is to remember. Jesus is the way to the Father, and whoever sees Jesus sees the Father.
Acclimation of Faith
The institution narrative draws the community into a proclamation of its faith: "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again." This proclamation of belief comes from an ancient Eastern liturgical profession of faith. Such acclamations were common in the more ancient liturgies, but they lost their popularity by the end of the Middle Ages. Appropriately, the reintroduction of this acclamation reinforces the people's participation in the institution narrative. The people are not simple observers, and through this act of faith they are called to enter into the mystery being celebrated.
We have already spoken much about "remembering". The "anamnesis prayer" focuses the community's remembering on the saving acts of Jesus and evokes from the community a sense of gratitude and thanksgiving. The faithful are also given the opportunity to recall the events of their personal sufferings, deaths and resurrections through which they live daily according to the pattern of the Lord's Passover, and, in remembering, to give thanks for the new life of the Spirit they have often received.
Saint Augustine wrote, "The Lord left us in this sacrament his body and blood. Now we are called to become his body, and through his mercy we are what we receive." The Church has offered the gifts of bread and wine to God the Father as a sacrifice of Jesus. In this prayer of "offering", the Church now petitions God to accept the offering of the Church so that the Eucharistic celebration may achieve the purpose of uniting the members of the Church with each other and with God.
The Eucharist, celebrated in communion with the whole Church, living and dead, is the offering of all. The priest remembers all Christians living and deceased. He intercedes that all Christians may be strengthened for their journey through life on earth so that their destination, the kingdom of God, may be successfully reached "through Christ our Lord, from whom all good things come".
The reference to Christ, "from whom all good things come," is a vestige of an early liturgical blessing. "All good things" referred to the blessings of the earth, namely, fruit, produce, cheese, olives, bread, which had been brought forward at the presentation of the gifts. These simple gifts expressed the Christian's faith in God as the source of all blessings. They were blessed at this part of the Mass to show the relationship of all earthly blessings to the greatest of God's gifts: himself, in Jesus.
The Doxology is a hymn of praise. Various doxologies are included in the New Testament (1 Timothy 1:17; Hebrews 2:7, 9; 1 Peter 1:7; 4:11; Revelation 21:26). The priest lifts up the consecrated host and chalice for all to see and to remember that all things are "lifted up" and made holy in Christ. The community remembers in one great moment of faith that it is "through him (Christ), with him, and in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit," that all glory and honor is given to the Father. The community responds in a unified act of faith, "Amen". This is our faith. The Eucharistic Prayer comes to a faith-filled conclusion and leads into the Communion rite.
Communion is an expression of the unity of the body of Christ. To commune is to enter into another's life, to become one with another, to bind oneself with another. Communion is intimacy. Holy Communion is intimacy with God. It is an expression of unity with God, with Jesus, and with all God's people. The Communion Rite helps the community to express its unity, to receive the body and blood of Christ, and to deepen its union with God, with Jesus and with all God's people.
All of the central features of the Communion Rite call attention to this unity. The Lord's Prayer is a prayer of unity; we cannot pray "Our Father" unless we are willing to call other "brother" or "sister". The Sign of Peace symbolizes the breaking down of all divisions and the restoration of harmony. The breaking of the bread symbolizes that we all eat from one loaf of the bread of life. Finally, the community receives Communion by approaching the same table.
Recalling the words of Saint Augustine, we continue our reflections on the Mass: "You are the mystery;' you are in the bread. You are in the cup. Become what you have received: the body of Christ".
The Lord's Prayer summarizes the purpose of the life and ministry of Jesus, namely, to share with humankind the special relationship he has with God, a relationship so intimate that humankind can now also address God as "Abba" or Father. The petition for daily bread takes on new meaning in the context of the Mass. Ordinary food satisfies our hunger, but it cannot satisfy the hungers of our heart, our need for intimacy, meaning, and acceptance. Ordinary human relationships very often fail to satisfy these deepest hungers. Only the depth of our relationship with God is food for such hungers. Jesus described himself as the "bread of life" (John 6:48) and promised that those who believe in him would be satisfied: "No one who comes to me shall ever be hungry; no one who believes in me shall ever thirst" (John 6:35).
Forgiveness is at the core of the ministry of Jesus. To be forgiven as we forgive others calls us to match our words with our deeds. Whether the meaning of these words refers to the reality that we are forgiven in the same manner as we forgive others, or that we are forgiven in the act of forgiving others, the meaning is clear: we cannot refuse to forgive others and expect to be forgiven ourselves. By living the call to forgiveness, our unity with God and with others is realized.
The last request of the Lord's Prayer is followed by a sequel called the "embolism". This simple, direct prayer flows from a grateful heart. Freed from evil by God's grace, the Christian experiences peace, and is prepared to be a source of peace among others and to foster the kingdom of God on earth. This prayer ends with another brief doxology proclaiming this desire: "For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours, now and forever."
Sign of Peace
The importance of Christians visibly and concretely being instruments of peace is attested to in Matthew's Gospel: "If you bring your gift to the altar, go first to be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift" (Matthew 5:23-24).
Christians have always greeted each other by offering a sign of Christ's peace. 1 Peter 5:14 states: "Greet one another with the embrace of true love. Peace to all of you who are in Christ." According to the second-century Eucharistic Prayer of Hippolytus, a kiss was given to the newly baptized as a sign of membership in Christ. Justin Martyr asked the people "to greet each other with a kiss" after finishing the prayers. Tertullian called the kiss of peace "the seal of Prayer". Pope Innocent I placed this greeting after the Eucharistic Prayer as a sign of the people's assent to it. In the thirteenth century, a crucifix, cross, or some other holy object was passed around to be kissed by everyone in the congregation.
The "Kiss of Peace" was eventually limited to the ministers of the Mass, but the revisions of the liturgy by the Second Vatican Council have restored it to all. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal states: "Before they share in the same bread, the people express their love for one another and beg for peace and unity in the Church and with all mankind". This gesture links love to God and neighbor as an essential response of faith.
Breaking of the Bread
The "breaking of the bread" was the earliest known name for the celebration of the Eucharist (Acts 2:42, 44-46; 7:11; 20:7). For the apostles, the "breaking of the bread" was a sign of the Lord's presence (Luke 24:30).
In Jesus' time it was a custom for the father at the beginning of the meal to take a loaf of bread, offer thanks, give a blessing, and then break the bread into pieces to be passed around to each member of the family. Jesus followed this pattern in the story of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes (Luke 9:16-17).
To the early Christian, sharing a loaf was a sign of solidarity, of unity, and of family. There was a deep significance in the liturgical action of the 'breaking of the bread".
After the priest breaks the bread, he drops a small particle of the bread into the chalice. This ritual of the commingling of the bread and wine symbolizes the unity of the body and blood of Christ.
During the breaking of the bread and the commingling of the bread and wine the congregation sings or recites the Lamb of God. This prayer, used in the liturgy since the seventh century, acknowledges Jesus as the new Passover Lamb who is the source of life for the world. It is a clear reference to the blood of the lamb which was sprinkled on the doorposts of Jewish homes to spare their sons from being killed in the Exodus from Egypt. The lamb is killed for the Passover meal to commemorate this saving event. John sees Jesus as the new lamb who sheds his blood on the cross. "Look," John the Baptist proclaimed, "there is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world" (John 1:36-37).
During the rite of the breaking of the bread, the celebrant or deacon may put aside a certain amount of the consecrated bread in order to reserve some of it for the homebound and/or sick of the parish.
Private Prayers of the Priest
The priest quietly offers a prayer in preparation for his Communion. He asks forgiveness of sins, deliverance from evil, faithfulness to Jesus' teaching, and health of mind and body. As leader of the worshiping community, the priest then first receives the bread and wine. This action invites others to follow his example, "Take and eat".
As the body and blood of Christ are held up for the people to witness, the Church proclaims a scriptural acknowledgement of this identity of Christ: "This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world". The people, acknowledging their deep need for the Lord, respond in faith and confidence with the centurion whose son was helplessly paralyzed: "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed".
The people process to the altar symbolizing their journey to the kingdom of God. The rich, poor, lame, sick, vigorous, young, old, anxious, doubting, educated, unlettered – all come to the same table where there are no distinctions. Those who commune receive a gift, Christ, and gratefully acknowledge that gift with "Amen". In so doing they affirm that they accept the power of Jesus to transform their lives and to deepen their relationship of love to God and to others.
Saint Augustine says, "If you receive well, you are what you have received. Since you are the body of Christ and his members, it is your mystery that you receive. You hear the words 'The body of Christ,' and you answer 'Amen'. Be, therefore, members of Christ, that your 'Amen' may be true. Be what you see and receive what you are."
The manner of approaching the table (altar) of the Lord expresses the community's faith. Listen to Cyril of Jerusalem who, as early as 348, spoke of the proper method for receiving the Eucharist:
When you approach (Communion) do not come with your hands outstretched or with your fingers open but make your left hand a throne for the right one, which is to receive the King. With you hand hollowed receive the body of Christ and answer Amen. After having, with every precaution, sanctified your eyes by contact with the holy body, consume it, making sure that not a particle is wasted, for that would be like losing one of your limbs. Tell me, if you were given some gold dust, would you not hold it very carefully for fear of letting any of it fall and losing it? How much more careful, then, you should be not to let fall even a crumb of something more precious than gold or jewels! After receiving the body of Christ, approach the chalice of his blood; do not stretch out your hands, but bow in an attitude of adoration and reverence, and say, 'Amen'."
Communion is both a very personal and a communal action. Jesus is present to each member of the community as well as to the community as a whole. When we approach the Lord Jesus in Communion, it is faith-in-action. The "Amen" response to the minister's "The body of Christ" is a moment of faith. It has many meanings:
"I believe in Jesus as present in the breaking of bread that this holy bread forms me into a temple of the Holy Spirit; that the Spirit strengthens me to give myself in loving service to others just as Christ gave himself to me."
"I remember the Last Supper when Jesus washed the feet of the apostles and linked this action to the Eucharist: 'What I did was to give you an example; as I have done so you must do" (John 13:15).
"When I receive Communion and say 'Amen' to the body and blood of Christ, I say 'yes' to the many ways in which God speaks to me: in prayer, contemplation of Sacred Scripture, silence, good words, good deeds. I say 'yes' to my responsibilities as a baptized son or daughter of God."
"To break down walls of prejudice, to sow love where there is hatred, peace where there is discord, hope where there is despair, faith where there is doubt, life when what is around me seems to be dying. I say 'Yes' to putting Christ at the center of my life."
Communion is an extravagant gift. It calls for an extravagant response. A passive, rote gesture or a "following of the crowd" is a sign of unawareness of the magnitude of our action. Communion elicits a reflective, lively act of faith. To the proclamation "The body of Christ" we must proclaim "Amen!" In this way our Communion is both a receiving and a giving. Remember: "Be what you see and be what you are." "Though many, one in Christ."
Prayer after Communion
The liturgy of the Eucharist now ends. Our prayers in praise of God and the sacrificial meal are now complete. The people sit in silence to share a moment of personal reflection on the meaning of the mystery just celebrated. Sometimes a musical interlude expresses and deepens this mood. All our actions and words are then drawn together in the Prayer after Communion. The community stands and the priest, with outstretched arms, petitions God to strengthen all present to live the mystery which they have celebrated. The prayer is simple, direct and concise. All that had to be said has been said. We must now prepare to go forth and act. Our words must become our deeds.
The concluding rites of the Mass focus upon the sending forth of the community to translate into deeds the words and actions of the liturgical celebration. What has been celebrated must now be revealed in the words and deeds of the members of the assembly as they deal with others and the events of their lives. The celebrant's final instruction brings all the rites of the Mass into focus: "Go in peace to love and serve the Lord."
The entire celebration of the Mass has been a blessing – an act of faithful gratitude to God for the gift of himself to humankind in and through Jesus Christ. The people once again sign themselves with the sign of the cross and conclude the celebration as they began, that is, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. What has begun as faith, a gift freely given and freely received, concludes in a crescendo of faith, "Thanks be to God!" Enriched through the words and gestures of worship, the community gladly returns to the hours and days and places of daily living. The Mass now lives in the hearts of Christians. It is no longer simply ritual; the Mass becomes the leaven of humanity.