Before reading this chapter, ask yourself: Do I prepare myself well for this awesome celebration? Do I arrive in a good state of mind and spirit for this most important activity of the week?
Importance of Preparation
The Eucharist is a journey into a spirit world vastly different to the noisy, distracting world with shallow material values that we normally live in. Though the celebration of the Eucharist takes place in this material world and uses material things, it lifts us into another dimension: invisible, inaudible, intangible.
We are entering into the supernatural world of mystery, of poetry as well as logic, of symbolism as well as science, of metaphor as well as literalness, of paradox as well as syllogism. Sometimes it’s more poetry than logic, more symbolism than science, more metaphor than literalness, more paradox than syllogism. This is very difficult for our modern Western minds to take in, trained as we are in the scientific, literal, logical method. It requires a huge adjustment to live more in the world of poetry, symbolism and paradox, but these elements are part of our human nature. And it’s not a case of living in either one world or the other; we can live in both dimensions and we need the ability to slip easily from one to the other just as Harry Potter could do when he got to the railway station and used the right formula. This great mystery is an awesome event, like nothing else we have experienced during the week.
But why bother to go to any church service when there are so many more exciting things to do at the weekend? In any case, hasn’t science shown the modern mind that religion is no longer relevant? John Polkinghorne (born 1930) was a Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge and is now a priest in the Church of England. He writes:
A particularly important part of this (faithful) experience is located in my regular participation, week by week, in the Eucharistic celebration of the church. Sometimes I have the privilege of presiding at the altar on behalf of the gathered community of the faithful and sometimes I am simply a member of the congregation. Whatever the role, that regular sharing in holy communion is an indispensable element in my Christian life. (Science and the Trinity, pp.119–120, quoted in Emmanuel, Vol. 112, No. 4, July/August, 2006)
Some kind of a bridge is helpful to cross from the world of ordinary things into the world of the spirit. Many cathedrals of the Middle Ages had a labyrinth in the floor. To walk the circles of the labyrinth with its turns and reversals was a very good preparation for the journey into the other world.
A good way to prepare is to go over the readings for the Mass during the week and to ponder on them in prayer. Then when the Scriptures are read, they have a familiarity and you gain more from them. It’s better still if you can share these readings with a small group. In that way you gain from the collective wisdom.
This sharing is not to be a theological discussion, but simply asking the question, ‘What are these readings saying to me at this time?’ There is no arguing over right or wrong answers; each one shares on what the readings are saying to him or her.
Be in plenty of time for the Sunday Mass; it’s the most important spiritual activity of the week. Arrive in a state of tranquillity, with a calm and peaceful mind, so that you are fully conscious of what is taking place in the following hour or so and able to absorb all that the Spirit is offering you. You lose some of the benefits of the Eucharist if you arrive late, flustered, anxiously looking for a seat, with a mind not focussed on the celebration. Parents with young children should do the best they can.
St Francis’ Church, Melbourne (Casamento Photography)
Christ Present in the Gathering
When you attend the Eucharist you meet other parishioners in the car park, in the grounds of the church, then in the foyer or narthex, and finally inside the church. We greet affectionately those we know and we introduce ourselves to those we don’t. Hopefully, there will be people rostered to greet everyone on behalf of the parish community, especially anyone new to the parish or visiting. This is a very important part of the coming together. No one should feel isolated in any gathering of Jesus’ followers. We are all brothers and sisters in the Lord and it is our responsibility to overcome our natural shyness and greet everyone at least with a nod or a smile. Many have been put off going to Mass because no one greeted them and they felt like aliens. “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them”, said Jesus. (Matthew 18:20)
The realisation of Christ’s presence in the assembly enhances our respect for others attending the Eucharist. Saint Paul was very keen for his people to be aware that collectively they are the body of Christ. ‘Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.’ (1 Corinthians 12:27)
The Eucharistic Prayer for Various Needs and Occasions recognises this: ‘Now, as your Church makes her pilgrim journey in the world, you always accompany her by the power of the Holy Spirit and lead her along the paths of time to the eternal joy of your Kingdom . . .’
This is a real presence of Christ and it is good spirituality to become more sensitive to this presence. It is one of four ways in which Christ is present in the Eucharist. He is also present in the priest who is ‘presiding and acting in the person of Christ’ (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 7). He is present in the Word that is read and in the blessed bread and wine as I will discuss in later chapters.
When we actually enter into the building, we can allow the architecture to help us to be aware of the sacredness of the activity we are about to be involved in. Churches are designed to facilitate this awareness of the holy. It is an essential feature of our humanness that we take part in rituals that put us in touch with the divine.
At one time it was strictly forbidden to talk in church and this helped our awareness of the sacredness of this space. We can still have this awareness of the sacred though we may greet other parishioners to enquire about their well-being as long as we restrain our exuberance and keep our voices moderate. The Church may be God’s house, but it is also the meeting space for the people of God.
Entrance and Greeting
On behalf of the community the priest is the presider at the Eucharist and leads the congregation in worship. As people baptised in the Lord, everyone present shares the common priesthood of the faithful and, in that sense, everyone is a celebrant of the Eucharist.
Though the ordained priest has a special responsibility for the ritual, it is best if others also have a part in planning the Eucharist for that day. A liturgy committee is vital for every parish so that many people contribute in deciding the form the Mass will take: – the songs, choice of readers, decorations and so on.
It is a very important part of our spirituality to be aware that we are there not as spectators but as participants. The Council of Vatican II in the 1960s called for a ‘full, conscious and active participation’ in the Eucharist. This is probably the most dramatic change in the liturgy the council made as it restored to the people what had been lost over the centuries, as I discussed in the previous chapter.
We are not there just to watch and listen to the priest perform; we are all there to be actively engaged in the ritual. We do this by joining in the responses and singing with enthusiasm and by standing, sitting and kneeling at the appropriate times. We worship with our bodies as well as our minds and spirits so these body movements are important – they are a valuable part of the ritual and help to keep us alert. Africans do this superbly, dancing through much of the Mass.
To sit throughout the Mass would only encourage the idea that we are an audience as in a theatre. Standing is the preferred posture as it is symbolic of the risen Christ and is an attitude of being ready to serve. However, with the best will in the world, we can easily slip into a passive listening role especially during the Eucharistic prayer. It is very difficult to keep your mind attentive for a long period, so when you find you are distracted, you simply return your mind to what is happening – without feeling guilty.
Usually a commentator gives a brief introduction, then the priest processes in generally to a song, preferably live music. The song is chosen appropriately to fit the theme of the season or as a gathering song. The priest greets the people, all make the sign of the cross with him, the priest prays for the presence of God to be with the people who in turn reciprocate. The sign of the cross immediately reminds us of the death of Jesus on the cross. We trace the cross on our own bodies as a symbol of the offering of our bodies with the body of Jesus. The gesture also reminds us of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the ultimate goal of our worship.
At the very beginning of the ritual we acknowledge our human frailties and ask pardon for any wrongs we have committed. The word for sin in the Greek comes from archery. When a warrior wanted to practise his skills he would go to the archery range and his slave would position himself alongside the target. When the soldier was accurate the slave would point to the position where the arrow hit the target and call out ‘martia’ (‘target’). When the archer missed the target, the slave would call out ‘ha-martia’ (‘missed target’). Needless to say, the slave needed to be quick of eye and nimble of foot!
Sin in the New Testament is the Greek word ‘hamartia’ to ‘miss the target’. We aim to love God and our neighbour, but we sometimes miss. These inaccuracies, lack of effort, focussing on self rather than on the target, are the sins we admit to in this penitential rite. It is important to actually bring some particular sin to mind rather than just allow the words to go over our heads. Full participation in the Eucharist includes being conscious of some particular occasions when we ‘missed the target’.
The priest has a choice of formulas for this activity and it is important to listen to the words. As well as asking for forgiveness, this ritual enables us to thank God for the ready way he forgives our sins through the death and resurrection of Jesus. By dying and rising for us, Jesus has already won forgiveness for us but we need to consciously accept that forgiveness and be gratefully aware of God’s readiness to forgive.
This public confession of our weaknesses and a heart-felt thanksgiving to God for his forgiving love prepare out spirits for the celebration of the Eucharist.
This is a wonderful ancient prayer or song beginning with the praise of the angels at Bethlehem when Jesus was born. It praises God the Father, praises Jesus, his Son and Lamb of God, acknowledges that Jesus takes away the sin of the world and is now seated at God’s right hand. A link to the Holy Spirit makes this a Trinitarian song.
The danger is that this wonderful prayer can be too easily rattled off by rote without any thought and this makes it almost useless as prayer since it doesn’t come from the heart. In my opinion it would be better to use one of the many sung versions as song has a better chance of being heartfelt. The version in Gather Australia number 422 to the well -known melody of Beethoven’s Hymn to Joy is my favourite. If recited, it needs to be said slowly and reflectively. In my experience it’s very difficult to get a congregation to do this.
The priest begins by saying “Let us pray”; then there is a short silence. The silence is important as it’s a moment for us to become aware of our personal needs which we can include in the prayer that follows. The prayer spoken by the presider expresses our needs through the theme of the day. It picks up the season that we happen to be in or the feast of the Lord or the saint whom we are commemorating and concludes with a trinitarian formula.
As an example, the Opening Prayer for the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ says,
O God, who in this wonderful Sacrament have left us a memorial of your Passion, grant us we pray, so to revere the sacred mysteries of your Body and Blood that we may always experience in ourselves the fruits of your redemption.
It’s important to listen carefully to the words and give a heartfelt assent with a confident ‘Amen’. ‘Amen’ means ‘so be it’ and is an affirmation of agreement with what has been said. To say this word confidently, with conviction in your heart, is a good way of being actively involved in the celebration rather than just being a spectator.
An unreported event (Michael Leunig)