My Dear Parishioners,
Last week, I began my general pastoral explanation of the Mass with the purpose and order of the entrance procession: Incense, cross, candles, deacon with Book of the Gospels, clergy, presiding celebrant.
One of the most colossal examples of a thurible (“incense burner”) is the “Botafumeiro” (literally, “smoke expeller”) hanging in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in the far northwestern corner of Spain. This cathedral is famous not only for the huge incense burner but, far more importantly, as the burial place of St. James the Great. It is one of only three remaining cathedrals built over the tomb of an Apostle. The others are St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, and St. Thomas Basilica in Chennai, India.
Santiago de Compostela is also the end point of the “Camino de Santiago” (“Way of St. James”), a revered path of pilgrimage since the beginning of the Middle Ages. The Camino has seen a spectacular rise in popularity in recent years. In 1985, only 690 made the Camino. In 2019, the number of pilgrims was 347,578. (You read that correctly…)
The cathedral incense burner weighs 175 lb., and is suspended in the cathedral by a system of ropes and pulleys, operated by 8 “tiraboleiros” outfitted in red robes. They shovel in 90 lb. of charcoal and incense, light the charcoal, close the lid, and give the censer a big shove to start it swinging on the ropes and pulleys above the altar and congregation. Then the “tiraboleiros” work the ropes to make it swing higher and faster, achieving a swing height of 7 stories and a speed of over 40 mph. When at full swing, smoke piles out of the thurible.
Despite all this, the swinging of this thurible is “low-tech” as it goes back to the 11th century. As is so often the case in church practice, the giant censer served a fusion of devotional and practical purposes. First, and most importantly, from time immemorial, smoke from burnt offerings, and by extension incense, represented prayers and praises rising heavenward to God, in both Judeo-Christian and other cultures. In times of plagues and pandemics, incense was believed to have beneficial powers, both as a form of prayer and a means of protection against contagion. Practically speaking, since the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela was the destination point of the Camino de Santiago, the incense helped cover the side-effects of receiving crowds of tired and often unwashed pilgrims– like a 265 lb. flying can of Glade.
As could be expected over nearly 1,000 years of use, there have been mishaps with the giant censer. Perhaps the most famous of them happened in 1499, during a visit by Catherine of Aragon, who was on her way to marry the heir to the English throne. When the censer was at full swing, it broke free from the ropes and pulleys and sailed through a large window at one end of the cathedral, landing on the cathedral grounds. Fortunately, no one was injured.
I’m afraid I got off on a tangent. I will return to the Entrance Rites next week– I promise!
Fr. Bill Donahue
Dear Fellow Parishioners–
Over the next several weeks– or however long it takes– I would like to do something I’ve been thinking about for some time, which is to provide a general outline and explanation of certain features of the Mass. For many of us “cradle Catholics,” there are some things we learned long ago but forgot, and a few other things we never learned at all. I do not intend this as an exhaustive theological presentation– that would be an impossible task. This is intended as a friendly visit to some of the more familiar features of the Mass as we celebrate it here at St. Vincent’s. You know much of it already, so I will add an occasional sprinkling of history and trivia I hope you will find interesting, and even entertaining.
General starting point: The Eucharist, instituted by Christ, was first celebrated in the context of a meal– namely, the Last Supper, the word “Eucharist.”
The three institution narratives in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 26-28, Mark 14:22-24, Luke 22:19-21 and the description in 1 Corinthians 11: 23-25) have one principal thing in common: with what was described as bread and wine, Jesus said, “This is my body, this is my blood.”
Before walking through the Eucharistic liturgy itself (a.k.a., “Mass”), we can make a few basic distinctions. Is the Eucharist a sign, a symbol or a sacrament? It is all three.
A sign is something that points to another thing or reality: “BODEGA BAY– 27 miles” or “STOP!” or “No Vacancy.”
A symbol is a sign that participates in the reality that it signifies. Example: The American flag. It not only points to America and represents America, it also participates in American life, and in some sense, is America.
A sacrament is “an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace.”
The Eucharist, instituted by Christ, is all three– sign, symbol, sacrament. The Eucharist points to something/someone else. The Eucharist participates in the reality that it signifies. The Eucharist is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace.” It was first celebrated in the context of a meal– namely, the Last Supper. The meaning of the words, “This is my body” and “This is my blood”— from apostolic times onward— have always been interpreted by the Church literally, and has always had its roots in Old Testament covenantal history. More on this when we get to the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
Entrance procession: Once the Church moved out of hiding and began to celebrate the Eucharist in large assemblies and buildings, it was natural to use the space these structures provided. The officiating clergy and other ministers needed to make their way through the assembly to the altar. An orderly way of entering gradually developed and became customary. The solemn entrance was used for the papal Mass shortly after 701 AD. When the Mass was later linked to the Liturgy of the Hours as prayed in monastic communities (where the clergy were already assembled, and weren’t going anywhere), the formal entrance procession was abbreviated or fell into disuse.
Today, the formal entrance procession has been restored, in varying degrees of formality depending on place and circumstance: incense, cross & candles; deacon with the Book of Gospels, clergy, with the presiding clergy (priest or bishop) last. “Smoke before fire” was the memory device used in the seminary to remember that the incense comes first, then the cross and candles. The censer is the “thurible,” the one carrying it is the “thurifer.”
“Thurible” comes from the Greek “thuos” (“incense”) and “thuein” (to sacrifice”). The small container and spoon for the incense is the “incense boat” or “navicula.” The junior server carrying the boat is known as “boat bearer” or “boat boy.” The “crucifer” carries the cross. Those carrying candles are referred to as “candle bearers.” (By the way, the Latin for “light-bearer” is “lucifer”.)
Next week: The huge swinging thurible (“Botafumeiro”) at the Cathedral of Santiago de Campostela in Spain; Introductory Rites.
Fr. Bill Donahue