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