Many Protestants approach a visit to a Catholic parish as if it were an episode of CSI: Vatican – Crucifixes, Secret prayers and Incense. They come prepared to do a post-mortem on the dead rituals – and the theme song for this spin-off? Won’t Get Fooled Again!
Let’s talk about a few of the things that may be distracting you when you come to Mass with me. I’ve been babbling on about the wonders of the Mass, but I’ve noticed that you can’t concentrate; you keep staring at the larger-than-life crucifix we’ve got strategically positioned right behind the altar. I know what you’re thinking – He’s RISEN!
If it makes you feel any better – we know! The Catholic Church has been proclaiming the literal death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth for 2000 years! And what’s the point of proclaiming Him if He is not risen? If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain! (1 Cor 15:14).
If you listen carefully to the words of the Mass being recited around you, you’ll hear reference after reference to the fact that we know:
We proclaim your Death, O Lord, and profess your Resurrection until you come again.
Save us, Savior of the world, for by your Cross and Resurrection you have set us free!
…we celebrate the memorial of the blessed Passion, the Resurrection from the dead, and the glorious Ascension into heaven of Christ, your Son, our Lord.
Fulfilling Your will and gaining for You a holy people, He stretched out His hands as He endured His Passion, so as to break the bonds of death and manifest the Resurrection…
Therefore, as we celebrate the memorial of his Death and Resurrection, we offer you, Lord, the Bread of life and the Chalice of salvation
Therefore, O Lord, as we celebrate the memorial of the saving Passion of your Son, His wondrous Resurrection and Ascension into heaven, and as we look forward to His second coming, we offer You in thanksgiving this holy and living sacrifice.
…we remember Christ’s Death and His descent to the realm of the dead, we proclaim His Resurrection and His Ascension to Your right hand….
… we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ!
For our sake He was crucified under Pontius Pilate,
He suffered death and was buried,
and rose again on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.
He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead
and His kingdom will have no end.
You can rest easy on that point, at least – when it comes to the suffering, death, Resurrection, Ascension and glorious return of Jesus, Catholics and Protestants agree! Then why the larger-than-life crucifix? Because Catholics are stuck on the words of St. Paul:
We preach Christ crucified!
This verse from 1 Corinthians does not indicate to you that Paul had never heard of or ignored the Resurrection, the Ascension and the Second Coming of Christ, does it? Right – neither do we.
So with that fear put to rest, hopefully you can concentrate on what’s being said at Mass. Awfully Scriptural, wouldn’t you say? Every line from the liturgy refers to some Biblical passage. Yes, you remark, the words you Catholics speak out loud sound very pious – but what is that the priest is muttering to himself up there as he washes his hands?
Where would the world be without conspiracy theories? The liturgy sounds good on the surface, but that’s just to fool unsuspecting suckers. Lure them in with “Lord, I am not worthy that You should enter under my roof,” but all the while the priest is uttering demonic imprecations under his breath!
Sounds like someone’s had one Chick tract too many! The PRAYERS that the priest utters during the Mass are all a matter of public record, even the ones he and the deacon pray inaudibly:
The Deacon who is to proclaim the Gospel, bowing profoundly before the Priest, asks for the blessing, saying in a low voice:
Your blessing, Father.
The Priest says in a low voice:
May the Lord be in your heart and on your lips,
that you may proclaim His Gospel worthily and well,
in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
The Deacon signs himself with the Sign of the Cross and replies:
If, however, a Deacon is not present, the Priest, bowing before the altar, says quietly:
Cleanse my heart and my lips, almighty God,
that I may worthily proclaim Your holy Gospel.
At the end of the Gospel, the Deacon, or the Priest, acclaims:
The Gospel of the Lord.
Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ.
Then he kisses the book, saying quietly:
Through the words of the Gospel
may our sins be wiped away.
The Deacon, or the Priest, pours wine and a little water into the chalice, saying quietly:
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.
After this, the Priest, bowing profoundly, says quietly:
With humble spirit and contrite heart
may we be accepted by You, O Lord,
and may our sacrifice in Your sight this day
be pleasing to You, Lord God.
Then the Priest, standing at the side of the altar, washes his hands, saying quietly:
Wash me, O Lord, from my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.
Then he takes the host, breaks it over the paten, and places a small piece in the chalice,
May this mingling of the Body and Blood
of our Lord Jesus Christ
bring eternal life to us who receive it.
Then the Priest, with hands joined, says quietly:
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God,
who, by the will of the Father
and the work of the Holy Spirit,
through Your Death gave life to the world,
free me by this, Your most holy Body and Blood,
from all my sins and from every evil;
keep me always faithful to Your commandments,
and never let me be parted from You.
May the receiving of Your Body and Blood,
Lord Jesus Christ,
not bring me to judgment and condemnation,
but through Your loving mercy
be for me protection in mind and body
and a healing remedy.
The Priest, facing the altar, says quietly:
May the Body of Christ
keep me safe for eternal life.
And he reverently consumes the Body of Christ.
Then he takes the chalice and says quietly:
May the Blood of Christ
keep me safe for eternal life.
And he reverently consumes the Blood of Christ.
When the distribution of Communion is over, the Priest or a Deacon or an acolyte
purifies the paten over the chalice and also the chalice itself. While he carries out the purification, the Priest says quietly:
What has passed our lips as food, O Lord,
may we possess in purity of heart,
that what has been given to us in time
may be our healing for eternity.
All pretty wholesome prayers, I would say. Next time you come, sit closer to the altar – you may be able to overhear some of this. Better yet, don’t take my word for it – learn to lip-read!
And what’s the deal with the incense?
Revelation 8:3-4: Another angel came and stood at the altar, holding a golden censer; and much incense was given to him, so that he might add it to the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, went up before God out of the angel’s hand.
So, basically, there’s no need to get twisted out of shape over the smells and bells of a Catholic Mass. Yes, the trappings are different from those at your church, but they are not just outlandish window-dressing. The Mass teaches on many different levels. Protestant services tend to be “one-dimensional,” so to speak – the Gospel is preached, in words, overtly. The Catholic Mass preaches the Gospel in words overtly, but in many other ways as well. With every phrase of the liturgy referring back to some verse of Scripture, a simple prayer like “Lord, I am not worthy that You should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed!” brings to mind images of the faith of the Gentile centurion, the Divine Physician, Jesus standing at the door and knocking, the tax collector who could not raise up his eyes to Heaven but beat his breast and said “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner….” – all that and more, in one line of one prayer. And our actions during Mass speak as loudly as the words: blessing ourselves with holy water to remind us of what we promised when we were baptized, genuflecting because Jesus is really present in the Tabernacle, reciting the Creed in one voice because we are one, going forward to receive Christ in the Eucharist individually because we must know God personally in order to be saved. Physical things like incense and holy water are not just props; they are symbols and reminders of prayer and baptism, respectively. The Mass even enters the fourth dimension – time – as the liturgy hearkens back to Old Testament precedents, such as the use of incense, and then spotlights them as we look forward to future realities before the throne of God. So many of the things that you as a Protestant think are weird and unnecessary “accretions” are actually beautiful tools for the proclamation of the Gospel. A John 3:16 two-by-four is not necessarily the best way to get the Truth into someone’s heart. Sometimes a crucifix can make a more enduring impression.
On the memorial of St. Albert the Great
Deo omnis gloria!
Photo credit: Pope Benedict XVI in Lisbon, Portugal, by Adriao