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By K. Albert Little, Patheos, May 9, 2018
Hello, reader. And welcome.
Let’s, right off the bat, talk about the crazy things that have to bring the two of us—you and me—together today.
First, some crazy person maybe an aunt, an uncle, a deranged sibling, or a complete stranger has invited you to a Catholic Mass. How weird. You know, Catholics aren’t that great at sharing our faith (we’re getting better, I swear!) so the fact that you’ve been invited to Mass is already one decisive step in the direction of bizarre, OK?
And, second, and maybe even more bizarre, you’re actually going to go?
You brave, brave soul.
Well, if somebody insisted on inviting you to Mass and you insist on going allow me to at least provide a short, yet exceptionally handy, guide to a Roman Catholic Mass. I can’t cover everything—there are some great resources for that—but I can give you a few insider tips to help you get the most out of your experience.
And, maybe, to help you understand better the incredible beauty that is our ancient Catholic faith.
Knowing these things, I’ve found, unlocks a whole ton of meaning from the Mass and, if understood, can really enhance your experience of the sacred liturgy taking place.
The Mass is a Foretaste of Heaven (Music Notwithstanding!)
First, know that the Mass is a looking forward; it is a picture of Heaven even if the singing is, sometimes, less than heavenly.
What I mean is that what’s taking place in a Mass is supposed to be a foretaste of how we will live, with God, in eternity. The Catholic Church takes the structure of the Mass and just about all of its elements from the vision of Heaven which we see in the final book of the New Testament, Revelation.
To understand this, alone, is to unlock a whole wealth of understanding about the Mass.
The altar, the incense (if there is any), the prayers of the faithful, and even the words spoken by the priest come from our picture of Heaven—as best we understand it—straight from the pages of the Bible.
Second, you need to understand that the priest is acting as Jesus. In technical terms, we call this persona Christi—in “the person of Christ.” The priest, following in the footsteps of the New Testament Apostles, helps to reveal Christ to us in a particular way.
This is complicated theology but understand this: when the priest prays, when Communion begins, the priest is acting as Jesus as pictured in Revelation. Acting out a divine drama we now is taking place in Heaven, here on earth, just like Christ asked us to at the Last Supper.
Understanding both the roots of the Mass (heavenly worship) and the role of the priest (acting as Jesus) is key to keeping track of what’s happening in a Mass. Because in the Book of Revelation, we see Jesus pictured in Heaven sitting at the right hand of God the Father. Jesus is next to God reminding him, pleading with him, to remember his sacrifice on the cross. Reminding him that he’s redeemed humanity, listening to our prayers and bringing them to the Father, and in this continual kind of love song he’s constantly giving Himself to Himself.
So there’s that.
Catholic Calisthenics: Why We Stand Up, Sit Down, and Kneel
Armed with the knowledge of where the Mass comes from and what exactly the priest is up to should help to unpack a lot of what’s going on during the liturgy. Almost everything the priest is doing is standing in for Christ.
But understanding what’s going on with all the standing, sitting, and kneeling helps, too.Basically, know this: every one of our postures and gestures at Mass have deep significance. Understanding why we sit, stand, and kneel can help to make the Mass come alive and it isn’t too complicated either.
Why do Catholics stand? To show that something important is happening. Think about when someone walks into a room during an important meeting, you probably stand and greet them. Think about what happens when the national anthem plays. Think about how we show respect for important or significant people in public. In the Mass, we often stand to pray because the Bible pictures us as such: standing before God.
Why do Catholics sit? Sitting is the traditional posture for learning or listening. So, in the Mass, when we’re listening to Scripture being read or listening to the priest’s homily we sit. We sit to listen, absorb, and to silently pray that the priest finishes his homily up soon (quality of homily depending!).
Finally, why do Catholics kneel? We kneel to show reverence—and it’s a lost art these days. Traditionally, we kneel to show respect, reverence, and authority. Think about what happens, typically, when we propose marriage: we kneel to our prospective spouse. In the Mass, we kneel to show reverence towards God who, during Communion, comes and actually dwells among us.
Jesus is Present in the Eucharist
And that leads us to our last point: what’s going on with Communion.
While Communion is typically a monthly, or even less frequent, event in an Evangelical church, Catholics celebrate the Lord’s Supper at each and every Mass. It’s the focal point, the fulcrum, in the Catholic Church’s liturgical life. It’s called “the source and summit” of our faith.
It’s a really big deal.
And for a Mass-goer it’s important to know one powerful and profound thing about what’s taking place. We Catholics believe that Jesus becomes really present during Communion. We believe, strangely enough, that the wafer and wine actual become Jesus in all but their appearance. The body, blood, and divinity of Jesus Christ are made fully present in the Eucharist.
It’s kind of crazy, but this is what the Catholic Church has taught for 2,000 years and what the very first Christians believed too. Why do we kneel during Communion? Because Jesus is actually present in the church. Why does it look like the priest is doing the dishes after he finishes serving Mass? Because he wants to make sure that not a single speckof the Body of Christ is left behind.
And why is the Eucharist the “source and summit” of our faith? Because Jesus has given himself for us to take part in—to actually eat in order to help us become like him. It’s this weird, metaphysical, spiritual training that is the whole purpose of the Mass—the purpose of the Catholic Church. We believe, ultimately, that we’re training for Heaven. That we’re living today, day to day, to become more holy, more like Jesus, more conformed to God because that was, and is, who we’re made to be.
And Mass is helping us to get there—even when the music sucks.