As we get close to Lent, I would like to offer some reflections on the Mass, and some reasons why we do some of the things we do as Catholic Christians. These reflections are for practicing Catholics and for those entering the Church through RCIA this Easter; really for anyone seeking a deeper understanding, as this helps us to participate more fully and intentionally in the Mass throughout our journey in this life to eternal life.
PROCESSION: Why do we have a procession to begin Mass? Wouldn’t it be easier to just start from the sacristy? Yes, it would be more efficient, but the Mass is not about efficiency. It is about praise and worship; it is about celebrating an ancient liturgy in our world today. Everyone gathers in the church in anticipation. Christ, in the person of the priest, enters last, while all sing God’s praises. Similar to a royal procession, where everyone gathers and goes before the king, and they gather around the throne. We gather around our eternal king, whom is reigning from his throne; the cross and the altar of sacrifice. We also call to mind that we are on a pilgrimage through this life to heaven. The entrance procession, beginning at the back of the church (the world), is a symbol of that journey to heaven (the altar). Christ is our goal, symbolized by the altar, and he walks with us in the person of the priest.
WHY DO WE BOW OR GENUFLECT? At various times during the Mass, the priest and congregation genuflect or perform a deep bow. What is the significance of this in the liturgy? It is a statement that we are entering into a sacred space. When you enter the church and arrive at your pew, we normally genuflect before the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Tabernacle. When the procession arrives at the entrance to the sanctuary, the same gesture is performed. The sanctuary reflects the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem; the most sacred place in the entire Temple, where sacrifices were offered by the High Priest once a year. The church itself is a sacred space, and within the church, the sanctuary is the holiest space. This is where the sacrifice of the Mass takes place, and is set off from the rest by steps, and historically, by a railing. These are visible reminders of the hallowed ground we enter for the Mass.
THE ALTAR KISS Why do the priest and deacon reverence the altar with a kiss at the beginning and end of the Mass? The altar in our churches is a symbol of Christ himself. We venerate Christ with a kiss before offering the sacrifice of the Mass and at the conclusion of the Mass as we exit the sacred space.
SIGN OF THE CROSS The sign of the cross is how we as Catholics begin and end our prayers; whether it is a simple daytime prayer, a rosary or Divine Mercy chaplet or the Mass itself. We do not often think of it in this way, but the Sign of the Cross is a prayer itself. We naturally point to the forehead, then the heart and finally move our hand across our lungs. These call to mind the holy Trinity; calling to mind the Father as we raise our hand to our forehead, the love of the Son is recalled when we place our hand over our heart and the breath of God, the Holy Spirit is where our thoughts should go as we cross over our lungs. This prayer also marks us with the sign of the greatest act of love the world has ever witnessed.
The sign of the Cross is the sign of Christ’s love. Beginning and ending all our prayer with this simple prayer recalls the centrality of Christ’s sacrifice for our salvation. Ask yourself; is there a more powerful and at the same time a more simple way to acknowledge who we are than a simple sign of the cross in public?