Home Page

Fr Aidan Nichols

Home Page

Epiphany : a theological introduction to Catholicism

by Aidan Nichols O.P.

Chapter 9: The Rites of the Church
Part 2


In Catholicism, the Eucharist is first and foremost a sacrifice. It is the sacramental expression of the sacrifice of Christ. In itself, that sacrifice cannot be repeated. For one thing, the death of Jesus and his subsequent vindication are a unique historical event, and so by definition unrepeatable. For another thing, the significance and power of Christ's sacrifice are endless, making it, as the Letter to the Hebrews notes, something achieved once only, and for all time. But none of this excludes the possibility that in the Eucharist this once-for-all sacrifice might become present to believers in a sacramental fashion (i.e., through signs and symbols). Indeed, in the light of the sacrificial imagery used by the Lord at the Last Supper this would appear to be his plan. On the night before his death he instituted a meal filled with images of broken bodies and spilt blood, commanding that it be celebrated indefinitely by his disciples "in memory of me."

The ecumenical Council of Trent teaches that the Mass, the Eucharistic sacrifice, differs from that of Calvary solely in its mode, which is sacramental, located in the order of signs. The Eucharist can be thus identical with the sacrifice of the Cross because Jesus Christ's abiding state with the Father is one of accepted victimhood. His sacrifice was for the sake of our union with the Father; his reality as the accepted sacrificial victim remains forever the foundation of redeemed humanity's life of grace. A sacrifice is a sign expressing and, if possible, effecting humankind's deliberate, suppliant return to God. It is something seemingly negative, an immolation signifying our painful detachment from sinful or at any rate imperfect forms of attachment to ourselves and to other creatures. It is at the same time something entirely positive, an oblation signifying our movement toward, and meeting with, God himself. The sacrifice of Christ exemplified and fulfilled this pattern in a definitive way. As the poet, artist, and lay theologian David Jones put it:

What was accomplished on the Tree of the Cross presupposes the sign world and looks back to foreshadowing rites and arts of mediation and conjugation stretching back for tens of thousands of years in actual pre-history. Or, to speak in theological terms, the Tree of the Cross pre­supposes the other Tree and stretches back to the "truly necessary sin of Adam" and the "happy fault" so that St. Thomas in the Good Friday hymn could write Ars ut artem falleret [that "the art (of man's deceiver) by (God's) art might be outweighed "].[27]

Christ realized in a visible way, in his own person, the entire metaphysic of man's return to God which humankind's ritual sacrifices outlined in symbolic guise. The only Son made man, at once victim and high priest, whom all other sacrificial offerings and ministers foreshadowed, lived out his sacrifice from Judas's kiss to the Father's Easter welcome. But that sacrifice was centered on the immolation of the Cross. There above all he carried through his disposition of adoring love in the hard conditions our sin imposed. There too the Father, in his answering love, accepted the homage of the incarnate Son on our behalf. Once the mystery of the atonement was thus achieved, in history and beyond, the power and providence of God could furnish it with an effective rite owing all its value to that mystery but passing on to us its fruits.

Since sacrifice appears to have originated as a sacred banquet, where human beings recognized that their life comes from God and develops in tacit response to him, this Eucharistic sacrifice takes the form, by the Lord's own institution, of a communion meal. We associate ourselves with Christ's sacrifice by means of the sacrificial symbolism of the offering involved in the communion meal; the offering only becomes identical with the sacrifice of Calvary when, in transubstantiation, the bread and wine become what they represent: Jesus Christ himself.

Of course the Holy Eucharist does not look like a bloody sacrifice. The immolated God-man is the only common point between the sacramental sacrifice and the Lord's passion, death, and resurrection.

We Catholics have that great freedom of mind through our faith in the reality of the Eucharistic sacrifice. We know that through this faith we move in a world which is entirely beyond human experience. We are true mystics, because we hold an infinite reality and yet hold it without any human factors. It is truly the mysterium fidei, the mystery of faith [28]

Since Christ is alpha and omega, time's origin and its eschatological fulfillment, in him time can be united with eternity. The Lamb immolated in time under Pontius Pilate is identical with the Lamb glimpsed by the seer of Revelation, slain "before the foundation of the world." Hence the Spirit can effect, in the holy sacrifice of the altar, his sacramental parousia. As the Byzantine office for the preparation of the Eucharistic gifts recalls, this is the oblation God always intended for the world. The world's destiny is to become a messianic banquet, where God is wedded through the saving flesh of the Son to humankind.


The Eucharist is also our Lord's real presence. When Jesus calls the elements of the Supper his "body" and "blood," he identifies them with his life, personhood, existence. The saving sacrifice which summed up everything he was becomes accessible (present) through the symbolism of bread for eating, wine for drinking. Christ does not leave heaven; his transformed biology remains where it was. But the consecrated elements become the embodiment of his presence. There is a conversion of the medium in which our meeting with him is to take place. He himself becomes the medium in which we encounter him. This is what the Fathers of Trent, echoing those of the Fourth Lateran Council, called

"that wonderful and unique conversion of the whole substance of the bread into the body [of the Lord], and of the whole substance of the wine into the blood, the appearances alone of bread and wine remaining."[29]

The consecration destroys none of the natural qualities of bread and wine, but these no longer manifest its ultimate reality. Its true substance, what is supremely important about it, lies elsewhere. The Eucharistic sensibility of the English people of the Middle Ages was nourished on this doctrine. In the Sarum pontifical (although not the Roman) we find this dialogue between the consecrator bishops and the candidate for episcopal ordination:

Dost thou believe that the bread which is laid on the Table of the Lord is only bread before the Consecration; but in the Consecration by the unspeakable power of the Godhead the nature and substance of the bread is changed into the nature and substance of the flesh of Christ and the flesh of no other than him, who was conceived of the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary?
(Bishop) I believe.

In like manner that wine which, mixed with water, is put into the chalice for satisfying, truly and essentially is converted into the Blood which by the soldier's spear flowed from the wound in Christ's side?
(Bishop) I believe.

But what is the rationale of the real presence? Why, in all its glorious objectivity, is it there? So that we may be united with Christ and with each other in Christ. The Holy Eucharist is the source of both individual and corporate renewal as of the unity of the Church. That is well captured in the striking prayer Salve salutaris hostia regularly printed in primers for layfolk, for use before Communion, on the eve of the Reformation. In this prayer, the communicants greet Christ in the sacrament as the "saving victim" offered for them and for all humanity on the altar of the Cross. They pray that the blood flowing from the side of the crucified wash away their sins so that they may be made worthy to consume his precious Body. Pleading that Christ's suffering for humanity might be the means of mercy and protection the communicant asks for a renewal of heart and mind so that the old Adam may die and the new life begin.

May I be worthy to be incorporated into your body, which is the Church. May I be one of your members, and may you be my Head, that I may remain in you and you in me, so that in the Resurrection my lowly body may be conformed to your glorious body according to the promises of the apostle, and so that I may rejoice in you and your glory eternally.[30]

The faithful are to approach communion "arrayed in God's livery, clothed in love and charity, not the fiend's livery, clothed in envy and deadly wrath."

The real presence is is, then, to unite us both to God and to our neighbor. It has, therefore, both a Trinitarian and a humanitarian dimension. By means of it, the Church enters, through the Mass, into the life of the Trinity. Just as the Son is never found without the Father and the Holy Spirit, so the Mass is always offered, through the Son, to the Father in that same Spirit. In the Trinity icon of Andrei Rublev the Eucharist is displayed as a participation in the Trinitarian life. The fatherly angel on the left addresses the devoted, consenting filial angel on the right, while in the center the pneumatic angel consecrates the Eucharistic gifts, the symbol of Christ, on the altar. The Trinitarian God is not just repose; he is also streaming life, abiding always in his self-moved movement, and drawing those redeemed by Christ's sacrifice, through the Eucharist, into the rhythmic pattern of his own communion of love. At the same time, the real presence, in uniting Christians to each other in Christ, sums up the humanitarian outreach of the Mass which is a petitionary prayer par excellence, embracing all sorts and conditions of persons in their differentiated unity. Here for instance is the intercession that joins the (the prayer for the descent of the Holy Spirit) to the (the solemn commemoration of the Lord's Passover) in the Chaldaeo-Malabar liturgy of India:

Yes, Lord God Almighty, receive this offering for the supreme pontiff and the head and ruler of the universal Church, Mar N. Pope of Rome, and for our holy father Mar N. archbishop or bishop, now ruling our people, and for all the Holy Catholic Church, and for priests (kings and governors), the public authorities, and for the honour of all the prophets, apostles, martyrs and confessors, and for all the just and holy fathers who were pleasing in your presence, and for all those who mourn and are in distress, for the poor and the down-trodden, for the sick and the afflicted, and for all the departed who have died in your name, and for this people that looks forward to your mercy, and for my own unworthy self.

In receiving Christ in Holy Communion or in saluting him in the reserved elements, we come through him not only to the divine society of the Trinity but to the human society of all his brethren, all those for whom he died, whether or not they know it. The hermit Charles de Foucauld, kneeling in Saharan solitude before the consecrated Host, was not alone, but with a multitude of brothers and sisters whom he learned thereby to carry in his heart.


How then does the order of the Mass, its liturgical sequence, unfold? I concentrate here on the Roman Rite, since that forms the staple of worship of the great majority of Catholic Christians, but the basic program is reflected in the various Oriental liturgies too. In the main, I shall describe (in its fullest version) the reformed Roman Rite of Pope Paul VI, dating from the late 1960s, with explanatory reference to earlier Western and contemporary Eastern practice.

The Mass is a diptych: its doors swing apart to show us two distinct liturgical actions which are, however, integrated into one unitary rite. The Liturgy of the Word or of the Catechumens (those preparing for sacramental initiation) was sometimes even celebrated in a different place from the Liturgy of the Sacrifice. In the modem Roman Rite, the first is focused on the cathedral of the bishop, or the chair of the priest representing him, as these preside over the assembly in their role as apostolic ministers of the word of the gospel. The focus of the Eucharist proper, on the other hand, is the altar itself where they stand as icons of Christ the high priest.

The Mass begins with certain introductory rites: either a dialogue of bishop (or priest) and people (or server) or a polylogue, with a choir participating; by means of these we place ourselves in the right disposition for celebrating the liturgy. In the introit antiphon and psalm (often replaced by a vernacular hymn), we welcome Christ who is coming to preside among his people, as represented by the processional cross, the tapers, the book of the Gospels, and the sacred ministers. (A secondary motif is that of the Church herself, moving through Christ toward the kingdom of God.) When the procession-reaches the altar, which is already dressed and honored with lights, the Gospel book is placed upon it, since it contains the word of Christ. Because the altar is the most important liturgical symbol in the church building, representing Christ as the "place" where sacrifice is continually offered by humanity to the Father, the rite cannot proceed without taking notice of this fact. The kissing of the altar salutes the holy place where the mystery will be celebrated. In pagan antiquity a kiss was offered to the threshold of a temple, to the images of the gods, and to the family table. In the liturgy the kiss of the altar is meant first of all for Christ  the cornerstone, the spiritual rock. An altar table should if possible contain some stone as well as wood, since it is both the place of a meal and the place of sacrifice (normally carried out on stone in natural religion). With the growth of the cult of the martyrs, the altar stone included from early times a little reliquary and the kiss would be planted at this point. The kissing of the altar is also a greeting to the whole Church triumphant which is to worship with us in the liturgy. Pope Innocent III, in his early thirteenth-century treatise On the Mystery of the Altar maintains that in the celebrant's kiss Christ greets his spouse, the spotless Church. In older forms of the Roman Rite the text accompanying the kissing of the altar prays that God might take away our Sinfulness so that, at the prayers of the martyrs whose relics lie there, we may come with purified minds into the holy of holies: the Eucharistic presence and the heavenly banquet it prefigures. Altar and crucifix are incensed, as the prayer of the Church draws in the body with its senses at the opening of the act of worship.

In the Roman Rite as we have it today this is immediately followed by an invocation of the Holy Trinity, when all present sign themselves with the Cross: the sacred action is undertaken in the power of the triune God which flows from the Cross of Christ. Then the celebrant greets the congregation using a New Testament formula which asks that the congregation may be established by God in that awareness of what he had done for them which will enable them to share fruitfully in the Mass. They reply courteously (in the Latin paradigm), "And with your spirit," meaning, "and may this also be true of you in your special ministry, the gift of the Spirit whereby you are the Church's minister."

Next comes the penitential act which has as its theme sin, and the ensuing need for atonement and forgiveness. When first introduced, these prayers were virtually private prayers of preparation of the pope or bishop, and were said lying prostrate on the floor of the sanctuary, a gesture still used in the Roman liturgy on Good Friday. In the High Middle Ages this became a little drama in which several voices participated. In the Tridentine Rite, the priest bows, says the "I confess," " turning to the servers when he comes to the words "and [I confess] to you, my brethren," and then receives the confession of the servers in similar fashion; finally, each "side" prays an absolution over the other. A profound bow during the Confiteor is theologically correct: the gesture of praying upright belongs to the Christian as forgiven, who is now found erect in the Father's presence. The gesture of beating one's breast here is copied from the Lucan parable of the Pharisee and the publican. The confession of sin is made not only to God but also to the Church, both the Church of the congregation and that of the saints. The reasons are, first, that all sin diminishes the life of charity that circulates between person and person, and second, that by Christ's command reconciliation with God normally takes the form of reconciliation with Christ's community.

The fact that the Kyrie (at least in its ordinary form) follows the priest's absolution should alert us to the fact that it is not simply a repetition of a statement of sorrow. As many of its plainsong and polyphonic settings demonstrate, it is, rather, a strong and confident act of praise of God as the merciful One. In a troped Kyrie, various acclamations bring out different aspects of this compassionate Lord. In the Byzantine liturgy, as at Jerusalem in the early centuries, the Kyrie is interspersed with petitions (in the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, petitions for the whole Church, the clergy, the people, the ruler, those on a journey, the sick, the benefactors of the Church, the poor, and others too, as well as for peace).

If in the Kyrie we acclaim Christ as the merciful Savior, in the Gloria, a venerable dogmatic hymn of thanksgiving, we remind ourselves that the true object of our religion is the Father with the Son in the Holy Spirit. Recited on Sundays (except in the penitential seasons) and feast days, it exemplifies the "spiritual canticles" in which Paul's churches abounded. The Gloria recalls the joy which broke on the world with the birth of Christ the Lucan song of the angels on Nativity night. First praising the Father, it then invokes Christ's grace over all humankind, not forgetting at its close that this happens through the Holy Spirit.

The collect, or opening prayer, is the first point where the celebrant comes forward to address God in the presence of the assembly. The term collect refers to the prayer's functions, its gathering and summing up of the people's intentions. It is, however, not merely petitionary but always invites us to bless God in some way consonant with his character, as the Kyrie and Gloria have just declared it to be. The collects of the Roman Rite are distinguished by their economy, clarity, and majesty.

The readings with, at their climax, the proclamation of the gospel, the high point of the Liturgy of the Word, come next. Enormous variety has prevailed as to how many readings should precede the gospel, and on what principle they should be selected. The Syrian liturgy has five, the Chaldaean three (from the Law, the Prophets, and the apostolic letters). The most widespread practice in the early Church was two: an Old Testament reading chosen so as to point in some way to the New, and a lection from the epistle. This is the pattern observed in the Roman liturgy today on Sundays and the greater feasts. But on the vigils of certain solemnities, above all Easter, the number of readings may be extended to give the worshippers a vast panorama of their faith. The eight readings of the mother of all vigils, Easter night, begin with the world's creation and move on through the call of the patriarchs, the entry of the people into the Land and the teaching of the great prophets so as to throw light on the resurrection of Christ as a new genesis, a new exodus, a new return from exile.

In the selection of readings, two principles jostle. First, the people should hear as much of Scripture as is feasible. At its simplest, and if left to itself, this principle works itself out as lectio continua the cover­to-cover reading of the Bible. That this was the case for certain books seems clear from the formula used by the deacon in announcing the gospel: sequentia, "the continuation" of the holy Gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. But second, and set over against the first, there is a need to select readings appropriate to liturgical time, to the celebration of various key events in the life of Christ and his Mother, as well as the anniversaries of the saints. In the ancient Church it was, for instance, the custom in places to read the Books of Job and Jonah during Holy Week, for they too were sufferers who had been vindicated. The juxtaposition of readings, especially from Old and New Testaments, can be striking. The compilers of the present Roman Lectionary show not only a scholar's grasp of how various texts were used in the ancient liturgy, combinations hallowed by long Christian usage, but also an impresario's flair for thinking up fresh couplings of their own (though this has its own drawback in dislocation of earlier readings cycles).

Liturgical reading should not be too prosaic: as a proclamation of the divine word a degree of stylization is appropriate, not through the injecting of the lector's own sentiments but through observing a certain objective solemnity. On the greatest feasts, the readings should be sung. Such cantillation can vary between the tonus rectus, where the only change of pitch is a slight modulation in questions, for the sake of intelligibility, to much richer, and more varied tones. In Augustine's North Africa the reading of the passion, for example, was already elaborate. In the Middle Ages a proper ranking in significance between texts (the gospel being higher than, say, the epistle) was audibly manifest in comparing methods of cantillation. Change of place was also important. Whereas the Old Testament lection and the epistle would be read from an ambo-stand, slightly elevated and sometimes adorned with mosaics and sculpture, a second ambo for the gospel stood higher still and possessed a fuller iconography, becoming in the pulpit a major locus of Gothic and later art.

Readings are followed by chant; the gospel is preceded by an alleluia. In the fourth-century Apostolic Constitutions the response of cantor and people to the lections comes from the hymns of David: the Psalms, chosen for their wonderful expression of so many pertinent attitudes and emotions, trust and confidence, contrition, need, praise. Elaborate melismas (lyrical expansion of the notes of a psalm verse) led in time in the West to the loss of the congregation's part; in the Byzantine East the psalm itself disappeared, displaced by postbiblical liturgical poetry, often of great beauty. The alleluia verse expresses the Church's joy at the gospel. In the Roman gradual the alleluia takes off in a jubilus a stream of jubilant sound, regarded by many as the highest achievement of the chant.

There has never been any doubt as to which texts of Scripture hold highest place. The Gospels contain the good things, the fulfillment of all the past and the point from which all future ages radiate. How highly they were regarded can sometimes be seen in the sheer physicality of the gospel books. Written in the stately uncial hand, often in gold or silver script against a purple ground, sometimes decorated with miniatures, their binding, in the Dark Ages, would be covered with ivory or precious metal. A formal procession developed from the deacon's deportment in walking to the ambo. After seeking a blessing from the celebrant, he goes to the altar where the gospel book has lain since the entry. Reverently picking it up, he carries it, accompanied by torchbearers and thurifer, to the ambo to begin the reading. From ancient times people have heard the gospel standing, and turned to the East, symbol of the risen and victorious Christ, the unconquered sun. Men had to remove every head covering, even the royal crown of princes. Mention is made of setting aside one's outer mantle and sword, or, conversely, drawing the sword and holding it extended as a sign of willingness to fight for the gospel message. In earlier periods at Rome, the subdeacon took the book after its reading and brought it round to the attendant clergy, and perhaps the whole congregation, to be kissed before returning it to its casket in a place of safe-keeping. The Dominican use preserves the primitive custom of making a sign of the cross at the close of the gospel: this stands for a prayer that the seed of the word, now planted, will not be taken away from our hearts. In the Roman Rite, this signing, on forehead, mouth, and breast occurs only as the gospel is announced: we want to receive Christ's words with our minds, to give them assent intellectually; to be ready to confess and defend them, if need be, in conversation; to love them and to receive them (and him) in our hearts.

The liturgical sermon must arise from the gospel either that of the day or the wider gospel message as rendered incarnate by the texts of a feast or commemoration. In the Coptic Rite the bishop when preaching is required to keep hold of the gospel book, to make this point. The homilies of the patristic Church are generally to be found as collections of conferences on the Gospels, like Augustine's marvelous homilia super Joannem. As an official act of one of her ministers, authorized for this purpose in her name, the Church expects a sermon to be an exposition of her common faith as manifested in Scripture.

The Liturgy of the Word closes on Sundays and feasts by saying or singing the Creed: the faith produced by the word just encountered in Scripture. In the Greek liturgy the Creed comes later, as a foundation for the Liturgy of the Sacrifice, yet it still functions as a hinge between the two. The celebrant in the Byzantine Rite calls out to the people, to introduce it, "Let us love one another so that we may confess Father, Son and Holy Spirit, consubstantial Trinity, undivided Unity," thus bringing home the fact that the Creed is not just a bare recitation of facts about God but an act of loving homage made by a community conscious of itself as his household.

In the new Roman Rite the Creed is at once followed by the prayers of the faithful (what in Britain are called, following medieval English custom, the "bidding prayers"). They are the intimate household prayers of the Christian family, and, as prayer for each other, lead us into the Liturgy of the Sacrifice by fulfilling the command of Jesus about brotherly love as a precondition of authentic worship:

"If you remember that your brother has anything against you go and make it up with him before you come to offer your gift on the altar" (Matt 5:24).

Now the gifts must be prepared, or, if already prepared, brought in to the sacred assembly. In the Byzantine Rite the bearing of the gifts from the place of preparation to the altar is a liturgical high point: people bow or even prostrate as the "Great Entrance" proceeds. For though the elements are not yet consecrated to be Christ's real presence they are already in a weaker sense consecrated inasmuch as they are set apart for the Holy Eucharist. The modern Roman Rite follows the medieval custom in France and England, where representatives of the faithful wended their way through the church, carrying bread, wine, and water to the sanctuary, where the celebrant and his assistants met them and took the elements on the final relay to the altar. In North Africa, at least, it was usual for the faithful to offer many other gifts at this point, most importantly alms for the poor and the upkeep of the Church's ministers (our collection-plate) but also gifts in kind. This continues in Masses for the canonization of saints when the pope is customarily handed two loaves, two barrels of wine and water, five candles and three cages containing doves or other birds, though nowadays gifts more redolent of the distinctive culture of the servant of God newly "raised to the altars" may replace these, at least in part.

The offertory prayers are intended to accompany the laying of the gifts on the altar. A natural tendency would amplify these texts so as to look forward to what will happen to the gifts at the consecration but this should not entail duplicating the Eucharistic Prayer! In the Latin Church the bread used is unleavened, pointing back toward the Last Supper itself. In the Oriental Churches leavened bread is the norm, which stresses the natural integrity of matter and the yeast of the resurrection. In both East and West the bread is to be as fine as possible; in a Ravenna mosaic it takes the form of a corona, a plaited crown. In some places its baking has itself been liturgical: among the Ethiopians each church has a little "Bethlehem" (house of bread) attached for the purpose; in some Western monasteries monks wore albs while milling flour for the altar. The wine presented is, by ancient custom, mingled with water originally, no doubt, a practical measure to prevent dizziness. Cyprian was the first to interpret this symbolically: just as the wine receives the water into itself, so Christ has taken upon him ourselves and our sins. As the celebrant raises paten and chalice we should place in them, in imagination, our lives, work, sorrows, and joys, and all those to whom we are bound by love and responsibility.

The bread and wine, now presented on the altar and incensed, and the priest having prayed in simple and profound biblical language that we may be received by God as we come with broken hearts, and the people having joined their voices in the form of prayer for the celebration, the focus suddenly shifts. In the oratio super oblata the accent typically moves from the theme of the gifts as symbols of our interior surrender to the theme of the gift himself into whom our gifts will be transformed, Jesus Christ. For now we come to the heart of the Mass, often called, simply but impressively, "the Great Prayer."

Because what will follow is so hugely important the introduction is heightened: not just "Oremus" ("Let us pray"), said by the celebrant, but three invitations and responses in which the people present their assent. For Augustine the "Sursum corda" ("Lift up your hearts") affirms that in the risen Christ all humanity has its home with God, so that is where our hearts should be, "Habemus ad Dominum" ("We have raised them up to the Lord"). This enables the celebrant, Augustine continues, to pass on the last injunction, "Gratias agamus Domino Deo nostro" ("Let us give thanks to the Lord our God"); though we cannot, alas, always have hearts and minds fixed on God we should certainly give thanks at this moment above all, renewing our self-committal from our deepest personal center. The language appears to caricature the emperor cult: the Church too has a "Lord," but it is not Caesar. In this dialogue, she reminds herself of what she is to do, and gets into the right frame of mind for the Christian sacrifice.

The preface gives us the reasons why we should be celebrating the Eucharist. In a rapturous prose hymn the priest blesses God for all his wonderful works, especially in the world's redemption by the Son and inaugurated transfiguration through the Spirit. The Roman liturgy has vacillated wildly in the number of such prefaces it could countenance from over two hundred and fifty in the Leonine Sacramentary to a mere fourteen in its Gregorian successor. The Missal of Pope Paul VI has just over eighty, many remarkably fine.

Every preface ends by bringing in the angelic hosts. Ronald Knox spoke here of

the various ranks of Angels flashing past us like the names of suburban stations as we draw, closer to the heart of a great capital. The holy Angels, I think, have a knack of drawing up one's mind to God by being at once so awe-inspiring and at the same time obviously inconclusive, the attitude of the Angel in the Apocalypse who will not let St. John worship him and bids him worship God instead, is permanently their attitude.[31]

The Sanctus follows as the people's punctuation of the praise of God the celebrant is offering and a reminder that the liturgy is a foretaste of the heavenly worship of the angels and saints. Its text is an outburst of praise, amplified by the ringing of a bell.

All of God's benefits and the manifestations of his favour, for which in the Preface we are giving thanks are after all only revelations of his in­most being, his holiness, which is all light and brilliance, inviolable and without strain, before which creation can only bow in deepest reverence. . . . That the cry resounds three times must have but increased the joy the Christians had in this song, so even when a Trinitarian meaning was not expressly attached to the triple "holy" still there was inherent in it an echo of this most profound of all Christian mysteries.[32]

In France, during the dark ages, another motif was subjoined in the Benedictus. The glory of the Lord, filling heaven and earth, did not begin to shine in fullest splendor until the divine Son came to us in form of flesh. The liturgy took over the cry with which the crowds welcomed Christ into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday: blessed is he who is coming, as the Eucharistic action brings his presence, in the consecrated gifts, into the midst of his people.

The Canon or Eucharistic Prayer, the Anaphora or Offering, shows us, as it unfolds, six features. First, there is always an invocation whereby the Church begs God to effect the consecration by his power, asking that the communicants may be granted salvation by their sharing in the Eucharistic Lord. Second, we find an account of how Christ instituted the Eucharist, followed by the words of his command to renew it in his memory. Third, there is a prayer of recalling all that Christ did for our salvation, thus claiming the grace of the presence of the Son-made-man, offering himself in love. Fourth, the Church confesses how she is now joined with Christ in his sacrifice, taken up into it, and co-offering it with him. Fifth, there is alongside commemoration of the saints intercession for the living and the dead. Sixth, the Canon ends with an act of praise of God which the people seal by adding their "Amen." A clue to the meaning of the texts often lies in the gestures that accompany them. Thus, while the celebrant, in the Roman Canon, resumes, after the Sanctus, the basic orante posture with arms outstretched he has taken during the preface, at the "Hanc igitur" he holds out his hands palms downwards over the bread and wine in an epicletory gesture, one of imparting (the Holy Spirit over the gifts as once that Spirit descended, in the Genesis poem, over the waters of creation, and in Luke's Gospel, on the womb of Mary. In reciting the institution narrative the celebrant places his hands on the altar-table, identifying it implicitly with the table of the Supper. When taking up the bread he follows the motions of Jesus, acting in persona Christi, playing the part of Christ. Bowing slightly over the gifts to express the holiness and solemnity of this moment, he raises them up for the people to acclaim and adore Christ before them, and genuflects in representative adoration. For the in the Dominican use, he holds out his arms in the form of a cross to express the unity of the Church with the Christ who was sacrificed for us. Then, asking that God may make this sacrifice fruitful for those who will share its fruits in Holy Communion, he bows low with arms folded in a second epicletory gesture, asking that the reception of the gifts may be for the faithful a true encounter with Christ. After this the celebrant joins his hands to pray silently for a moment remembering by name the departed for whom he should pray, just as before the consecration he has done this for the living. Not dissembling either the unworthiness of the assembly or his own, he beats his breast in an ancient Jewish gesture of contrition. Finally, he takes up the gifts, now transformed into the living reality of the sacrificed God-man Jesus Christ, and proclaims that through, with, and in him the Father receives all glory possible from his Church gathered together into one by the Holy Spirit. As the priest lowers the gifts again the people call out their assent in the "Amen."

The rite of Communion follows. After the Lord's Prayer, the supreme Christian prayer and its coda, a prayer for peace, the celebrant breaks the sacred Host into pieces, placing one in the chalice as the Agnus Dei is sung. As the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom has it,

"The Lamb of God is broken and shared out, broken but not divided, ever eaten but never consumed, hallowing those who share it."

In the Roman Rite, the fraction of the Host and the "reunion" of the Lord's Body and Blood as a particle is dropped into the cup signifies both the passion and the resurrection. It is from these that all grace comes. Showing the elements to the people, the celebrant invites them to prepare for Holy Communion. For this prayer and repentance are always required. We must prayerfully intend to receive Communion for some while beforehand; it is never to be taken on the spur of the moment. The Church suggests devotional texts to help the communicant make ready to receive the Guest. We must also come with a real desire to change our lives, not with resentments and unfinished moral business which is why regular Communion implies regular confession. A canonical fast is also demanded, long from the Orientals, short from the Latins, though personal devotion may suggest more. In fasting, the people of God stand ready, awaiting the parousia of the Lord.

Communion is followed by the ablutions, the communion verse (or hymn) and a prayer of thanksgiving for the grace received, a petition that its fruits may endure, that the blessings of nature or supernature suggested by season or feast may be ours, as well as the unending joys of heaven prefigured in the reception of the Lord's person. The whole is terminated by the parting blessing of the priest recalling in gesture the triumph of the Cross and in words the mystery of the Trinity in the glory of the Godhead and the dismissal, "Ite, missa est!" ("Go, you are sent forth!"). This is not merely a formal dismissal: it is also an exhortation to bring the spirit of the Mass into daily living.

4. Penance

Jesus Christ as the God-man is the reconciler between God and human beings. He brings to their true home in God those who have wandered far away from him and first of all by sin. One of the characteristic actions of Jesus in his public ministry was forgiving sins; this comes to its climax in his resurrection when he gives to the apostles the power to transmit the grace of God's forgiveness. This too has its sacrament.

Most popularly, it is called the sacrament of confession, for saying that one is sorry is the ordinary human action which in this sign is taken up and transformed by the Word of God. In contemporary Church documents it is called "the sacrament of reconciliation, " because the forgiveness of sins is so central in Christ's reconciling work. Here it will be called by its medieval name, the sacrament of penance, which links it to the fundamental attitude of repentance, seen by Jesus as pivotal when he began his preaching: "Repent, and believe the Gospel" (Mk 1:15).

Prior to being a sacrament, we may say, penance is a permanent constituent dimension of the Christian life. It is a state of mind and heart (and even body) which, by turning into reality the death to sin promised in baptism, shares in the passion of Christ. Thanks to the detachment from sin that penance brings about, it progressively (though no doubt with many setbacks) assimilates Christians to Christ, conforms them to him.

As a Christian virtue, a permanent disposition to practice repentance of heart, penance is confirmed and brought to completion by a sacramental act: the sacrament of penance itself. Only in union with the Church, Christ's mystical body, can the sinner re-find peace and the Holy Spirit. Christian penance is only fully effective when united with the Church. For this reason, the Church does not simply require the faithful to frequent this sacrament in the case of very grave post­baptismal sin (classically summed up in the unholy trinity of murder, adultery, and apostasy). More than this, the regular submission of our actions, words, and even thoughts to sacramental penance is seen by her as a highly desirable moment in the practice of this crucial virtue. The sacrament of penance is a consecration, by an act of the Church, of our personal efforts at detachment from sin, our struggle with the evil within us.

As the patristic reception of biblical revelation took definite shape, this sacrament began to take on clear form not, however, without attendant uncertainties. To the authors of fourth-century texts on this subject, such reconciliation with the Church is essentially an effective sign of peace with God, the Holy Spirit restoring to the penitent the graces given with baptismal regeneration. But soon a division appeared over just how rigorously rationed the celebration of such canonical penance should be. According to some, it was only to be permitted once, for fear of encouraging laxity. And even this one-off experience of "second Baptism" (as it was sometimes called) was placed beyond the reach of clerics who, it was thought, should be more exigent with themselves, and also of a married person in the event of the spouse withholding consent. Perhaps owing to the influence exerted by rigorists, resort to unofficial forms of penance became more common. Among such monastic founders as Pachomius, Basil, Cassian, and Benedict we find "private" confession highlighted as a means of spiritual direction and of growth in Christian perfection. The bringing together of the two the canonical public penance and the alternative, more private kind provided the sacrament of penance with its eventual, enduring form. From the seventh century on, the influence of the Irish Church was decisive. While for the Irish monastic teachers lesser faults of the baptized were to be pardoned by such means as prayer, lay confession, and other acts of humility, serious faults required the intervention of the power of the keys. Such recourse to apostolic authority of binding and loosing was made not to a bishop (as in the Continental canonical penance) but to a simple priest who, first, heard the penitent's confession; second, taking into account the penitent's dispositions, set a penitential action to be performed; and third, when such "sufficient expiation" or "satisfaction" was deemed complete, reconciled him or her by absolution. In the wider Latin Christendom of the early Middle Ages, confession increasingly came to be seen as an integral part of the expiation not surprisingly, as the act of confession is hardly pleasant, involving as it does the baring of the less attractive features of one's soul to a fellow human being. In the tenth and eleventh centuries the liturgy of penance presupposed ever more clearly that reconciliation would take place at the time of the confession itself, usually by the imposition of the priest's hands. The priest prayed for the forgiveness of the sinner, gave him a "satisfaction," to remit the old canonical penance, and pronounced the words of absolution. By the twentieth century the penances people were invited to perform were usually token in nature, gestures that did not pretend to complete the healing suffering which penance entails. Postbaptismal sinners in the contemporary period require therefore a more conscious sense of sharing in Christ's liberating passion, expressed in works of self-denial and supererogation at other times.

In the eleventh century there was already some bemusement over general absolution as pronounced by pope or bishop over a multitude of people at the same time (without opportunity for the concrete confession of personal sins). Theologians of the period regarded this either as a prayer for absolution or as a remission of the satisfaction the penitent was otherwise obliged to make (notably through such major projects as pilgrimage to a distant shrine or participation in the Crusades). In the modem Roman rite of penance such absolution is foreseen for those who cannot make individual confession owing to their great numbers, and the relative paucity of confessors or time. But it is regarded as dependent for its sacramental actuality on the willingness to make a personal confession when circumstances at last permit.

How then may we sum up the significance of the sacrament of penance in Catholic eyes? The state of sin is one of separation from God through deprivation of grace and charity. It is comparable to a grave illness or a mortal wound: it cannot be, before death, definitive or total, but it can be serious and life-threatening. As an action incompatible with the ordo amoris, the "order of love," such mortal sin places its agent in an immediate condition of "aversion" from God. It may be contrasted with minor slackening in the momentum of the Christian life: venial sins, which leave intact the orientation towards God and the living out of his commandments while diminishing its effectiveness. Sin affects not only the individual in his or her relation to God but also the community, the Church. Mortal sin constitutes a spiritual rupture with the community of Christ, since the sinner in losing charity loses at the same time life-giving communion with others "in Christ." Venial sin is not so radical, yet it too enfeebles the flow of charity in the Church, lowering the tone of ecclesial existence. Now the re­emption of sin is the proper work of God in Christ. The destruction of sin in each sinner demands a divine remedy: only God can wipe out the effects of disruption of the order of love. For fallen Christians, the remedy is this sacrament, adapted as it is to the human condition since in calling for persons' active collaboration it respects their freedom, the same freedom they abused in sinning and which now needs to be redeemed. This sacrament, however, can only be a redeeming action (and not just a piece of symbolism, more or less moving, but ultimately of only subjective significance) if it is founded on Christ's saving acts in the atonement, and if, furthermore, it expresses that mission and those powers which the Church receives from Christ so as to translate his redemptive achievement into reality for individual persons. The Council of Trent stressed that the locus of penance is truly a tribunal a court that really acquits. Absolution is not some general declaration that God forgives sinners but the restoration of full friendship with God through spiritual communion in Christ by way of a judgment on the sin and repentance of this concrete person who has come here and now seeking reconciliation.

Neither shame nor pride is to inhibit the recital of one's sin, for, as in a Gaelic prayer from the Scottish islands, we are to condemn ourselves at the chair of confession lest we be condemned at the chair of judgment. In a good confession, such candor is married to asking forgiveness for the past and seeking strength for the future. The matter of the sacrament is the desire to say that one is sorry, the will to submit oneself to ecclesial penance. Its form is the priest's words which consecrate the penitent's manifestation of sorrow by the deed of God in Christ. Here the priest is to act not only as judge but also as spiritual physician. And while priests vary much in their ability to be helpful in the confessional, or to one penitent rather than another, they should at least convey the truth summed up by Francis de Sales when he called penance the "sacrament of reconciled friends."

The texts of the liturgy of penance bring out these themes. The Byzantine version is the richest, notably in its Slavonic form. It opens with a litany calling on Christ not only as Son of the living God and Good Shepherd but also as a Lamb, taking away the sins of the world, who forgave the two debtors their debt and the sinful woman her sins. Asking for the remission of sins and time for repentance of the "servant of God" who has approached the Church's tribunal, it also reminds the penitent of the sub-mediatorial role of the communion of saints in the work of our salvation when it prays,

"Open to us the door of your loving-kindness, blessed Mother of God; in that we set our hope on you, may we not go astray, but be delivered by you from all adversities, for you are the salvation of all Christian people."

The penitent asks for divine pardon:

"Father, Lord of heaven and earth, I confess to you all the hidden and open sins of my heart and mind, which I have committed until this day. Wherefore I beg of you, the merciful and righteous judge, forgiveness and grace to sin no more." Whereupon the priest comments, "Brother, inasmuch as you have come to me and to God, be not ashamed; for you are speaking not to me but to God, before whom you stand."

In the Slavonic usage, the priest then brings the penitent before a desk positioned, commonly, before the "royal doors" of the iconostasis (the icon screen which is the dividing line between nave and sanctuary). On the desk has been placed the book of the Gospels and an icon of the crucified Savior. Standing at the side, he admonishes him:

See, my child, Christ is standing here invisibly and receiving your confession; so do not be ashamed or afraid and conceal nothing from me. But tell me without hesitation all things you have done; and so you shall have pardon from our Lord Jesus Christ. See, his holy image is before us; and I am only a witness, bearing testimony before him of all the things you have to say to me. But if you conceal anything from me, you will have the greater sin, so take heed lest having come to a physician you depart unhealed.

Part 3


27. H. Grisewood, ed., Epoch and Artist: Selected Writings by David Jones (London, 1959) 168.

28. A. Vonier, "A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist," in Collected Works 2: The Church and the Sacraments (London, 1952) 272.

29. DH 1642.

30. E. Hoskins, Horae Beatae Virginis Mariae, or Sarum and York Primers with Kindred Books and Primers of the Reformed Roman Rite (London, 1901) 127.

31. R. Knox, The Mass in Slow Motion (London, 1949) xv.

32. J. A. Jungmann, The Mass of the Roman Rite: Its Origins and Development (New York and London, 1959) 381.

Part 3

©; 1996 by The Order of St. Benedict, Inc., Collegeville, Minnesota. All rights reserved.

This version: 6th February 2008

Home Page

Fr Aidan Nichols

Home Page