10/2/11, The Meaning of the Mass



"Liturgy" is the participation of the people of God in the work of God. Through the liturgy Christ continues the work of the  world’s redemption in, with and through the Church. The Mass, the Church's highest form of prayer, is a gathering of the faithful in community that has existed since the earliest days of Christianity. Ceremonies/rituals have developed over the years to set our Sunday gatherings apart from other kinds of community assemblies.

In the earliest days of the Church, when the Eucharist was celebrated in homes as part of a meal, there was no special ceremony to mark the beginning of Mass. But after the persecution of the Church ended, when Christians began to build churches for worship, it was the custom for the community to gather in the church before Mass to pray and prepare themselves. The signal for Mass to begin was the entrance of the ministers.

The celebration begins as everyone stands and sings together an entrance hymn reflecting the theme of the day. The priest and other ministers process to the altar bearing symbols of our faith: the cross,  the Gospel book and candles of light.

The "altar" is by its very nature a table representing Christ’s self-giving life and at the same time a table of the eucharistic banquet celebrated by the whole Christian Community. The veneration of the altar at the beginning of the celebration is an act of greeting, which recalls that the common table is holy and sacred to the action of the assembly. It is the place from which prayer ascends like incense before God.


The Sign of the Cross and the Greeting

We begin the Mass with the sign of the Cross - the oldest gesture of our faith - and a greeting. In this way we go back to the earliest traditions of the Eucharist.

The sign of the cross, a traditional prelude to prayer, is a form of self-blessing with strong baptismal overtones. Every Christian has been baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Community at worship is first and foremost a baptismal community.

The Penitential Rite

Recalling our faults and sins in preparation for the unity of the Eucharist is an ancient tradition in the Church. We recall our common need for transformation and God's compassion towards our failures.

The Kyrie

The triple invocation which concludes our penitential rite is one of the oldest known prayers of the Mass. In Greek, the Church's first official language, "Lord, have mercy" is "Kyrie eleison" - and even throughout all the centuries when Latin became the Church's language, the "Kyrie" was prayed in Greek, as a sign of our unity with the past.

The Gloria

This joyful prayer - The Gloria - is really a song of praise, a "canticle". The earliest Christians copied the Jewish practice of singing canticles based on Scripture during their liturgy. "The Magnificat" and "The Canticle of Zechariah" are two canticles still used in the Morning and Evening prayer of the Church. In this tradition, early Christian Communities created their own songs of praise. The Gloria is found in Christian prayerbooks as early as the year 380. At first, it was sung only on special feasts, but later it was included in every Sunday celebration except during the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent.                               

The Opening Prayer - The Collect

The following prayer, which concludes the introductory rites, has been given the name "Collect" from the Latin word "collecta", which means "to gather up". Even in the early days of the Church, it was a tradition for the leader of the assembly to gather up the needs of the people and offer them to God in prayer.

Liturgy of the Word

The reading of Scripture has always been an integral part of the Liturgy. When the first Christians gathered to "break bread", they kept the Jewish custom of the "breaking open the Word", as well. From the Hebrew Scriptures, they read the Books of the Law and the Prophets; they shared letters written by early missionaries like Peter and Paul; and they shared, of course, their own story - the Gospels.

The First Reading

The presence of the Old Testament in the first reading manifests the Church's firm conviction that all Scripture is the Word of God. God is speaking to His chosen people in the words of love through the whole Liturgy of the Word. The reading prepares the table of God's Word for the faithful and open up the riches of the Bible for them.

There is continuity between the two Testaments: both lead us to Jesus Christ. The first reading and the Gospel reading are usually connected by a theme. Each time we listen to the readings of the Mass we are like the Disciples walking with the Risen Christ on the road to Emmaus. "Jesus explained to them what was said about Himself in all of the Scriptures, beginning with the books of Moses and the writings of all the prophets" (Luke 24:27). After the first reading we pause in order to reflect and pray about what we have just heard.

Responsorial Psalm

The Responsorial Psalm is primarily the Assembly's response, in word or song, to the reading, which has just been proclaimed. The Christian Community uses God's Word - taken from the Psalms of the Old Testament - as a response to God's Word, thereby making God's Word their own.

The Cantor or Choir sings the Responsorial Psalm, and the congregation sings the response or the refrain.          

The Second Reading

In the Second Reading, the assembly encounters the early Church living its Christian faith.  This witness of the apostolic community provides an example for all times, since Christians of every age are to recall the love of the Father made present in Christ, the good news of redemption and the duty of Christian love. All followers of Jesus are called to lives of justice, mercy and humility, with tolerance of one another and steadfastness in the faith.

Gospel Reading

The Gospel acclamation is normally expressive of Paschal joy, recalling the Life, Death, Resurrection and Second Coming of Jesus. This song Alleluia, which accompanies the Gospel procession, comes from a Hebrew word that means "Praise God". The whole assembly praises Christ who comes to proclaim the Good News of salvation.

Everybody rises for the Gospel Acclamation.

Since the Gospel readings are the words and deeds of Christ, we surround it by many distinct acts of respect; one of these is that we stand for the Gospel Reading.  Whereas, any lector could proclaim the other readings, a special minister was appointed to read the Gospel. In the early Church it was the Deacon who was considered the special example of Christ as servant. Only in the absence of a Deacon does the Priest proclaim the Gospel.

The making of small signs of the Cross on the book, forehead, mouth and heart express readiness to open one's mind to the Word, to confess it with the mouth, and to safeguard it in the heart. We are now ready to listen to the Gospel.

The Homily

The homily, an integral part of the Liturgy of the Word, is a continuation of God's message to humanity, which nourishes faith and spiritual transformation. Just as a larger loaf of bread is broken to feed individual persons, the Word of God must be broken open so it can be received and digested by the Assembly.

The Nicene Creed

As we stand together to proclaim our faith through the Creed, we are responding "Yes" to the message of God's Word. The oldest faith statement in the Church is called the Apostle's Creed. With its roots in the first centuries of the Church, it was highly prized as a summary of all Christian teaching. Catechumens had to memorize it and recite it privately to the Bishop before being baptized. It was considered too secret and special to be committed to paper.

The Creed commonly used in the Liturgy today is called the Nicene-Constantinople Creed because these two early Ecumenical Church Councils developed it. It is also called the "ecumenical creed" since it forms a part of the liturgy of other Christian denominations. The Creed, therefore, is a confession of faith that unites us with the Church throughout the world.

The Prayer of the Faithful

Through the Prayer of the Faithful, we ask that our assembly really comes to resemble the Body of Christ - a body at peace: providing shelter for the homeless, healing for the sick and food for the hungry. We know from reading Saint Paul's letters that this custom of offering general intercessions existed in the earliest Christian Communities.

Today, the Prayer of the Faithful is a prayer of petition, remembering our universal concerns, namely for the Church, for the world leaders and public authorities, for the poor and the oppressed, for the local community and parish; and for particular celebrations and special intentions.

The Sign of Peace

The Sign of Peace has been part of the Mass as early as the fourth century. Peace - "SHALOM" - means all possible prosperity. We pray that each person will live in total and complete harmony with nature, self and God. In the sign of peace we make a spiritual pledge to be open to each other as Christ would, both in the celebration of the Liturgy and after it.  Since the Risen Christ is the source of all peace, this gesture expresses faith that Christ is present in the Assembly because of reconciliation and wholeness.

 Liturgy of the Eucharist

The second major part of the Mass contains elements of two ancient traditions - the meal, or bread breaking, which Jesus left as His memorial; and the Hebrew tradition of sacrifice offered to God. These two elements weave together in the symbolic actions and prayers of the Eucharist.

Please note that up until now, all of the actions have taken place away from the altar (either at the Priest's chair or at the pulpit also known as the ambo). Everything will now center on the altar. The altar is prepared; the gifts are "set apart" and presented as a sign of the community's desire to incorporate itself into Christ’s act of yielding his life to God’s purpose.

The Offertory

As early Christians brought wine and bread to be consumed at the Liturgy, and also money and other gifts to be given to the poor. Bread and wine recall the last supper Jesus shared with His Disciples. They ate bread and drank wine because it was their everyday food. The gifts are food, nourishment necessary for living. So our bread and wine at Mass represent our everyday lives, our everyday selves, the essence of our lives. The Church has revived this procession of gifts to the altar and asks us to be reminded that a similar procession will take place later in the Mass when you process up the aisle to receive Communion. These gifts which have been brought to the altar challenge us to give ourselves in thanksgiving for everything that God has given us.

A hymn may be sung while the bread and wine are brought to the altar. If no song is sung, then the people may make the responses to the prayer of offering spoken by the priest.

The priest mixes a little water with the wine to symbolize the human and the divine natures of Christ joined in the Mystery of the Incarnation - God becoming human as the Priest continues.

The washing of hands by the priest is a symbol of internal purification to prepare for the most sacred part of the Mass.

Invitation to Prayer

The prayer over the gifts asks for God's acceptance of our gifts, and expresses our desire to be united with these gifts of bread and wine, which will become Jesus, our Lord.

Eucharistic Prayers

Now we arrive at the most sacred part, the Eucharistic Prayer, "the center and high point to the entire celebration. It is essentially a statement of praise and thanksgiving for God's works of salvation, making present both the body and blood of the Lord and his great redeeming actions in our lives.

Recall that since the Apostles were Jews, they brought their familiar religious practices to Christianity. The Eucharistic Prayer is based on the Jewish Table Prayers.

The priest prays to God on our behalf, but as a reminder that we are all offering this prayer, we the people share a three part dialogue with the priest. The first part takes place at the beginning of the Preface.


The Preface praises God the Father for His gifts of creation and redemption. We enter the prayer again with Isaiah's song of praise, called Holy, Holy, Holy which was the common Morning Prayer in the synagogues and the praise the crowd offered Jesus as he entered Jerusalem on a donkey's back.

Eucharistic Prayers

Most of the prayers which follow are prayers of praise.

As a Jewish father would call on God's blessing, in a few moments the priest will place his/her hands over the bread and wine to be blessed.

The words of consecration are taken from the accounts of the Last Supper in Sacred Scripture. The bread and wine become for us the real presence of Christ in Body and Blood. The priest will raise each for veneration.

Memorial Acclamation

The "Mystery of Faith" is the recognition of Christ's three-fold action of Death, Resurrection and Second Coming.

We celebrate all that Christ did and does for us.

Our main prayer at each Eucharist is for unity that comes through reconciliation by the offering of all the faithful themselves to the Father with and through Christ. In prayers of thanks and petition, we pray for the leaders, the teacher and all the members of the Church, living and deceased.

The Lord's Prayer

The Lord's Prayer has been part of the Eucharist since the late 400’s.  Its original proclamation is found in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus teaches us His new life by words; and teaches us to ask for it by our prayer. This prayer not only teaches us what things to ask for, but also in what order we should desire them). This prayer that comes to us from Jesus is truly unique.

The Breaking of the Bread

 The Lamb of God, a litany-type acclamation accompanies the breaking of the bread. This rite of the breaking of the bread emphasizes how the Eucharist is a sharing event. Those who break bread are expected to offer their lives for others in the same way Jesus did throughout His life and especially in the passion.

A small portion of the large host may now be placed into the chalice signifying the union of the Body and the Blood of Christ. Just as the double consecration, that is, OF the bread and OF the wine, represented the death of Christ, so it was deemed necessary to symbolize the reuniting of the Body and Blood of Christ before communion - a symbolic re-enactment of the Lord's resurrection.

Vatican II initiated a gradual restoration of the Church's ancient tradition of distributing the Eucharist under both kinds, so that the full symbolism of receiving Christ's Body and Blood can be appreciated.

As the Minister of the Eucharist says "THE BODY OF CHRIST" and we respond "AMEN", each of us is agreeing to the giving over of ourselves to the truth declared. We are declaring and agreeing to become one with Christ, who is the HEAD, and with all Christians, who are members. We say that we are willing to give of ourselves, in sacrificial action and love, as Christ did.

The liturgical renewal of Vatican II suggests a return to the early Church custom of maintaining a period of silence for reflection, during which we pray and ask God that what He is doing to transform and renew each of us as we presented ourselves to Him in the Eucharist. While we pray silently in our hearts - thanking and praising God - we ask God for all that this sacrament promises.

Prayer after Communion

Priest prays that those who have shared the Eucharist will find its spiritual effects being carried out in our everyday lives.

The Concluding Rite

The Priest says again "The Lord be with you." This ritual phrase now serves as a farewell, followed by a blessing.


With the final blessing of the celebrant, the Mass is ended. We leave the Church with this mandate: "GO IN PEACE TO LOVE AND SERVE THE LORD." The dismissal reminds us that the only way to serve the Lord is in peace and love and our response is: "Thanks be to God."


All are sent out into the world to do good work, blessing and praising the Lord. A hymn is usually sung as the ministers leave the sanctuary. All those attending the Mass are expected to remain until the ministers have reached the rear of the Church, so that they can greet us as we leave.