The Collect, or the Prayers of the Hidden Life
Before the storm of persecution raised by Herod, Our Lord fled into Egypt. The severe trials of exile in an idolatrous land were succeeded by hard tasks in the workshop until He was thirty years old. During the days passed in Egypt and in Nazareth, the divine Savior silently wrought the work of our Redemption by labor and prayer. When the priest leaves the middle of the altar to go to the epistle side, we think of Jesus as a child, journeying into exile. His hands raised to Heaven reminds us of the manual labors of Nazareth, and the Collect of the prayers which sanctified it.
The hands raised during the Collect, the Secret, and the Post-communion have another mysterious meaning. Tertullian tells us that in his time it was customary for Christians to pray with the arms extended in the form of a cross; later the hands only were raised; but the profound meaning of this ceremony remains the same. Jesus Christ alone has the right to be heard. If man, then, wishes to obtain grace from on high, he must identify himself with his Redeemer, become another self by sacrifice, resignation, and the cross. The priest himself has become a man of trials and sorrow because he has made himself our mediator in prayer; this is why God has constituted the priesthood a Calvary, and not a Thabor. "Let us pray," the priest says, pray together; let us put ourselves in those dispositions which obtain everything from God. His hands raised when he says these words beginning with "Oremus" remind us what these dispositions are: to accept the cross without murmuring, to carry it resignedly.
Often the priest joins his hands. Of this position, Pope Nicholas I wrote to the Bulgarians: "It is very suitable during prayer," says the Pope, "to bind one's hands, so to speak, before God, and to conduct ourselves in His presence like criminals prepared for punishment, in order to escape condemnation, such as the wicked receive in the parable of the Gospel."
The Epistle, or the Mission of the Precursor
Before the Gospel, and under the name of Epistle, the Church reads certain extracts from the Old or New Testament. This reading recalls to us the mision confided to the prophets and disciples of preparing the world for Our Lord's preaching the Gospel. It was for this end that the divine Master sent before Him some of His chosen ones before He came to preach. Among those thus sent there is one greater than all the others; he came like the dawn, proclaiming the rising of the Sun of justice, and it is he whom the Church has especially in view in the ceremonies which accompany the reading of the Epistle. Thus, contrary to the manner of reading the Gospel, the Epistle is read, or sung, with the face turned toward the east, because St. John the Baptist always had his eyes fixed upon the Messias, Whom the Scriptures and the Church style "the true Orient" - ad orientem. In solemn Masses, the chant of the Epistle is and echo of the voice of the precursor "crying in the wildernes," and the absence of lights around the subdeacon is an illustration of those words applied to John: "He was not the light" (John i: 8). The faithful remain seated during the chanting of the Epistle, to figure the sad state of the old world - "of them that sit in darkness and the shadow of death" (Luke i. 79) - before Jesus Christ came to bring them truth and life.
The Gradual and Tract, or the Signs of Penitence
The Gradual and the Tract, always analogous to the truths contained in the Epistle, are the response of the faithful, the protestation of their good will and their disposition to conform to the precepts which they have just heard. The crowd assembled by the preaching of St. John the Baptist returned to their homes converted and peniten; it is of this page in the Gospel story that we should think during this part of the Mass. The commentators on the liturgy have observed that the chant of the Gradual presents greater difficulties in its execution than other liturgical chants. Why has the Church thus arranged it if not to show her children that the observance of the Lord's law is hard to fallen nature, and that one cannot "love the good God even a little," as St. Vincent de Paul has so well said, "except by the sweat of his brow."
The Alleluia, or the Canticle of the Celestial Country
If the labors of the service of God affright our soul, at least the sight of the reward arouses our courage. "They who sow in tears shall reap in joy" (Psalm cxxi. 6). The Alleluia, the joyous chant of Heaven, following the Gradual and Tract, arouses in our hearts this consoling thought. "We shall rejoice more than we can express," says St. Gregory the Great.
"Ww prolong indefinitely the Heavenly song, that the ecstatic soul may fly toward those blessed regions where life shall have no end, the light no cloud, and happiness be unmixed with sorrow." This unending bliss is a happiness which even the tongue of St. Paul himself could not describe, and the Church, by this long series of inarticulate tones which accompany the Alleluia, has but one thought - to show to her children that words fail her when she thinks of the splendors prepared for the elect of God. This is the interpretation of St. Bonaventure.
The notes and words added to the Alleluia were called sequences, that is to say, the prolongation of the Alleluia; they are also called the Prose.
The Gospel, or the Preaching of Jesus Christ
The time to begin His mission had come; Our Lord left Judea to go into Galilee. His choice was Capharnaum, a city wherein lived many Gentiles. Previously to beginning His public life He prepared Himself for preaching the Gospel by forty days of penance and prayer in the desert. How does the Church recall to us these circumstances? The priest withdraws from the epistle side of the altar, as Our Lord left ungrateful Judea; then, pausing in the middle of the altar, still like his divine Master, he recollects himself, and prays.
Changing the place of the book before the Gospel, shows us, says St. Bonaventure, that "the nations, figured by the left side of the altar, have received the doctrine of Jesus Christ from the Jews. For the Jews, with the exception of a small number, have rejected the teaching of the Savior, and driven out the apostles. And they have deserved to hear the words: 'Because you have refused the word of God, we will carry it to the Gentiles.'" (Exposito Missae).
The same book brought back to the right side toward the end of Mass prophesies the return and pardon of the children of Israel. (Rational, 1. iv. c. 27). There shall come a day when Our Lord will reunite the dispersed tribes, to receive them into the fold of the Church; then they will accept the truth rejected by their fathers.
The preaching of the Gospel is the invincible weapon which God has always used to conquer the demon; it is this which the Church desires to teach in ordering that the priest shall turn toward the north in reading the Gospel. Why the north? On that side the rebel angel has established his throne, says Isaias. (cf. Isaias xiv: 13). And Jeremias adds: "From the north shall an evil break forth upon all the inhabitants of the land" (Jer. i: 14). The only thing that can stem the venom which Satan pours forth upon the world is the word of God.
Having been seated during the Epistle, the faithful rise at the Gospel, to show that the old world, shaking off the dust of the tomb, was raised to life by the word of Jesus Christ. This is also to recall the other miracles wrought by the voice of our Savior: the sick healed and rising up and walking: the dead brought back to life and falling at His feet: the crowd leaving all to follow Him.
The sign of the cross made by the priest on the sacred text reminds us that Jesus Christ has confirmed the truth of His teaching by His death; the cross has been the seal of the Gospel. The priest then makes the sign of the cross upon his brow, his lips, and his heart. "This triple sign of the cross," says Father Lebrun, "prints the memory of Jesus Christ and His holy words in our mind, that we may be filled with the holy lessons which Jesus Christ came upon the earth to teach; and in our hearts, that we may give all our love to carrying them out; and on our lips, that we may love to speak of them, and make them known."
The priest then kisses the gospel and by this respectful and filial kiss we ask God to pardon all offenses and irreverences committed against His divine Word.
In solemn Masses the chanting of the Gospel is accompanied with other ceremonies. The deacon, before fulfilling his duty, asks the celebrant's blessing; no one can preach who is not sent by God, or those who hold his place. The subdeacon goes with him, to show the harmony between the two Testaments, the prophets and the apostles.
The Church gives to the Gospel the same honors as to the Eucharist. She fills its way with the perfume of incense; she accompanies it with the light of tapers; she incenses it three times, and the deacon who carries the Gospel, as well as the priest who bears the Eucharist, receives this testimony of respect. When we read or hear the sacred Word, we are like children of the household seated around the Lord's table, where we eat the Heavenly bread. "Let us not lose a word of it," Origen warns us, "For, as in receiving the Eucharist we are careful, and rightly so, not to let the smallest crumb fall, why should we not believe it a crime to neglect even a single word of Jesus Christ, as it is to be careless of His body?" (Hom. xiii. in Exod.).
The priest is also a gospel, but a living gospel; by his conduct he preaches to the people. That he may not forget this duty so important, the Church bestows upon him the honor of incense, as to the sacred book itself.
The Credo, or Profession of Faith in the Doctrine preached by Jesus Christ
The word of the humble workman of Nazareth has transformed the world: it has abolished slavery, exalted poverty, consoled sorrow, consecrated sacrifice. As it is impossible to attack Jesus Christ, glorious and immortal, the devil has combatted His doctrine, and, after the murderers of the praetorium and Calvary had taken from Him His mortal life, Satan inspired heretics whose constant aim was to destroy the spiritual life of Jesus Christ, His life in souls by faith. But Jesus Christ dies but once; heresies are always vanquished, and upon their tomb the Catholic Church chants her joyous and triumphal Credo. Let us say it in these pious sentiments; let us also thank God for the inestimable gift of faith. Let us be ready to defend this faith against all who deny it, even unto death, if need be, for we have solemnly promised to do this in making the sign of the cross at the end of the Creed.
By the genuflection at the words: "And the Word was made flesh," we honor the humiliations of the Word Incarnate.
Next Thursday: The third installment of The Perfect Plan of the Mass