The Offertory, or the Last Supper
Like his divine Master, the priest takes bread in his hands and offers it to God. Our Lord also offered wine mixed with water. The wine represents Jesus Christ, "the true vine," and the water, the Christian people. St. Cyprian, in a letter to Cecilius, teaches this formally. This image is a vivid figure of the ineffable union of God with man wrought by the Incarnation, and of that other union in the Eucharist, and again of that third union which will be consummated in glory. It is, then, the Church united with Jesus Christ, the members to their head, the bride to her bridegroom, which the priest offers to God in the oblation of the chalice.
Our Lord, before giving His body and blood to the apostles, washed their feet, thus showing us that purity He required in those who would sit down at the sacred banquet. Equally privileged with the disciples, the priest is about to partake of the same mysteries; it would be a closer imitation of Our Lord if he washed his feet, but, as St. Thomas says, "it is sufficient to wash the hands; besides, it is more convenient, and it is enough to show perfect purity, especially as it is to our hands that all works are ascribed."
The paschal supper over, the Saviour said a hymn as an act of thanksgiving, and, the hymn being finished, went out to the Garden of Olives. The priest also ends the Offertory with a hymn: Lavabo inter innocents manus meas, and returns to the middle of the altar, in remembrance of the way of Our Lord from the chamber of the Last Supper to Gethsemane.
The Incensing, or the Perfuming by Magdalen
Three times, by pouring out her perfumes, the penitent of Bethany wished to honor the person of the adorable Savior: first in the house of Simon the Pharisee, again in the house of Simon the leper, and at the holy sepulcher. Faithful to fulfill the words of Jesus Christ: "Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world, that also which she hath done shall be told in memory of her," the priest at Solemn high Mass three times incenses the bread and wine of the sacrifice, destined so soon to become the divine body and blood; then he incenses the altar, the figure of Jesus Christ.
The incensing of the sacred species is done three times in the form of a cross, to recall the Passion of Our Savior, foreshadowed by Mary Magdalen. "This woman," Jesus Christ said to His disciples, "in pouring this ointment upon My body has done it for My burial" (Matt. xxvi. 13). Following this, the incense is offered three times in the form of a crown, because, in His sacred humanity, the humiliations of Jesus Christ were followed by His triumphant coronation. During this ceremony we think of the mercy of Jesus toward sinners. Were we a thousand times more guilty than Magdalen, He would receive us tenderly and sweetly.
The Secret, or the Prayer in the Garden of Olives
Our Lord, being come into the Garden of Olives, began to pray, but His sorrow soon became so profound that He fell with His face prostrate upon the ground in agony. And see the priest, come to the middle of the altar, pray also, but leaning forward, his hands joined, in a position of humiliation and prostration.
A little later Jesus Christ came to seek His apostles, but found them heavily sleeping. "What," He said to them, "could you not watch with Me one hour? Watch ye and pray" (Matt. xxvi. 40, 41). The priest also raises himself, interrupts his prayer, and turning to the faithful, says: Orates, fratres. "It is Our Lord, in the Garden of Olives, exhorting His disciples to pray, that they may not fall into temptation," says St. Bonaventure.
The Preface, or the Chant of Triumph
We have entered into the way of the cross. Already the clamor of the multitude reaches us, the threatening of the tempest. Only a few hours now, and the Son of God will be "bound, scourged, buffeted, put to death, and reckoned among the guilty."
The Church opposes the chant of love to the deicidal shouts, for the Preface is the reparation for the blasphemies hurled against the divinity of Jesus Christ in the hour of His Passion. It is for us He suffered, and drained the chalice of anguish; the Church in our name thanks God for the blessed sign of the Redemption, and for all the mercies of which it has been the source. The Preface, the chant of triumph, is also a canticle of thanksgiving. But when we would praise and thank God we can but stammer like infants, and this is why the Church calls upon the angels, the thrones and dominations, and all the Heavenly powers to come with their celestial harps, and chant the Sanctus of eternity. The priest says it with them, and, like them, prostrated.
After the hymn of Heaven comes that of earth, the chant of the Hebrew children at the triumphal entry of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem. This last canticle is accompanied by the sign of the cross; the joys of triumph were of short duration; a few days afterward the same people loudly clamored for the death of this same Jesus whom they had received as a king, chanting hosannas. Our piety will find reminders of an unparalleled ingratitude in the sign of the cross mingling with the Hosanna and Benedictus.
The Canon, or the Passion
The sacred chants are followed by the profoundest silence - silence in the priest; silence among the faithful. Are not the latter the figure of the timid apostles at the hour of the passion? None among them dared raise his voice in favor of their divine Master, although all had sworn with Peter: "Though I should die with Thee, I would not deny Thee."
The divine Lamb in the hands of His enemies uttered not a word, not a complaint. In the house of Herod, when He was buffered, He was silent; in the praetorium, under the rods and the thorns, He was silent; on Calvary, confronted with blasphemies, He was silent. His silence, more eloquent than all words, teaches the pardon of injuries, sweetness in the face of persecution.
During the three hours of His agony upon the cross Our Lord prayed in silence; His dying lips uttered but seven words, treasured by the evangelists as the testament of His heart. His representative at the altar prays in a low voice from the Offertory to the Communion, that is to say, during the sacrifice properly so called, interrupting this mysterious silence but seven times, namely: First, at the Orates Fratres; Second, at the Preface; Third, at the Nobis quoque peccatoribus; Fourth, at the Pater Noster; Fifth, at the Pax Domini; Sixth, at the Agnus Dei; Seventh, at the Domine non sum dignus.
From the Sanctus to the Elevation our minds, and our hearts above all, should accompany Our Lord on the road to Calvary with Mary and the holy women. With confidence we draw near to Him with Veronica, and beg Him to remember us upon His cross. Let us recommend to His mercy also at this moment the persons who are dear to us.
The Imposition of Hands, or the Crucifixion
The priest's hands held over the bread and the wine which are about to be changed into the body and blood of Christ, the sign of the cross so often repeated, represent vividly the scene of the crucifixion. History tells us that formerly it was the custom to impose hands upon the head of one condemned to death, to pour upon him the odium of the crimes of which he was guilty, but this ceremony renewed at our altar reminds us that the innocent One took upon Himself the guilt of sinners, and that it is in the name of sin-stained humanity that the priest lays upon the august victim the sins of all the people, that they may be expiated in His blood. This is done, too, in the name of God the Father, who, says Isaias, "hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all."
The Elevation, or Our Lord Raised upon the Cross
Father Nouet puts it so beautifully. "REMEMBER," the elevation of Jesus Christ upon the cross each time that you adore Him during the elevation of the Host; see Him as if He bowed His head to give you His peace; as if He opened His arms to embrace you; as if His hands were pierced to give you the bounty of His gifts; as if His feet were nailed in order to stay with you."
The priest, taking the chalice, places it at the feet of Jesus, as if to catch the blood bursting in torrents from all His wounds, and after the consecration he adores it, and the faithful prostrate adore with him. The olive-trees of Gethsemane, the rods of the scourging, the thorns in the crown, the wood of the cross, the lance of the soldier, were all reddened with this blood enclosed in the chalice raised above our heads. This blessed chalice also holds the sweat which bathed the workshop of Nazareth, the roads of Judea, the mountain of Calvary. It contains the tears shed in the crib, at the tomb of Lazarus, gazing at Jerusalem, and over each one of us. Let us adore it with love and faith.
An ancient custom was to sound the trumpet at the moment of the execution of one who had been condemned to death, to drown the cries or words of the sufferer, the tears or murmurs of the crowd.
Tradition says that this custom was followed at the crucifixion of the Savior; we remember this when the sound of the sanctuary bell floats through the arches.
Calvary, the cross, the Redeemer, what memories are vividly present to us during the Canon!
Everything at the altar is of a nature to recall them to us.
The priest often bends the knee before Jesus Christ, in reparation for the hypocritical adoration rendered by the Jews on Calvary. Each time that he pronounces the name of the body or blood of the Savior he makes the sign of the cross upon the Host and the chalice, to confess that he has before him the body and blood of Jesus crucified, and he makes it five times, in memory of the five wounds of the adorable Victim, while the kiss he gives the altar is the figure of the reconciliation between Heaven and earth wrought by the Redemption. (Steph. Eduens, De Sacrif. Alt., c. xvii.; Florus. Exposit. Missae.)
From the Elevation to the Pater there are five prayers in the Canon. In order to say them well let us place ourselves in each one of the wounds of Our Lord. If our piety leads us to unite ourselves at this time with those privileged witnesses of Our Savior' s death, let us recite the first one with Mary, the Mother of sorrows, standing at the foot of the cross; the second with the beloved apostle St. John; during the third let us shed tears of penitence with Magdalen on the feet of Jesus; at the fourth let us unite ourselves with the holy women; and at the fifth, with the good thief let us beg for mercy.
The Memento of the Dead, or the Just Raised Again by Jesus Christ
Our Lord upon the cross remembered the just who had died in His grace: "And the graves wee opened: and many bodies of the saints that had slept arose" (Matt. xxvi. 52).
This same God, the sovereign Master of life and death, is upon the altar. The priest recommends to Him the souls of those "who have preceded us, and sleep in the sleep of peace." He implores Him to drop upon them the blessed dew of His blood, and to give them "a place of refreshment, light, and peace."
At the Memento let us all pray for those whom we have lost; faith shows them to us in Purgatory, with their guardian angels descending into its abyss, bringing to them the precious blood.
How consoling to the heart is the thought that many of these poor souls so dear to us receive help in their sufferings. Some of them, we will gladly believe, entirely purified, come around the altar to join with us, the angels, and the saints in adoring their Redeemer.
The Nobis Quoque Peccatoribus, or the Prayer of the Good Thief
At these words of the Canon: "Nobis quoque peccatoribus," the priest raises his voice and strikes his breast, representing the repentance, the confession, and the prayer of the thief crucified on the right hand of Our Lord. He openly acknowledged himself guilty: "We receive the due reward of our deeds." Then, recommending himself to the Savior, he added: "Lord, remember me when Thou shalt come into Thy kingdom" (Luke xxii: 42). Encouraged by this example, the priest dares to ask a place in Heaven with the apostles, the martyrs, the virgins, and all the saints.
The Second Elevation, or the Death of Our Savior
The three signs of the cross made with the Host raised above the chalice, and the two others outside of the chalice recall the three hours passed on the cross by the Saviour (St. Thomas) and the separation of His soul and His body. The body is here represented by the Host; the soul by the blood enclosed in the chalice. (St. Thomas.) The sound of the bell is a symbol of the convulsion of nature in this supreme hour (Pope Benedict XIV); and the louder voice of the priest, interrupting the long silence of the Canon, recalls the words of the sacred text: "Jesus uttered a loud cry, and bowing His head He gave up the ghost." (St. Matthew and St. John.)
Next Thursday: The fourth installment of The Perfect Plan of the Mass