The Pater Noster, or the Prayer of Jesus Christ Upon the Cross
At the sight of the bitter chalice presented to the lips of the Savior, He said: "Father, not My will but Thine be done" (Luke xxii, 22). And from the cross He called down only benedictions upon His murderers: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Luke xxiii. 34).
Formerly the people said the Pater Noster together. This custom still prevails among the Greeks, and existed in France until the time of Charlemagne. A trace of this practice is found in the faithful having the honor of saying aloud the last request of this prayer.
The Libera Nos, or The Mysteries of the Burial
"The chalice," says St. Bernard, "represents to us the sepulcher, and the pall the stone which sealed its mouth; the corporal is the figure of the winding-sheet, and the Host, which we see, is no longer bread, but is the flesh of Jesus Christ fastened to the cross for the salvation of mankind."1 (Sermon on the "Dignity of the Priest.")
The priest, taking the body of his Savior, laying It in the chalice, which he then covers with the pall, carries us to the holy sepulcher. The silence which follows the Pater is an image of the silence of the tomb. It also recalls the recollection and the sorrow of the holy women kept in their homes by the observance of the Sabbath. (Innocent III., 1. v. c. 28.) While the friends of Our Savior on earth were rendering to His body the last duties of love, where was His divine soul? The souls of the just of the Old Law were in Limbo, sighing as they awaited His coming. His soul went down to them to announce the nearness of their deliverance. The prayer Libera nos is the lively expression of their sighs.
The Breaking of the Host, or the side of Jesus opened by the lance
Our Lord had died, and a soldier armed with a lance opened His right side, from which flowed water and blood. At that moment, springing from the open side of the new Adam, sleeping on the tree of the cross, came the spouse whom He had chosen, the Holy Catholic Church.
This solemn circumstance of the formation of the Church upon Calvary should have its place in the sacrifice of the Mass. We shall find it under a thrilling form. The priest holds above the chalice the body of his God. He divides the holy species, and then, from the right side of the Host, he breaks a fragment, marvelously figuring the wound in the side of Our Lord. The Host is divided into three parts, by their number and their nature symbolizing the Church coming from the open side of Jesus Christ. For Jesus Christ is not divided except in appearance, and under each of the three parts He remains entire.
This is a symbolic image of the Catholic Church, divided into three branches: the Church Triumphant, the Church Militant, and the Church Suffering, all three making, however, only one and the same Church. (St. Thomas.)
After breaking the Host the priest makes, three times, the sign of the cross with the body of Jesus Christ on the chalice, in memory of the three days in the sepulcher (St. Thomas); then, the priest, like another Joseph of Arimathea, as an early writer calls him, lays it in the chalice become another tomb on this new Calvary.
The Agnus Dei, or the Resurrection
"In the Mass," says Benedict XIV, "the Passion and death of Jesus Christ are represented by the separation of His body and His blood. Although this separation can only be in a mystical manner, because the body could not be apart from the blood, nor the blood from the body, however, by this entirely mystical separation of the body from the blood, and the blood from the body, the Passion and death of Our Lord are perfectly represented. It remains, then, but to express in the sacrifice His glorious Resurrection; it could not be done more perfectly than by putting into the chalice a fragment of the Host, and thus showing the reunion of the body and blood of Jesus Christ." 1 (De Sac, Missae, 1. ii. C. 20).
The words of the liturgy now join themselves to the ceremonies to reiterate the holy joys of the Resurrection. The Pax vobiscum is an echo of the salutation of peace given by Our Lord on Easter to the assembled disciples. Pax vobiscum, "Peace be unto you," He said to them. (Micrologue, c. xx.)
On that day the walls of the chamber of the paschal supper heard the solemn words which gave to the apostles the power to remit sin; in memory of this the Church repeats three times the suppliant cry of the Agnus Dei, which is called the chant of the Resurrection, been heard in the sanctuary, than the choir, until that time upon its knees, in a posture of humiliation and sorrow, rises up, in token of the victory over death of Jesus Christ arisen.
During the first six centuries the salutation of the priest: "May the peace of the Lord be always with you," was the signal for the Christians giving one another peace by embracing.
The men gave to men this holy kiss, women gave it to women, and then the people, a family of brothers, drew near joyously to the banquet of the Lamb, at which, according to the language of the doctors, the peaceful alone had the right to sit down. The Church has preserved something of this custom. In the solemn Masses the deacon gives to the subdeacon the kiss of peace which he has just received from the celebrant; the latter, to show us that he has drawn this peace from the very heart of the Savior, first kisses the altar. Formerly he kissed the sacred Host.1 (Benedict XIV., De Sac. Missae, 1. ii. C. 20.)
The Communion, or the Eucharistic Repasts of Jesus Christ, Arisen with His Apostles
After the intermingling of the body and blood the priest, with the eyes of faith, sees before him upon the altar Jesus Christ, but Jesus Christ arisen. He knows Him it is the same Jesus Christ Who, after His resurrection, appeared to the holy women; like them, he bows down to adore Him. He speaks to Him with a sweet confidence, for Our Lord has said to him, to him also, "It is I: fear not" (John vi. 20). It is the same Jesus Christ Who gave Himself in food to the disciples at Emmaus; like them, the priest knows Him in the broken bread, laid there before him upon the paten. It is the same Jesus Christ Who said to St. Thomas: "Bring hither thy hand and put it into My side" (John xx. 28). Recognizing with the apostles his "Lord and God," the priest strikes his breast three times, and humbly says: "Domine, non sum dignus," etc. (Lord, I am not worthy etc.)
He raises to his lips the Bread of the angels, lays it on his trembling tongue, thus become the throne of the Most High - the union is consummated, and it is no more the priest who lives, but Jesus Christ who lives in him. The sign of the cross made with the chalice, as it was made before with the sacred Host, recalls to the priest that he is about to drink the blood of his crucified God.
The disciples at Emmaus had part in the breaking of bread, and, in the repast beside the sea, Jesus Christ, having taken a piece of the broiled fish and of the honeycomb, gave the rest to His disciples. So, too, the faithful have part of the communion of the priest, either by actually receiving the body of Our Lord themselves, or in a lesser degree, by spiritual communion.
The Chants of the Communion, or the Joy of the Apostles in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ
In the beautiful days of the youthful Church, psalms were sung during the Communion in accord with that holy action. In the East it was the canticle: "As the heart panteth after the fountains of waters, so my soul panteth after Thee, O God." In the West it was the thirty-third psalm: "I will bless the Lord at all times, His praise shall be always in my mouth." The hymns sung now during the Communion are the revival of this pious custom. The ancient psalm of the Communion has been reduced to a versicle called the Communion. Like the chant of the first centuries, this versicle represents the joy of the apostles at the tidings of the Resurrection. (Innocent III., 1. iv. C. 8.)
The Post-Communion, or the Forty Days of the Glorious Life
After the Communion the priest turns to the people twice to wish them peace: our thoughts should turn to Our Lord repeating twice within the walls of the chamber of the Last Supper the Pax vobis of pardon, and in these salutations the priest, extending his hands and showing his heart, recalls to us principally Jesus Christ showing the wounds of His hands and that of His side to His disciples. (Innocent III., 1. iv. C. 8.)
During the days of the glorious life Our Lord continued by prayer His office of Divine Mediator, and in Heaven His wounds intercede for us. The hands of the priest, raised toward Heaven during the Post-Communion, represents this mystery of mercy.
This prayer is said for the communicants. During Lent the spirit of humility and of penitence withdrawing from the holy table some of the faithful, the Church, in order not to deprive them of such an efficacious prayer in this part of the sacrifice, established for their benefit a special prayer. This is the one said last Lent, and preceded by the words: "Humiliate capita vestra Deo" - "Bow down your heads to God." On Sunday this is omitted, because on this day all the faithful communicating, or being about to communicate, have a part in the prayers of the Post-communion.
The Ite, Missa Est, or the Ascension
The details of the Ascension, as told in the Scriptures, are: the benediction given to the disciples, the words of the angel bidding them to go back to Jerusalem, and the joyous return of these same disciples - three circumstances reproduced in the liturgy at the end of the Mass.
The priest going back to the middle of the altar represents Our Lord going to Bethany upon the Mount of Olives. Like his Divine Master, he blesses the faithful, and for the last time wishes them peace. Our Savior said to His followers in order to console them: "Behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world."
In Low Masses the priest, or if it is a High Mass the deacon, filling the office of the angels, dismisses the faithful with these words: "Ite, Missa est," that is, "Go, the Mass is ended," and "Jesus Christ has left this altar to enter into His glory." "Deo gratias," "Thanks be to God," answer the people, uniting their gratitude to the disciples', who went back to Jerusalem with great joy, praising and blessing God.
During Advent and Lent our fathers not only assisted at Mass, but at the Canonical hours with which it was followed. In those days of longer and more fervent prayers, instead of dismissing the congregation with the words: "Ite, Missa est," they were invited to bless the Lord by the sacrifice of praise: "Benedicamus Domino," "Let us bless the Lord" These words have been preserved in the Church to remind us that it is necessary to sanctify the holy time of penitence by prayer.
The Benediction, or the Descent of the Holy Ghost
The prayer of the apostles assembled in that upper room, and that of Our Savior asking His Father to send the Consoler, are figured by the prayer Placeat, placed between the last Dominus vobiscum, the meaning of which we have already seen, and the benediction, regarded by the greatest liturgists as the symbol of the descent of the Holy Ghost on the apostles (Innocent III., vi. 14). Seven times during the Mass the prayer "Et cum spiritu tuo" rises from the hearts of the faithful to Our Lord, imploring the coming of the divine Paraclete. These devout aspirations are about to be answered.
The priest first kisses the altar, the figure of Jesus Christ, to show that it is the Son of God Who sent the Holy Spirit of consolation upon the earth. Then he blesses: "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost," for, says Innocent III, "although the Holy Spirit especially was sent, the works of the Trinity being indivisible, the three divine Persons have cooperated in this mystery: it is for this reason, he adds, that the benediction is given in the name of the august Trinity (Innocent III, vi. 14). The sign of the cross which accompanies this blessing recalls to Christians that the mercies of Pentecost are the fruits of the merits of the Passion. Jesus Christ has said this: "It is expedient to you that I go, for if I go not the Paradise will not come to you" (John xvi. 7).
The Last Gospel, or the Preaching of the Apostles and their successors
After Pentecost, the apostles, filled with the Holy Spirit, went into all parts of the known world to sow the seed of the Gospel. Other laborers have carried on the divine work, and even to the end of time the Christian apostolate will be continued upon the earth. This preaching is figured by the reading of the Last Gospel. The authority of the apostles was that of their Master: "He who hears ye hears Me," Our Lord said to them; upon the lips of God or upon those of an apostolic laborer the Gospel is the same; for which reason the two gospels are read at the same side of the altar.
Because of this, too, they are always accompanied by the same salutation, the same signs of the cross. However, as the greatest honor is due to the preaching of the Master, for the first gospel only, which symbolizes this, there is chanting, lights carried, the sacred text is incensed and kissed.
For Masses for the Dead, with the Mass ended, absolution is given. An acolyte carries to the head of the coffin a cross, the pledge of our immortal hopes. At the absolution, during the Lord's Prayer, the holy water and the incense are poured forth upon the coffin as a symbol of the effects of prayer for the dead. "May our prayer," the Church seems to say, "rise as the perfume of incense even to Thy throne, O Lord, and appease Thy just wrath. May it call down upon this poor soul the blessed dew of Thy mercy."
For a long time the Mass ended at the blessing of the priest. Pope Saint Pius V obliged all priests to add to it the Gospel of St. John. In some churches it was recited in going to the sacristy; in others it was said within the sacristy. The usage of the Roman Church is to read it at the altar. This observation leads us to another. The preparatory prayers of the Mass, now said at the foot of the altar, were also said for a long time in the sacristy; consequently the Mass upon which the liturgists commented commenced at the Introit, and ended at the benediction.
Before leaving the altar, the priests who follow the Maronite rite say this beautiful prayer when kissing the altar at the end of Mass:
"Rest in peace, holy and divine altar of the Lord. Shall I return to thy feet, or will death prevent me? I know not. May God grant at least that I see thee again in the celestial church of the firstborn of Heaven. I will rest in this hope which God has given me. Remain in peace, holy and propitious altar. May the sacred body, may the blood which has just been offered, wash away my stains, destroy my sins, and give me confidence before the throne of Our God, the immortal Lord. Remain in peace, holy altar, life-giving table. Pour down upon me the mercy of Jesus Christ, and may I keep thy memory in my heart, now and forever and ever. Amen."
EDITOR'S NOTE: The Leonine Prayers, instituted by Pope Leo XIII are not included in this treatise of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass because, indeed, this beautiful explanation on The Perfect Plan of the Mass was written before His Holiness established the Prayer of Saint Michael the Archangel along with three Ave Maria's and a Salve Regina and Oremus were made mandatory in the late 19th century. Sadly, except where the Traditional Latin Mass is celebrated today, those prayers have been eliminated along with so much else that truly made the Mass of All Ages the "perfect plan."
We encourage you strongly to distribute this four-part essay on the Holy Mass to one and all. You can find the first three at Preparation at the Foot of the Altar to the first Dominus vobiscum
Collect to the Credo
Offertory through the Canon of the Massand, of course, this installment: Pater Noster to the Last Gospel