"The Order of the Mass," says Pope Innocent III, in his treatise on the sacrifice, "is arranged upon a plan so well conceived that everything done by Jesus Christ, or concerning Him, from His Incarnation to His Ascension, is there largely contained, either in words or in actions, wonderfully presented."
The Mass is divided into three parts, corresponding to the three epochs in the life of Our Savior. The first from the Introit to the Credo, comprises the thirty-three years of the life of Our Lord up to the institution of the Eucharist. The second, from the Credo to the Pater, retraces the different scenes of His sufferings. The third, from the Pater to the end of the last gospel, embraces all His glorious life.
The Preparation at the Foot of the Altar
In the earthly paradise the first man enjoyed familiar conversations with God. He fell, and was driven far from the face of the Lord, and sentenced to live in a vale of tears. He was not, however, left without hope; a Redeemer was promised to him and to his children. And for four thousand years all the echoes of this poor earth carried up to Heaven cries of anguish and of confidence, claiming the fulfillment of the divine promise. The Church places before our eyes at the beginning of the sacrifice the reminder of this fall. The priest, as he descends the steps of the altar, represents man fallen, and driven from paradise. The preparatory prayers which he then recites recall those of the world of antiquity. "I will go unto the altar of God, to God who rejoiceth my youth" - Introibo ad altare Dei. Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam.
"Judge me, O God, and distinguish my cause from the nation that is not holy. To Thee, O God, my God, I will give praise upon the harp: why art thou sad, O my soul; and why dost thou disquiet me?" - Judica me, Deus, et discerne causam meam de gente non sancta: ab homine iniquo, et doloso erue me. Quia tu es Deus fortitudo mea: quare me repulisti, et quare tristis incedo, dum affligit me inimicus?
A Redeemer has been promised to the guilty world; toward this divine victim all eyes are turned. The cross, foreseen by the prophets, will be the hope, at the same time that it is the support and consolation of humanity. The priest indicates this thought to us as he traces the sacred sign several times upon his brow during the preparatory prayers.
The Introit, or the Incarnation
The prayers ended, the priest ascends the steps of the altar, and resting his hands upon the sacred table, kisses it respectfully. This ceremony, so simple in appearance, is filled with mystery. It represents the infinite love of the Son of God in His Incarnation. God pursued humanity, which, since the time of Adam, had tried to escape from the yoke of obedience and love. There was a day, a day fixed from all eternity in the decrees of God, for which He waited: apprehendit, thus St. Paul expresses it. What would He do to this guilty, fleeing humanity? He embraced it in the clasp of an infinite charity; He clothed Himself with the mantle of its miseries: the Word was made flesh.
The anthem of the Introit, by the chant, and not by the meaning of its words, is the expression of the ardent longing which made "the clouds rain the just" (Isaias XIV: 8); so says Innocent III. "It is repeated to show the ardor of these sighs" (De Sacro Alt. Myst., 1, ii, c. 28); and in solemn Masses its chant, grave and slow, reminds us how long it was before Heaven granted the Messias, only after forty centuries of tears and waiting. Whi is the anthem preceded by the sign of the cross? Why show already the sign of humiliations and agony of Calvary?
Theology answers us. From the first instant of His Incarnation Jesus Christ saw the rods, the thorns, the blows, the nails, the lance, the cross, and He suffered in His heart all the torments of His sorrowful Pasion. "Even in sleeping," says Bellarmin, "the heart of Jesus saw the coming cross." Christian art has transformed this teaching into an allegory as beautiful as it is touching. The child Jesus sleeps upon a cross, and His little hands press to His heart a crown of thorns.
From whom as the mystery of the Word made flesh received its first adoration? When God revealed it to the Heavenly spirits, they chanted its praise before the throne of the Eternal; then one of their princes, the archangel Gabriel, in the humble house of Nazareth, had first the privilege of adoring with Mary the Word Incarnate. For this reason the Gloria Patri, the chant of the angels, divides the Introit.
Before the Introit in solemn Masses the altar is incensed. Ecclesiastical tradition has seen in incense the symbol of the sweet odor of Jesus Christ. To the name of Jesus has been added another, that of Christ, meaning anointed or sacred, for He has received from His Father a mysterious unction, of which the world has caught the blessed perfume.
The Kyrie, or the Cry of Fallen Humanity
The Kyrie is the cry of humanity at all the periods of its history, but above all at the coming of the Messias. St. Paul said: "For we know that every creature groaneth, and travaileth in pain even till now" (Romans viii: 22). Said before the Gloria, it expresses the profound misery of the old world, and the immense need that it had of redemption. In this place, too, the Kyrie has another signification: "The seventy weeks are hortened," said the angel to Daniel (Dan. ix: 24), and the doctors believe that the time of the Incarnation was hastened in the designs of God as a recompense to the prayer of the patriarchs, the prophets, and of Mary above all.
Nine times the Church repeats this cry, in memory of the nine Heavenly Choirs. While the rebel angels tried to prevent the accomplishment of the divine plan, the good angels implored God for the Incarnation with all their strength. They united their prayers to those of earth.
The Gloria in Excelsis, or the Chant of Bethlehem
To represent the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem the priest returns to the middle of the altar, while the last Kyrie carries to God the supplications of earth.
Borrowing from the angels the words sung beside the cradle of the infant God, he announces to the world the supreme joy: Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis.
In solemn Masses the choir continues the celestial chant, for the Gospel ssays that an angel proclaimed the good news to the shepherds: "And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the Heavenly host, praising God" (Luke ii: 13). The hands of the priest raised toward Heaven at the word gloria seem to try to return to God all the glory. "Not to us, O Lord, but to Thy name be glory," sings the Psalmist (Ps. cxiii: 9). To God be the glory of all our works; to us the humility, but also the peace which is their assured fruit. It is in order to receive this divine peace that the priest again joins his hands at the words: Pax in terra.
Persecution quickly attacked the child in the crib, but He escaped the fury of Herod by flight. The sign of the cross at the end of the joyous canticle of Bethlehem should recall to us the massacre of the innocents, the flight into Egypt, the anxieties of exile, and also the blood shed under the knife of the circumcision.
The Dominus vobiscum, or the Effusion of the Seven Gifts of the Holy Ghost
"It is necessary to remark," says the venerable Olier, "that the priest does not say, Dominus vobiscum, or Oremus, without first kissing the altar, and even before the Orate fratres he kisses it again, to show that it is from the bosom of God that he draws the spirit of prayer which he wishes to give to the people. It is the same case in the benedictions which he gives the people, or to the host, or to himself; they are often preceded by a kiss upon the altar, to show that he gets from God the blessings for the people and himself, having of himself neither graces nor blessings, except in God, Who has, as St. Paul says, 'blessed us with all benediction in His Son.'"
What touching reminders are in the salutation Dominus vobiscum, "The Lord be with you!" The greatest joy of Christianity is to know that God remain swith His children in the sacrament of His love. The open and widespread arms of the priest give Him to us all; his arms closed tell us why He gives Himself: "that we may be made perfect in one" (John xvii: 23). Seven times the priest salutes the faithful by the Dominus vobiscum; seven times is the same response heard: Et cum spiritu tuo - "And with your spirit" - at the Collect, the Gospel, the Offertory, the Preface, the Agnus Dei, the Post-communion, and the Ite Missa est. Seven is the number of the Holy Spirit, called septiform in the chants of the Church; the faithful beg for His seven divine gifts at each salutation of the priest:
First, after the Gloria, for the gift of wisdom, which the Incarnate Wisdom has merited for us, triumphing over pride in the humiliations of the stable.
Five times only does the priest turn toward the people in addressing them with the salutation of peace. The Church has so arranged it, to figure in this sacrifice commemorative of the Death, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus Christ, the five apparitions of Our Savior on Easter Day. The Gospel mention Magdalen, the holy woman, St. Peter, the disciples at Emmaus, and the apostles as having enjoyed this favor.
Second, before the Gospel, for the gift of understanding, to comprehend the Word of God.
Third, at the Offertory, for the gift of counsel, which makes us prefer the joyss of sacrifice to the pleasures of the world, after the example of the Savior, immolating Himself for us at the Last Supper.
Fourth, at the Preface, for the gift of fortitude, which sustained Our Lord in the anguish of His agony in the Garden of Olives.
Fifth, at the Agnus Dei, for the gift of knowledge, the divine light which enlighteneth each soul admitted to the banquet of angels.
Sixth, at the Post-communion, for the gift of piety, so necessary for him who has become the living tabernacle of Jesus Christ.
Seventh, at the Ite Missa est, for the gift of the fear of the Lord, which should inspire us with a holy fear at the thought of the Last Judgment.
Next Thursday: From the Collect to the Credo in the second installment of The Perfect Plan of the Mass