The Mass

Rev. Joseph A. Dunney


The priest on entering the sanctuary goes to the foot of the altar, genuflects, and goes up to the altar. There he places the veiled chalice on the Corporal, moves over to the Epistle side and opens the Missal. Then he returns to the foot of the altar, where in an audible voice he begins Mass with the sign of the cross.

You will notice that the first thing the priest does on entering the sanctuary is to genuflect before the crucifix. The image of the crucified Saviour on the altar is specially intended to remind all that Mass-saying is a special mindmaking of Christ's passion. Sir Thomas More said:

"In the presence of the crucifix, the priest says his mass, and offers up the highest prayer which the Church can devise for the salvation of the quick and the dead. He holds up his hands, he bows down, he kneels, and all the worship he can do he does — more than all, he offers up the highest sacrifice and the best offering that any heart can devise — that is Christ, the Son of the God of Heaven, under the form of bread and wine."

Remember the facts about Blessed Thomas More, martyr, and his extraordinary devotion to the passion of our Lord. "It was his custom to hear Mass every day. Once, when he was the king's chancellor, messengers from the king came to fetch him while he was hearing Mass. But Sir Thomas would not stir till Mass was finished, not even when a second messenger came and a third. `I will first perform my duty to a better man than the king,' he said. And the king (Henry VIII) was pleased when he heard of it, for at that time he was still a good Catholic."

The early Christians employed the cross in private as their most sacred symbol. It represented their Master, who was all in all to them; it represented all the faith — the person of Christ. Sometimes they wreathed it or ornamented it with flowers, as evidence of victory and triumph of the risen Christ. In the Catacombs and in all the earliest records it is constantly used in connection with the monogram of Christ. Several shapes of crosses were used, some of which may now be studied.

1. Crux immissa, Roman cross, a transverse beam crossing a perpendicular one at some distance from the top.

According to tradition this was the form of our Saviour's cross. This appears correct from the fact that the "title" was placed over the head. This Roman cross sometimes possesses one or even two additional cross limbs, shorter than the main or central one. The upper bar stands for the title over the head of the Crucified One, the lower equals a support for His feet.

2. The Greek cross has four arms of equal length, thus .

3. The crux commissa, or Tau cross, is general from perhaps the earliest period; a transverse beam placed on the top of a perpendicular one, resembling the Greek letter T. A sepulchral inscription from the third century in the Callixtine Catacomb runs thus .

4. Crux decussata, or St. Andrew's cross, like the letter X. This was a very ancient form, with its intersecting arms. The cross which appeared to Constantine was of this form with the Greek letter R in it so as to represent the first two letters of the word Christus.

5. A crucifix is a symbolic cross with the corpus (body) crucified form of our Lord on it. On every Catholic altar is a crucifix or a representation of the crucifixion.

In the Catacombs, where the early Christians assembled in times of persecution, and where they buried their dead, you can see to this day the signs of their devotion to the holy cross.

Nothing shows better how the Christian feeling leads truly to contemplate our Lord's sufferings and death. Christians owe it to Christ to love His cross. We see how the early Christians loved it, marked it on their monuments, kept it close to their hearts during persecution, long before it came into public use at the time of Constantine. In the latter part of the fourth century, a Christian poet tells of a Christian shepherd who secured his flock against disease by marking between their horns, signum mediis frontibus additum, "the cross of the God men worship in great cities."

Signum quod perhibent esse crucis Dei

Magnis quoi colitur solus in Urbibus Christus, perpetui gloria numinis, . . .

Do we trust in the cross and make the sign of the cross often and with devotion? Think what it means and why you do it. As you make the sign of the cross you say: "In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, Amen." That means, "in their Name, for their sake," you are going to do something. Everything you do should be done for God. You should try to remember to offer your acts — all of them. Not only with the morning offering, but by consecrating each big thing, each separate undertaking: rising in the morning, eating your meals, leaving your home.

In olden days people used to do that much more often. They used the sign of the cross to show that what they did was for God's sake; when they lighted a candle, it honored Christ as the Light of the World; when they rose from bed; when they left the house to go to work; when they wrote letters, they put a cross on the top of the page. Many times did they bless themselves, an act very pleasing to God.

The sign of the cross is to be made reverently and carefully at Mass. Hearing Mass is the biggest, most important thing you can do. Be sure, then, to begin it right, with the sign of the cross, with real love in your heart, with the thought of pleasing Him who hangs on the cross you see on the altar.

Everywhere in the Mass the cross is used. Not only in the beginning of the Mass, but throughout the sacrifice the priest makes the sign of the cross: 1, for himself; 2, over the book; 3, upon the oblations (water and wine); 4, over the precious body and blood of our Lord; 5, with the host when giving Communion; 6, lastly over the congregation at the Last Blessing. But most frequently does he make the sign of the cross after the Canon has begun. This use of the cross was considered very important as a reminder that our Saviour is with us in the Mass which is Calvary, all over again. Since the Mass is the mystical Calvary, the congregation must never lose sight of the importance of the cross. It should stir our hearts, excite our devotion. What silent eloquence, therefore, in those signs! They teach our mind, they impress our heart, they sustain our will. After the Consecration they tell us that we stand by the cross, where stood Mary and St. John and the other faithful ones when Christ died on Calvary. The use of the cross was held to be of such great importance that once St. Boniface (750 A.D.) consulted Pope Zacharias to find out how many times it should be used (in blessing) at the Mass. The Pope sent him a copy of the Canon with the crosses inserted at their proper places. Take your prayer book, look through the Canon, and notice the seven groups of them.

1. Te igitur XXX

2. Hanc igitur XXXXX

3. Consecration XX

4. Unde et momores XXXXXX

5. Per quem XXX

6. Per ipsum XXXXX

7. Pax Domini XXX

Then, at the end of Mass, comes the cross of the Last Blessing.

We ought to love with a real love that cross of Christ. Somebody has described it as "an eye-word which ever clothes itself with richer and fuller meaning, so that at one glance we take in more food for mind and heart than the ear could receive in an hour." The head inclined speaks to us of the infinite patience of Jesus; the hands outstretched speak of the width of His love, inviting all, embracing all; His heart laid bare to our eyes breathes love and asks a return. Indeed, the whole form of Jesus on the cross radiates love. Does it not call on our imagination by its vividness, awaken feeling by appeal to our senses, stir, us to remembrance of the painful details of bodily suffering undergone for us by our Lord? "The sweetness of the divine love as revealed in the crucified humanity has spoken more in one single word to many a pure childlike heart than all the gathered experience and reflection of the wisest could utter."

While dealing with so important a theme, it will help to make ourselves acquainted with the different postures the early Christians used in their worship. These are five:

1. They stood upright, as among the Iraelites this was the most common posture (Matthew vi, 5 ; Luke xviii, 11-13).

2. They bent the head forward. This bowing of the head was meant to show their reverence.

3. They bent the back forward, to indicate their unworthiness.

4. They knelt on both knees. "The knee," says St. Ambrose, "is made flexible, by which, beyond other members, the offense of the Lord is mitigated, wrath appeased, grace called forth." Note the practice among early Christians, reflected in Ephesians iii, 14; Acts vii, 59; ix, 40; xx, 36; xxi,

5. Most profound of all postures they prostrated themselves at length, as a profession of deep humility in drawing nigh to God in prayer.

The sign of the cross and the genuflection are our first acts upon entering the church for Mass. Let us be ever ready to give the right reason for them, and "for the faith that is in us." No one who is properly instructed in his religion should be at a loss to explain these and many other liturgical movements to an inquiring non-Catholic. The act of bending the knee to worship, for example, is called genuflection (gene = knee, flectere = to bend). The Catholic on entering church at once bends his knee because

1. He knows that Christ is really present in the Tabernacle, therefore he adores Him.

2. This act is a very marked expression of humility in drawing nigh to our Lord; it is also a token of penitence and sorrow, of felt unworthiness to be in the presence of Christ.

3. St. Jerome says: "It is according to ecclesiastical custom to bend the knee to Christ." Genuflecting thoughtfully, therefore, the intelligent Catholic considers the depths in which mankind was sunk, when the Son of God came down to earth, sounded all the depths of human sorrow in order to uplift mankind and redeem our race. That is why we kneel at the Credo words: Et Homo factus est. Our Saviour was the good Samaritan Who bent over the human race, wounded and half dead on the roadside (Luke x, 33).

All these points should stir us to increased reverence. "In reverence," says Ruskin, "is the chief joy and power of life. Reverence for all that is gracious among the living, great among the dead, and marvellous in the powers that cannot die."

1. Do you know the prayer before a crucifix by heart? 2. Have you a crucifix in your bedroom? 3. Do you kiss the cross on your beads? 4. Write a theme on the meaning of the crucifix: it has been the noblest theme of art, for its beauty is exhaustless. Every variety and combination of the arts of sculpture, mosaic, painting, and engraving have been applied to this subject from the earliest time to our own day. Do you know of any such work? 5. Character is shown in the choice of pictures as much as in that of books or of companions. Explain.

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