Saint Thomas of Canterbury, Bolton

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Together at Mass

Together at Mass 4

“From age to age you gather a people to yourself …”

God calls us to gather together at Mass. That is a simple way of expressing an important starting point for our liturgy. We have come together because of God’s invitation. The Greek and Latin word which is translated as ’church’ is ‘ecclesia’. It signifies the assembly of people ‘called out’ by God.

This week’s note is about our assembling for liturgy—and that really means about our assembling as Church. The building we call church is the place of assembly, in a sense the living room of God’s Family. Its primary purpose is to give us a place where we can gather together as a family.

In this note we will be invited to give some serious thought to this idea of coming together as God’s family. You see, that demands a bit more than just turning up! Now don’t be put off; read about it, and think about it, and let us see if we need to do anything about it to improve our celebration of Mass.

Having set the background, we then go on to look at the various elements of the opening part of the Mass. They each have a specific role to play in helping us to become a ‘worshipping community’. As you read through each point, think about the way we do things in this church. Are we meeting the aim? Can you suggest ways of improving, being more welcoming, inclusive, prayerful?

Finally, we are invited to some further reflection. There is an old axiom that says the way we pray influences the way we believe, and vice versa, – in Latin “lex orandi, lex credendi”— this is especially true of the liturgy. How we think about God and how we approach God in prayer are interconnected. Some solid thinking may be called for in this section, but it can make a whole world of difference as we begin to appreciate that it is here, in our very assembly, that we begin to touch into the presence of the Lord. 

 

 

The Introductory Rites

This is what the General Instruction on the Roman Missal has to say about the opening rites of the Mass: “The purpose of these rites is to help the assembled people make themselves a worshipping community and to prepare them for listening to God’s word and celebrating the eucharist.”

In the light of this comment, it may be more in keeping with the purpose of this part of the Mass to speak of it as the Rites of Gathering, or the Rites of Becoming an Assembly. The aim is much more than simply introducing the Mass of the day. To prepare for the reality expressed here, becoming “a worshipping community”, something is demanded of each of us even before the Mass has started. We need to come to church with a sense of purpose, with a deliberate intention of coming out of our shells and of joining with others in order to become a community.

Simply being in church at the same time does not make us into a community. Are we really responding to the invitation to become a worshipping community if, on Sunday after Sunday, we each come and go as quietly and privately as possible? Are we really going to become “one body, one spirit in Christ” if we just keep to ourselves or to a very tight circle of close friends? There is a question of attitude here. We should come with the explicit intention of being a participating member of the Assembly, and make a real effort to acknowledge other people who are gathering, especially any who may be strangers to our church.

Now, let’s be real about this. Sometimes it is just about as much as someone can manage to get to the church at all. Full marks to parents who have struggled first to feed then to prepare (and coax) children to come to church, searched for lost shoes, made sure they have whatever they need to bring, and all the rest. Quite probably they simply long for a bit of peace, while praying that the children will ‘behave’ in church. Some others may also be seeking peace and quiet, and to be ‘left alone’, because that’s what they were brought up to expect in a church; they may not share any enthusiasm at all for all this ‘togetherness’. Yet another may arrive nursing hurt feelings about some person or occurrence, or even about God, and not feel ready for ‘being at one’ with others.

Clearly we will never reach the point when everyone will come with the deliberate frame of mind of entering into a spirit of community. Equally, no one is likely to maintain such an eager spirit of openness week in, week out, without fail. But just imagine what could be, here in our own church, if more and more members of the weekly Assembly brought to our act of becoming a community something like this kind of purposeful and deliberate attitude. This is the first important act of participation in the Mass. It is in this setting that greetings and songs and prayers can achieve their purpose.

 

To reflect:
How can we better build communion with each other while honestly respecting different expectations and approaches to the Mass? 

 

 

 

Now let us look at the individual elements:

So here we are, a gathering of God’s people, bringing with us our different backgrounds, experiences, expectations and concerns. The purpose of the introductory rites is to help us all to become a worshipping community – and to  express the unity of Christ himself with all the members of his Body, the Church. That union of all in Christ is the foundation of our liturgy. See what the Missal says about each of the elements that make up these opening rites. 

We begin by uniting in mind and voice. “The purpose of the entrance song is to open the celebration, deepen the unity of the people, and introduce them to the mystery of the season or feast.” Singing together demands listening out for each other; singing a suitably chosen hymn also helps to prepare us for the readings we are about to hear.

After the sign of the cross — “the priest expresses the presence of the Lord in the assembled community by means of a greeting. This greeting and the people’s response manifest the mystery of the Church’s unity.”
Reflect on this greeting: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all”. We acknowledge the presence of Christ here in the community and ask that the Holy Spirit may be at work within us and among us, drawing us into true fellowship in Christ.

We immediately recall that we have not always lived in the presence of Christ as we should. We therefore pause to remember our sinfulness and to ask for God’s forgiveness. These few moments of silent reflection offer us the chance to be truly personal and real in what we are doing. They should be grasped at.

After the penitential rite — “the Gloria is an ancient hymn in which the Church, assembled in the Spirit, praises and prays to the Father and the Lamb.” It is easy to recognise that the opening words of this ancient prayer come from St. Luke’s account of the nativity story, when the angels were ‘heard on high’. It would be good if we could, at least occasionally, raise our spirits to imitate them by singing this beautiful prayer.

“Next the priest invites the people to pray, and together they spend some moments in silence so they may realise that they are in God’s presence and may make their petitions. The priest then says the opening prayer, called the collect.” This is the first major prayer of the Mass. It is called the ‘Collect’ because the priest gathers together the intentions of the whole assembly and sums them up in one simple prayer.
Once again, the moments of silence following the invitation to pray, give each of us the chance to be personally involved, then to bring our own prayer into the collective prayer of the community. With that prayer, our opening rites are completed. We are ready to give our full attention to the proclamation of God’s Word. 

 

 

We come together in the presence of God

Reference has been made already to the way things were in the not-too-distant past. Attention at Mass was focused almost exclusively on the role of the priest as though his actions were the only ones that mattered. The role of the laity was seen largely in terms of “going to, attending, and following” the Mass and “receiving” the grace of the event in a passive way. The physical separation of the priest and people, with the priest turned away from the people, and the use of Latin with most of it read in silence, added to a great sense of mystery. Underlying these ways of worship there was a style of thinking about God which put a very strong emphasis on God’s transcendence, on a distant, supernatural, all-powerful God who was to be approached in awe and reverence and even in fear.

It’s true, the Bible does often picture God as “enthroned above”, but this is not to fix God in some distant place above the clouds. Images like this are used to point to something inexpressible; they are meant to convey something of the complete “Otherness” of God. God is Beyond our grasp. Perhaps people simply got used to thinking of God being “up there” or “out there” because until recently we could not go very far up, and locating God where we could not go seemed a good way to express transcendence. But the Bible also speaks of God’s utter imminence, his wonderful closeness to us at all times. God is even “closer to us than we are to ourselves” or, as Scripture says, “In him we live and move and have our being”.

We often remind ourselves of this at the beginning of the Mass: “Be still, for the presence of the Lord, the Holy One, is here”. As we come together we recognise that “the power of the Lord is moving in this place”. “Here” and “this place”, of course, refer not to the building but to the assembled community. Perhaps we need to think a little more about God’s closeness to us in our assembly.

So, for example, “Our Father who art in heaven” does not mean that God, the Ultimate Source and Goal of all that exists, belongs in some distant corner of the universe, much less outside it. “In heaven” means, rather, that God is related to us as Father in some absolute, glorious, and loving way well beyond our imagination.

We believe that Jesus “ascended into heaven.” But that does not mean that he went off somewhere into space. It means that as man he is now living the very life of God, so that he can be with us always with the loving nearness of God.

And when we pray, “Come Holy Spirit,” this doesn’t mean that we expect him to come where he wasn’t already present. God is always offering us his Spirit, to enable us to love him and one another with his own love. When we ask the Spirit to “come,” we are opening ourselves to this enabling.

Yes, God is always very close to us. The Christian story is the story of God’s reaching out to the human race, drawing ever closer to us, becoming one with us, inviting us to share his own divine life. We gather in God’s presence to welcome this gift and, in return, to offer our thanks and praise.

 

Think of some prayers and hymns which use the idea of God being ‘up there’. See what they are trying to say about God. Can you find other ways of expressing the sense of the ‘Beyond’ who is always in our midst?