The Secret Prayers of the Mass: Purifying the Chalice

So you’ve just received Communion and are sitting down, and you look up to notice your favorite young associate pastor pouring water, and mixing, and swishing it around, and pouring again and again.  You probably start to wonder, “What the heck is he doing?  My breakfast reservation at First Watch is in 15 minutes!”

Well, don’t feel bad, and don’t get frustrated!  Most people probably aren’t that familiar with the purification of the sacred vessels (I wasn’t, until the seminary), but it is the process of special cleaning done by the priest, deacon, or instituted acolyte (don’t worry, we don’t have any of these guys at All Saints).  Because the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Jesus, and because it is the most precious gift given to us and to the Church, we don’t want to leave particles or drops of the Eucharist just lying around in waste.  Purification makes sure of this.

The last thing I want you to think is that it’s washing the dishes.  In fact, I cringe when I hear that phrase referring to the sacred vessels.  Purification is there to treat these vessels and the Eucharistic particles with great respect – not because they’re gold or silver, but because of what they hold, the Body and Blood of Christ.  This process is actually kind of particular and involved.  It begins with pouring water over the fingers to remove any crumbs left over from distributing communion, and then involves washing up any remaining particles of the hosts and excess drops of the Precious Blood, combining them in one chalice.  The water and particles are then consumed by the priest or deacon, and never poured down a sink.  That way, any remaining Eucharist is safe within the temple of the body, and not dumped and combined with garbage and waste.

Meanwhile, the priest prays a very beautiful prayer while purifying the vessels: “What has passed our lips as food, O Lord, may we possess in purity of heart, that what has been given to us in time may be our healing for eternity.”

This is absolutely one of my favorite prayers of the Mass, and is a vast improvement on the previous translation.  It is a prayer by the priest on behalf of everyone, asking God to open our hearts to the true power of the sacrament.  It’s a reminder that what we have just consumed into our bodies is not supposed to be a chore or an intellectual concept of some kind, but is a gift.  But while it is a gift of bodily food, it’s also a greater and more eternal gift – the gift of God’s grace, mercy, and nourishment – the gift of his dwelling within us! – that sustains us in our journey to eternal life.

The challenge in our receiving the Eucharist, and the goal of this prayer, is to be able to recognize that gift and to receive it with open hearts.  Just as the purification of the vessels prepares them to receive the gifts of the Eucharist during Mass, so this prayer is designed to help us receive the Eucharistic grace into our hearts!

The Secret Prayers of the Mass: At Communion

What is it that brings us together at Mass on Sunday?  Is it the community?  Comfort? Obligation?  Fr. Grosch’s amazing homilies?  Donut Sunday?  All of these things are aspects of our Sunday liturgy (except maybe the last two…maybe), but the real purpose of the Mass, and the real purpose of the Eucharist itself, is, as its name implies, communion.

Communion is what truly draws us together when we celebrate the Sacrifice of the Mass, even if we’re too tired or distracted to realize it right away.  When we receive Holy Communion, we’re entering into an intimate encounter with Christ.  There’s a strange paradox about the Eucharist, really: As food, we sacramentally receive Jesus into our bodies, but we do so that we can more completely be assimilated into his!

One of the themes that, when you listen closely, you’ll hear over and over again in the prayers of the Mass is that the Eucharist, as powerful as it is, and as real a communion as it is, ultimately is really only the anticipation of the greatest communion – being together with God in Paradise.  And so the prayer that the priest prays quietly before he receives the Eucharist is a great example of that: “May the Body of Christ/Blood of Christ keep me safe for eternal life.”  In praying this prayer, and in receiving the Eucharist, the priest is asking for the greatest gift of all: not just communion on earth, but the salvation of his body and soul for communion in heaven.

There’s a small change that occurs in the new translation of the Roman Missal, coming from the Latin word custodire, which for us, is translated “keep me safe.”  You might recognize this Latin word in English words like “custody” or “custodian”.  Really, what this word shows us is that the Eucharist that we receive isn’t just a Sunday thing or a “one-and-done” event.  When you receive Holy Communion, Jesus claims custody of us, and he takes responsibility for us, to guide us, watch over us, and protect us.

Some of you…more experienced…folks might remember the word custodiat spoken to you as you received Communion at the rail (if the priest was speaking slow enough that it didn’t sound like gibberish).  And really, it’s the same concept today.  This is a prayer that each of us can pray personally, that we might be able to humbly entrust ourselves to the custody of God.

So keep that in mind for the next time you receive the Eucharist.  It’s never as simple as it appears, but truly leads us to an intimate relationship with God, both in this life, and in the next!

The Secret Prayers of the Mass: The Priest’s Prayer Before Communion

Do you ever put your preparation for something off until the last minute?  I’ve definitely been one of those people at times.  Sometimes I’m very good about preparing for something, like buying a greeting card for someone weeks before the card is given to them.  But other times, I find myself picking the greeting card up on the way to the destination, and hastily signing it in my car before going in to deliver the card!  (To my loving parents who are no doubt reading this, I would never do that for you…)  So yes, there’s some last minute preparation involved, but it’s good to know that every other priest in the world who celebrates Mass is like me in some way!

The prayers for this week are the “last minute preparations” that the priest prays before communion.  Sometimes we think of these last minute things as being bad, but in this case, the content of the prayers is wonderful!

Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of the living God,

who by the will of the Father

and the work of the Holy Spirit,

through your Death gave life to the world,

free me by this, your most Holy Body and Blood,

from all my sins and from every evil;

keep me always faithful to your commandments,

and never let me be parted from you.

May the receiving of your Body and Blood,

Lord Jesus Christ,

not bring me to judgment and condemnation,

but through your loving mercy

be for me protection in mind and body

and a healing remedy.

The first version of the prayer especially focuses on true freedom – the freedom from sin, the freedom to be able to do what we ought, and the freedom to be able to love.  When we’re really free, the commandments and rules no longer seem to shackle us, but become a joy.  Parts of this prayer even remind me of the words of Jesus: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15)

It’s real freedom that allows us to receive Holy Communion worthily, in a state of grace.  Sometimes people are turned off by this teaching, or think that it excludes people.  But really, it’s a teaching that’s sole purpose is to help people reach greater unity!  The Eucharist calls us to communion, and that communion comes when we are free to enter into that relationship with God.  But if we’re living our lives contrary to that relationship in a grave or serious way, we’re not really open to communion, and if you think about it, represent quite the opposite.

It’s important to seek out that freedom that these prayers call to our attention, most especially through the Sacrament of Confession (or Penance, or Reconciliation – whatever the kids are calling it these days!), which at All Saints is on Tuesday and Saturday evenings.  When we humble ourselves, and try to reorder our lives to the love of God and his commandments, we allow ourselves to enter into that communion with God, and we pray for the grace never to be parted from him!

The Secret Prayers of the Mass: The Commixtio

If you look around All Saints on an average Sunday, you might be surprised by the variety of people that you’ll find.  We’ve got older and younger folks, several different ethnicities, lots of different backgrounds, and, yes, even a few Cubs fans.  And just think, that’s just one church in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, which is just one diocese in the United States, which is just one country in the universal Church!  Being so different and so diverse, it’s amazing at times that the Church survives!

The Catechism reminds us that the Church is the “sacrament of unity, namely, the holy people united and organized under the authority of the bishops.  Therefore, Therefore, liturgical services pertain to the whole Body of the Church. They manifest it, and have effects upon it.” (1140)  Basically, when we celebrate Mass, the Eucharist is both the sign and the cause of our unity as a Church.

Today’s “secret prayer” doesn’t teach us about this as much as the action that accompanies it does.  While the community prays the Agnus Dei or “Lamb of God”, the priest breaks off a small portion of the host and drops it in the chalice, saying, “May this mingling of the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ bring eternal life to us who receive it.”

Originally, this action derives from the practice of the commixtio in the earliest days of the Church in Rome.  On Sundays, the Pope would celebrate the central Mass in Rome, and then send small particles of the Eucharist to the priests at the other churches in Rome.  As you can imagine, there were a lot fewer of them at that time.  Then, at the Sunday Mass of those parishes, the particle (called the fermentum) was brought forward and mixed with the Eucharist consecrated at that Mass.  It was a sign of the unity of that parish with the larger Church.

When we perform this action today, the particle is obviously not airmailed to All Saints, but the practice that remains reminds us of the unity that we have with the larger Church, brought about by the Eucharist.  Sometimes we celebrate the fact that we can pull of that unity so much so that it’s easy for us to forget what it is that unites us – ultimately, the love of God, given to us in the most perfect way in the Eucharist.  Through it, we’re united in faith, united in what we believe about the Eucharist, united in the fact that we are branches of the one vine of Christ, and united in our complete dependence on him for eternal life, as the prayer says.

So when you look around next time at Church, try not to look sideways at your fellow parishioners wondering which of them are secret Cubs fans, but take the opportunity to thank the Lord for the unity he gives us in the Eucharist, and pray for a greater unity in the Church!

The Secret Prayers of the Mass: The Elevations

The next “Secret Prayer” of the Mass is actually not a pre-scripted part of the Mass at all.  It’s actually a devotional prayer, meaning that this particular prayer is not required at all, and you won’t find it written down in any official documents, but it has been practiced for many years, and might be helpful for one’s own participation at Mass.

I want to focus in on the most important part of the Eucharistic prayer, which is obviously (if you’ve been following along on this little trek) the Institution Narrative, when we recount how Jesus took the bread and wine and offered them as his own Body and Blood.  At the elevations of these precious gifts, there’s a little pause, when you might be tempted to think back to what your shopping list looks like or to what snow cone stand you’re planning to take Fr. Grosch.  But in the long history of the Church, there have been a few people who have felt that same temptation, and wanted to focus, so they said these little devotional prayers.

The one to which I was introduced as a seminarian is, at the elevations, the simple prayer, “My Lord and my God!”  This is such a simple, yet profound prayer that speaks volumes.  You probably recognize it from the post-resurrection story of St. Thomas the Apostle’s encounter with Jesus.  This was a man who’s faith was struggling, and who maybe struggled to believe what his friends were telling him – that Jesus was alive.  But then he was presented face-to-face with the truth of Jesus’ presence with him, and he recognized Jesus and spoke those beautiful words, “My Lord and my God!”

Many times, you and I might find ourselves just going through the motions at Mass.  It happens to everyone, even priests!  Maybe we lose focus, or maybe we struggle to believe what it is that the Church is trying to share with us: that the bread and wine are transformed into Jesus’ Body and Blood.  Maybe you’re at a point in your life where God feels so far away.

But whatever we’re feeling or thinking, the elevations of the Eucharist are invitations to refocus.  Especially when joined with this short prayer, they are invitations to place ourselves in the shoes of St. Thomas, or the disciples on the road to Emmaus, or the apostles hidden in the upper room out of fear.  Like all of those figures, we are present in God’s midst, encountering him in a physical way in the Eucharist.

Even if you’re not quite at that point yet, praying this little prayer or a similar one can help to refocus and remind yourself of what’s going on.  I hope that helps!

The Secret Prayers of the Mass: The Washing of the Hands

I don’t know about you, but there are a few people that I’ve encountered in my life that are terrified of germs – you might call them “germaphobes”.  These people always have their little bottle of hand sanitizer in their pockets, cleaning their hands every half hour, on the dot.  They wash before anything important: a job interview, a date with a significant other, driving through the McDonald’s drive-through…  Sometimes their hands are already clean, but they want to use the sanitizer to make their hands smell clean too!

Today’s society has a big emphasis on cleanliness, which is a wonderful thing, but in the ancient world, during the time of Jesus and the early Church, washing wasn’t just to get rid of dust and dirt, but it was a symbol of purification.  Sure, when the priest was receiving the gifts of the community – bread, wine, goats, vegetables, breakfast cereals, etc. – his hands would probably get pretty nasty, and he’d have to wash them.  But when we read the prayer at the washing of the hands, it’s obvious that there’s a lot more going on.

Washing his hands over the lavabo bowl (a Latin word meaning, “I shall wash” just in case Father forgets what he’s supposed to do), the priest prays secretly, “Wash me, O Lord, from my iniquities and cleans me from my sins.

Clearly, the priest wants to be physically clean before offering the Mass, but there is a desire for interior cleanliness and purity as well, so that he can make himself a good instrument through which Christ can bestow his grace.  Think of a surgical tool – if it’s going to be used well as an instrument of healing, it’s going to need to be sanitized, or it will cause infection.

This prayer and the washing that goes with it are specifically geared toward the priest, but each of us can take away something from this silent prayer as well.  As with some earlier prayers, it reminds us that what God desires most in us is humility and purity.  This isn’t simply having purity and humility for the sake of having them, but so that we can open our hearts to receive fully the Lord’s grace that he desires to give us in the Eucharist.

So be sure to wash your hands (or use your hand sanitizer) before going to Communion, but more importantly, be sure to cleanse your heart, in order to open it to whatever God wishes to give you!

The Secret Prayers of the Mass: The Offertory Part II (or III, I can’t remember)

Sometimes, shopping for other people can be impossible.  I’ve found so far that Valentine’s Day is one of those great affirmations of my choice of celibacy, partly because of the routine that I get to miss out on!  From what some of the husbands in our parish tell me, they have to find something for their wives that is beautiful, slimming, not too expensive, the right brand, and the right color to go with what she already has.  Impossible!  Teenage boys are much the same way: ask them what they want, and they just answer, “I dunno.”  How do you find something that will satisfy these different individuals?

Now shift your focus back to the Mass, and imagine, what kind of gift can we possibly give to God?  Here we’ve just been talking about the gifts brought forward at the offertory, and we realize all of a sudden that they’re just not good enough for God!  God has created everything, including bread and wine!  It’s kind of like giving your mother a gift of cookies…the ones that she just made a week ago!  So we acknowledge that whatever gift we give God is not going to be good enough, but we pray that he would accept them.  Why?  How is that possible?

Well, the prayer the priest prays is this: “With humble spirit and contrite heart, may we be accepted by you, O Lord, and may our sacrifice in your sight this day be pleasing to you, Lord God.”  Interestingly, the new translation of this prayer brings out the biblical passage that it comes from in Daniel 3:39-40.  If you recall, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refuse to obey the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, and are cast into a fiery furnace, but miraculously, they are unharmed!  Abednego prays: “But with contrite heart and humble spirit let us be received; as though it were holocausts of rams and bullocks, or thousands of fat lambs, so let our sacrifice be in your presence today as we follow you unreservedly; for those who trust in you cannot be put to shame.”  Abednego offers himself, literally, as a burnt sacrifice to God, completely surrendering himself to God’s will by trusting him.

Looking at both these prayers, we can see what the gift is that we are truly offering: the gift of the heart.  It is that gift which God finds acceptable, more than any bread, wine, rams, bullocks or anything else.  Just as with any gift, even if the gift itself isn’t good enough, the love and surrender with which it is given makes the gift acceptable (although this isn’t guaranteed with Valentine’s Day).

Whenever we come to Mass, it’s important to enter into it remembering that we are to offer ourselves as a sacrifice.  We should come to Mass in the same spirit of self-surrender that Abednego fostered in his heart, which is the same self-surrender that the priest speaks on behalf of us all at the offertory.  May we always offer of ourselves and our hearts to God, who lovces us so much!  See you next week!

The Secret Prayers of the Mass: The Commingling of Water and Wine

Probably one of the first science experiments that we all did when we were little was pouring oil into a glass of water.  And what do we learn?  The two substances have different densities, and so it’s very difficult to completely mix them.  Well, during Mass, we do a little “science experiment” as well, by mixing water and wine.  Why, you say?  Well, I’m glad you asked!

As the priest pours a little drop of water in the wine during the preparation of the gifts, he says in a low voice (a secret one!), “By the mystery of this water in wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.

This co-mingling of water and wine is a very ancient practice.  It was part of the culture at the time of Jesus, and so it has always been assumed that he did the same at the last supper, tempering or diluting his wine slightly with water.  So we see it referenced in Proverbs 9:5, and St. Justin Martyr (150 AD) and St. Cyprian (250 AD) both make reference to this in the liturgy very early on!

So what does it mean?  Well, consider for a second that water is a pretty common thing.  It’s used to water plants, it is very cheap at the store, and you even see athletes drink some, only to spit it right out on the field!  Wine on the other hand is expensive, takes a long time to make, and you never want to waste it, because it is valuable.

So when we mix the two, it’s a symbol of what’s happening with the Eucharist.  Human beings are amazing creations, but we’re nothing on our own – we need God.  Unlike water and oil, water and wine mix completely, so if we are the water, Jesus is the wine, and we see the point of his becoming a man.  St. Athanasius (296-373 AD) said, “God became man, so that man might become like God.”  Jesus, the Son of God, (symbolized in this case by wine) completely humbled himself, so that we (symbolized by the water) could be built up and share completely and inseparably in his divine life.

In fact, that’s what happens at the Eucharist.  When we receive the Eucharist, we are receiving Jesus’ Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, and we are joined in such a close union with God, a communion (see what I did there?) that our common human nature is mixed with the divine!  Awesome, am I right?

The Secret Prayers of the Mass: At the Preparation of the Gifts

You might have noticed that on weekday mornings, I am blessed to be able to greet the children coming into our school.  But my morning routine dictates that I must have a cup of coffee at the same time, so naturally, I have acquired a wide variety of coffee mugs.  One of my favorites is the two-handled coffee mug from Mystic Monks Coffee, an order of contemplative Carmelite monks in Cody, Wyoming (Support them by buying some coffee from mysticmonkcoffee.com).  The mug is distinctive, though, because it has a handle on either side, inviting the coffee drinker to use both hands.  The monks, who use these in their monastery, say it is a powerful symbol of embracing all the many gifts that God has given us.  At 6:00 in the morning, coffee is definitely one gift I want to embrace!

The reason I bring this up is because it connects to the prayer that we pray at the offertory, when the gifts are brought forward, and then offered at the altar:

Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the bread we offer you; fruit of the earth and work of human hands, it will become for us the bread of life.”

“Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the wine we offer you; fruit of the vine and work of human hands, it will become our spiritual drink.”

These might be familiar to you, but at times, the priest prays these prayers quietly to allow musical reflection, or to encourage silent prayer.  But, as with the Mystic Monks coffee mug (mysticmonkcoffee.com, in case you forgot), we embrace all the gifts that God has given us, recognizing that we deserve none of it by our own right, and then offer it back to God to be transformed into the Bread of Life and our Spiritual Drink.  Ultimately, we’re offering back to God in gratitude what is already his.

It is very important for us to take an inventory of the gifts that God gives us, and then to discern what it is that God is asking us to offer back to him freely, whether it is our time, our abilities or gifts, or our financial treasure that we have been given.  When we freely offer back to God a portion of that in good stewardship, he receives it, and transforms it into something far greater, just as he does with the gifts brought forward at the offertory!

That’s it for this week, and actually, sorry about running a bit late with this one, but thank you for your prayers for me as I was on retreat this past week.  It was a very reflective and fruitful experience out there at Conception Abbey, and I’m happy to be back!  Tune in next week for more on the Missal!

The Secret Prayers of the Mass: At the Gospel

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve written, so first, let me say, “Happy Easter!”  A few weeks back, Msgr. Walter and I shared a birthday (only a few years apart), and I was blessed to receive my favorite desert: a delicious tiramisu.  Of course, two tiramisus are way too much for the three of us to eat without having to buy bigger clerical shirts, so we ate them over a few days.  And one of the things we noticed is that tiramisu actually gets better as it sits!  The coffee flavoring has a chance to soak into the ladyfingers and give the dessert a lot of flavor!  Needless to say, they didn’t last too long…

The reason I bring this up has to do with the topic of my column, the prayers that the priest or deacon says quietly before or after the Gospel.  Before the Gospel, making the sign of the cross over our foreheads, mouth, and chest, we pray, “May the Lord be in my mind, on my lips, and in my heart.”

Many times, it can be easy for us to zone out while listening to the Gospel.  We might be tired or uncomfortable, or we might just think, “Oh, I know how this one goes, since I’ve heard it 1,431 times already,” at which point, we stop paying attention.  But really, the more we listen to the Word of God, and the more we pay close attention to what God is trying to say to us specifically, the more we let that Word soak into our hearts and give our lives flavor.  When we read the Gospel, we invite the Lord’s teaching to soak into us, or to use the analogy of Jesus, to take root in us.

After the Gospel, we pray, “Through the words of the Gospel, may our sins be wiped away.”  This is a brief prayer of reconciliation, and while it doesn’t grant sacramental forgiveness like the Sacrament of Penance, the intent is to impress upon us the humility we need to welcome the Lord’s forgiveness into our hearts.  When we do that, we remove those barriers that would keep us from listening to God’s Word, and like the tiramisu, we allow it to soak into us and give our lives flavor.

All of us make the sign of the Cross on the forehead, the mouth, and the chest before the Gospel, so maybe the next time you do so, try to make a conscious effort to open your heart to the Lord’s teaching, and allow his Word to soak into you!