Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Structure of the Mass: Fr. Andersen Homily

Fr. Eric Andersen

A homily by Fr. Eric M. Andersen, Sacred Heart-St. Louis in Gervais, OR
April 21st, 2013

Dominica IV Paschae

Normally each Sunday is named by the first few words of the Entrance Antiphon from that Mass. For instance, during Lent we had Laetare Sunday named after the Introit. A few weeks ago, we had Quasi modo Sunday from the first two words of the Introit: Quasi modo (in the manner of newborn babes, alleluia). You recall that the hunchback of Notre Dame was named ‘Quasimodo’ because he was found on Quasi modo Sunday.  Today, the Entrance antiphon does not lend its name to the Sunday. Today is known historically as Good Shepherd Sunday but the Entrance antiphon says nothing about a good Shepherd. This week the name comes from the Gospel. Jesus identifies Himself as the Good Shepherd. Now, as I said, this theme is not introduced to us in the Entrance Antiphon today. But the Good Shepherd is the theme of the Communion antiphon which we sing.

As a general rule, the Communion antiphon will always repeat the theme of the Gospel for the day. It has been customary for the last few decades to sing a devotional hymn during Communion. These devotional hymns normally focus on themes such as bread, or the Body of Christ, or adoration. But if we look at the actual texts of the Mass itself, we find that the Communion antiphons rarely if ever speak about bread, or the Body of Christ, or about Communion, unless those are the theme from the gospel. Why is that? Why do the Communion antiphons always repeat the theme from the gospel? What is the connection between Holy Communion and the Gospel?

We have to look at the whole structure of the Mass in order to answer this question. To begin with, let me just point out that the Mass is divided into two parts: The Liturgy of the Word, also known as the Mass of the Catechumens; and the Liturgy of the Eucharist, also known as the Mass of the Faithful. These “two main parts of the Mass…stand as parallel movements, each with its own sense of progression through significant parts to a high point” (Mahrt,  The Musical Shape of the Liturgy, Kindle Location 300). The high point of the Liturgy of the Word is “the gospel, the book which represents the words of Christ himself, and which is given priority of place; this high point is emphasized and prepared by” all that comes before it. “The homily and Credo which follow can be seen as an amplification and a complement to it” (Mahrt, Loc. 303ff).

So all that leads up to the gospel prepares us to meet Christ in the word. God prepared mankind for millennia by means of the word – the Old Testament. After we have been prepared, then the high point of the Liturgy of the Word, at a High Mass, is when we process with a book which contains the written words of Jesus Christ Himself. We meet Jesus Christ in the Word. He is made manifest in the Word. “In the beginning was the Word”, as St John’s Gospel reveals. But the Word must become flesh. The word itself is not enough. God did not leave us merely with the word. No, He became flesh and dwelt among us.

That leads us to the second part of the Mass. How is the second part of the Mass parallel to the first part? Let’s take a look at that: In the first part of the Mass, we present ourselves to God by first confessing our sinfulness and seeking God’s mercy (the Kyrie). In the second part of the Mass we present not ourselves, but things that represent ourselves: money in the collection basket and the presentation of the bread and wine. These are brought forward to offer to God. They represent the faithful. Bread and wine are incapable of acknowledging their sinfulness and they cannot cry out “Lord have mercy.” But the bread and wine can be purified by means of offering them to God, incensing them, calling down the Holy Spirit to descend upon them and transform them. So, here we see the parallel of the penitential rite.

Next we sing of God’s glory (the Gloria). The Gloria is paralleled in the second part by the Sanctus. Both of them are the songs of the angels. Both of them are songs that praise and glorify God. The priest then prays to God and we listen as God gradually reveals Himself to us through the words of divine revelation. What follows the Gloria is the priest’s prayer and the gradual manifestation of Christ in the word. What follows the Sanctus is the priest’s prayer and the gradual manifestation of Christ not in the word but in the flesh. In the first part, the Gospel – Christ in the Word – is raised up and proclaimed. That is the high point of the Liturgy of the Word. What is the high point of the Liturgy of the Eucharist?

Is it when Christ in the flesh is lifted up to the Father? One would think so, but the elevation of the Eucharist is not the high point of the Liturgy of the Eucharist. According to William Mahrt, the high point that parallels the Gospel is the chanting of the Lord’s Prayer. Why is that? Consider that when the Gospel book is raised up in procession, that is still the preparation for the proclamation of the Gospel. Once the Gospel is actually proclaimed, it is no longer raised up. It is brought down where the priest can see it and proclaim it.

It is a parallel action to the procession of the Gospel when the priest lifts up the Word made flesh in the Eucharist. He says, “Behold the Lamb of God.” But those are not the words of Christ. Those are the words of St. John the Baptist. Christ Himself speaks in the Gospel and Christ Himself speaks when He teaches us how to pray to the Father. Christ Himself has become flesh and Christ Himself speaks at the high point of the Liturgy of the Eucharist by praying on our behalf to the Father. That is the Gospel come to life. The Gospel is the written word of Christ. The Eucharist is the Word made Flesh. Christ now speaks in the flesh to the Father.

But we still have a question lingering out there waiting to be answered. The question was about the connection between the Gospel and Holy Communion. As we have seen, the high point of the Liturgy of the Eucharist is the Our Father. The Our Father parallels the Gospel. Where does Holy Communion come into the picture and what does it have to do with the gospel? Let’s look back at the Liturgy of the Word. What follows the Gospel? The Homily and then the Credo. These “can be seen as an amplification and a complement to [the Gospel]” (Mahrt, loc. 303f). They flow out from the Gospel. The Homily is a meditation upon the Gospel. This parallels the Communion antiphon. The Communion antiphon is a meditation upon the Gospel theme. The Credo can be seen to parallel Holy Communion. At the Credo, we who have listened to and met our Lord in the Word, now take that word to ourselves and we profess that word in the Creed. The word becomes our own. At Holy Communion, the Word made flesh becomes our own. We are united with that word in the flesh. This is why we sing about the gospel during Communion.

Does that mean that we are not supposed to sing hymns about adoration? No. Here is where the Church provides. The Communion chant comes first. The Church provides that piece of text to be sung. That text is from the Gospel. But then, the Church provides that a hymn can be sung after that chant. It can be sung either during the purification of the vessels or after the priest returns to his chair. At that point, we can reflect on the popular communion theme of adoration.

Today, our parish children will be receiving their first Holy Communion. They are an inspiration to us. They have been preparing, and today is very special. This is a reminder to all of us. Here is where the parallel needs our attention! The gifts of bread and wine on the altar will be transformed by the words of the priest and the power of the Holy Spirit – and that means every particle and every drop. I know that every particle and drop of these gifts will be transformed. But you are gifts too. You are gifts to God.

You remember that at the beginning of the Mass, we present ourselves to God, confessing our sinfulness and singing to His Glory. He prepares us and He provides for us, but He will not force Himself on us. I pray that every person here will be transformed by the receiving of the Holy Eucharist, but I know that I do not have the power to transform anyone in this room. It must come from God and from you. Even if you receive Holy Communion, that does not guarantee that you will be transformed by it. You must have faith, and you must desire to be transformed. You must trust in God that He is more powerful than your sins and your temptations. You must ask God to transform you and your family and your life – every particle and every drop of who you are. If you will not allow God, He will respect your choice, but if you say yes to God, as these children are saying yes to God today, then He can do amazing things in your life as He is doing in the lives of these children. Let us pray that God will continue to find an open door when He knocks on the hearts of these children and all the children of God here in this congregation today. 

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