What is the Mass? …a Continuing Series

What Is The Mass? A good way to describe the Mass is to say that it is Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday made present today in ritual. It is not merely a meal which reminds us of the Last Supper, or a Passion Play which helps recall Good Friday, or a Sunrise Service which celebrates the Lord’s Resurrection. It is Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

The basic “shape” of the ritual of the Mass can be described as a meal. This is not to say it is “just an-other meal” or that we are ignoring the Mass as a sacrifice. Not at all. The point is, the shape of the Mass, even when viewed as sacrifice, is that of a meal. For our purposes, we can be greatly helped in our “walk through” the Mass if we remember this basic “meal shape.”

When friends gather for a meal, they sit and talk; eventually they move to the table, say grace, pass the food and eat and drink, and finally take their leave and go home. On our walk through the Mass we will follow this same map: we will see ritual acts of 1) gathering 2) storytelling 3) meal sharing & 4)commissioning.

Gathering Rites

Coming together, assembling, is at the heart of our Sunday worship.  The reason behind each of the ritual actions of the first part of the Mass can be found in this word: “Gathering.”  The [purpose of these rites is to bring us together into one body, ready to listen and to break bread together.


The priest will ask us to begin the Mass with the sign of the cross. again reminding us of Baptism, and will greet us saying, “The Lord be with you.”  You will hear this greeting frequently.  It means many things. Like “goof day” It can also mean both “hello” and “good bye.”  It is both a wish (MAY the Lord be with you) and a profound statement (as you assemble for worship, the Lord IS with you).  It is an ancient biblical greeting.  Boaz returned from Bethlehem (we read in the Book of Ruth 2:4) and said to the reapers, ” And with your spirit!”  The ritual response to this greeting is always the formula “and with your spirit.” by which we return the hello, the good wishes, the statement of faith.


In Our Lady of the Mountains today, there will be someone at the door to gret you as you arrive for Sunday Mass.  We all like to be greeted and welcomed when we gather for a celebration.  If the greeters ( and we all should serve this function for one another) recognize you are new to the Parish, they will give you a special hello and be sure that you have the missalette or hymnal and participation aids necessary to pray well with the assembly.

Use of Water

One of the first things Catholics do when they come to church is dip their right hand in water and make the sign of the cross.  This ritual is a reminder of our baptism:  we are baptized with water and signed with the cross.  At every Mass, we renew the promises of our baptism.  It is baptism that brings us to the Church.


In Medieval Europe. it was a custom to go down on one knee (to genuflect) before a king or person of rank.  This secular mark of honor gradually entered the Church and people began to genuflect to honor the altar and the presence of Christ in the tabernacle before entering the pew.  Today, many people express their reverence with an even older custom and bow to the altar before taking their place.

Posture and Song

When the Mass begins, everyone stands up.  Standing is the traditional posture of the Christian at prayer.  I expresses our attentiveness to the word fo God and our readiness to carry it out.  Often we begin by signing together.  What better way to gather than to unite out thoughts and our voices in common word, rhythm and melody.

Penitential Rite, Gloria

All the other ritual acts of the first part of the Mass are intended to gather us together into a worshiping assembly.  Sometimes we are asked to pause and recall our common need for salvation (the Penitential Rite).  Sometimes the hymn “Glory to God in the Highest” is sung or recited at this point.  The “Gloria” has been a part of the Mass since about the sixth century!  These longer hymns and responses are found in the missalette at your seat.

Opening Prayer

At the close of this first part of the Mass, the priest will ask us to join our minds in prayer and after a few moments of silence he will collect our intentions into one prayer to which we all respond “Amen” a Hebrew word for “so be it.”

Part Two: Storytelling

When we gather at a friend’s home for a meal, we always begin with a conversation, telling our stories.  At Mass, after the rites of gathering, we sit down and listen as readings from the Word of God are proclaimed.  They are the stories of God’s people.

Standing for the Gospel

Because of the unique presence of Christ in the proclamation of the Gospel, it has long been the custom to stand in attentive reverence to hear these words.  We believe that Christ is “present in His Word , since it is He Himself who speaks when the Holy Scriptures are read in the Church.” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy).  The Priest will again greet us with, “The Lord be with you.”  He then introduces the Gospel reading while marking a small cross on his forehead, lips and heart with his thumb while praying silently that God cleans his mind and his heart so that his lips may worthily proclaim the Gospel.  The congregation performs this ritual along with the priest .  The Gospel reading concludes with the ritual formula, “This is the Gospel of the Lord” and we respond “Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ,” again proclaiming our faith in the presence of the Christ in the Word.  Please be seated for the Homily.


“Homily” (which replaced the word “sermon” for many) is a new word for some non-Catholics.  It means more than just a sermon or talk about how we are to live or what we believe.  It is an act of worship rooted in the texts of the Mass and especially in the readings from the Scripture which have just been proclaimed.  The homily takes the Word and brings it to our life situation today.  Just as a large piece of bread is broken to feed individual persons, the Word of God must be broken open so it can be received and digested by the congregation.


The homily is often followed by a few moments of silence during which we each thank God for the word we have heard and apply the message to today’s readings to our daily living.  Then stand and together we recite the creed.  The creed is more than a list of things which we believe.  It is a statement of our faith in the word we have heard proclaimed in the Scripture and the homily, and a profession of faith that leads us to give our lives for one another as Christ gave his life for us.  Originally, the creed was the profession of faith of those about to be baptized at this point in the Mass.

General Intercessions

The Liturgy of the Word, our storytelling part of the Mass, comes to an end with the General Intercessions.  Before you leave your home to go out to eat, you might take a look in the mirror to see if you look the way you want to look — hair in place, coat buttoned correctly –and perhaps make a few adjustments so your mind’s image of yourself matches that in the mirror.  The General Intercessions serve a similar purpose at Mass.  We are the Body of Christ by Baptism.  Now as we prepare to approach the table of the Eucharist, we look into the readings, like a mirror, and ask. “Is that who we are?”  Does the Body of Christ pictured in this assembly resemble the Body of Christ pictured in the Scripture reading?  Usually not!  And so we make some adjustments; we pray that our assembly comes to look like the Body of Christ, a body at Peace, with shelter for the homeless, healing for the sick, food for the hungry.  We pray for the Church, nations and their leaders, people in special need and the local needs of our parish.  The petitions usually fall into these four categories…  A reader will announce the petitions, and we are usually given the opportunity to pray for the intentions in our heart, making some common aloud like “Lord Hear our Prayer.”

Part Three: Meal Sharing

The Eucharistic Prayer

The long prayer that follows brings us to the very center of the Mass and heart of our faith.  While the words of the prayer may vary from Sunday to Sunday, the prayer always has this structure: 1. we call upon God to remember all the wonderful saving deed of our history; 2. we recall the central event in our history, Jesus Christ, and particular the memorial he left us on the night before he died.  we recall his passion, death, and resurrection.  3. After gratefully calling to mind all the wonderful saving acts God has done for us in the past, we petition God to continue those deeds of Christ in the present.  We pray that we may become one body, one spirit in Christ.


The prayer begins with a dialogue between the leader and the assembly.   First the priest greets us with “The Lord be with you.”  He then asks if we are ready and willing to approach the table and to renew out baptismal commitment, offering ourselves to God: “Lift up your hearts.”  And we say that we are preapred to do so: “We lift them up to the Lord.”  We are invited to give thanks to the Lord our God.  And we respond “It is right and just.”  To give “thanks and praise” is translated in Greek to the verb Eucharist.