“The vocation of the laity is to extend the action of the liturgy into the world.” This quote from a Russian theologian was cited at our recent directors’ meetings. I was happy to hear it, as in fact I have an entire parish mission I offer that is based on that idea.
The liturgy is not only a source of grace, a place of encounter with Christ in which we receive the food of our souls; the liturgy is also the very pattern of Christian life and discipleship in the world. Everything we need to know about how to live the Gospel can be found through a careful study of the rites of the Mass and their application to daily life.
And so I am inaugurating on the blog a new series, a commentary on the Mass, appearing on Thursdays (appropriately!), with a special care to show how each little bit of the Mass is to lived out in our lives. I will use the full Sunday Mass, which is the most complete expression of the liturgical movement. And so, without further ado:
The Entrance Procession. Before a word is spoken, there is movement. Prior to language and articulation, there is action. This is significant. I am a man of words (you may have noticed this), and so I myself need to be reminded of this continually—actions are prior, what we do has a priority over what we say.
The entrance procession is not simply a utilitarian thing – the priest and the servers are in the sacristy or at the back of the church, and need to get to the front of the church, and so they gotta walk there. If it were just that, they could position themselves in the sanctuary before the liturgy starts or simply move up in no particular order and without any ceremony.
No, it is a solemn procession, a motion from the body of the church to the sanctuary of the church. In its fullest expression there is a cross bearer, candle bearers, maybe even an incense bearer going at the front. The celebrant priest comes at the end. All of this is symbolic.
The basic symbolism here is that the body of the church, the nave, is earth; the sanctuary is heaven. Liturgy is entirely a matter of our earthly selves taken up into heaven; the heavenly realm come down to earth. All movements from nave to sanctuary and back again are signifying this heaven-earth, earth-heaven dance.
And so incense goes first—the prayers of God’s holy people crying out for heaven to be opened to us. The cross follows—it is Jesus’ self-offering there that opens heaven. Candle light follows that—it is the glorious light of the Risen Christ that is our guiding light to heaven in this world. The priest comes at the end, symbolizing Christ the head of the body entering heaven to draw in all his mystical body (the assembled people) into the heavenly mystery.
All of this is accompanied by music, hopefully joyous and beautiful, hopefully solemn and dignified in its joy, to signify that this is true Christian happiness—that our lives are perpetually borne upwards, to the realm of light and love where God dwells with the angels and saints.
Upon entering heaven, I mean the sanctuary, with solemn bows and genuflections, the priest venerates the altar and goes to his chair. The veneration of the altar signifies an act of reverent love for the mystery to be celebrated at this sacred table. The man who is the priest venerates the Christ who is symbolized by the altar, the Christ who is the place of the sacrifice that is pleasing to God. Christ in the priest embraces the Father’s will which is to lay down his life for His people.
How do we extend this into our lives? By cultivating in ourselves an awareness that our whole life is but a journey from earth to heaven. In the past fifty years in our church culture, there has been a deliberate effort to weaken this awareness. I find it incomprehensible and just plain wrong that this is so.
No matter how you look at it, with the best medical care and the best of luck and healthy living, you and I are going to live to be at best 100 years old, give or take a few years. Most of us, considerably less. I am more than half way through the journey, personally. Life is short, very short. Eternity is very, very long. Forever long. The whole of our life and everything in it is nothing more and nothing less than the entrance procession of the Mass, if we are doing it right (life, that is).
The constant cry of our heart to God to lead us to a successful ending—incense going up. The Cross of the Lord going at the head—laying down the path of sacrificial love and obedience to God in this world. The light of the Resurrection coming behind it, our sure hope and encouragement that this is the way to walk—don’t lose heart. And Christ Himself in the procession with us, the God who does not just stay up in heaven waiting for us, but who comes Himself to walk before us and bring us there.
And the veneration of the altar—to not just ‘do’ God’s will grudgingly with a poor spirit, but to love God’s will, to embrace it, to know that our joining Him on that altar, our entry into His Mystery, is not just a life of suffering and sorrow, but a life of love and communion. Our whole life is encapsulated in this movement, and we can see how even this simplest and wordless rite of the Mass holds the entire pattern of Christian life. All of which will become even more clear as we proceed with the Mass… next Thursday.