February 16, 2014 – 6th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Cycle A)
In today’s Gospel we hear Jesus tell us: ‘Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.’; His comment to the group listening points out how important worship is to them. The discussion is a powerful reminder to them about the importance of being prepared for worship, the necessity of proper disposition and attitude when presenting oneself to God in a Temple service – for us that would be Mass. Worship, is about interior preparation that leads to a proper disposition and actual participation.
The Vatican II fathers used the Latin phrase ‘participatio actuosa’; some translate it ‘active participation’ others translate it ‘actual participation’ – both highlight important aspects of the phrase. In my view, because the English language reverses the words it removes the importance of the phrase; or rather changes the paradigm. When we define first: ‘participation’ we can then properly flow to the second word ‘active’ with a correct perspective, disposition.
Participation, in the sense of the Mass, refers to a primary action that we are part of. What is it that we are participating in? And of course it is the Eucharistic Prayer, the ‘Opus Dei’ (Work of God) of Christ; Jesus prayer to the Father in words and action; His Pasch, His passion death and resurrection in obedience to the Father and for our salvation.
Now, it is obvious that the true Eucharistic Sacrifice is Christ’s gift of Himself to the Father; so what is our part? How do we participate? It is our prayer. To actually participate in the Mass, we need to be actively praying along with Christ. Our preparation for Mass as well as our disposition in the Mass is one of prayer; we are attaching our prayers of thanksgiving, of petition, of forgiveness, of mercy, of penance, of everything to those of Christ as He offers His whole being to the Father.
I think it bears repeating; our actual participation in the Mass, that makes us active within Christ’s sacrifice to the Father, is our prayer. Now, of course there are some who are called to ‘do things’ in the Mass and that is laudable, or as the Church likes to phrase it ‘praise worthy’; but when it comes down to it, the most important thing we do is pray. And as with any important activity we need to train ourselves; as I said earlier place ourselves in the proper disposition, so that our hearts and minds are in tune with the prayer of Christ.
Holy Mother Church recognizes this and knows that the Mass needs to facilitate our being able to place ourselves in the right frame of mind. The actions in the Mass not only reveal to us the powerful aspects of the liturgy but always help us center in on the active participation of our prayer. By coming to understand why the church has structured the Liturgy the way she does is not only a study in the history of revelation but it is a means to deepen our relation with the Holy Trinity. If someone thinks that our liturgical actions are more or less just choreography then their participation will be more of passive spectatorship. If, on the other hand, someone strives to understand why we do what do at Mass then their participation will become deeper, fuller, more active in what is actually happening; and by means of this deeper participation our personal relationship with God deepens.
I would like to point out three aspects of the Mass as examples:
1 The Altar
The Mass revolves around two centers, the Ambo where we hear proclaimed God’s Word, and the Altar. You have all noticed that the clergy come up to the Altar and kiss it. Why? Because the Altar represents Jesus Christ Himself; above any other symbolism that can be given to the Altar this is preeminent. We don’t reverence a table, we reference a person. It is always interesting to me to listen to people talk about the altar. One of the most telling differences in comments is when someone describes adding an altar cloth as decorating the Altar, while others describe that action as dressing the Altar. We decorate a thing, we dress a person. We should look at the Altar as the clergy do when they kiss it – they kiss Christ, they reverence our Lord who is about to perform the great Opus Dei (work of God), for us, and with us to the Father.
2 The Collect
In the Liturgy, after the greeting and the penitential rite we participate in the Collect. Most probably know it by the misleading title of ‘Opening Prayer’. It is called the Collect because of what is said just prior to it. We hear Father announce ‘Let us pray’. This is not an alert for the Altar Server to bring the big red book to him; it is a call for everyone to quietly gather their thoughts and prayers together to offer them along with our Lord’s offering. There should be time between the call to prayer and the Collect. The Collect does what the name says – it collects the congregation’s prayers and through the priest, by means of this prayer, they are offered upward to God the Father. For me, the term Opening Prayer almost sounds like Opening Act and it makes me feel like we are passive viewers whereas the term Collect calls us to active participation.
3 The Bow-less Creed
I must be honest with you, sometimes I cheat during the Creed. I look up to see how many people bow at the words ‘by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man’ Holy Mother Church thinks that this little action is very important, it is right there in the Missalette. The Incarnation is that important; we who are undeserving of this gift, should bow at the thought of God coming to us. But, in my peeking at you I notice that about as many don’t bow as do. The idea of the bow should be spontaneous for those who have come to participate in Christ’s sacrifice – we recognize our unworthiness for this gift and we humble ourselves for it.
So, three examples of aspects of the Mass that, depending on our understanding, affect our disposition and thus affect our participation; three examples out of the many aspects of the Mass that depending on our understanding can deepen our relationship with God. My prayer for all of us is that we renew our effort to come to a better understanding of the Mass so that we can then participate worthily in Christ’s action to the Father for us.