A typical Sunday morning before mass in a lively parish these days is full of frenzy. Some parishes try to calm things down with a little music and maybe some focused praise and worship, which is admirable. I’ve noticed that Extraordinary Mass parishes tend to be quite quiet, but intensely so, perhaps with a pre-mass public rosary and some quiet tones puffed out from the organ before the Bell rings and people stand at attention.
The idea of preparing for mass as if getting ready for something truly grand is accentuated within the rubrics itself in the old rites. Before the priest formally goes up to the altar to kiss it and begin, the ministers and servers start by reciting the “preparatory prayers at the foot of the altar”. The priest humbly bows at the altar publicly to contrast the smallness of his humanity with the greatness of the Presence of God that will be on the altar a short while later.
In the Dominican Rite, the priest says the “Actiones Nostras” which is a simple prayer that God will help the celebrant:
We beseech You O Lord to precede our actions with Your inspiration and accompany them with Your help, that all of our works may begin with you and having been started, finished through You.
A humble prayer indeed, reminding the priest and the people that God works through us in the sacred liturgy.
In the Roman Rite, there is a slightly longer prayer based on Psalm 42, said in alternation with the servers:
I will go in unto the altar of God. To God who giveth joy to my youth. Judge me, O God, and distinguish my cause against an ungodly nation: O deliver me from the unjust and deceitful man: for Thou art my God and my strength. Send out Thy light and Thy truth: they have led me and brought me unto Thy holy hill, even unto Thy tabernacles.
Here, the parallel of ascending to the altar and ascending the holy mountain conjures up images of Moses ascending the mountain to receive the Law from God, or the disciples ascending the Mount to hear Jesus’ key teachings, or witness His transfiguration. In all cases, the office of the priest is guarded against any pride in that he must continually rely on God’s grace to start and continue the mass.
If that’s not enough, in both rites, the priest then says the “I Confess” on his own with the deacon, subdeacon and servers, on behalf of the people, responding with the prayer for mercy “May Almighty God have mercy on you…” and then they alternate, which completes the humbling reminder to the entire community of our sinfulness, our contrition and gratitude for God’s forgiveness. Only after this prayer of confession and purification is concluded does the priest then climb up the steps to the altar as he prepares to enter the sacred mysteries of the Mass.
The aesthetics of this give us a lot to reflect on when we know what is happening. A similar idea is meant to be conveyed in the penitential rite of the Novus Ordo, but sometimes it feels as if the significance of the symbolism has been lessened by the elimination of these prayers. Without manipulating the rubrics of the Mass, I wonder if it would help set the right tone for a community for the people to prepare privately for mass with these prayers, and for the priest and the servers to pray this together in the sacristy before the opening procession, so as to protect them from the hubbub of the pre-mass frenzy.
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