Everything in the Mass means something, from the structure of the Mass to the movements of the priest and ministers, and understanding this symbolism can help us to better understand the Mass, pray the Mass, and get something out of the Mass. A symbol, like a stop sign, is something that means something or points to something else. When you see a stop sign you know it means that you’re supposed to stop, but it doesn’t make you stop. Some symbols do seem to have power, though, like language. All language is symbolic because words point to something else; words mean things. When the president says, “I pardon John Doe of his crimes,” that sentence affects his legal status and makes him pardoned. When the priest says, “I absolved you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” it affects your soul and wipes away your sins. The symbols of the Mass, through the power of the Holy Spirit, make present the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Even the structure of the Mass is symbolic. The Mass starts with The Introductory Rites, continues with The Liturgy of the Word, goes into The Liturgy of the Eucharist, and finishes with The Concluding Rites. The Introductory Rites prepare us for the Mass. We begin with the sign of the Cross and then the priest greets the Church, saying, “The Lord be with you,” and they respond, “And with your spirit.” The greeting is both to remind us that the Lord is indeed with us and also to call the Lord down, which is why you respond by calling down the Lord upon my spirit as well. We continue with the Penitential Act by confessing our sinfulness and asking the Lord to have mercy on us three times. We must be purified of our sinfulness in order to worthily enter into the Mass. Finally, we sing or recite the Gloria, reminding us that the purpose of the Mass is for us to glorify the Lord.
The Liturgy of the Word and the Eucharist go together. We listen to the Word of God and hear the priest or deacon interpret it, encouraging us, calling us to repentance, and spurring us to action. The Word of God in the Bible prepares us to recognize and receive the Word of God present in the Eucharist. It puts us in the proper mindset or spiritual disposition to celebrate the Mystery of the Eucharist. These two parts of the Mass go all the way back to our Jewish roots. The Jewish people went to synagogues and to the Temple in Jerusalem. In the synagogue, the Scriptures were read and then the rabbi would interpret them for the people. In the Temple, the Jewish Levitical priests would offer the sacrifice. There were many different things offered in the Temple, like different grains, bulls, goats, doves and pigeons, and oxen, but the three most common offerings, which were offered every day, were unleavened bread, wine, and lambs. The points to Christ who is the Lamb of God and gives us His flesh in the form of unleavened bread and wine. Both the synagogue and Temple worship are present in the Mass, because the Liturgy of the Word is based on what they did in the synagogue and the Liturgy of the Eucharist replaces what they did in the Temple.
We finish by being blessed and sent forth to live what we have heard and received.
Fr. Bryan was pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes from July 3, 2017 to June 2022.