Ordinary of the Mass
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“They fell on their faces and were exceedingly afraid.”
Why might they have been afraid? In one of his
sermons, Pope Saint Leo the Great assured his listeners that the
transfiguration witnessed by Peter, James, and John was a manifestation of our
Lord’s glorified humanity rather than a vision of His divinity.
To the Jew of biblical times it was a commonplace that “no man could see God
and live.” Even Moses who was allowed to climb the mountain to meet
with God and receive His law, was not permitted to see His face. At
most, Moses was permitted a sideways glance at God’s back as God passed by
him—and even that required Moses to take shelter in a hole in the
rock—presumably a sort of “shielding” from the divine power.
On Moses’ return to the people, his own face gave off a brilliant light—so
brilliant that he had to place a veil over it lest the people be blinded when
he spoke to them.
The power of God was so overwhelming, and the respect due to Him by His people
so great, that the people were not allowed even to touch the mountain when God
was at its peak.
As they journeyed
through the desert, God was with them, leading them on. appearing as a pillar
of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.
This divine presence, known as the “Sheckinah—שכינה,” would eventually come to rest in the Holy of Holies the Temple at
Jerusalem. This Holy of Holies was a veiled enclosure, enclosed within a
larger veil. Only the high priest could enter, and even he, on only one
day of the year—the tenth day of the seventh month of the year.. He
was required to bathe, and then to vest in special linen vestments. The
Old Testament book of Leviticus outlines an elaborate procedure that must be
followed, with a number of ritual sacrifices, incensing, and the sprinkling of
blood. To enter into the Holy of Holies under any other circumstances
meant surely to die.
As Catholics, we
are not bound by laws that are quit so strict, nor are we threatened with
death if we fail to show the proper reverence when we come to the house of
God. But please do understand that God is as truly present in our
churches as He was on Mount Sinai, in the Temple of Jerusalem, or on Mount
Thabor in the Transfiguration. God is everywhere, but in all of these
events, we recognize a special, localized, physical presence.
This is true in our
churches because on the night before He died, our Lord took bread and wine,
and changed their substance into the substance of His own body and blood,
humanity and divinity. He related that His body and blood were being
given for the forgiveness of the sins of many. He gave His apostles the
power and the duty of doing likewise, whenever they did this same thing in His
memory. Within less than twenty-four hours He would be sacrificed on the
Cross, His blood being poured out for our sins.
But the power of
the Eucharist did not die with Him, for He would overcome death, and because
He had communicated this power to His apostles, who in turn would pass it on
to future generations of priests, who would reenact His Sacrifice, changing
the substance of bread and wine into His body and blood as He commanded at
that Last Supper. The appearances of bread and wine would remain, for
they are more palatable, and no one can look upon the divinity of God.
Now, in the earliest days of the Church, Mass was offered
with some degree of secrecy because of the persecutions which Christians faced
at the hands of the Jews and later the Romans. In Rome It was offered in
the underground cemeteries known as catacombs, for Roman law recognized these
burial grounds as sacred places where the visitors would go unmolested.
Where no catacomb was available, Mass was offered in private houses, most
likely with the location changing frequently to avoid detection. Yet, we
know that even in times of persecution, the Blessed Sacrament was reserved
privately for the Communion of the Sick. One could not go to a church to
visit our Lord, but the priest would retain some of the consecrated bread in a
secure place, so that no one would die without receiving our Lord in Holy
Communion. We know of at least one young man, Saint Tarcisius—a
deacon, or more probably an acolyte—who was caught bringing Communion to
condemned prisoners, and was willing to die rather than surrender the sacred
Hosts that he was carrying.
Christianity became legal in the Roman Empire, the Church began to have
dedicated buildings for the celebration of Mass. Quite naturally, this
led to public reservation of the Blessed Sacrament. In many churches
this was accomplished by having a dove shaped vessel to hold the consecrated
Hosts—the vessel was suspended by a rope or chain on a pulley, with the
other end of the rope passing through the wall to a locked room. The
people were able to see the dove shaped pyx whenever they came into the
church, and it could be lowered to the altar if it was necessary to distribute
Communion apart from Mass. Eventually this arrangement would give way to
a locked tabernacle on the main altar of the church.
Throughout the centuries the Church has always insisted
that the Blessed Sacrament be treated with the utmost reverence possible under
the prevailing circumstances. Only something like the need to avoid
persecution, or to guard our Lord from theft, might be allowed to change our
outward behavior toward the Sacrament. To treat our Lord’s body and
blood with anything less than the greatest possible respect would be to deny
our belief that they are truly present in sacred Host.
I mention this to you today because we live in an era in
which respect of any kind has become more and more rare—an era in which even
respect for the most Blessed Sacrament has fallen into decline. One
hears terrible stories—there certainly is no fear of
“touching the mountain” anymore! It is
very easy to adopt the bad habits of those around us who act as though the
Blessed Sacrament was something less than God himself.
You know all these things but let me give a few reminders:
We should be in the state of grace when we receive Holy
Communion. The means making a good Confession with some degree of
regularity, and making an even more regular examination of conscience so as to
be aware when we are in need of Confession.
We should be fasting. The modern law in this case
is trivial, but we are free to do better than required, and ought to do better
if at all possible. Most people who attend Mass in the morning are quite
capable of fasting according to tradition, from the previous evening.
Those who are ill, or who would become ill by fasting, are dispensed, but
still might fast to a lesser degree.
We should come to church presentable—clean, groomed,
and properly dressed. Particularly during the weekdays it is okay to
wear working clothes or uniforms—hopefully most can do better on Sundays.
We live in the tropics, so my suggestion for Sundays is that you dress as you
would if you were invited to the Governor’s house for lunch. Jesus
Christ is certainly more important, so that may be a minimum.
We should arrive at the church with time to spare,
perhaps to join in the Rosary or to go to Confession, or just simply to spend
a few minutes in recollection about the great Mysteries in which we are about
to participate and to partake. Likewise we should spend a few minutes
after Holy Communion, and after Mass, in recollection and thanksgiving.
The coffee won’t go away!
In church we are as quiet as possible.
People are in prayer, and we don't want to distract them or ourselves from
focusing on the Presence of our Lord on the altar. The church is no
place for unnecessary chatter--there is plenty of time to renew acquaintances
and make new ones after Mass.
In the Roman Rite we genuflect--kneel
briefly on the right knee--as a mark of respect for the Blessed
Sacrament. We should genuflect on entering and leaving the church, and
when passing close by the Blessed Sacrament. Since we kneel to receive
Holy Communion, it is not necessary to genuflect on approaching the Communion
rail. Those unable to genuflect should still offer some mark of respect,
a bow from the waist, or at least a bow of the head.
It is entirely
correct to look at the Blessed Sacrament when It is elevated after Its
consecration. It is elevated precisely so I may be seen, and the bell is
rung so that no one will be unaware. Likewise before the priest
distributes Holy Communion, he turns to the people saying “Ecce agnus
Dei—Behold the lamb of God....” “Behold” means precisely
If at all possible,
kneel at the Communion rail to receive. Those in wheel chairs or
otherwise unable to kneel will do the best they can. If anyone is
physically unable to get to the rail, he should get word to the priest before
Mass, and Communion will be brought to him. Be prepared to receive the
Host on the tongue. Don’t make the priest have to reach into your
Walk both to and
from the Communion rail with your hands folded, and with you mind intent on
the reality of the Presence of God in the Blessed Sacrament which you are
receiving. This is not the time to glance around and smile at
If, for some
reason, you are unable to receive Communion, even if only because you have
already received at an earlier Mass, make a “spiritual Communion” by
telling our Lord how much you desire to be close to Him, and how much you want
the graces to actually receive Him in the future.
In today’s Gospel
we read about the glorification of our Lord's humanity on Mount Thabor.
The Apostles “fell on their faces and they were exceedingly afraid,” lest,
even inadvertently, they might fail to render the respect and reverence due to
Almighty God. Resolve, henceforth, to receive his humanity and divinity frequently and
reverently in Holy Communion, so that some day you will have a share in
His glory in heaven.