The Hebrew Scripture prophet Ezekiel is inspired in this coming Sunday’s first reading to compare the Kingdom of God to a mighty cedar tree which will “put forth branches and bear fruit.” That tree will become a “majestic cedar.” The seer envisions that “birds of every kind shall dwell beneath it, every winged thing in the shade of its boughs.” The image of this expansive tree with its many diverse branches offering support and shelter to “every winged thing” recalls the mighty and manifold structure of our Catholic Mass which offers the faithful not only edification but also instruction on what being a Catholic truly entails. David W. Fagerberg, theology professor at Notre Dame, author of the recent book, Liturgical Mysticism, underlines the educational value of the Catholic liturgy when he writes quite succinctly: “We don’t go to Mass because we are Catholic; we are Catholic because we go to Mass.” The outline, the structure, the framework itself of the Mass is an instruction on what it means to be a full, practicing Catholic.
Mass is first of all celebrated in community. Believers join together. Prayers are said in unison. Hymns are sung. Celebrant and congregation join in dialogue. To be Catholic is to be a member of a community, a parish, a church, a people. But, in spite of a noble calling, Catholics are a sinful people in need of confession and repentance, as the “I confess” and “Lord, have mercy” remind the worshipper from the start. But Catholics also are a people of praise, joyfully singing the “Glory to God” in laud and honor before God. The collects, the gathered prayers of the people, several times during Mass, ensure worshippers that prayers to God are welcomed and heard.
The Service of the Word, certainly a substantial element of the Mass, highlights the importance of the Sacred Scriptures in Catholic life. The Old Testament histories, prophets, psalms and wisdom books and certainly the Gospel accounts and letters of the New Testament are both inspiring and instructive. Catholics have a long way to go truly to become a biblically conversant people. The Mass is happily there daily recalling this noble obligation. The lofty notions revealed in the Scripture are made accessible through the celebrant’s homily and also through the recitation of the ancient and esteemed phrases of the Creed.
The Service of the Word concludes with the general intercessions, bidding prayers, which invoke God’s blessing on Church and civic leaders, on families and friends, on the sick and the elderly, on the neglected and the needy, and on all the departed faithful. The structure of the Mass thus reaches out to the broader community, reminding all of the wideness of God’s mercy and the centrality of mercy and justice in the Christian message.
The presentation of gifts by the laity and the preparation of gifts, preferably by a deacon, for the sacrifice are quite instructive sections in the framework of the Mass. Lay persons appropriately present the gifts of bread and wine “which the earth has given and human hands have made.” The vital workweek of the lay congregation is thus assimilated into the liturgy, visibly and tangibly highlighting lay contribution to Church life. The deacon then prepares the sacred vessels, the paten with the bread and the chalice with the wine, recalling that every Mass is a communal meal, a banquet shared by all the faithful.
The Eucharistic Prayer, the canon of the Mass, recalls and renews the original sacrificial meal celebrated by Christ himself on Holy Thursday, anticipating his salvific death on Good Friday and looking forward to his resurrected glory on Easter Sunday. The assembled congregation roundly affirms the action of the priest with their solemn and hearty “AMEN!” at the canon’s end. The perennial sacrificial nature of the Mass is plainly taught and acknowledged.
The Communion Rite truly joins all the celebrants — clergy and lay — together first by the common acknowledgment of God’s Fatherhood in the Lord’s Prayer, then certainly by the exchange of peace just before Communion, and then sacramentally through the common reception of Christ’s saving body and blood in the Eucharist. The communal nature of Christianity is patently taught and ritually experienced.
Even the dismissal rite, “Go forth, the Mass is ended!” is an instructive reminder to spread the faith, to live out the Christian mysteries outside of church as well as in the assembly. Indeed, intelligent participation in the Mass can make the believer into a better, fuller, perceptive Catholic!