The month of January is the time of year when people hit the proverbial “reset button.” Whether it’s a resolution to lose weight, exercise more or save money, a new year is an opportunity for us to focus on new beginnings. As we begin this new year, let us take a moment to think about how the celebration of each Mass begins by examining the Introductory Rites.
‘When the people are gathered’
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) — the document which instructs us on how to celebrate the Eucharist — describes the Introductory Rites as having the character of a beginning, introduction or preparation. Their purpose is to gather the community together and prepare them to listen to the Word of God and to celebrate the Eucharist.
The current Order of Mass begins with the rubric, “When the people are gathered …” In Latin, that is Populo congregato. It replaced a rubric from the Order of Mass before the Second Vatican Council, which began with Sacerdos paratus or, “When the priest is ready …” While this may seem like an insignificant detail, it directs our attention to participation of the people as called for by the Second Vatican Council.
The word “gathered” is significant because “gathering” implies something more than just “showing up” or “being present.” When we come together for worship, we gather for a purpose. The very nature of Christian worship creates community, builds relationships among parishioners and provides hospitality to visitors. Worship also celebrates cultural and intergenerational diversity, creates leadership roles among the laity, and serves to form, heal, reconcile and nourish the faithful.
Once gathered, Mass begins with a song meant to foster the formation of a community at worship. Singing has always been an important element of Christian worship. The Last Supper was concluded with a hymn. Paul and Silas sang hymns while they were in prison. In the early second century, the Roman lawyer Pliny the Younger sent a letter to Emperor Trajan describing the habits of Christians, one of which was singing a hymn to Christ.
The GIRM 47 reads: “The purpose of this chant is to open the celebration, foster the unity of those who have been gathered, introduce their thoughts to the mystery of the liturgical season or festivity, and accompany the procession of the priest and ministers.”
The Entrance Song ideally should never be omitted, not even during penitential seasons of Advent and Lent. Since music is a primary way in which the people actively participate, singing an opening hymn begins the Mass on a strong note. If the Mass begins strong and with full, conscious and active participation of the people, that participation of the people will continue throughout the liturgy until the final blessing and dismissal.
Sign of the Cross
The Sign of the Cross entered devotional practice among Christians as early as Tertullian (d. 220); however, its occurrence at the beginning of Mass dates to the 14th century. Once entirely assigned to the priest, who made the gesture while reciting the words himself, today, the words to the Sign of the Cross are the first words spoken by the priest and people in dialogue form, with the people answering “Amen.”
When greeting the people at the beginning of Mass, the priest extends the liturgical greeting, “The Lord be with you.” This greeting is inspired by the Gospel of Luke, when the angel Gabriel greets Mary at the Annunciation.
When a bishop greets the people, he says, “Peace be with you,” a greeting used by the risen Christ. Pope Innocent (d. 1180) was the first to assign this greeting to bishops as the vicars of Christ, using the words Christ spoke to the disciples after the Resurrection.
The people’s response, “And with your spirit,” is based on the conclusion of four of Paul’s letters, where he prays that the Lord will be with the spirit of those who receive his letters. He says goodbye to these communities with a spiritual appeal, not a sentimental one.
The next element in the Introductory Rites is the Penitential Act, which is a form of general confession of our sinfulness. Once gathered, the first liturgical act for the people is to approach God; however, to do that, we must consider our unworthiness. As Psalm 24:3-4 says, “Who shall ascend the mount of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts.”
Throughout Scripture, the pure and the just are not the ones who are sinless but rather, those who recognize their sins. This helps us to understand invitation to the Penitential Act: “… let us acknowledge our sins, and so prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries.” This acknowledgement of our own sinfulness is the first act we are called to do once gathered in God’s presence.
Once made pure by God’s mercy in the Penitential Act, the liturgical assembly is now worthy to worship with the singing of the Glory to God. Here, we express our intention to carry out the act of worship in its totality by evoking the five fundamental “worship-verbs” of the Bible: “We praise you, we bless you, we adore you, we glorify you, we give you thanks for your great glory.”
The Gloria completes what is known liturgically as the “triple confession,” that is, our confession or acknowledgment of God’s presence, our sin and God’s glory.
What follows is the Collect — a prayerful synthesis of all of that has happened thus far. It is the time that the assembly turns to the Lord and calls on him. The Collect brings the Introductory Rites to their logical conclusion. Once the Assembly has gathered in song, signed themselves with the cross, greeted one another in Christ, acknowledged their unworthiness and praised God, it is now time to pray. The word “collect” may have originally referred to as the gathering of the people, but it is actually a gathering of the prayers of the people, gathered as one community of faith.