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Introductory Rites: Reverence to the Altar and Greeting of the Assembled People
As the entrance hymn continues the sacred ministers approaching the altar to venerate it with a bow (or genuflection if the Blessed Sacrament is present) followed by a kiss. In a place where the tabernacle is present, they genuflect, but during the celebration of the Eucharist, the altar is the focal point, since the altar symbolizes Christ and is where he’ll come down in the hands of the priest.
An altar is a threshold between the human and the divine: as an altar, it is where a sacrifice is performed and offered to God; like a banquet table it is where the human and divine come together for a heavenly banquet in order to grow in communion. Christ himself, true God and man, is our threshold between the human and the divine. He sacrifices himself to reconcile us with God and also becomes the food of our banquet. Through his humanity, we are drawn into communion with God.
The reverence shown toward the altar also reminds us that it is one thing to venerate something or someone, showing respect toward them because, in this case, of their relationship to something divine, and another to worship. We treat sacred things with respect because they remind us and help us connect to God. When we kiss a rosary before and after using it, or pray before the image of a saint, we are using those sacred things (and, in the case of the saints, sacred people) to help us establish a connection with God. Sacred things are reserved for sacred purposes; many of the things we use in the celebration of the Eucharist are blessed for sacred use, and they should be treated with respect. Everything that helps us connect to God is worthy of respect.
“In the Name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”
The priest or bishop celebrating Mass invokes the Most Holy Trinity, and the faithful make the Sign of the Cross as he does. God is the one who determines what is fitting worship, and by invoking him we are reminding ourselves that we are celebrating the Eucharist in response to the Lord’s command to do so in memory of him at the Last Supper. Worship doesn’t just remain with the Son; it is addressed to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. Our Lord is our mediator before God, and through the Holy Spirit, this mediation continues throughout the centuries and is also made possible through sacred ministers ordained for this purpose.
As the post-synodal exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis reminds us, the Eucharist is a free gift of the Blessed Trinity: “The Eucharist reveals the loving plan that guides all of salvation history (cf. Ephesians 1:10; 3:8–11). There the Deus Trinitas, who is essentially love (cf. 1 John 4:7–8), becomes fully a part of our human condition. In the bread and wine under whose appearances Christ gives himself to us in the paschal meal (cf. Luke 22:14–20; 1 Corinthians 11:23–26), God’s whole life encounters us and is sacramentally shared with us. God is a perfect communion of love between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. At creation itself, man was called to have some share in God’s breath of life (cf. Genesis 2:7). But it is in Christ, dead and risen, and in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, given without measure (cf. John 3:34), that we have become sharers of God’s inmost life ” (n.8).
Jesus is the true lamb who takes away the sins of the world and, through his blood, establishes a new and eternal covenant (cf. n.9). He has instituted the Eucharist and asked us to celebrate it in memory of him: “The institution of the Eucharist demonstrates how Jesus’ death, for all its violence and absurdity, became in him a supreme act of love and mankind’s definitive deliverance from evil” (n.10). In him, the worship of the Israelites passes from a foreshadowing into truth itself (cf. n.11). Jesus through the Eucharist thanks the Father for all the events of salvation history and also for his own “exaltation” on the Cross (cf. n.10), therefore the Eucharist is always directed toward the Father.
It is thanks to the Holy Spirit that the way in which we celebrate the Eucharist took shape throughout history. The Spirit has enabled us to grasp its mystery more profoundly. The Spirit will help us achieve a deeper understanding of the sacred mysteries if we desire it (cf. n. 12), just as the Spirit accompanied Christ throughout his earthly ministry and continues to accompany us. The bread and wine in Mass would not become the Body and Blood of Christ if the Holy Spirit were not present and active. When we feel a little lost in all the symbolism and prayer of the Eucharist we can always fall back upon simply asking the Holy Spirit to help us ground ourselves in the sacred mystery in which we are participating.
We make the Sign of the Cross whenever we begin a prayer. The entire liturgy is prayer, and we begin it as we would other prayers, giving testimony that we are praying in God’s name. This is the best way to acknowledge that a sacred action is about to commence.
“The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all…”
In these words, the sacred minister greets the faithful and prays that they are in communion with God, through Jesus Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit. The celebration of the Eucharist is meant to help us to grow in communion with each other and with God. Through this greeting, the sacred minister is inviting us to express our faith in the communion we share with each other and with God.
The people’s response, “and with your spirit” has an interesting history. It’s only in the latest English translation of the Roman Missal that this expression, drawn from the original Latin, has been translated literally as in other countries who celebrate in the Romance languages that are often more directly derived from Latin. What spirit is referred to here? This response is only directed to sacred ministers, those who have received the sacrament of Holy Orders; in other liturgical gatherings, such as a Communion service or recitation of the Divine Office, in the absence of a sacred minister, this response is substituted by another one.
The dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, teaches that the apostles received a gift of the Holy Spirit that they then communicated to their successors through the laying on of hands. Their successors, the bishops, in turn communicated this gift of the Holy Spirit to those who participated in mission they’d inherited from the apostles: “For the discharging of such great duties, the apostles were enriched by Christ with a special outpouring of the Holy Spirit coming upon them, and they passed on this spiritual gift to their helpers by the imposition of hands, and it has been transmitted down to us in Episcopal consecration. … by means of the imposition of hands and the words of consecration, the grace of the Holy Spirit is so conferred, and the sacred character so impressed, that bishops in an eminent and visible way sustain the roles of Christ Himself as Teacher, Shepherd, and High Priest, and that they act in His person” (n.21). The bishops, in turn, have also handed on degrees of their participation in the apostolic ministry to priests and deacons (cf n.28).
The “spirit” the faithful are acknowledging in response to the celebrant’s greeting is the presence of the Holy Spirit in their actions, and, through the Holy Spirit, a participation in the apostolic ministry that Christ himself entrusted to the apostles who, in turn, entrusted it to their successors. Through our bishops we are united in communion to the other dioceses throughout the world, but also to the other “dioceses” throughout history, all the way back to the apostles and to Christ himself. We are united in Communion with God and with the whole Church throughout history.
When we gather in worship we enter into the celebration by renewing our awareness that we are part of something much greater, not just globally, but historically. Cradle Catholics are reminded that their parents, and grandparents, and ancestors in the faith are still in communion with them, and through communion with God in worship that communion will continue from here to eternity. Those who have come into the Catholic Church more recently are not left out; by entering into the Church through baptism they are also welcomed into this communion and become part of a great heritage of faith and love.