Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Extraordinary Form: The Kyrie and Gloria

What we cover today is one of the oldest aspects of any liturgy. After reciting the Introit, the priest returns to the center of the altar, and says the Kyrie: a triple repetition of the phrase Kyrie Eleison, followed by triple repetitions of Christe Eleison, then another Kyrie. Translated, it is the statements Lord Have Mercy, Christ Have Mercy, Lord have Mercy. In a symbolism of the Holy Trinity, all three persons are addressed three times.

Many will say that this is an imploring of the Trinity for the forgiveness of sins. While true in a certain sense, a deeper meaning is missed. In the Confiteor, we asked for the forgiving of our sins and everlasting life. To limit this simply to asking for forgiveness would be a pointless repetition. To better understand the real importance of the plea, a little bit of background is needed.

In the early days of Christianity and the liturgy, the dominating cultural influence was the Roman Empire. The Empire was led by Caesar. As the Empire grew and strengthened, Caesar started taking on quasi-divine (in the case of Julius Caesar) to divine attributes even during their life. The very honorific of Augustus implied divinity. As the cult surrounding the Emperor grew (especially in the Eastern parts of the Empire), people began to declare “Caesar Kyros!”, or Caesar is Lord. The Kyrie became an imploring for Caesar’s favor towards the person making it.

As we have seen in earlier parts of our discussion, the beginning of the Mass has a very strong structure between it: unlike the nations, we have chosen God to rule over our lives and hearts. I submit it is this context in which the Kyrie is best understood. Like the world, we implore whom we believe to be our Deity for favor. Yet we explicitly invoke Christ as the Lord and King of creation. In addition to being forgiven of our sins, we ask that Christ’s favor fall upon us. To have the favor of the God and King of creation is a great blessing indeed.

As a confidence of the reception of that favor, the priest then intones the Gloria. During a High Mass, he chants”Gloria in Excelsis Deo.” After receiving God’s favor, it is only fitting that we acknowledge this fact by giving him that glory. His favor does not rest on us through our own merits. If we could accomplish this by our own merits, there would be no reason to implore his favor. There would be no need of even coming to Mass if we could do everything on our own merits.

Once the Gloria is intoned, the statement et in terra pax homnibus, bonae voluntatis is used. Modern translations have rendered this “and peace to his people on earth”, which can barely even be called a transliteration. It is more a simple imagination. The actual text implies far more.

The Latin could be roughly translated as “and on earth peace be to men of good will.” Note well what is said there. In order to receive God’s favor, one must be of good will. A baptized Christian, by virtue of his baptism, is one of “God’s people.” Yet we know that God does not just grant his favor to anybody. You must be properly disposed to receive that favor. You cannot claim God’s favor and live a life of sin. Keeping with the overall flow of the Mass, we can only be of “good will” if we recognize our dependence on God, and choose to serve Him. To all who proclaim Christe Eleison with a sincere heart and a desire to serve God, He will grant them His favor. We say it aloud as proof of that claim. Anyone can claim to wish to serve God privately. The liturgy demands that such a declaration occur in public.

Filled with this knowledge, let us always be of that good will.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Extraordinary Form: Why Incense?

What I am covering today is something that sadly many will not get to see when they attend the Extraordinary Form. This is the inclusion of incense into the Mass, and the various prayers assorted with it. As a result, I will be somewhat jumping around throughout the liturgy for this piece.

Many mock incense as part of the empty “smells and bells” of the Catholic faith: a religion so focused on externals, they have forgotten the deeply internal relationship the soul is called to have with God. With this line of thought, those making this claim have introduced a separation which is central in our faulty understanding of the liturgy.

In short, it separates the liturgy from the Incarnation. When incense is first used in the Mass, the priest prays Be blessed by Him in whose honour thou art burnt. The Mass is not just a worship involving the mind, or even just of the person. All of creation is offered in the service of God, since He created everything. This was the purpose of the Incarnation. Through Christ becoming man, He would draw all that was created back to the Father. Man was given dominion over the created order, and inevitably used that created order for the worship of himself instead of God. This prayer at the Mass is a reversal of this trend. To worship with the mind alone is not sufficient. We worship with our mind, soul, and body, and all that they create.

At this point, the incense, blessed by God, consecrates that which is holy to God. The original meaning of “holy” is that which is set apart, dedicated to one sole purpose. During Mass, we see the altar, the Gospel, and even ourselves incensed. It is a reminder of our original calling in this world (to know, love, and worship God) and that we are called to that original calling above all else.

The offering of incense also carries numerous other symbolic overtones. When the incense is burned, the smoke rises towards the heavens. In the Old Testament, the Psalmist prays that his prayer may be directed as “incense in Thy sight.” The Apocalypse of St. John tells us that in heaven, the incense rising to God is the prayer of the Saints. We are meant to follow that incense in elevating our minds above the things which are passing, and towards that which is eternal.

The mass also treats incense as part of an exchange. When incense is used during the Offertory, the priest says:

May this incense, which Thou has blessed, O Lord, ascend to Thee, and may Thy mercy descend upon us.
The offering of incense is ultimately a sign of confidence. When we offer everything we have to God, holding nothing back, He will not withhold His mercy. He will grant all that we need and desire when we fulfill the purpose for which we were originally created.

Finally, the flame that burns the incense is compared to God’s love:

May the Lord enkindle within us the fire of His love, and the flame of everlasting charity. Amen.
Here we are reminded of the cleansing power of God. The writer of the Hebrews refers to God as a “consuming fire.” The flame which burns the incense directs what is left of it (the smell) towards heaven. The consuming fire of God’s love burns away the impurities of our souls, and raises us to Heaven, our true home.

As one can see, far from creating a barrier to the internal relationship with God, the use of such things as incense is a powerful reminder of that calling. In the Mass, the Church uses all of creation and what it represents not only in God’s service, but in a powerful sign that directs us to God. It should then be no surprise that our current Pope once complained that the majority of Catholics “worship themselves” instead of Christ at Mass. In many of these Churches, they have done away with the “smells and bells.”

Like the smoke which rises, may we always be focused on our eternal calling and home.