‘Behold, the Lamb of God’: Liturgy of the Eucharist

Vladimir Mauricio-Perez

This article is the fourth in a series to help the faithful experience Mass in a deeper way than ever before. Click the links below to read the first three parts, and be sure to subscribe to our e-newsletter to make you sure you don’t miss the rest!

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Introductory Rites

Part 3: Liturgy of the Word

After hearing God’s word triumphantly proclaimed in the “first table” of the Mass, the Liturgy of the Word, we enter into the “second table” of the Mass, and consequently the high point of the entire Mass, the Liturgy of the Eucharist. This is where the sacrifice of Christ on the cross is once again made present through the Eucharist. Jesus does not physically die each time during Mass, but we are taken to that crucial moment in history, to his death and resurrection. At this moment, acting in the person of Christ, the priest consecrates the bread and wine, and these truly become the Body and Blood of Christ that we later receive in the communion.

Preparation of the gifts

Here begins what is normally called “The Offertory,” in which the bread and wine are carried in procession to the altar. This symbolizes the offer of oneself and of our efforts of the week to God, or, as it is said in the Mass, “Fruit of the earth/fruit of the vine and human work”. At this time, the passing of the collection basket is also carried out, which represents not just giving money to support the parish, but also thanking God for the gifts received.

Water and wine

The priest takes the chalice, pours wine, and then adds a little water. The wine symbolizes the divinity of Christ and the water, his humanity: his two natures that mix without him ceasing to be one person. It also means that we are called to participate in the divine life of Jesus in our humanity by receiving his Body and Blood.

Handwashing

The priest washes his hands to symbolize that something very important is about to happen and also because it represents the purity and cleanliness of heart that a person needs to have to get closer to God, who will soon be present in the Eucharist. This tradition was already present among the Levitical priests and is reflected in Psalm 24:3-4:“Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place? The one who has clean hands and a pure heart”.

Prayer over the offerings

Everyone stands up with the priest’s invitation to prayer:

“Pray, brothers and sisters, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father.” The priest says “my sacrifice and yours.” In other words, although the priest offers the sacrifice in person of Christ to the Father, the faithful are not mere spectators: they are too called to give themselves completely to the Father with their jobs, works, sacrifices, etc., and thus participate in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross “for our good and all his holy Church.”

Eucharistic prayer

Preface

This prayer concludes the offertory and leads us to the consecration. It begins with a dialogue between the priest and the people and continues with a special prayer and the “Holy, Holy, Holy”.

“THE LORD BE WITH YOU”

This significant phrase is repeated so that we realize the importance of what is about to happen and so that God gives us grace to understand this mystery.

“LIFT UP YOUR HEARTS”

Around the year 250 A.D., Saint Cyprian commented about these words of the Mass:

“Let all the carnal and human thoughts disappear; at that moment do not let the soul think of anything other than the sole purpose of its prayer”.

“LET US GIVE THANKS TO THE LORD OUR GOD”

“It is right and just.” People reply. Indeed! Because despite our sins and our lack of love, Christ has given himself out of love for us and has remained in the Eucharist for our salvation.

“HOLY, HOLY, HOLY LORD GOD OF HOSTS…”

During this acclamation, we become aware of what is happening at Mass. With these words taken from the visions of the prophet Isaiah (Is 6:3) and Saint John (Rev 4:8), we realize that the angels and saints sing this hymn in heaven, and we join them: heaven and earth unite. We also repeat the words that the crowds used to greet Jesus in Jerusalem: “Hosanna!” (Mt 11:9); we are receiving the King who is about to make himself present in the Eucharist.

The Consecration

The congregation kneels when the priest lays his hands over the bread and wine, asking for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on those gifts, and says a prayer. Then, the priest says the words of consecration: “Take this, all of you, and eat of it, for this is my body, which will be given up for you…” then he does the same with wine.

Mass and the Jewish Passover

But to understand these words we have to see them through the Jewish Passover, a holiday that celebrates the freedom of the People of God from slavery in Egypt (Ex 12). God commanded the Israelites to sacrifice an unblemished lamb, spread its blood on their doorframe to free them from the plague, and eat it, along with unleavened bread. The lamb, the blood and the bread were the main elements.

Jesus, the true “Lamb of God”

The Last Supper (the day in which Christ pronounced the words of consecration that the priest still recites during Mass) took place during the Jewish Passover celebration (Mt 26:19; Mk 14:16; Lk 22:13). But Christ did something unexpected. The Scriptures never mention a lamb at the Last Supper. Instead, Jesus speaks of his own body and his own blood “which will be poured out for you.” Jesus presents himself as the true lamb that is going to be sacrificed! The lamb, the bread and the blood now refer to Jesus: the sacrificed lamb is him, the bread is his body and the wine is his blood. When speaking of his sacrifice, Jesus is speaking of his death on the cross.

Mass, the New Passover celebration

Thus the Mass becomes the celebration of the “New Passover”. We realize that the freedom from slavery in Egypt was foreshadow of the true freedom Christ would bring: freedom from sin and death, through his death and resurrection.

That is why Jesus in the Eucharist truly touches our life, our problems, our joys, our sorrows … He has stayed to transform us, to free us from the slavery of sin and give us the true freedom that can only be found in him, to lead us to fulfillment that begins here and completes in heaven.

Besides giving himself to us completely, Christ makes us partakers of his salvation plan. In the Eucharist, the faithful are also called to unite their sufferings, their work, their praise and their prayer to those of Christ as an offering for the salvation of the world (CCC 1368).

COMING UP: The Liturgy of the Word: The Lord speaks to his people

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

This article is the third in a series to help the faithful experience Mass in a deeper way than ever before. Read the other parts at the links below and subscribe to our e-newsletter to make you sure you don’t miss the rest!

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Introductory Rites
Part 4: Liturgy of the Eucharist

Following the Introductory Rites of the Mass, when the faithful are invited to enter a proper disposition for the Sacred Liturgy, we enter into the first of the two main parts of the Holy Mass: The Liturgy of the Word.

In his book A Biblical Walk Through the Mass, Dr. Edward Sri writes of the “two tables” of the Mass: “The Church has often used the image of ‘two tables’ to express the continuity between the two main parts of the Mass: the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. God’s people are nourished first from the table of Holy Scripture, which is proclaimed in the Liturgy of the Word. Then they are fed with the body of our Lord at the table of the Eucharist.”

In short, the Liturgy of the Word is what adequately prepares our hearts, minds and souls to receive the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ in the Eucharist. As we turn our focus to the lectern of the church and hear the Word of God proclaimed through his people, we have an opportunity to perk up and lend our ears to listen to the what Lord has to say to each of us.

The First Reading

“In the readings, the table of God’s Word is spread before the faithful, and the treasures of the Bible are opened to them.” So says the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (57), further using the aforementioned “table” analogy. As we begin the Liturgy of the Word, we have a front row seat at this very table.

The First Reading is usually taken from the Old Testament, the only exception being during the Easter Season, when it is from the Acts of the Apostles. As with every facet of the Catholic Church, there is a purpose for this. The words of the Old Testament help to paint a fuller, more vivid picture of what happens in the New Testament. Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the divine revelation foretold in the Old Testament, and the First Reading is generally connected to the Gospel Reading in some way, whether it be thematically or a prefigurement of Christ and the Church. The Old Testament is rich with typology, or symbolism, that finds its fulfillment or meaning in the New Testament, and this is why the First Reading is so important. Just as the Lord revealed himself to the people of Israel, he is revealing himself to us through his Word at Mass.

The Responsorial Psalm

After hearing God’s Word in the First Reading, we respond, not with our own words, but with beautiful words of praise and thanksgiving taken from the Book of Psalms. The books of Psalms is a collection of 150 sacred hymns used for both private and public worship in the Old and New Testaments, and the Psalm that’s sung (or sometimes recited) during the Mass is thematically linked to the First Reading. While the Responsorial Psalm is usually taken from the Book of Psalms, it occasionally a canticle take from another book of the Bible.

(Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

The reason for the Responsorial Psalm is two-fold; first, as the cantor signs the Psalm, the congregation literally responds by singing it back in an act of worship. Secondly, it is intended as a response to the First Reading and helps the faithful to more deeply meditate on the theme of the liturgy. The entire gamut of human emotions is reflected in the Psalms, and instead of mere words, they should be read as prayers that allow us to enter into the mystery of God and his great love for us.

The Second Reading

Following the Responsorial Psalm, the lector further proclaims the Word of God with the Second Reading. The Second Reading comes from the New Testament and, while not always linked directly to the First Reading or the Gospel, it contains rich wisdom of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ and his Church. These readings are taken from all the books of the New Testament that aren’t the Gospels; the epistles, or letters from St. Paul and other disciples, the Acts of the Apostles and the Book of Revelation. While the Second Reading can be understood independently of the other two readings, it often enriches the lessons to be found in them.

The Gospel

Now we reach what the General Instruction of the Roman Missal calls the “high point of the Liturgy of the Word”: The Gospel reading. The actions that correspond with this part of the Mass indicate its sacredness: the congregation stands and joins in the “alleluia” with the cantor; the deacon or priest holds up the Book of the Gospels and processes in front of the altar to the ambo; following the greeting, “The Lord be with you,” and our response, “And with your spirit,” we trace the Sign of the Cross on our foreheads, mouths and chests in a symbolic gesture whereby we ask for the grace to keep the Lord’s Word ever-present in our minds, on our lips and in our hearts.

(Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

We should not think of the Gospel reading as a news report about Jesus Christ or an anecdotal re-telling of what he did while he was on earth; rather, it should be viewed more as a divinely-inspired eyewitness account through which Christ has communicated with his faithful throughout the ages. These are His words, carefully chosen and spoken directly from the tongue of the holy of holies, and inscribed eternally on the pages of the Gospel. At this point of the Mass, we ought to have ears to listen, because what could demand our attention more?

The Homily

Homily comes from the Greek word for “explanation.” From very ancient times, the presiding priest would take time to explain the Scriptures that had been read, as it’s seen in St. Justin Martyr’s account of the Mass dating to the middle of the first century. The practice of following the reading of Scriptures with a “homily” wasn’t something new for the Christians. The Pharisees had a similar practice in their synagogues, and we even know form the Gospels that Jesus himself partook in it (Lk 4:16-30). So, let’s listen attentively about how the Scripture readings can be put into practice in our daily lives, and how God wants to tell us something every time his Word is proclaimed.

The Creed

In our surrounding culture, we encounter beliefs that are in direct conflict with our faith. Relativism, for example, is very popular: the belief that there is no universal truth, especially regarding matters of morality and religion. In the Creed, we proclaim the opposite. We proclaim that we believe in one God who created the universe, that we are not an accident brought about by chance, that God has a divine plan, that good and evil truly exist and we can know them. The Creed reminds us that we are not mere spectators in the plan of salvation, but instead challenges us to choose what side we will be fighting on.

Therefore, when we say the words “I believe” on Sunday, let us do it as an act of faith and trust, placing ourselves, our loved ones and all our lives in God’s loving care.

The Prayer of the Faithful

The Liturgy of the Word concludes with a prayer for all the faithful of the community and around the world, as well as for all men — also a very early practice mentioned by St. Justin Martyr. St. Paul already encouraged his communities to pray for kings and governors (1 Tim 2:1-4) and his ministry and needs (2 Cor 1:11). During this time, we also lift up the souls of the faithful departed and any other intentions in our hearts.