Meeting Christ in the Mass and sacraments

As Catholics, we recognize Jesus’ Eucharistic presence to be the source and summit of our faith. Nonetheless, we can take His presence at Mass and in the tabernacle for granted. We pray through our liturgical rituals, but our words and gestures can lack meaning when we simply go through the motions. When we use the beautiful ritual of the Mass and sacraments to guide our prayer, however, they can lead us into a deeper encounter with Christ.

Two recent books can help us to understand the Mass and sacraments better and to approach them with fresh eyes: Christopher Carstens’ A Devotional Journey into the Mass: How the Mass Can Become a Time of Grace, Nourishment, and Devotion (Sophia, 2017) and Msgr. Nicola Bux’s No Trifling Matter: Taking the Sacraments Seriously Again (Angelico, 2018).

Carstens takes us on a “devotional journey into the Mass” to approach it in “a more profoundly spiritual way” (29).   He writes with a broad sacramental vision which embraces not only the Mass but also the symbols surrounding it. A great example of this comes from the first chapter, “how to enter a church building,” which reflects upon how to approach the physical building of the church itself. “So the door to the parish church, which stands before us now — is no ordinary entrance. It appears different because it is different: it is a mark of God’s house and a sign protecting those within, as at that first Passover. It is an entrance into the Great King’s city and His Temple . . . where we touch God, as in Jerusalem” (13-14). Carstens uses a “sacramental principle” to help us recognize “how God communicates with us through sensible signs” (9).

This devotional journey takes the reader through the stages of the Mass to perceive the deeper reality that we access through faith. In order to reap the fruit that God wants to give us at Mass, Carstens teaches us that “proper disposition . . . is paramount” (88). Through all of the outward actions, signs, and rituals, God aims at “something deeper:  . . . the heart of man. . . . the undivided love of man” (60; 61). For this reason, in the need for intimacy with God, “silence is an essential ingredient for both individual and corporate prayer” (35). The participation and prayers we offer at Mass should foster our relationship with God. The “conversation should take the form of prayer — a prayer of surrender” (92). Taking a devotional journey through the Mass, with Carstens’ help, should prepare us to enter into this conversation of surrender more fully each week.

Msgr. Bux, an Italian priest and professor, takes us deeper into the sometimes-forgotten history, theology, and liturgy surrounding the Mass and the sacraments. He walks us through each of the sacraments, building upon the teachings of the saints (especially St. Ambrose and Padre Pio), but also the difficulty of experiencing the spiritual reality of the sacraments in the modern world. He also leads us deeper into the Mass, “the greatest and most complete act of adoration,” noting the “interdependence between the Eucharist and the other sacraments: . . . they flow forth from the Eucharist and flow together into it as to their source” (86). The centrality of the Eucharist comes from the fact that through it we enter the heart of God.

The other sacraments reinforce this contact, as “we touch Christ” through them. This entry into the divine life begins at baptism and deepens in confirmation. Bux supports restored order confirmation, speaking of the need for strengthening and equipping for battle at an earlier age, rather than giving into the flight that usually occurs after it is received in the teenage years. When it comes to confession, Bux speaks of how “Christ pardons everyone who recognizes himself to be a sinner,” though the sacrament aims at “sincere, overwhelming interior repentance that brings the soul to be reconciled with the Creator” (103; 104). He also speaks beautifully of how through the sacrament of marriage, “spouses participate in the power of [Christ’s] love” in their love for each other. “Their love, responsible fecundity, and humility, their attitude of mutual service and their mutual fidelity, are signs of Christ’s love, present in them and in the Church” (166).

Both authors teach how to appreciate and enter into the Mass and sacraments more fruitfully, so that, in Bux’s words, we can experience “a prolongation of the liturgical life of the Church” in our own lives (196).

COMING UP: Ten ways to step up your Mass engagement

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Ten ways to step up your Mass engagement

Improving etiquette during the central hour of the week

How important are the little things at Mass? Very important. The Eucharist is so important to the Christian life that it’s considered “the source and summit of the Church’s life and mission.” It should shape who we are and how we live. But if we don’t watch the little things during the Eucharistic celebration, we risk losing the depth of the very mystery in which Christ comes to us.

As one priest put it, “We are seeing a deterioration in Catholic culture, which can be seen very often during Mass.” For this reason, we have asked priests from around the archdiocese to provide tips to help you overcome this problem and encounter Christ in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

1. Receive Communion reverently

The Eucharist is the body of Jesus Christ himself, which means it must be treated with the outmost respect. A priest should never have to worry about dropping it or whether it was consumed. A few tips from our priests to improve your Communion reception: If you are receiving on the tongue (which is “highly preferred”), “open your mouth widely [and] stick your tongue out far.” If receiving in the hand, “place one hand flat over the other, palms up, and immediately place the Host in your mouth” in front of the minister.

2. Genuflect

“Genuflecting manifests a faith in the True Presence of Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament,” a priest stated. “[However], the practice of bowing from the waist – or a simple head bow – has crept in to replace a genuflection, even among people who have no physical handicaps.” Priests ask that all faithful do a full genuflection when they enter or leave the Church, if they are capable: “At the name of Jesus every knee should bow in heaven and on earth” (Phil 2:10).

3. Arrive early and stay

“Passing from a secular atmosphere to a sacred atmosphere requires some preparation,” a priest said. Arriving at least 10 minutes early would do. This helps prepare the heart and mind for the Lord who comes to us, he added. And don’t leave early. One can leave only after the celebrant processes out because “he’s acting in the presence of Christ,” a priest emphasized.

4. Dress up for Jesus

What we wear says a lot about where we’re going. A priest recommend dressing “as if one was going to an audience with someone more important than the Pope,” which is certainly the case. For this reason, they discourage wearing anything that may seem as if you were going to the beach or a sporting event, for both men and women. “May your body and clothes manifest your heart before God and your brothers,” another priest added.

5. Respect silence

“Sacred silence is part of the celebration of the Mass,” a priest said. “[It] leads us toward God and others.” Other than being silent during Mass, we should also refrain from talking before and after Mass, since these are important times for preparation and thanksgiving, another priest added. This also includes desisting from applauding, he added. As Pope Benedict XVI put it, wherever applause break out in the Mass, the essence of the liturgy is lost, and it’s replaced by a kind of “religious entertainment.” It becomes something that it’s not.

6. Watch your posture

Gestures and body postures are very important at Mass. They are meant to help us enter more fully into the Mystery, a priest said. “Standing means respect and readiness to serve. Sitting means attention and obedience. Kneeling means adoration.” This ranges from kneeling erect to sitting appropriately and even singing. The better you do these small things, the more you will be attentive to what is really going on during the Mass.

7. Pray in unison

“[Although] the Mass is personal, [it’s also a] communitarian encounter with Jesus,” a priest said. It’s personal because we encounter Jesus. It’s communitarian because we encounter him as a Church. “When people pray at their own pace, [this] sense of praying to God as one is lost,” a priest added. Therefore, they recommend listening to those around you to pray together.

8. Turn off your phone

God asks for at least one hour a week to put everything in his hands. That hour is the Holy Mass. “There’s something way more important going on,” a priest said. “[So, please], don’t text, and if it happens to ring… never get up to answer it!” The habit of turning it off or putting it on airplane mode before entering the church can make all the difference.

9. Give a dignified sign of peace

The sign of peace is highly symbolic. It’s meant to dispose oneself to receive Communion, signifying peace, communion and charity with one’s brothers and sisters before going up to the altar. “It can and ought to be simple and dignified, always respecting the presence of Christ on the altar and the sacred character of the Mass which is still in progress,” a priest said. “It should not be a time for carousing and garrulousness.”

10. Love (crying) children

Most priests will agree that children shouldn’t be running around during Mass, but also that they shouldn’t be kept at home. A priest specially dislikes when people give the “’sour-grape-face’ at the poor mother who is trying to calm her crying baby.” While solutions are highly debated, another priest said that “[A baby’s] cries glorify the Lord. It is a joy to have them at Mass. If the baby happens to cry too much, one of the parents may go to the back of the Church and take some time.”

Editor’s note, March 9, 2018: An earlier version of this article misstated the intent behind the sign of peace. It has been updated to the correct intention according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which is to extend peace, communion and charity to fellow faithful.