Most Catholics are quite familiar with the actions that take place around the altar at mass- after all, most of us have been going for years and years. Nevertheless, it saddens me that there are so many people who see with their eyes, but do not follow deeply enough with the symbolism that is present there.
I’ve been teaching about the Catholic Church for approximately 60 years, and anyone who knows me well knows that I always push simplicity. If the Church uses a symbol (and it uses many) the viewers ought to be able to effortlessly comprehend the meaning and the message. Did you know that there are only two essential movements or actions within the mass? But each of those movements is duplicated so there are four: From the opening sign of the cross at the beginning of mass, we begin to talk TO God. And it is a good beginning, because we start off by saying we are sorry. Why are we sorry? Because He is so wonderful. That’s why we glide into the Gloria. We are exuberant. We are exalted! We are thrilled, because our God is so wonderful. The response? God talks to us. Just as we prepare to sit, we hear the priest say “let us listen thoughtfully to God’s Holy Word”. Then, with awe, we listen to a very specific message from God, coming through the inspired authors of the Bible, teaching us about life and God’s love for us. That’s the first half of the conversation.
The second half is about giving. From the back of the church, two or more people suddenly appear coming down the center aisle, bringing bread, wine, and frequently, money. Together those instruments represent ourselves, our talents and our work of the last seven days. They are carried forward and laid upon the altar. In our name, the priest raises the bread and wine and prays that God will accept our simple, inadequate gift. But, with them, we present also our hearts. Sursum cuerda (lift up your hearts).
Then, we move to the center of everything, whereby the power of ordination, Jesus Christ changes the bread and wine into the real presence of Jesus Christ, once again giving to us. Very shortly thereafter, we come forward as people on a journey to receive the bread of life and be one with our Brother, Jesus.
So we talk to God, and He responds. We give to God, and He gives back in the most awesome manner. Back and forth flows this beautiful current.
Next Sunday morning, mentally step back from the altar as mass proceeds, and try and grasp these two simple movements as you celebrate mass.