Attention now shifts from the Pulpit and the Presidential Chair to the Altar, which, we said earlier, represents the Table of the Last Supper and also the place of sacrifice. As we do for a meal, we sort of ‘set the table’. The Roman Missal, which is used to guide the Priest Celebrant, is placed on it. The Corporal that is employed to make sure no crumbs are inadvertently cast on the ground is spread out at the center of the Altar. Many people do not know that at that central point there lays an ‘altar stone’ embedded in the Altar that contains relics of a saint, preferably a martyr. This is a great insight: the foundation stone of the Sacrifice, and hence of the Church, is the real witness of the saints and the blood of the martyrs.
Chalices are placed on the Corporal and Purificators are put next to them (these are used to wipe the chalice rim after someone has received from it). In the offertory procession, the bread (communion wafers) and the wine are brought up by representatives of the community. Often we try to find the family or individual who requested prayers for the intention of the Mass to bring the gifts forward to the celebrant.
The Priest then says the prayers of offering the gifts to God. “Blessed are you…” are reminiscent of the blessings said at the Jewish Seder meal. These are meant to echo what the Lord would have said at the Last Supper that was, at least in intention, a Seder meal. After the Priest washes his hands in preparation, he asks the congregation to pray that God will accept the sacrifice to be offered, “Pray Brother and Sisters…”
After another prayer the Priest invites the people through a dialogue, “The Lord be with you…” to center on this most sacred part of the Mass. The Preface to the Eucharistic Prayer or Canon of the Mass sets the thematic tone of the day (Lenten for example) and then we all sing the words that come from the Angels as revealed to the Prophet Isaiah in the Temple of Jerusalem: “Holy, Holy, Holy…”
What follows is called the Eucharistic Prayer. On solemn occasions and feasts, the first Eucharistic Prayer is often used, which has the special name of the Canon of the Mass. This is the most solemn part of the Mass. There are two moments that reflect the change that occurs during this essential part of the Eucharist. At one point, the Priest places his hands over the elements to be consecrated (the bread and the wine) and invokes the Holy Spirit to transform the elements into the Body and Blood of Christ. This, in Greek, is called the ‘epiclesis’ and is an ancient symbol that means the conferral of a special power. The Bishop, you might recall, uses extended hands over the head of a man that is to be ordained for service as a Priest or a Deacon. This epiclesis of the Mass begins the process that culminates in the consecration of the bread and wine into the Lord’s Body and Blood—His very self through the words of institution which come right from the exact words that Jesus used at the Last Supper. Both at the Epiclesis and at the elevation after the consecration, we normally ring a bell to call attention to this very special transformative moment. The Eucharistic Prayer ends with the solemn ‘Great Amen’ when through Him and with Him and in Him we offer up Jesus to the Father in the Holy Spirit. The congregation then says or sings “Amen”, that Hebrew word that signals the approval of the people of God: so be it!
At this point it is advantageous I think to pause and consider this great and beautiful doctrine of the Real Presence of the Lord Jesus in the Holy Eucharist. This teaching was a problem from its very first statement by the Lord Jesus in John 6: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” We know many left Jesus and no longer wished to be His disciples. So devastating was the loss that Jesus, almost pathetically, asks his closest disciples who He would make His twelve Apostles: “Will you too also leave me?” Peter responds with “To whom would we go. You have the words of eternal life.” But this teaching has proved difficult historically as well. Even today many Protestants reject it. They call the bread and wine signs of His presence, overlooking the explicit words of Christ at the Last Supper: “This is my Body…this is my Blood.” Even today, among Catholics, this teaching is not universally accepted. A recent poll of Church-going Catholics revealed that over 60% of those questioned believed the Eucharist was only a sign and not a reality!
Yet the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ is central to our understanding of ‘sacrament’ and ‘Church’, and for a Catholic Christian it is a most beautiful and powerful teaching about the love of Christ: that He is really and substantially present to us in this great Sacrament of Eucharist. By our receiving Him in this very exalted teaching we see our great dignity as human beings. We become tabernacles of the Most High!
Suggested Resolution: Every time I pass the Tabernacle, I will genuflect or bow; and if I pass the front of a Church, even in the street, I will make the Sign of the Cross as I pass it.