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Mass participation—in body and spirit
This column continues the Denver Catholic Register’s New Roman Missal series.
Nov. 16 2011 - I have been thinking lately about Mary and Martha. We encounter these two sisters, who were friends of the Lord, when Jesus makes a visit to their home in the Gospel of Luke.
Most of us remember the story. Martha works actively to prepare the meal for the Lord, while Mary sits listening to him at his feet. When Martha gets frustrated with her sister and complains, Jesus says that Mary, who is sitting in rapt contemplation, has “chosen the better part.”
In contemporary culture, contemplation is difficult for us to understand. We live in a Martha kind of a world—a world of anxiety, stress and frenzied activity. It’s easy to believe that even our worship of God should be full of obvious, exterior activity—rather than be a time of prayerful contemplation.
“Sacrosanctum Concilium,” the Second Vatican Council’s decree on worship, calls each of us to “a full and active participation” in the liturgy. In our “Martha mindsets” we often confuse “full and active participation” with “exterior participation” in the liturgy—service as lectors, acolytes, ushers or extraordinary ministers of holy Communion.
And many of us do participate in active exterior service in the liturgy—and we should. Assisting the community in the worship of God is a generous service. But “full and active participation” is something much deeper and even more engaging than our exterior service to liturgy. “Full and active participation” is the Church’s invitation for us to join Mary, Martha’s sister, in rapt contemplation at the feet of Jesus.
“In simple terms,” Pope Benedict XVI writes, “active participation means a greater awareness of the mystery being celebrated and its relationship to daily life."
Growing in greater awareness of the mystery of the Mass isn’t easy. We’re quite often distracted, and contemplation doesn’t come natural to most. The liturgy of the Church is designed to help us. The public worship of the Church invites us to engage our senses and our bodies, thus allowing us to be more easily drawn into the mystery of the eucharistic sacrifice.
Each gesture, each bodily movement at Mass is designed to draw us into God’s presence. The gestures are familiar to us—but we may not think about their meanings. Each one expresses the reality of God’s love and each one reminds us that our religion is incarnational.
The Sign of the Cross is a confession of faith in the Holy Trinity. In tracing the Sign of the Cross over our bodies, we place ourselves under the protection of the Crucified One and express our desire to follow him.
Kneeling is a powerful Christian expression of humility. Although foreign in modern culture, kneeling expresses our worship of Jesus, at whose name “every knee should bow.”
Standing is a posture of prayer, an expression of victory and of readiness, of anticipation of the glory that is to come.
Sitting is a posture that allows recollection and, through some relaxation, promotes a good disposition for a prayerful reflection and meditation.
Our gestures, movements and positioning also bespeak our role in the Mass and in the Church. At the consecration of the Eucharist, the congregation kneels, offering their own sacrifices with that of the priest and of Jesus, while the priest, acting in the person of Jesus Christ, stands, and uses his actions to recall the Last Supper.
At the Lord’s Prayer, the priest stands with arms outstretched in a gesture of supplication, the orans or “praying” position, on behalf of the people. The deacon, whose posture is governed by the liturgical rubrics, is instructed to stand with hands folded together in the same manner as the congregation. The faithful fold their hands, in a traditional posture of petitioning, to signify the humility of our congregation before God. Other gestures, such as extending arms or holding hands, are not found in the norms of the Mass. That our gestures are different does not mean that one role is more important than another—rather it points to a diversity of parts to the body of Christ.
It’s easy to engage in the gestures of Mass without thinking about them, to literally just “go through the motions.” But as we move from one position of worship to another, we can be drawn into the mystery of God. Like Mary, who actively engaged Jesus by sitting and listening to him, so we can express the presence of God in our bodies and thus truly love the Lord with all our hearts, minds, souls and strength.
Bishop James D. Conley is apostolic administrator of the Denver Archdiocese.
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