Reflections on the Contemplative Riches of the Mass 

Quotations Are From the Book The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, by Fr. Nicholas Gihr

By a Hermitess

In “the heart of the devout Catholic…a mere glance at the altar, upon which day after day heaven with its majesty and grace descends in Mass…convinces him that it is just as it should be, that it ought not to be otherwise. The mysteries of the Eucharistic Sacrifice are so exalted and sublime, so holy and so divine, that for their worthy celebration nothing can be too precious.With His precious blood the immaculate Lamb of God purchased and ransomed us; this world-redeeming blood, this inestimable ransom, compared with which all transitory things are naught. All the treasures of the earth are but vain dust and ashes, this precious blood poured out so abundantly and lavishly, flows daily on the altar and fills the chalice.”

That this world is quickly passing away is a fact of which the most prayerful assisters at the altar must be painfully aware. As the priest and the servers enter the sanctuary, kneeling at the feet of the enthroned Eucharistic Presence for the preparatory prayers, they are effectively drawn into another world. The precise hierarchy between creature and Creator is acknowledged and observed carefully for those who truly pray the Mass.

“Upon the altar He veils His glory under the humble sacramental appearances, comes to us and remains with us in such profound concealment, abasement, and humiliation…. The more He abases and conceals Himself…the more fervent should the gratitude of the creature be….” The Son of God in the Eucharistic Species humiliates Himself on the altar, as He once did on Golgotha. To witness that humiliation with our senses – our senses work best in silence and stillness – is efficacious to transform the one who prays into the likeness of his Master. The humiliation of the creature, then, can be a welcome effect of the Mass. Humiliation brings one into true prayer.

“Splendor and wealth of ornament serve, in the first place to glorify God, and secondly to promote the edification and salvation of men.” By reason of the “sublimity and adorableness of the mysteries celebrated,” one is “lifted up above the common daily life, penetrated by a holy awe and reverence for heavenly things, more devoutly and seriously disposed, edified in heart, refreshed in mind.”

Detail from the Ghent Altarpiece (or The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb in St. Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium

Paradoxically, humiliation gives the creature an inexplicable refreshment, relief, joy. Although the flesh, the body, the psyche, hates it, fights it, and tries to defy humiliation, the soul is content within, if it cooperates with the response of surrender.

The orientation in one’s heart toward God is not a matter of indifference to Him. If self is the center, God is not pleased. When God is not pleased, man experiences shame and disorder in his life. Even if it is not acknowledged, even if man tries to ignore the shame, it is still there, wailing and grinding its teeth. If God is the center, on the other hand, man is rightly ordered and has peace. Even the consecrated objects and vessels of the Mass “become capable of producing salutary effects.” Salutary effects are what man needs for salvation. The more exposure to salutary effects, the closer one gets to heaven, even on this earth. To receive these salutary effects built in to the Mass, one need only follow the missal and watch the priest — the orientation of the person is slowly changed just by being attentive. Attentiveness only becomes hard when the rite is anthropocentric rather than theocentric. When people find themselves distracted and bored, it is because God is not allowed His proper place in the surroundings and in the Rite itself. God Himself is not a bore. It is the creature who is altogether boring.

The consecration of the very vessels and objects for the Mass is meant to draw the creature out of his boring banal state. By the consecration of the objects for the Mass, these objects are “transferred from the domain of nature into the kingdom of grace, and become the special property of God. Thus they have in themselves something divine, on account of which due religious veneration is to be shown them…. It is evident that according to the intent and spirit of the Church a mystical or deeper meaning is to be attached to objects used in divine worship, by which they become a silent but eloquent sermon, announcing the holy truths and wholesome doctrines….”

Thus, the details of each consecrated object, and also the details of the altar, become another means of the humiliation of man.The care taken with each vessel, the handling of each vessel only by the priest, this all requires a certain abasement on the part of humanity, which wants to, but can never, meet God in His own abasement.

One can easily be absorbed also in the movements and words of the priest at the altar, this altar covered with fine linens – a sudaria, as it were – to receive the body of the Lord. A glance at the missal here and there during the Consecration suffices not only to keep one’s attention on union and direct contact with God, but indeed effects that union. It is enough to let oneself be humbled, vulnerable, and captivated by the Divine Majesty.

The altaris elevated and has steps because it is a mystical Mount Calvary. The goodness observed in the order and hierarchy of the servers upon the steps is no mere practical matter. Rank is fitting in the human condition, as another simple detail effecting salutary consequences. The little graces add up. Accordingly, if a young man serves at the altar, he learns this divine ordering and orientation which then opens him to contemplate the mysteries he serves. All in attendance, in fact, are led into holy dread. Holy dread, to be sure, is frightening to the modern mind, but is the one virtue that will gain union with God. God is near us, and indeed, through the Sacred Humanity of Christ, is one of us, but our humanity can never be on an equal par. As the Psalms constantly say, man’s pride can and will be crushed if it dares to assert itself against the Divine Majesty.

The Divine Majesty is recognized in Scripture in the images of the Holy of Holies, the stone altar of Jacob, the place where the blood of Abel was sprinkled, the place where Abraham was to immolate Isaac, the place where Melchizedech offered sacrifice, and also the altar which Moses built. Fulfilled in the Mass, “Our altar, therefore, recalls the places of sacrifice on which the figurative sacrifices were offered up. It is also a figure of that venerable table at which Christ celebrated the Eucharistic sacrifice and banquet, it is also likened to the sepulcher in which the wounded and sacrificed body of Christ reposed, and likewise to the Cross, where in the fullness of time the bloody sacrifice of our redemption was accomplished; it is the mystical Golgotha upon which the sacrifice of the Cross” is renewed.

After the Holy Sacrifice, the abasement of our Savior continues in the tabernacle, with its ever-present accompanying invitation to join Him in His abasement. With the effects of the Mass now in place, the correct orientation (towards God) and the correct disposition (silence, stillness), one can take refuge in this altar, in this tabernacle containing the Divine Presence. “The unbroken stillness, the solemn dim light, the mystic glow of the sanctuary lamp, the familiar nearness, the blessed presence of the Eucharistic Savior, often enable the weary soul at the foot of the altar to enjoy a foretaste of heavenly bliss and a super-mundane peace, while the restless world without is full of noise and tumult,fatiguing and torturing itself in its feverish race for gain and its pursuit of pleasure. Here the Lord dispenses grace, joy, peace, consolation, and bliss into the hearts that are still struggling in fear and want with the sorrows and hardships of this perishable life.”

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