When I was a child, I occasionally went to the Sunday Solemn High Mass held in the cathedral of the town in which I lived. The Mass was in Latin and I had little understanding of the pomp and ceremony which were part of the High Mass.
With the Mass in the vernacular and with the priest facing the people, it is now easy to follow every moment of the action which is taking place on the altar.
As our understanding deepens, our participation can become more intense.
Every action, every movement in the liturgy is intended to convey a meaning beyond our natural understanding because it is a supernatural meaning.
The Eucharist is both Sacrament and Sacrifice as well as Sacrament and Communion. The very beginning of the Offertory already provides us with a powerful symbolism of the aspect of Sacrifice and that of Supper.
The white cloth laid on the altar reminds us that this is the preparation for the Supper. The cloth is called a corporal after the Latin word corpus or "body". On this corporal will be laid the paten which holds the Body of Christ, the chalice which holds his Blood.
The priest consecrates the bread and the wine separately to represent the death of Christ, the separation of his body and blood from his soul. This is the moment of his Sacrifice on Calvary, the moment beyond time and space, which is made present for us. The resurrected Christ is here in the Eucharist, present in his body, blood, soul and divinity.
When the water is placed into the wine at the Offertory, the prayer which accompanies this action reminds us of the divinity of Christ as well as his humanity. "The wine represents Jesus Christ as God, the water represents him as man." (Dom Gueranger, quoted in The Mass and the Saints, p.81, Ignatius, 2008)
The drop of water is also a further symbol. It is a sign of the offering we make of ourselves in union with Christ. St Cyprian explains: "If only wine were offered, then would the blood of Christ be without us. If there were only water, the people would be without Christ." (ibid)
At the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer, the priest extends his hands saying "The Lord be with you". This is a call to anticipate the coming of Christ on the altar. As we answer "And with your spirit", we are reminded of the unity of priest and community together celebrating the offering of the Sacrifice.
The priest then raises his hands and calls us to "Lift up your hearts". With hands extended he then begins the Preface, the hymn of praise to the God of hosts, the hymn of praise to the one who comes in the name of the Lord. This is a moment when we need to become aware of the hosts of angels, of Mary and all the saints, of our departed relatives and friends, all joining in the heavenly liturgy.
The actions of the priest have a symbolic meaning. The arms outstretched embrace the community while the hands raised up to heaven are a call to converge our hearts and minds and wills towards God. The gesture is a powerful reminder of the cross which stretches out horizontally to embrace the whole world and vertically to reach out to the Most High.
The role of the priest as mediator is shown through the extension of the arms towards the community and then up to God and back in humble prayer on behalf of the people.
The priest now urges us to focus on the action which is about to take place.
Through the Sacrament of Holy Orders the priest is a representative of Christ. In the Mass, the priest acts in the person of Christ, that is, when he speaks the words of Consecration, it is really Christ speaking through the voice of the priest, saying "This is My Body" and "This is My blood."
We participate in the Mass by being united with the priest and with the community in offering our lives together with the Host.
An Offertory hymn (seldom heard) clearly indicates the dual offering of ourselves with Christ and the sublime mystery of transubstantiation:
O God, we give ourselves today,
With this pure host to thee,
The self same gift which thy dear Son
Gave once on Calvary.
Though lowly now, Soon by thy words
These offered gifts will be
The very Body of Our Lord,
His soul and deity.
The High Mass of my youth were the only time the sign of peace was exchanged between the officiating bishop and the clergy present in the sanctuary. At that time we were rather intrigued by this gesture.
The sign of peace is now an everyday occurrence which reminds us of the fact that we need to let go of any grudges or ill feelings before we come to receive the Lord.
It is of prime importance that children be encouraged to better understand the Mass, the greatest act of religion. They should be encouraged to participate orally with the responses and many little prayer books available. The pictures show what is happening on the altar and a parent can occasionally draw the child's attention to the altar and point to the picture.
The philosopher, Elizabeth Anscombe, suggests that parents draw their toddlers close and whisper to them at the moment of the Elevation: "Look, this is Jesus." It is easy enough at the Offertory to point out the chalice and say: "Look, this is going to be the blood of Jesus."
There is a fine balance between parents trying to concentrate on the Mass and keeping children quiet. A picture book or even a colouring book of the Mass can occupy the child, at the same time giving the child a glimpse of understanding.
There would not be such a massive decline in Mass attendance if we could teach the younger generation to realise that through personal participation they would develop a love for the Mass, the love which draws many to come daily to the source of love.
The Mass offers us infinite riches, a wealth of meaning which a lifetime of attendance can never fully explore. Let us constantly endeavour to penetrate more deeply into the mystery and let us help others to appreciate more fully the Eucharistic Sacrifice, the greatest of gifts coming from the heart of Christ.