There was a time in the world when holy things and sacred spaces were common. Humans feared and gave reverence to people, spaces, and objects that they believed had touched the Divine. We see a great deal of this in early Judaism with the Ark of the Covenant, the Temple and its contents, the priesthood, sacred feast days, and sacrifice. When Catholicism began to emerge out of Judaism nearly two thousand years ago it brought with, in a HaMashiach fulfilled way, many of those same sacred spaces, objects, and priesthood. Today, in the West, the Catholic Sacrifice of the Mass is one of the last vestiges of what was once essentially common.
I once heard a nun say, “If something is holy, then it should be treated as such.” The first time I ever went to a Catholic Mass remains to be an unforgettable experience for me. I had never seen a Mass before, so I didn’t know what quite to expect, but as soon as it began I remember feeling that this space was different; that it was completely unlike what I was used to in Protestant assemblies. For whatever reason I’ve always longed for what I experienced at that first Mass; a sacred space.
What happens during secularization is that society is gradually transformed from a society that has a close identification with religious values and institutions, and into a society with non-religious (or irreligious) values and institutions. I don’t think that it is of any surprise to have found that in countries where Protestantism is the prevalent or state religion that secularism has become the prevalent or state religion. It seems to be the case that the more Protestant, Communist, or Socialist a country is, the less sacred space it has to offer.
The lack of sacred space in the West isn’t just limited to public venues. How often do we visit someone’s home in the US and they have sacred space set aside in their home for prayer and veneration? Now visit a home of a person in country or town where Catholicism is still a major influence of life, and you will see more often than not a sacred space and sacred objects (relics, statues, and other objects).
The world’s embrace secularization and relativism has not only made the Catholic Church counter-cultural in its teachings on morals and values, but it has also made it counter-cultural as a living rite of faith. It no longer comports to the world that it has been sent to minister to. The Catholic Church has become a circle sitting on top of a square. This has led relativist leaning Catholics, such as the late Carlo Maria Cardinal Martini, to utter such things as, “Our culture has aged, our churches are big and empty and the church bureaucracy rises up, our rituals and our cassocks are pompous . . . The church is 200 years out of date. Why don’t we rouse ourselves? Are we afraid?”
Inasmuch as people like Martini would like the Church to stop being counter-cultural and somehow transform itself from a circle into a square, so that it might fit – I have a different proposition. How about we fall in love again with our circle and proclaim its virtues?
There is nothing more beautiful than the Catholic Mass. I’m a fan of beauty – a fan of symmetry, color, and proportion, but I have yet to find anything of the flesh or of the world that comes a billion miles close to matching the beauty of the Mass. If you have been a rote Catholic or a confused non-Catholic, just pay attention to how the Mass is a Divine encounter with holy spaces, things, and people from the beginning to the end at the Latin Rite Mass.
The first thing that happens when we enter the nave is dip our finger in Holy water and use it to make the ancient sign of the cross on our body. This sign reminds us our Baptismal promises and re-birth in the Holy Spirit. That is, the very first thing we touch at Mass is Holy and sacred. We don’t just dip our finger in it, but we join the Holy with the dirt vessel of our own body. Dipping in the font of Holy water is the very first indicator that worship at the Mass is an active engagement of the whole self.
Next, after we have found the place where we will worship God, we bend down on one knee and make the sign of the Cross as we face the Holy Sanctuary. This is a sign of reverence to Jesus who has come as the Holy Eucharist. This is no time to carelessly perform the sign of the Cross or barely kneel, or not direct our eyes to the Sanctuary. We have just entered sacred space and are in the presence of what is Most Holy in the whole universe. The attitude of the heart should be an awe-struck and deep humility of God’s good mercy to even allow a sinner like us to sit in His house. We then place ourselves in the kneeler to pray.
Music has always been something to elevate the self into sacred space. Even the word the ‘Psalms’ itself is derived from the Greek Ψαλμοί (Psalmoi), which means “music of the lyre” or “songs sung to a harp”, and that collection of songs speaks often about singing to the Lord a new song and praising the Lord with lyre and harp. Therefore, it is fitting that we should stand in song as redeemed symbol of our Lord instrument of death is elevated above us, along with the Holy Scriptures, and proceed through the people on their way to the Holy Sanctuary.
Throughout the sacred encounter here we will stand, kneel, sing, pray, and respond because the Novus Ordo Mass is nothing less than a prayer of participatory worship in which we render to God all of ourselves (mind, body, and soul). We sacrifice self in a sense so that we might be transformed through the sacrifice that we celebrate. Sometimes I think we can’t wait to sit down after standing for so long for the Entrance, Greeting, Penitential Rite, Kyrie, and Gloria, but the symbolism behind standing is that we are giving ‘attention’ to the Lord. Similarly, when we are kneeling we are reverencing the Lord, and when we are sitting we are resting in the Lord.
We then conclude the Liturgy of the Word (the first half of the Mass) by sitting for the readings from the Old Testament, Psalms, and Epistle (during Holy days of obligation), and stand for the Reading of the Gospel. Notice how the reader of the Gospel elevates the Holy Scriptures above his eyes. It reminds of us Jews who literally obeyed the command “Therefore, take these words of mine into your heart and soul. Bind them at your wrist as a sign, and let them be a pendant on your forehead” (Dt. 11:18; Cf. Exo. 13:9,12; Dt. 6:8) by wearing a tefillin on their wrist and high enough on the forehead that the eyes could still see it.
The eyes may wander at times during the Mass, but as we look around in most of our Churches we can’t help but to notice that we are in sacred space. There are the paintings of Holy encounters, statues of our saints, prayer candles burning for our intentions, the clergy wearing holy vestments from ages past, the sacred smell of incense burning, an altar that the priest kisses, a tabernacle where the Real Presence of Christ Jesus rests.
There is nothing more Holy at the Mass or on Earth than Jesus Christ coming as the Holy Eucharist! I never tire of explaining to non-Catholics that I don’t go to Mass for the music, or for the preaching, or for the fellowship. Those things might be swell and help facilitate a deeper sacred encounter, but that is not why I go – that is not what I’m looking forward to the most. This is why when a Catholic, who understands what is going on at Mass, visits a Protestant church they always leave that assembly feeling empty, as if they were missing something. What they missed was the gates of Heaven opening up and Angels dancing as Jesus becomes the Holy Eucharist.
The holiest encounter on planet earth is when the Holy Eucharist enters our body. I always pray at that moment for Body and Blood of Jesus Christ to becoming fully apart of me, and that I die to Him. Churches that set up a sacred time and space for the Real Presence of Christ as the Holy Eucharist to be adored are always better off in every way. If anyone wants Christ Jesus to be fully integrated into every aspect of their life, then the best place to start your day is with a uniquely Holy encounter with Him at Mass everyday.
The greatest thing about the Mass is that we get to take the Holy encounter with us out the door. We leave the Sacrifice of the Mass with Jesus still uniquely in us. Our duty then is to transform the world into a sacred space with His presence through us. No general gives his army a command to conquer their foe without first giving them the weapons, training, and means to do accomplish that mission. The Mass, the Readings, the Prayers, and the Holy Eucharist is that training, means, and weapon that we have been giving to be and to bring the Peace of Christ Jesus to a troubled world.
4 PART SERIES ON ‘LOVING THE NOVUS ORDO MASS’:
- Loving the Novus Ordo Mass: Holy Things & Sacred Space
- Loving the Novus Ordo Mass: Presenting a Visible God
- Loving the Novus Ordo Mass: The Magnanimous Quad Presence of Christ Jesus
- Loving the Novus Ordo Mass: A True Dialogue of Persons
- Loving the Novus Ordo Mass: The Admirable Exchange Resolves Babel in the Mass