In this series on the Mass we’re aiming to cast light on various movements and aspects of the Mass with the hopes that you will deeply enter in, participate, and get more out of Sunday worship.
At the Hands of the Priest
There are two major movements in the Mass: first we have the Liturgy of the Word, which we spoke about in earlier installments in this series; and the second major movement of the Mass is the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
In the Liturgy of the Word, God spoke to us in a very intimate way and shared with us the keys and instruction for living to encourage, direct, and comfort us.
Now the entire focus turns from the lectern to the altar. We’re very familiar with altars. In the Old Testament an altar was a place where a sacrifice was made. In Catholic churches the altar is typically very prominent. It’s usually front and center because this is where the most important thing happens at the hands of the priest.
An Actual Miracle
The Liturgy of the Eucharist starts with the Preparation of the Gifts. Typically a family from the church will make their way down the middle aisle with bread and wine. That family represents all of us. They make their entrance, they give to the priest the gifts; not only the bread and the wine but also the financial gifts that were taken in the offering.
All of this will be given to God, and something very special is going to happen: the priest will take the bread and the wine and come back to the altar. They will be placed on the altar, and a series of prayers that will take place there are going to change the bread and wine into the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ.
It’s not a symbol. The Body and Blood are not with the bread and wine. It’s going to literally change. It’s a miracle, and we could only believe this by faith.
The Body and Blood
So as the priest comes forward and begins his series of prayers there’s a couple of things that you will notice and you may not be sure exactly why they’re happening. One of them is that the priest will take a small piece of the bread and he will mix it in the wine.
What does it mean? It is symbolic of Christ’s divinity and humanity mixed. Some cardinals have said that it’s also a picture of us and our humanity literally immersed into Christ’s divinity, that the two of us—God and humanity—may become one so much so that we would become divinized.
Then the priest does something very special. Maybe you were an altar boy growing up and you helped with this; the priest will turn to the side and an altar boy will pour water over his hands and he’ll wash his hands as he says a quiet prayer. Anybody who knows about the Bible and sacrifice knows that when a priest washes his hands it means that a sacrifice is eminent.
Then through the words and liturgical prayers that take place, the Eucharistic Prayer, the priest will pray and he will say:
“This is my Body … “
“This is my Blood, the Blood of the new and everlasting covenant.”
When the priest says those words, something happens. The bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of Christ. This all comes to a wonderful climax as we all say, “Amen” at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer.
The Great ‘Amen’
St. Jerome once said that great “Amen” is a celestial thunderclap as heaven says “Amen” to this with us. This is the one and only sacrifice re-presented here on the altar and all altars around the world.
Then after this miracle has taken place, we have the opportunity to commune with the Lamb of God who has given his life for us.
And so the priest will make his way down from the altar and to the laypeople. He presents to us the Body and Blood of Christ. He’ll say, “This is the Body and Blood of Christ” and we’ll say “Amen,” which means more than “I agree.” It means, “I am going to give myself and entrust myself over to the one who has given himself to me.”
My friends, that grace we receive from the Eucharist is the most powerful thing in the world. It’ll give you strength and power to live out God’s will on earth. It’s a marital embrace that takes place, where the Bridegroom Jesus gives himself to the Bride, the Church. Isn’t that amazing? And that happens on these altars by ordained priests in the Catholic Church all around the world. This is so special. This is intimate. This is powerful. This is what we came for, to be loved.
Then we go back to our seat and contemplate the miracle that has just taken place.
A Biblical Walk Through the Mass by Dr. Edward Sri is a five-part program taking participants on an exciting in-depth tour of the Liturgy, exploring the biblical roots of the words and gestures we experience at Mass, and explaining their profound significance.
This article is also available as a video here.
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Jeff Cavins is passionate about helping people understand Scripture and become disciples of Jesus Christ. Though he was born Catholic, Jeff went to Bible school and served as a Protestant minister for twelve years before reverting to the Catholic Faith. He then quickly became a leading Catholic evangelist and author. Jeff is best-known for creating The Great Adventure™ Bible study programs published by Ascension, which have been used by hundreds of thousands of people to engage in Scripture in a life-changing way. Some of his recent projects include his podcast, The Jeff Cavins Show, his book The Activated Disciple, and the Great Adventure Bible studies, Ephesians: Discover Your Inheritance, and Wisdom: God’s Vision for Life.