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A History Of The Mass And Its Ceremonies In The Eastern And Western Church -Rev John O'Brien A.M.

Up to the fourth century the presentation of gifts took place in silence, but after this period the custom of singing psalms at this place, in order to relieve the tedium of the people, was introduced (Kozma, pp. 186, 187). St. Augustine alludes particularly to this custom in his works (see Retract., 1. ii. c. xi.), and a precedent for it may be seen in the old law, where the sons of Aaron, while the high-priest was offering the blood of the grape, sounded their silver trumpets, and the singers lifted up their voices and caused the great house to resound with sweet melody (Ecclesiasticus, chap. 50)

The custom very generally prevails here to-day of singing, instead of the Offertorium itself, a certain musical composition called a motet, in which several voices join, accompanied by instruments. These motets must be always sung in Latin, never in English, or any other language, without the permission of the Holy See. They must be characterized, too, by gravity and dignity both as to wording and rendition, so as to be qualified to raise the feelings to a contemplation of heavenly things rather than excite in them earthly desires (Benedict XIV., 1. c., § 89).

The Offertorium, according to the present disposition of the Roman Missal, is, for the most part, very short, seldom exceeding half a dozen lines. It is generally taken from the Psalter of David, and was formerly called an antiphon, for the reason that in the Antiphonary of Pope Gregory the Great certain verses used to be attached to it after the manner of a versicle and response. Whenever the offering of the gifts on the part of the people took up more time than usual, it was customary to sing the entire psalm here, or at least as much of it as would occupy the whole time that elapsed from the reading of the Offertorium by the priest to the end of the offering of gifts (Romsee, iv. 125; Kozma, pp. 186, 187).

The Offertorium common to all Masses for the dead is yet formed after the ancient manner of an antiphon, a versicle, and a response, though it is not, like the great majority, taken from the psalms. In fact, it is from no part of Holy Scripture. As this same Offertorium, on account of its strange wording, has given rise to much curious questioning, some going so far as to say that the Church intends by it the liberation of the souls of the damned from hell, we deem it well to give it entire to the reader, and make the necessary comments afterwards: “Lord Jesus Christ, King of glory, deliver the souls of all the faithful departed from the pains of hell and the deep lake; deliver them from the mouth of the lion, lest Tartarus swallow them up, lest they fall into the dark place; but let the standard-bearer, St. Michael, bring them into the holy light which thou didst of old promise to Abraham and his posterity.”

In a secondary way all this may be applied to Purgatory; but to our mind the intrinsic beauty and effect of the whole prayer would be lost if this were its exclusive application. Its true explanation is this: In the very early days of the Church Masses for the faithful departed were accustomed to be celebrated the moment it became known that any given soul was in its last agony, and, consequently, past all chance of recovery. It made no difference what time of the day this happened, or whether the priest who said the Mass was fasting or not. The virtue of the Holy Sacrifice was then supposed to ascend before the throne of God simultaneously with the departure of the soul of the deceased to the tribunal of judgment, and the merciful God was besought, in consideration of this, not to condemn it to hell’s flames. (The authors who say that this view may be taken of it are Pope Benedict XIV., De Sacros. Missæ Sacrif.; Romsee, iv. 126; Cavalieri, tom. iii. dec. 19; Grancolas, De Missis Mortuorum, p. 536; Gavantus, Thesaur. Sacr. Rit., p. 92.) A moment’s consideration would enable any one to see that Purgatory never could have been directly meant by the wording of this Offertorium. For what fear, it might be asked, could there be entertained of having a soul swallowed up by Tartarus, or drowned in the “deep lake,” who was already secure in that middle state, and whose eternal happiness was certain? The souls in Purgatory are in a state of grace, and, as there is no danger of their ever falling from it, it would be idle, nay, heretical, to pray for them as if such danger existed.

To this interpretation it is sometimes objected that the entire tenor of these Masses would lead a person to suppose that the soul for whom they are designed to be offered had been some time dead; how, then, it is asked, can this view be reconciled? Although the ancient custom of saying these Masses when the soul was in its last agony no longer exists, still the Church has not deemed it necessary to change their wording, inasmuch as it may yet be easily verified by supposing the time at which these Masses are now offered withdrawn to that very moment in the past when the soul was leaving the body. Instances of thus withdrawing from the present time, and representing an event as yet to take place which has really already taken place, is by no means uncommon in the offices of the Church. The whole of Advent time, for example, is framed upon this principle. We pray then for the coming of the great Messias with as much earnestness as if he were yet to appear. We ask the heavens to open and rain down the Just One. We beg of God to send us a Redeemer, and we ask the aid of His divine grace to enable us to prepare in our hearts a suitable dwelling into which to receive Him. Many more examples may be cited to show that this mode of praying is by no means unusual. St. Michael is here styled God’s standard-bearer because chief of the heavenly host; and it was to him, as ancient tradition states, that the duty of hurling Satan and the rest of the fallen angels from heaven was entrusted. He is called the “Winged Angel,” and is generally represented in art with a shield and lance. When depicted as the conqueror of Satan he stands in armor, with his foot upon the demon, who is represented prostrate in the shape of a fierce dragon. As lord of souls St. Michael holds a balance in his hand. According to an ancient legend, it was he who appeared to our Blessed Lady to announce the time of her death, and conduct her afterwards to the throne of her Divine Son in heaven. It may interest the reader to be told that the old English coin called an angel received its name from the fact that St. Michael was depicted upon it (see Legends and Stories Illustrated in Art, by Clara E. Hemans, p. 228).

After the priest has recited the Offertorium he proceeds without delay to the Offertory proper. The chalice, which had stood up to this time on the corporal in the centre of the altar, is now uncovered, and the oblation of the Host, resting on the paten, is made with the following words: “Accept, Holy Father, Omnipotent, Eternal God, this immaculate Host which I, thy unworthy servant, offer thee, my living and true God, for my innumerable sins, offences, and negligences, and for all who are present; moreover, for all faithful Christians, living and dead, that it may avail both me and them unto salvation and life everlasting.” Having finished this prayer, the priest lowers the paten, and, having made the sign of the cross with it over the corporal, places the Host upon the latter, near its anterior edge, where it remains until the time of Communion. He places the paten itself at his right, partially covering it with the corporal, and lays the purificator over the rest of it. At Solemn High Mass the paten is not placed here, but is wrapped up by the subdeacon in a corner of the humeral veil, and held partially elevated by him below near the altar-rails until the end of the “Pater noster.” This ceremony is intended to preserve a vestige of a very ancient rite, the explanation of which is generally given as follows: For the first six centuries of the Christian Church it was on the paten that the Hosts used to be consecrated and broken, and from it distributed to the people at Holy Communion. This we clearly see from the words of the Sacramentary of Pope Gregory the Great, to wit: “We consecrate and sanctify this paten for confecting in it the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ.” But when this custom ceased, in order that the paten might not lie uselessly on the altar and impede the operations of the priest (for in ancient times, as we have already stated elsewhere, it was of very large proportions), it used to be given in charge to the subdeacon until it was needed again. Why the subdeacon held it rather than any of the other ministers was to remind him of his office, because it was his duty to see always to the bread of oblation, as may clearly be understood from the words addressed him at his ordination; and then, again, he was more free from this part of the Mass to the time of Communion than any of the rest in the sanctuary (see Romsee, ii. 32, note; Catalanus, Comment. in Pontif. Romanum; Mühlbauer, De Ordin. Subd., i. 41).

Regarding the expression “immaculate host,” applied here to what is as yet but mere bread, enquiries are often made; the answer to all of which is that the appellation is given solely by way of anticipation of what is going to take place at consecration. “We do not call the bread and wine an immaculate host,” says Hofmeister, “but the Body and Blood of the Lord which they are changed into. Therefore, not from what they now are, but from what they are going to be, are they dignified with such a title” (Bona, Rer. Liturg., p. 337).

Having completed the oblation of the bread, the priest takes the chalice in hand and goes to the Epistle corner to receive the wine and water from the server. The amount of wine placed in the chalice on the occasion is, as a general rule, about as much as would fill a small wine-glass, and the water added seldom exceeds two or three drops. To approach as nearly as possible to the proper quantity, and have an exact measure to go by, it is customary to use a small spoon in many places of Europe for this purpose. The wine is poured into the chalice without either a blessing or a prayer; but as the water is added the priest makes the sign of the cross over it and recites the following prayer in the meantime: “O God! who didst wonderfully form the substance of human nature, and more wonderfully still regenerate it, grant us, by the mystery of this water and wine, to be united with the divinity of Him who deigned to become partaker of our humanity, thy Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost, God, world without end. Amen.”

Liturgical writers seem to be unanimous in holding that the literal reason for mixing a few drops of water here with the wine is to commemorate what our Lord himself most probably did at the Last Supper; for it was always customary in his time, and the custom remains yet unchanged throughout the entire East, to temper the wine, before drinking it, with a little water. A neglect of this was looked upon by the Jews as a great breach of etiquette. But besides this literal reason there are several mystical reasons for this very ancient ceremony. In the first place, as the prayer recited while adding the water implies, it is intended to remind us of the very close union that exists between ourselves and our Lord—so close, indeed, that we are said to partake in a measure of his divinity, as he partook of our humanity and became like unto us in all things, as the apostle says, sin alone excepted. Secondly, this mixture recalls to mind the blood and water which issued from our Lord’s side on the cross when pierced by the spear. Thirdly, it has a reference, according to some, to Holy Baptism, in virtue of which we are all regenerated. The small quantity of water added on this occasion is said to be intended as a reminder of the fewness of the elect at the last day (Gavantus, p. 199).

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