This coming Friday, August 15, is the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a Holy Day of Obligation. Masses will be scheduled at the usual times (see below), but this year we will have a special treat at the 7pm Mass on Friday: we will celebrate a Sung High Mass of the Extraordinary Form (the “Traditional Latin Mass”). This is a first for St. Raymond’s, and I chose this particular feast for a reason: as the Blessed Mother was taken up into Heaven, body and soul, in a certain mystical way we are all taken up into Heaven at every Mass, as God the Son comes to us in the Eucharist. And where Christ is, there also are the Father and Holy Spirit, with Mary and all the saints and angels of Heaven adoring Them.
The Book of Revelation records the Heavenly liturgy, and telling us: “Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready…Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding feast of the Lamb!” [Rev. 19:7,9]. “Then…I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them…” [Rev. 21:2-3]
Vatican II repeated this ancient teaching: “In the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that Heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the Holy City of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God… With all the warriors of the Heavenly army we sing a hymn of glory to the Lord; venerating the memory of the saints, we hope for some part and fellowship with them….” [Second Vatican Council, 1962-1965, Sacrosanctum Concilium, 8].
How many of us see Mass like this, approaching the altar as Mary, the angels and saints approach the throne of God, with a profound and overwhelming sense of awe, reverence and sacredness?
Prior to Vatican II this was what the Church emphasized in her teachings about the Mass. And it was to reinvigorate appreciation of these same ancient teachings that Vatican II called for reforms in the celebration of Mass that would help Catholics to understand this more fully. Sadly, while many of the changes introduced by Pope Paul VI in the Novus Ordo (“New Order”) of the Mass were very helpful to this end, many Catholics wrongly came to think that the changes meant a complete break with both the old ways of doing things and the old ways of understanding the meaning of the Mass itself.
Because of this, I believe that one of the best ways to understand the Novus Ordo Mass is to better understand the form of Mass that came before it, that inspired and enthralled great saints for 16 centuries. Which is one of the main reasons Pope Benedict XVI, in 2007, authorized the widespread celebration of the “Old” form of Mass, which he called the “Extraordinary Form” (EF) of the Roman Rite. As he wrote: “the two Forms (old and new) of the usage of the Roman Rite can be mutually enriching,” so that by reference to the Extraordinary Form the Novus Ordo Mass (or “ordinary form” of Mass—OFM) “will be able to demonstrate, more powerfully than has been the case hitherto, the sacrality which attracts many people to the former usage.”
That being said, let’s look at some of the aspects of the EF Mass that will stand out as “different” on Friday.
1) The EFM is always said entirely in Latin, including the Scripture. (The sermon is in English and usually includes rereading at least the Gospel in English). The use of Latin, the official language of the Universal Church for centuries, reminds us of the unity of the Church, and that all the Catholics throughout the world, including those who lived in past centuries, join us in this Heavenly liturgy.
2) Many of the prayers are said only by the priest and/or servers in, often in a low, inaudible voice. In a “High Mass” (versus a “Low Mass”) these prayers are said while the choir sings the same prayer in beautiful chant (e.g., Kyrie, Gloria), which you may join in singing. Sometimes they are said while there is total silence in the church, especially during the Canon ( “Eucharistic Prayer”).
3) The priest praying this way has several symbolic meanings. For example, praying alone reminds us that he alone stands in persona Christi, who in turn is the one true priest of the Mass; but his humble low voice reminds the priest and us that he is merely a humble servant, not Christ Himself.
4) Because of these inaudible prayers there are many periods of apparent silence. This reminds us of the Heavenly liturgy: “When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in Heaven for about half an hour…” [Rev. 8:1]. But the silence does not mean nothing is happening: the priest is praying, and you may follow and pray along with him. Or you may pray and meditate in your own words. The OFM seems to have us doing or saying something specific at each part of the Mass, but the EF allows you more freedom to actively participate by talking to Jesus in your own words from the depths of your heart.
5) Things like silence and Latin also serve as sort of a veil over the “sacred mysteries” which can never be fully understood by man, and that Heaven appears here to us, but veiled in signs. They also remind us of the veil that covered the Holy of Holies of the Temple that only the high priest could enter.
6) The EFM is offered with the priest facing away from the people (“ad orientem,” like our 8:45 Sunday Mass). He is not turning his back to you, but turning with you toward the Lord, to be united with and to lead the people in worshipping God, and offering prayer for and with the people, as we wait together for the “rising of the sun of justice” (in the east, “ad orientem”)—the Second Coming of the Son of God.
7) There is a lot of kneeling, genuflecting and bowing, e.g., Holy Communion is received while kneeling at the altar rail (except for disabled). This reminds us of the Heavenly liturgy, as Revelation describes 7 occasions similar to the following: “And the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures fell down and worshiped God who is seated on the throne….” [Rev. 19:4].
8) Holy Communion is received only on the tongue. This is a dramatic reminder that we are not receiving ordinary food, but the body of Jesus Himself. “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread…of the Lord in an unworthy manner… without discerning the body eats …judgment upon himself [1 Cor. 11:27,29]
9) There is more emphasis on external signs (multiple servers, candles, incense, vestments, hats, etc.), as at the Heavenly liturgy: “before the throne burn seven torches of fire….And round the throne…are four living creatures… and… twenty-four elders, clad in white garments, with golden crowns upon their heads.” [Rev. 4:5,6] ….“And another angel …stood at the altar with a golden censer;… and the smoke of the incense rose….” [Rev. 8:3,4]
10) At the “High Mass” there’s a lot of chanting. “The four living creatures, each…with six wings, …day and night they never cease to sing, “Holy, holy, holy…!” The twenty-four elders…singing, “Worthy art thou, our Lord and God ….” [4:8-11].
11) You will also notice careful attention to precise ritual acts, done by specific ministers. This reminds us of the hierarchical nature of Heavenly worship, where the different ranks/groups of angels each have their own particular ritual to perform, the elders theirs, and even the Lamb His.
12) The sign of the Cross is repeated many times during the Mass. This serves several purposes, but always reminds us that the Eucharist is the re-presentation of the sacrifice of the Cross.
13) There are many repetitions, especially repetitions in threes, reminding us of the Trinitarian nature of the Mass and Heaven.
I invite you all to join us this Friday at 7pm for the Extraordinary Form High Mass. Many will not feel drawn to attend the EFM regularly, but you will all be glad you came. It is the beautiful form of Mass attended devoutly by centuries of saints and sinners, and it reminds us of where we have come from and what we have believed—so that we can better understand where we are now and what we believe still.
Note: we will be joined by a guest choir, an ensemble from “Suscipe Quæso Domine,” more popularly known as, “The Suspicious Cheese Lords.”
Oremus pro invicem. Fr. De Celles