A foot slips. Dust and rock rise up in a cloud of gritty powder as a worn boot scrapes across the hard ground of some dim and ancient cavern. An echo, ringing down along the long and winding path wrapped in granite walls and glimmering stone, announces the arrival of some foreign presence. Then from the shadows, a lone and mysterious figure emerges…
What is the Mass? Is it a ceremony we attend on some Sunday morning or afternoon? Is it a communal affair that allows the parishioners to come together and celebrate and worship the greatness of their God? Is it a personal experience which fills the soul with courage and love? Is it a burden? Is it tiresome? Or maybe it is something which has become too familiar? What is the Mass?
The Mass is simply this: the greatest adventure known to Mankind.
How do I know this? Because it is revealed to me everyday at one of the most critical moments of the entire ceremony, the prayers at the foot of the altar.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
It begins how all things must, with the end in sight. The Church announces right from the beginning why we are about to do this. What we do is for our God and nothing else. He is the beginning and He is the end. Simply.
V: I will go in unto the altar of God
R: Unto God, who gives joy to my youth.
A man is entering the altar of God. It is a specific place that he speaks about. And he does not simply walk up to it but rather he walks into it. Immediately we have the idea of immersion, of being surrounded by this altar of God. This will not be some passing experience or affair. This will be an all encompassing endeavor which will demand of him everything.
He is going into the altar of God and to the God who gives joy to his youth. Joy to my youth. What is meant by this expression? How do we give joy to youth? What is joy? Josef Pieper, in his remarkable book Happiness and Contemplation says that “Joy is a response to happiness.” And what is happiness? It is to possess or to attain what one seeks, also known as “the good”. Man is alway seeking the good. Only a madman would seek after something he sees as evil. Even when we do evil, we see it in that moment as being a good. Therefore, when we want something and we finally get it, we are happy. Ultimate happiness consists in attaining the ultimate good which is God. So if happiness is the attainment of the good and joy is the response to that happiness - or let’s say the disposition of our soul when we have attained that good or happiness - then what does joy to my youth mean? Well, what does youth seek? What does every young life seek? To live on. The most fundamental desire of any life form is survival; we fear death and we embrace life. And so giving joy to youth means giving it the greatest good it can possess - immortality.
The search for immortality has been the great endeavor of mankind throughout the ages. We are obsessed with it. Ancient royal halls and dusty common huts have echoed with tales and great epics of men looking for this greatest of prizes. It is the most fantastical adventure of them all, the search for the Holy Grail. Whether it be Sir Lancelot upon a noble steed or Indiana Jones fighting off Nazi troops, it is the very backbone of our literary world because it is the quintessential tale. It is this tale of living forever, the greatest good of our youth, by which the Church, knowing how we learn from art and storytelling through drama, seeks to capture our souls by immersing her greatest of rituals in the greatest of tales known to Man.
This is the Mass. The search for the Holy Grail. The journey to find immortality. And this is where we find our traveller when he speaks the words I will go in unto the altar of God, the God who gives joy to my youth.
V: Judge me, O God, and distinguish my cause against an ungodly nation: O deliver me from the unjust and deceitful man.
R: For Thou, O God art my strength.
He has entered into this chamber and immediately he announces himself to the Master who dwells there. He begs that God would look at him and “distinguish his cause against an ungodly nation.” What does he mean?
So many men before him have come in search of this goal, of this immortality, of this Holy Grail. But so many of these men have come in search of it for some selfish reason or motive. They have looked for immortality because they have envisioned in their lavish dreams a life that is an endless pursuit of pleasure and satisfaction. This immortality is being sought simply for themselves. But he is not one of these ungodly men. He seeks this immortality so that he can be united to the One who gives it. Simply that.
“Deliver me from the fate of the unjust and deceitful man.” He seeks deliverance from the fate of those who have come before him and who have been destroyed because their cause was unholy and their motives unclean. He wants no part in their fate. He simply wants immortality because it is his gateway to a life lived with the One whom his being wants most of all. He searches for this most treasured prize because in it he will find his God who is his strength.
R: For Thou, O God art my strength: why have You cast me from You, and why do I go sorrowful while the enemy afflicts me?
This is very interesting. We have this man proclaiming that God is his strength but then immediately crying out to Him and asking why He has cast him away and why he is sad as the enemy attacks and injures him. We see that there is conflict in the soul of this man. There is this back and forth struggle with hope and discouragement.
“If you are my strength, then why do you cast me away and why am I still sad and injured?”
The man is unsure and unsteady. And so he cries out again with even more desperation:
V: O send out Thy light and Thy truth: they have led me and brought me to Thy holy hill, even unto Thy tabernacle.
God’s light has led him in the darkness and His truth has carried him to the holy hill and even to the tabernacles.
The holy hill is the holy hill, Golgotha. The hill that has as its peak the greatest of tabernacles, the cross. It is an astonishing revelation for this man and a proof that he is not to be like the rest. He does not want pleasure or self satisfaction. He seeks immortality and is ready to do what is demanded of him. And what is demanded of him? To go to the holy hill, but not just that. He must not simply walk to the hill like so many did on that terrible and tragic day. He cannot simply be a bystander but rather he is to go beyond that. He must climb the Hill of Golgotha and ascend upon the cross where he will then reach the tabernacle which holds the life of God, eternal life, immortality. He understands now what he is to do. He must die in order to attain life unending. He must give up everything he is in order to attain everything that he was destined to be. He sees that and is still undeterred from his goal and once again states with a resolve and determination that outshines even the most courageous of our heroes:
V: Then will I go unto the altar of God, unto God who gives joy to my youth.
He understands. And he is ready.
V: I will praise Thee upon the harp, O God, my God.
Why are you cast down, my soul? And why are you disquieted within me?
Our adventurer understands now what must happen and is full of hope and resolve. He calls out to God that he will praise Him on a harp, meaning he has reached a great moment of joy because he will not just use words but will allow music to sing out his joy which is the most effervescent expression of it.
But then once again comes a swift change in his state of mind. We see in a flash this struggle between the two sides of this man. He is happy and wants to praise God but then he wonders why his soul is sad and why there is still unrest within him? The realism of this situation is stunning. This is not some hyperbolic character that is all hero and no human. He is as human as they come. A man full of hope and full of doubt. He is frustrated that he cannot cast away this fear and anxiety within him. He wants the good but he is full of worry of the future and of his faults. Will he be worthy? Will he be able to stand the test of time in this fight? Will he be faithful? Will he be happy? Why such unrest after resolving to give oneself to one’s God?
And then comes one of the most sublime moments in all of the Mass:
R: Hope thou in God: for yet will I praise Him, who is the health of my countenance and my God.
This man is all worry and turmoil because of his falls in the past and his doubts for the future. And in a moment, when nothing seems to be going right, his soul emerges from the depths of his being and calmly tells him to be at peace:
“Just hope, my dear one. Nothing else. Simply hope in Him and I will take care of the rest. Even in the moments when you feel that nothing is going right and you are not cared for by Him or when you worry that you are not truly being as a holy soul should be, just hope. For even in those moments I will be praising Him. You are like the ocean. Upon the surface the waves crash and roar like a menace on a hellish tirade but as soon as you dive deep into the depths, there is nothing but peace and serenity. Within the deep chasms of the ocean’s calm one would never know there was a hurricane of war on the surface. But as long as you hope and desire in Him, no matter what else may happen, He will be pleased with you for He shall see only your desire. And why should He not? For He is the source of life, and there is nothing but hope in that.”
At these words of encouragement, the man realizes the greatness of this God and speaks not just the praises of Him, but recalls his resolve once again to do all to reach his goal:
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be world without end. Amen
I will go in unto the altar of God, unto God who gives joy to my youth.
As this man is about to enter into this innermost chamber where he will be tested, he understands that he must declare to God who he truly is and beg for mercy.
What happens next is the most magnificent display of humility put to words: a confession. But this is no ordinary confession. In this Confiteor, the man will call not just upon God but upon the whole universe. From God all the way down to the most common of men, he will proclaim his sinfulness and his need for forgiveness.The three great mea culpas ring out like a cry of one who is broken in the sight of his own unworthiness.
The confession ends with a hopeful plea that the Lord “may have mercy upon you, forgive you, and bring you to life everlasting.”
The final part of this entrance into the chamber of the Holy Grail is a masterclass of drama and theater. I will lay out the whole conversation so that you might see what I am speaking about:
V: Thou will turn O God, and bring us to life
R: And Thy people will rejoice in Thee
V: Show us O Lord, Thy mercy
R: And grant us Thy salvation
V: O Lord hear my prayer
R: And let my cry come unto Thee
V: The Lord be with you
R: And with thy spirit
V: Let us pray
These words happen right before the priest ascends the altar steps to begin the mass. Up until now, the priest and server have exchanged thoughts and responses that were developed and of at least some length. But now the priest, or should I say the man in our adventure, is about to enter into the innermost chamber. Just as the high priests of old would ascend once a year the steps to the Holy of Holies in fear and trembling for their lives, so now does this man. He knows that it is dangerous to tread upon the sacred ground of a God. He is fearful and the dialogue reflects this fear. Instead of the developed thoughts from the early part of the prayers, we now witness quick interjections being spoken with bullet like speed. Quickly and deftly the priest and the server exchange words that become more desperate as the time for the ascent draws nearer.
V:Thou will turn, O God and bring us to life.
R: And Thy people will rejoice in Thee.
This is a remarkable foreshadowing of what is to come later in the mass when the priest will turn around with the Blessed Sacrament and literally bring Life Itself to us.
V: Show us O Lord, Thy mercy.
R: And grant us Thy salvation.
He is begging now for mercy. It’s as if this journey is not one of leisure but one of necessity. He needs this. It is not a matter of convenience but of spiritual survival.
V: O Lord hear my prayer
R: And let my cry come unto Thee
V: The Lord be with you
R: And with Thy spirit
V: Let us pray
He is about to go up into the chamber. He knows that many before him have failed. He knows that he goes to encounter the God of the universe and he is frightened. He begs that his prayer be heard and that his cry fall not upon unmerciful ears. And as he makes the final preparations to ascend, he tells the others who are watching him depart, “May the Lord be with you”. And they reply simply and profoundly, “And with you as well”.
He takes a step forward. He is finally doing it. Walking up the staircase to God. And as he climbs under the shadow of the altar of God, he prays the entire time. But he is so nervous that he cannot speak out loud, he merely whispers the following words:
Take away from us our iniquities, we beseech Thee, O Lord, that with pure minds we may worthily enter into the holy of holies.
One last time he begs that he may be seen as worthy to enter this holiest of chambers wherein lies the Holy Grail and the secret of immortality. And as he finally approaches the altar, he goes down to kiss its cold marble face and utters silently:
We beseech Thee O Lord by the merits of Thy saints, whose relics are here and of all the saints that Thou would vouchsafe to forgive me all my sins. Amen.
He has begged that God see him as worthy. But just in case this plea does not appease the God of Majesty, he looks down upon the relics that lie engrained in the center of the altar. These are relics of men and women who succeeded in this adventure, who shed their blood upon the holy hill and gave their lives within the tabernacle. And gazing upon the remains of these unparalleled warriors, the man begs that God see not him but rather them.
“My God, it is true that I am but a sinner and unworthy to enter. But see these men and women who have died for you and have gained immortality. If they have done it, then so can I. Look only upon them and know that I will try as they did to seek only You in this journey. Do not judge me based on myself alone but judge me based on the merits of those who have come before me and who are beloved in Your eyes and attached forever to Your Heart.”
And with these words he kisses the altar. It will either be the kiss of Judas or the kiss of Peter. Both were men who entered the chamber of the Holy Grail. Both were men who kissed the Master. Judas kissed him because he was weak, and later had no hope in the mercy of his God. Peter would have kissed the Master when seeing Him for the first time after the Resurrection. He would have approached him as a former traitor who knew that his Lord had forgiven him because He loved him and was therefore determined never to offend Him again. The two kisses were both by traitors. But one was full of hope and that is what made all the difference.
With a kiss, the chamber door opens. But the figure entering is not some mysterious stranger who we do not know. The figure is us. It is us every day that we walk into the church for Mass. And in that moment, we now enter the most magical place known to Man, the place that men have looked for since the beginning of time. We might be afraid. We are certainly weak. But we now understand what we are about and are filled with a hope that will stretch out its luminous hand over whatever path our tired and worn feet might set out upon. For we are souls thirsting for and in search of the cup of immortality and our wondrous journey is only just beginning.