Why We Do That - December edition

12/01/2022  |  Why do we do that?

Why does the priest wash his hands before the Eucharistic Prayer?

Like many parts of our liturgical tradition, the washing of hands has its roots in Jewish temple tradition, but also has a practical function. In Jewish custom, the priests would ritually wash themselves before offering sacrifice at the temple as prescribed in the Torah (Ex 30:19). This was to symbolize the need to come before the Lord with pure intent on behalf of the people. This tradition was incorporated into the Christian Eucharistic rite from the earliest centuries.

Over time, however, the washing of hands took on a practical function as well. In the Middle Ages, at the time of the offertory, most people didn’t donate coins. Instead, they gave what they had: eggs, wheat, wool, vegetables, or other products of the land. The priest would receive these gifts on behalf of the Church – but in doing so, would be handling the raw produce. So the washing hands became an essential need before going to handle the sacred species.

In the modern rite, the practical need no longer exists for the most part, but the spiritual origins remain. As the priest washes his hands, he quietly prays: “Lord, wash me of my iniquities and cleanse me of my sins.” Like all of us, the priest is a sinner, and needs God’s grace to be able to offer the Eucharist on behalf of the people of God. It is an act of humility and a reminder of the tremendous trust that the people of God place in him as a priest of the Church.

Why does the priest kiss the altar at the beginning and end of mass?

While the origins of this tradition are unclear, it dates back to at least the 4th century. Before Christianity became legal in the Roman Empire in the year AD 323, most Christians had to gather in secret, often in catacombs or tombs of martyrs. These tombs would have stone slabs placed over the top of them to seal them, and mass would be celebrated using these stone slabs as an altar. Kissing these altar stones had the double effect of honoring Christ, who sacrificed himself for us and whose body and blood is the sacrificial offering at every mass, and also honoring the saint or martyr who sacrificed themselves to witness to the faith.

When Christianity became legal and mass could be celebrated publicly, this tradition continued. Some of the earliest churches were built directly over the tombs of the saints – most famously St. Peter’s and St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome. Stone slabs – usually marble – were used to build altars as a reminder of the tombs of the martyrs that were table of the Eucharist for so many years.

To this day, the altars of most churches, including our own, have relics of saints embedded in them – a physical connection to the communion of saints. In our church, we have a relic of our patron, St. Francis Xavier, embedded beneath the heavy marble slab. When the priests and deacons kiss the altar, they are continuing the ancient tradition of reverencing the sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifices the saints made on behalf of the people of God.

Why do we sign ourselves with holy water as we enter and exit the church?

There are three main reasons for this ritual that most of us do out of habit: First and foremost, it is a reminder of our Christian baptism. Just as we were baptized with water “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” when we were initiated into the Church, so to we remind ourselves of that blessing each time we walk into church, whether for mass on Sunday or for private prayer.

Second, it is an act of purification. Just as we wash our hands before a meal, we symbolically ask Jesus to cleanse us of any sins before we approach the table of the Lord. Holy water, which has been blessed by the priests of the church, has the power to wash away the minor impurities that each of accumulate as part of our human existence. The act of signing ourselves as we enter church is part of our prayer that we might enter into the presence of God more worthily.

Finally, it is a physical reminder that we are entering into a sacred space and a sacred time. The ritual act of signing ourselves with holy water reminds us that the church is not just any other space – an office, a restaurant, a classroom. Church is a time and place set aside to nurture our relationship with God. We make the sign of the cross when we enter and exit to symbolize the beginning and end of this unique communion with the divine.

Why do we make the sign of the cross on forehead, lips, and heart when the Gospel is read?

When the priest or deacon proclaims the gospel, the Roman Missal instructs priests and deacons to he makes the sign of the cross on the page that is to be read, and then on his forehead, lips, and heart, and silently pray: “Cleanse my heart and my lips, almighty God, that I may worthily proclaim your holy Gospel.” The symbolic act of crossing the book connects the Word of God to the mind, lips, and heart of the one who is to proclaim it.

Interestingly, the Roman Missal has no such instruction for the congregation. But as early as the 9th century, we have evidence of the people of God mirroring the priest’s symbolic blessing as we respond “Glory to you, O Lord.” It is a habit that has grown over the centuries and has become part of how we participate in the Liturgy of the Word. As we cross ourselves, we too ask God to be in our minds, on our lips, and in our hearts, that we might receive the Word of God and follow it (Luke 11:28).

Why don’t we use the bells anymore?

First, it’s important to understand why the bells were used at all. Prior to Vatican II, there was an increasing disconnect between the people and what was happening in the mass. As Fr. William King notes, “Three factors historically led to [this] disconnect between the actions of the priest and the actions of the people: language, posture, and acoustics. Over the centuries, Latin became increasingly less understood by most people. The priest stood at the altar facing the same direction as the people and, in some churches where the altar was a good distance from the pews, acoustics simply did not allow the congregation to hear the words spoken at the altar.” Increasingly, parishioners were unable to follow what was going on at mass.

The bells were introduced to help with this. By ringing the bells during the epiclesis (calling down of the Spirit) and during the words of consecration, the congregation would know what was happening, even if they couldn’t see or hear what the priest was saying and doing.

Many of the liturgical reforms of Vatican II were meant to address this disconnect between the priest and the people. Sacrosanctum Concilium – Vatican II’s constitution on the Sacred Liturgy – emphasizes that all Catholics are called to full, conscious, and active participation in the mass. Now that we can see the action at the altar, hear the words of consecration, and understand them in our own language, the need for the bells is obviated.

For many, the bells are a poignant recognition of the presence of the Spirit and an audible connection to past tradition. For others, however, the bells are a reminder of liturgical practices that the Church sought to remedy at Vatican II. Thus, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal leaves it to “local custom” – that is, the pastor’s discretion to determine whether or not the bells will be used [GIRM 150].

Why do we respond “and with your Spirit?” Why not, “and also with you?”

From 1970 to 2010, the mass began with the priest saying “The Lord be with you” and the people responding, “and also with you.” Then, when the latest Roman Missal translation was promulgated, the people’s response changed to “and with your Spirit.” This change caught many people surprise and still can seem somewhat awkward.

First, it is important to understand what is happening in this moment. At key moments of mass: at the start, before the Gospel is read, at the beginning of the Eucharistic prayer, at the kiss of peace, and at the dismissal, the priest blesses the people: “The Lord be with you.” And the people bless the priest in turn “And with your Spirit.” At each important step, the priest acknowledges that he is not doing this by himself, for the people. Rather, the priest and the people are praying the mass together – a mutuality expressed each time the priest and the people bless one another.

This mutual blessing dates back at least to the 3rd century AD – and in Latin, the phrase was “Et cum spiritu tuo.” The literal translation of this phrase is “and with your Spirit.” This phrase was unproblematic for much of the world, but in the English speaking world, the phrase seemed to imply that the spirit or soul was somehow different than the person of the priest. After Vatican II, the Roman Missal translation shifted to “and also with you” to emphasize the unity of the body and spirit within the person of the priest. In the 21st century, however, the Vatican advised that the translation should be changed back to be closer to the original, so as to be in closer alignment with both tradition and the rest of the worldwide Church. Thus, in 2010, we began the process of learning or re-learning the new phrase.

Regardless of the particular words used, however, the important part is the meaning. Through this phrase, the people of God offer their blessing and their assent to the presider. He celebrates the mass with the people, not just for the people. It is our mutual blessing to one another.

Why is the Mass called “the Mass”?

The mass derives its name from the Latin word missa, which appeared in the last phrase of the Latin rite Ite, missa est. It literally means, “Go, it has been sent.” From at least the 7th century AD, the verb missa started to be used as a noun which described the liturgy as a whole. (BTW: we capitalize the word Mass when it refers to the liturgy, to distinguish the sacred rite from other uses of the word in English, such as the mass of an object.)

As Thomas Aquinas noted, it is significant that mass takes its name from its final phrase. At the mass we have asked forgiveness for our sins, we have listened to the Word of God, we have professed our faith, and have partaken in the Eucharistic feast at the table of the Lord. But the mass isn’t complete until we go – until we are sent out into the world to proclaim the Gospel with our lives. The missa isn’t just what happens inside the church. It also includes our mission to witness our faith in our everyday words and actions. The mass is named for what it does. It fortifies in Word and sacrament so that we might go out to all of the world to spread the good news (Mark 16:15).

Why do we do “Catholic calisthenics?” That is, why do we stand, sit, or kneel for various parts of the Mass?

From ancient times, it has been recognized that our posture and affect the way we think and pray. Hindu mystics use the lotus position to enhance their meditations, while faithful Muslims prostrate themselves on prayer mats to signify their submission to God. In the Catholic tradition, we too use postures to both symbolize our relationship to God as well as reinforce our prayers as individuals and as a congregation.

Standing, for instance, is a sign of honor and respect. We stand when someone important like the president or a judge comes in. We stand when we want to show respect to something such as when we stand for the national anthem or for a moment of silence for the victims of a tragedy. Similarly, when we stand at key times of the mass – such as the opening procession, the proclamation of the Gospel, or the beginning of the Eucharistic prayer, we are showing our honor and respect for the rites that are about to happen. Likewise, kneeling is a sign of reverence. In the Medieval era, people knelt before their lords – kings, queens, emperors, etc. If one kneels for a king, then how much more so should we kneel in the presence of our true Lord and savior?

Moreover, postures in our body can create attitudes in our minds. Standing at attention really does make us more attentive; and kneeling in reverence really can make us more reverent. We are bodily creatures and by training our bodies in certain postures, we help place our minds and spirits in the right frame for prayer and sacrament.

One last note: of these various postures, sitting is the odd one out. For much of church history, many cathedrals and churches didn’t have chairs. People would stand or kneel through entire liturgies, while seats were reserved for a select few. In many Eastern rite churches, this is still the case. So let us be grateful for the “modern” invention of pews!

Why do we have to go to confession with a priest? Why not just say “I’m sorry” to God in private prayer?

believe that Christ truly was made flesh and dwelt among us, and that each of us as humans are a union of body, mind, and spirit. Each of our sacraments has an incarnational component to it: the bread and wine of the Eucharist, the oils used for anointing, the water of baptism, etc. St. Augustine said that a sacrament is an “outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace.”

So what is the incarnational component of the sacrament of reconciliation? Unlike Eucharist or Baptism, the incarnational element is not a tangible object, but the spoken words. When the penitent speaks his/her sins out loud, it physically manifests the sorrow and remorse that they feel. When they pray the Act of Contrition, they manifest their trust and hope in a God of mercy. And when the priest prays the Formula of Absolution, on behalf of the whole Church, he incarnates the invisible grace of God – His infinite compassion and mercy – into words spoken to and received by the one seeking forgiveness.

God’s mercy is limitless, and there is every possibility that forgiveness that is sought in private prayer will be met by God’s mercy and compassion. But through the grace of the Church and the sacrament of confession, we are promised the efficaciousness of absolution. There is a power in naming our sins out loud, under the sacred seal of confession. By naming our sins in front of a witness, it helps us take responsibility and control. And there is power in hearing – out loud – that we are forgiven, that we are not just speaking into a void, but that the grace of Jesus Christ, working through the ministry of the Church, really does grant pardon and peace.

Why do we bless EVERYTHING?

In Catholic tradition, we bless all sorts of things. Of course, we bless sacred objects such as rosaries, crucifixes, and prayer cards, but we also bless all sorts of ordinary objects – houses, cars, boats, food, etc. The Book of Blessings has rites for everything from communication centers to fishing equipment.

The reason we have these blessings is because of the incarnational nature of our faith. We are not purely mental beings – we are bodily creatures who inhabit a material world. Objects that we interact with can have profound impacts on our lives. We have them blessed because since all created things come from God, they have the potential to lead us back to Him. We ask the Holy Spirit to purify these things so that they might be protected from the presence of any evil spirits and used only for good.

Just as important, however, is the intent of the one asking for the blessing. By asking to have the important objects in our life blessed, we are signifying to the Lord our desire to have our whole lives directed towards the love of God and the love of neighbor, and that we intend to use these objects only in ways that will be for the greater glory of God.

Why do we genuflect before going into a pew?

As a general rule, we genuflect or bow in reverence in the presence of the Holy Eucharist, usually residing in the tabernacle. You may notice that when people in the sanctuary cross in front of the tabernacle, they will genuflect or bow to recognize the true presence of Christ.

In many churches that have only one main center aisle, going to your seat necessarily means crossing in front of the tabernacle at least once. Thus the habit grew that you should genuflect in reverence, acknowledging the presence of Christ in our midst, before taking your seat. As the tradition evolved, even in larger churches like ours where you can enter into the building without crossing in front of the tabernacle, you genuflect upon entering and exiting in order to reverence the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

This is why we don’t genuflect as we exit or enter the pew during the communion procession. We are going forward to receive the true presence of Christ into our very selves through the sacrament of Eucharist. We wait and bow right before receiving because now Christ is not hidden away in the tabernacle – he is right there waiting for you to encounter him in the flesh.

What is the “kiss of peace” and why do we do it?

The kiss of peace is one of the oldest Christian traditions. The letters of both Peter and Paul instruct their communities to “Greet one another with a holy kiss” (c.f. 1 Peter 5:14, 1 Cor 16:20). Tertullian, an important early theologian instructed that “before leaving a house, Christians are to give a holy kiss and say ‘peace to this house.’” This ancient custom of greeting with a kiss is still present in many European cultures, where people greet each other with kisses on the cheek.

The kiss of peace is likely an adaptation of Greek and Jewish culture. The traditional Hebrew greeing, shalom, literally means “peace” and is meant both as a blessing and a statement of intent – both, “peace be with you” and “I hope we can be at peace with one another.”

The kiss of peace has been part of the Mass since at least the 2nd century AD. It is meant as a sign of reconciliation within the community as well as a sign of hope and good will towards one another. Just as we reconcile with the Lord and celebrate of love of God as part of Mass, so too does the kiss of peace help us reconcile with one another and demonstrate our love of neighbor as we proceed together to the table of the Lord.