By Alex Chen
Considering how long Christians have been celebrating the Mass, it is amazing and a testament to its strength that it has remained largely the same in format since its formation. In 155 AD, St. Justin wrote a petition to Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius concerning the persecution of Christians and explained what it was that this relatively new religious group practiced. He said they gathered on Sundays, read texts by the apostles and prophets, prayed together, and used bread and wine to give thanks to God 1 (CCC 1345).
Despite these core tenets that have lasted throughout the ages, there are still features of the Mass that some Catholics may be unfamiliar with because of regional and cultural differences.
For example, the use of incense is not universal. One of the reasons incense is used is simply because it is an act of veneration. It emphasizes the importance of what takes place during the Mass. In the Old Testament, God told people to burn incense2 and the rising smoke can be thought of as recalling the tradition of burning animals or other offerings to God3. It is also a common interpretation to see the incense as symbolic of prayers rising to God3.
Another feature of the Mass that people may be familiar with is the use of Latin. Historically, Latin has been the preferred language of the Catholic Church. It is still the preferred language for Latin Rite masses to create unity amongst the global Catholic community and preserve the Church’s rich history4. When Humanity attempted to build the Tower of Babel to Heaven, they were divided against each other with different tongues5. Now, when Roman Catholics come together to build a Christian community, they are united by the common language of Latin.
The way in which music manifests itself in the Mass also has a long tradition. It is considered the most important art because it is an indispensable tool for worship, veneration and articulating solemnity1 (CCC 1156). The Catholic Church asks that music used during the Mass meets three requirements: That it is solemn, that it is beautiful and that the whole church participates at the correct moments1 (CCC 1157). For solemnity and beauty, Gregorian chant is best suited6 and usually Churches will provide a leaflet or a book so the congregation can follow.
To sum up the inseparable nature of liturgy and faith, one can simply say: “Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi”, “The law of prayer is the law of faith”. The faith of the Catholic Church precedes that of the believer (CCC 1124). In other words, the mission of the Church is not defined by its followers; it is an institution of ideas and belief established by Jesus. The way in which the Mass is celebrated reflects this mission.
1. Catechism of the Catholic Church. New York: Doubleday, 1995. Print.
2.(Exodus 30:7, 40:27)