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Notes on the Liturgy

In September 2011 we will start using the new wording for the celebration of the Holy Mass. Below Father Peter Phillips, Doctor of Divinity, shares with us some thoughts on the wording of the Mass.


Amen is one of the great prayers of our liturgy. Sadly, it is often overlooked: the phrase trailing off on our lips. We should pronounce it clearly, and as though we meant what we say. A Hebrew word, it is one of those special words which take us back to the very lips of Jesus himself, and the prayers of the Synagogue: our affirmation, our agreement, with the prayer of the president of the assembly.

In Hebrew prayer this affirmation always comes at the end. Jesus uniquely uses it at the beginning of sentences: 'Amen I say to you...'. It has a special role on his lips, not only our affirmation of prayer, but God the Father's loving affirmation of us. Remember St Paul: 'For the Son of God, Jesus Christ...was not "yes" and "No"; but in him it is always "Yes". For in him every one of God's promises is a "Yes". For this reason it is through him that we say the "Amen" to the glory of God' 2 Cor 1:19f). In the book of Revelation "Amen" becomes the exalted title of Jesus himself.

"Amen" is often on our lips but there are two occasions when it is particularly important, and should be spoken loud and clear: the so-called great Amen at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer, and the more private Amen when we receive Holy Communion. The Great Amen, the people's response to the doxology (the shout of praise: through him, with him, in him...) affirms our belief in the Eucharistic Prayer and makes it our own. St Jerome records that it should ring round the church like a thunderclap and it was permitted to be shouted aloud. This is one of the reasons why we should try to sing this part of the Mass whenever it is possible.

A more private moment, but equally important is our own response when we receive Holy Communion. "Amen" is our profession of belief in the true presence of the Lord as we receive Him. The fourth century St Cyril of Jerusalem is a good guide: 'When you approach, do not present your hands spread out nor your fingers separated, but make a throne with your left hand for your right hand since it has to receive the King and receive the body of Christ in the hollow of your hand, saying, "Amen"... So after having received the body of Christ in Communion, approach the chalice of his blood. Do not stretch your hands out, but bowing in an attitude of respect and adoration saying "Amen", hallow yourself by taking also the blood of Christ' Mystagogical Catechesis). There is no hurry at this point of Mass: we should receive Holy Communion prayerfully with great calm and dignity. Recently the English Bishops have invited us to rethink our approach when we come up to the Altar and make sure we make it a prayerful activity. The procession to the Altar is itself act of celebration in which we are united a sign of including those who would like to receive God's blessing during the Eucharist: an offering of warm welcome and inclusion to children and those who are unable to receive Holy Communion.

Let us recapture "Amen" as our great response in the Eucharist: God's loving acceptance of us and our grateful cry of thanks to the warmth God's open-hearted embrace to each one of us.

The Words of Institution

Take this all of you, and eat of it,
For this is my body,
Which will be given up for you.

Take this, all of you, and drink from it,
For this is the chalice of my blood,
The blood of the new and eternal covenant, Which will be poured out for you and for many
For the forgiveness of sins.

There are two things to note here. In the first place the translators prefer an unusual (latin-rooted) word to plain English ('chalice' for 'cup'). This is part of a concerted policy to create an artificially heightened religious language for the liturgy, which is an innovation in liturgical usage, which jars somewhat with the word 'cup' retained in the response.

This is a relatively insignificant point. Much more worthy of comment is the use of 'many' for 'all'. This might cause confusion as in English the change suggests a reduction. After all, in English, 'many' sounds less than 'all'. Pope Benedict discusses this in his second volume of Jesus of Nazareth (pp.134ff). The German scholar Joachim Jeremias pointed out that in the Semitic languages there was no word for 'all' and showed that 'many' means 'the totality', and thus should indeed be translated 'all'. Perhaps this is sufficient. The Pope accepts this reference to Christ dying for all, but notes other scholars argue that this reference is not only to Jesus' death for all, but also to the sacramental celebration of his death in which many participate: the many gathered at the Eucharist represent the foretaste and promise of the gathering of the whole human family in the loving embrace of God.

There is no question of trying to suggest that Jesus only died for some; this would be a return to the Jansenist heresy which sought to narrow our understanding of God's love and did terrible damage to the lives of Christians during the seventeenth century and left scars well into the following centuries. God's love is not limited: his embrace is wide in its welcome to all.

The words before Communion

Behold the Lamb of God,
Behold him who takes away the sins of the world,
Blessed are those who are called to the supper of the Lamb.

Lord, I am not worthy
That you should enter under my roof,
But only say the word and my soul shall be healed.

One of the important things the new translators have attempted is to highlight the biblical references in the text of the Eucharist. This is particularly true at this point in the Mass. The supper of the Lamb is a reference to that final heavenly banquet which our daily celebration of the sacrificial death of Christ anticipates (Revelation 22).

In our response roof is, of course, not the roof of our mouths, as someone once suggested, but reminds us of the prayer of the Centurion humbly claiming that he was unworthy to have the Lord as a guest in his house (Matt 8.5-13). Perhaps the best commentary is to be found in George Herbert's poem Love:

Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick eyed Love, observing me grow slack,
From my first entrance in,
Drew near to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lacked anything.

'A guest', I answered, 'worthy to be here.'
Love said, 'You shall be he.'.
'I, the unkind, the ungrateful? Ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.'
Love took my hand, and smilingly did reply,
'Who made the eyes, but I?

'Truth, Lord, but I have marred them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.'
'And know you not', says Love, 'who bore the blame?'
'My dear, then I will serve.'
'You must sit down', says Love, 'and taste my meat.'
So I did sit and eat.

The Act of Faith

I usually introduce the Creed by saying something like, 'Let us proclaim the faith of the Church which we are struggling to make our own'. It is a reminder that we do not pick and choose what to believe; when we become Catholic Christians at baptism we accept all that the Church believes, the whole package. Of course, it will take time to come to terms with many of these things. It will take a lifetime of prayer, discussion and thought. We shall never be able to comprehend the mystery of the Trinity or the Incarnation; no human could. Some of the Church's belief we shall wrestle with. It will take time to understand what the Church is saying. The Creed is the prayerful proclamation of what the community of Christians believe.

The Creeds are very ancient documents and take us back to the beginnings of our faith. There were two types: personal proclamations of believe ('I believe') which are associated with baptism and community proclamations of belief ('We believe') which come from the gathered bishops in Council. The Creed we use at Mass was shaped at two Councils, that of Nicaea in 325 and Constantinople in 381, and probably was an adaptation of a local baptismal creed, but starts off in the Greek of the Council documents 'We believe in One God...' Our basic faith comes from the bishops of Nicaea, and our understanding of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit was added at Constantinople.

Because the Creed we pray at Mass originates in this Conciliar Creed, and is an expression of the shared belief of Christians the original translators suggested that we should begin the creed with 'We believe'. This was supported by some important essays by the then Joseph Ratzinger (now, of course, Benedict XVI) who stressed the significance of 'we-statements' as an antidote to the corrosive individualism of modern society and its temptations to pick and chose what to believe, this or that belief according to personal choice. There is a lot to say for this position.

But the Latin Creed does indeed begin 'Credo', 'I beleive', and we have been recalled to this in our new translation. This is just a return to the custom of the Latin West: our common proclamation of belief is in no way undermined.

The other major change in the translation of the creed is the phrase proclaiming the Son's solidarity with the Father coined at Nicaea: 'of one being with the Father', the famous homoousion. This was an important battling cry against the Arian group who denied that the Son was truly God, and would have emptied our faith of all its meaning. The new translators have suggest that we go back to the Latin rooted adjective 'consubstantial' to express this belief; this seems to reflect a theme running through the new translation of creating a heightened language for worship which moves away from everyday speech. This is something rather unusual in liturgical tradition, and will need some getting used to.

The Creed remains a common proclamation of the faith of Christians, a creed we share with our brothers and sisters of other denominations in the West: Anglicans, Methodists, United Reformed, and the rest. It differs only in one word from the Creed of the Orthodox Eastern Christians: the contentious 'filioque' (stating the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son), which was added to the Creed in the tenth century by Roman Catholics and still causes grave pain to our Orthodox brethren.

The Greek Orthodox Metropolitan, John Zizoulas, once said that the Creed was there 'not for theologians to study but for communities to sing', and, we might add, to sing not only with their lips but with their lives. The Creed is not just a form of words to be recited. It is the proclamation of a way of life: an assertion that we live in a Spirit-filled community; an acclamation that we are prepared to challenge anything which diminishes what it means to be human. Let us try to live out our belief in the pattern of our lives.

Notes on the Liturgy

We do not usually think of Newman as a great humorist, but is a series of dialogues about elementary studies appended to The Idea of a University he shows another side of himself. He reveals his views about translation from Latin into English with broad stokes of irony, poking fun at those who misunderstand the art of translation. Asking a pupil to translate one of Cicero's letters, the master begins: 'Cicero Appio salutem' which the student translates perfectly literally 'Cicero greets Appio' 'What is the real English of it?', the master asks, 'My dear Appius', 'That will do'. This is how English letters begin, though neither 'my' nor 'dear' appeal in the original Latin. Newman goes on to point out that a sentence can be translated grammatically and syntactically into another language but remain foreign, because the idiom is all wrong: although translated into English, it remains Latin.

Newman might have made similar criticisms of the translators of the new text for the English Mass. This seems to be the point. Their mandate seems to offer us an Englishing of the Latin rather than a text in good English. This is perhaps to make us think and remember the liturgy is rooted in ancient languages.

I offer three examples:
The late antique Latin of the Roman Canon and associated prayers love rotund rhetorical repetitions, which don't go well in English. These have been re-introduced. In the Confiteor (I Confess) we shall have 'through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault'. This was there in the Latin but deemed inappropriate in the English; we are too familiar with Dickens' Uriah Heep to be happy with this, but it will perhaps make us think. I belong to the generation of Monty Python fans, and I always saw the point in the sketch in Monty Python and the Holy Grail where God appears to the knights falling on their kneels in their clattering armour and remarking, 'I do hate grovelling!' It has a point!

A similar example occurs at the beginning of the First Eucharistic Prayer (Roman Canon). Again we shall have the repetition of 'bless these gifts, these offerings, these holy and unblemished sacrifices'. Again it is found in the original Latin, but the great German scholar, Jungmann, argues this is simply a rhetorical flourish. It is particularly distracting because the word 'sacrifices' is open to misunderstanding, both by Catholics and more importantly to our brethren of the Reformed tradition who, through misunderstanding, find the notion of the Mass as a sacrifice hard to take. There is only one sacrifice, the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, offered continually to his Father in heaven. Through our celebration we are drawn into Christ's healing sacrifice and add our own sacrifice of praise to the Father. 'Sacrifices' here does not refer to Christ's one and only sacrifice but merely the elements of sacrifice (bread and wine) we bring to re-present Christ's one sacrifice.

The final example, not a repetition of words, but the restoration of an unfamiliar expression:
'The Lord be with you'
'And with your spirit'
This again will take some getting used to. The expression takes us right to the roots of our liturgy in the Hebrew tradition. It is one of the oldest responses we have. All we can say is that it a reminder of the roots of our tradition. One comes across the expression in a very moving passage from an ancient sermon for Holy Saturday describing the harrowing of Hell:
The Lord goes in to them holding his victorious weapon, the cross. When Adam, the first created man, sees him, he strikes his breast and call out to all: 'My Lord be with you all.' And Christ in reply says to Adam: 'And with your spirit.' And grasping his hand he raises him up, saying; 'Awake, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.'

Gregory Dix, the great Anglican Liturgist gives perhaps the best explanation of the expression:
The reply of the church 'And with your spirit', suggests... that it, too, came originally from jewish usage, of which there may be an echo in 2 Tim 4.22. But it was interpreted by Christians as an acknow-ledgment of the special grace of the Holy Spirit received by the celebrant at his ordination for the ministry, which ... was to proclaim and interpret the Word of God set forth in the Scriptures now about to be read.
In a footnote he adds:
The use of 'the Lord be with you' is still officially restricted to those in holy orders. It may be suggested that it was the inappropriateness of the reply, interpreted n this sense, to those not ordained, which originally suggested the prohibition of the greeting. (Dix, Shape of the Liturgy, p. 38).