In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
For the past several weeks I have been talking about the mass and its significance. Today I will touch on the very first part of the mass proper: the introit.
Last week I spoke about how mass actually begins before mass, with our private devotions, which should dispose us to undertake the action of the mass itself. We should pray before we pray. Thus it is important to arrive a few minutes before the bell rings, and to kneel and pray privately, simply, and sincerely with respect to what we are about to do. We ask God to give us the right dispositions to come to his altar, and there to offer and receive the Body and Blood of his Son. And we express our willingness, our susceptivity to those right dispositions even by our bodily posture. We kneel humbly, and we pray.
There is, in our mass, a ritual, extraneous to the mass itself, interposed between our private prayers and the beginning of mass. This is called the “Asperges,” from the first words of the chant in Latin: “Asperges me domine,” which means “Wash me, O Lord.” In the asperges, our baptism is recapitulated.
After the Asperges, mass begins with an entrance ritual that is very ancient, wherein the celebrant and sacred ministers and altar servers come into the church from the sacristy, where the sacred vessels and vestments had been prepared and put on. In our day, during this entrance, we sing a hymn, after which there is what the Prayer Book calls an “opening sentence” – “Blessed be God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And blessed be his Kingdom, now and forever. Amen,” during which we make the sign of the cross. Having done this, the celebrant puts on incense and censes the altar, and is himself censed, while the choir sings a short chant called the “introit,” which comes from (and really just IS) the Latin word “introitus,” which simply means “the entrance.”
The introit prayer has, since very ancient times, been comprised of an antiphon, a variable verse, usually taken from the book of Psalms, the doxology “Glory to the Father…” and the repeated antiphon. This chanted prayer functions simply as the prayerful music sung during the entrance of the ministers. The Gregorian Sacramentary – a book of prayers for the mass going back to the time of Pope Saint Gregory the Great, around the turn of the 6th century – mentions that the introit was introduced into the liturgy of the West, more or less in the form that we have it today, by Pope Saint Celestine I, in the 5th century. So it is very ancient indeed. The text of the introit – that is to say, the antiphons and Psalm verses that comprise it – varies from mass to mass, and is a determined by the liturgical season, or the feast that is being celebrated.
Our historical knowledge about liturgical forms, and Christian life in general, during the first three centuries AD is very limited due to what is often called the “disciplina arcani” – “the discipline of the arcane,” or the “discipline of the secret,” which prevailed in the first centuries of the Church, whereby what was done at mass – and indeed Christian dogma too – were a secret closely guarded by Christians, and protected from unbaptized outsiders. I intend to speak more about the discipline arcani in the coming weeks, particularly as we consider the two primary parts of the mass: the liturgy of the catechumens, and the liturgy of the sacrifice.
For our purposes now, it is sufficient to note that the teachings and doings – what were called in Greek the dogmata and the kerygmata – of the Church have always been obscure, something you have to squint to see, and something that is clarified, mystically and paradoxically, only as you deepen into its opacity, we might say, “under the usual conditions” of prayer, penance, humility, susceptivity, and open-heartedness.
The great Capadocian Father, St. Basil of Caesarea wrote in his treatise “On the Holy Spirit,” concerning the disciplina arcani:
“Of the dogmata and kerygmata, which are kept in the Church, some come down to us from the written teaching, and some we derive from the Apostolic tradition, which has been handed down in a mystery (εν μυστηριω). And both have the same strength in the matters of piety. […] They come from the silent and mystical tradition, from the unpublic and ineffable teaching.” (“On the Holy Spirit,” 66)
Some have suggested that one practical reason for the disciplina arcane was the persecution of Christians: they didn’t want to let outsiders in on Christian business because they could be arrested and killed. But, following St. Basil, and also the acta of the early martyrs, originally collated by the pagan civil authorities, the causal relationship seems to me to run rather in the other direction: persecution was more often a result of ignorance about what the Christians were up to. For example, a common charge against Christians in the early days was cannibalism, because it was whispered that this sect, so at odds with the imperial, civic form of life, ate flesh and drank blood in their rituals.
The fact of the matter is, properly understood, Christian teaching and practice – dogmata and kerygmata – are obscure, and arcane. They are not easily understood even by us Christians ourselves, let alone by “outsiders” who make no attempt to live, and have no interest in living, the Christian form of life. And this is part of the meaning of the entrance rite at the mass. During the introit the sacred ministers walk through the nave of the church and enter the sanctuary, the holy place, passing through a narrow gate in the altar rail. This passage is even more dramatic in Orthodox churches, where in place of an altar rail there is an iconostasis – an actual wall separating the sanctuary from the nave – as also in Western medieval churches where there is often a similar architectural feature called a “rood screen,” often made of stone, in which there is a narrow door and beyond which, barely visible to worshipers, lies the altar. Surmounting the screen there was traditionally a large crucifix. The principle cathedrals of England, Canterbury and York, both have beautiful examples of this.
During the introit, the entrance rites, the celebrant of the mass – a priest ordained form among the faithful – passes through the nave, and enters the sanctuary, through the narrow gate that separates the body of the church, the nave, from the holy place. This is an icon, a mystic remembering, a re-presentation, of the incarnation of our Lord, who was born among us in the world, who lived a human life, walking among us through the world, and on the cross opened and passed through the narrow gate separating humanity from the holy place of heaven, the eternal altar where the Son is eternally offered to and eternally received by God the Father.
The great 20th century Jesuit liturgical scholar, Joseph Jungmann, wrote of this iconography of the mass’s entrance rite:
When Christ on the Cross cried out His Consummatum est, few were the men who noticed it, fewer still the men who perceived that this phrase announced a turning-point for mankind, that this death opened into everlasting life gates through which, from that moment on, all the people’s of the earth would pass. Now, to meet the expectant longing of mankind, this great event is arrested and, through Christ’s institution, held fast for these coming generations so that they might be conscious witnesses of that event even in the latest centuries and amongst the remotest nations, and might look up to it in holy rapture. (“The Mass of the Roman Rite: Its Origins and Development,” p. 177)
That the faithful at mass sit on that side of the rail, looking at the holy place, sometimes further obscured by the smoke of incense, shows us and – more than just showing us – brings us into spiritual contact with the mystery of the our Lord’s incarnation and death. He has risen from the dead and ascended into heaven. By means of the cross and the sepulcher, he has made the grave a gateway, like the gate in the altar rail, through which we have access to the holy place. But it is only “by him, with him, and in him,” because Jesus alone among men has really risen from the dead, never to die again. And here we can see why Easter is our holiest day: because the central claim of Christianity, from the age of the Apostles until today, the claim that scandalizes the world, is that the Lord is risen indeed.
Lastly, I would like to say something about communion – in the sense of “community.” We are talking about this within the context of the mass: when, in the words of Scripture, we are “gathered together to break bread” (cf. Acts 20.7). The Christian community – the COMMUNION – is essential to this project. You cannot approach the holy place alone. And here we can see why it is essential – why it is a “holy obligation” – to come to mass on Sundays. Because you cannot be saved alone. And salvation is nothing other than this approach to the sanctuary. Contrary to the blinkered assumptions of modern Americans, religion – real religion – is not something that can take place just in your mind, or just in your heart. Religion is NOT a private matter. It is not merely a matter of sincere belief. Much less is it a matter of having spiritual feelings. That has almost nothing to do with it. Our souls and our BODIES are destined for glory. That is what Christian salvation means – that and nothing else. We believe in the resurrection of the FLESH. And worshipping God on the golf course, or on the fishing pond, or in front of the television, or in your bed (Saint Mattress and All Pillows), is ENTIRELY INSUFFICIENT.
If you want your body to be saved, then you must bring your body to God’s altar in the company of these others, as well as in the invisible company of the angels with whom we sing. Salvation is a matter of bent knees and bowed heads, of finger tips touching the forehead, breast and shoulders – and of mouths open to sing, and not least to receive this sacrament that not only signifies our salvation, but is also the means ordained by God himself of our receiving it.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.