holy cross sermon for the fifteenth sunday after pentecost, year a, september 21, 2014

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

In the last sermon in this current series on the mass, I talked about the ritual of the Lavabo – in which the celebrant washes his hands while reciting the words of Psalm 26: “I will wash my hands in innocensy, O Lord, and so will I go to thy holy altar…”

While this is taking place, the Offertory music is usually still being sung by the choir and the congregation. When it is finished, the offerings of bread and wine having been carefully arranged on the altar, the ritual of the incense having been concluded and the celebrant having washed his hands, we come to a very brief exchange between the celebrant and the people known, as usual, by its first words in Latin: the “Orate Fratres,” during which the celebrant turns to face the people and says to them:

“Pray, Brethren, that this my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God the Father Almighty.”

And the people respond in words that should be familiar:

“May the Lord receive this sacrifice at thy hands, to the praise and glory of his Name, both to our benefit, and that of all his holy Church.”

The celebrant responds, “Amen,” and then proceeds with the silent prayer known as “the Secret.”

The Orate Fratres, like most of the constituent elements of the mass that we have discussed hitherto, is very ancient. A version is found in a Roman Mass ordo dating from the 700’s, in which it is clear that the exhortation is directed by the celebrant at the other priests standing around him. They are the “brethren,” exhorted by the celebrant, to pray for him as he is about to commence the consecratory prayer of the mass, known in at least one ancient Celtic ordo as “the most dangerous prayer,” (from the Stowe Missal).

But this part of the mass is more ancient yet. The fact that it, or a related exhortation, occurs nearly universally, in the rituals of both the Western and the Eastern churches, attests to its antiquity. In the West Syrian and East Syrian orders of the mass – that is to say in the liturgy of the beleaguered, indigenous Christians in what is today Syria and Iraq, for whom we are always praying –  for example, there is a corresponding exhortation in the corresponding place in their liturgies – and Fr. Jungmann observes that the correspondence between these two liturgical uses on this point similarly attests to the great antiquity of this ritual moment. In the West Syrian form, the Celebrant turns to face the people and says:

“My brethren and my masters, pray for me that my sacrifice be accepted.”

And the East Syrian version is somewhat amplified, and very beautiful. The celebrant says:

“Pray for me, my brethren and my beloved, that I be accounted worthy to offer before our Lord Jesus Christ this sacrifice living and holy for myself and for all the body of the holy Church by the grace of His compassion forever. Amen.”

As I mentioned, in the earliest extant Western example of the “Orate Fratres,” it is clear that the celebrant is addressing the other clergy who are standing around the altar. They are the “fratres,” the “brethren,” whom he is asking to pray for him. But this is not always so clear. In fact, in many of the extant medieval forms, the form of the prayer runs, “Orate fratres et sorores,” – “Pray, brothers and sisters that my sacrifice be acceptable…” thus eliminating any ambiguity about the celebrant’s audience: he is asking for the prayers of the whole congregation.

In most of the earliest versions of this exchange between the celebrant and the congregation, no explicit response for the congregation is given, implying that they would pray quietly and extemporaneously. The response that we have today is indicative, though, of the character, the “spirit,” of the moment. The offerings of bread and wine have been brought up from out of the midst of the congregation and arranged carefully on the altar. And now we ask God that they might be acceptable to him, and beneficial for us and for the whole Body of Christ:

“May the Lord receive this sacrifice at thy hands, to the praise and glory of his Name, both to our benefit, and that of all his holy Church.”

Historically, though, this exchange had a more personal character that is obscured somewhat in the version that has come down to us. In most of the more ancient forms of the celebrant’s exhortation, he besought the people, not so much for them to pray for God to accept the sacrifice, but that they pray for him, the celebrant, as he offered it. “Orate… pro me…” “Brothers and sisters, pray for me,” or in some forms, “Pray for me, a sinner,” or even, “Pray for me, a miserable sinner….”

Which brings me to my final point, an insight into the spirituality of the priesthood. Fr. Jungmann says:

“The [Orate Fratres] thus occurs at the moment when the presentation and arrangement of the gifts is completed, and the priest at the head of the congregation and in its name is about to draw near to God with those gifts…. The priest feels very strongly that he is exalted above the people – a matter the early medieval Church was fully conscious of – and even in his sacrificial prayer he realizes he stands alone before God as the people’s mediator.” (“The Mass of the Roman Rite,” vol. 2, p. 83)

On this score, it is worth remembering that, as I mentioned, the priest is about to commence, in the name of the people, the Canon of the Mass, sometimes called “the most dangerous prayer.” The spirit of the moment is thus very like that of the “Prayer of Humble Access,” which we all shortly pray together. “We do not presume to come to this thy table, most merciful Father, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies…” The priest is acting, by God’s grace, “in persona Christi,” in the person of Christ, as mediator. He has, as it were, donated his hands, and indeed himself, through his ordination, to this task of which he is totally and completely unworthy – to stand alone in the place that by right belongs to Christ alone, the one mediator between God and man. It is indeed a monumental and “dangerous” thing that he is presuming to do. And, believe me, he does it – or he ought to do it – with a profound sense of his own unworthiness, and relying totally on God’s grace and mercy, and on the prayers of those who stand by as witnesses of this sacrifice that he offers on their behalf.

Pray, indeed, brethren, for me, a miserable sinner, and that this my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God the Father Almighty.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

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About Fr Will

Fr Will Brown is rector of Holy Cross Dallas
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