In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Last week, in this series of sermons on the mass, I talked about the “Orate Fratres,” the short exhortation and response between the celebrant and the congregation that begins “Pray, Brethren, that this my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God the almighty Father.”
And this brings us to the part noted in our booklets (p.?) called “The Secret” – a brief prayer prayed by the priest that brings the rituals of the offertory to a conclusion, and after which the mass begins to pick up steam very quickly, with the great prayer of consecration, the Canon, the communion of the faithful, and some brief concluding rites that bring the whole thing to a close. More on all of that in due course.
But today I am talking about the Secret. Its called the Secret because it is prayed “secretly,” or, in other words, quietly, in an inaudible voice, by the celebrant. But “the Secret” is not its most ancient name, nor is it called “the Secret” in the Church’s official books since the 1960’s. Its most ancient name, and its official name now, is the “oratio super oblata,” or “the prayer over the gifts.”
The words of the prayer vary from Sunday to Sunday, through the seasons, and according to the occasion. But the sentiment expressed is almost always the same. It is a short prayer that God might cause the bread and wine that we have offered to benefit us spiritually. The Secret appointed for today, for example, is as follows:
“Grant to us, Lord, we beseech thee, that this saving victim may avail, both for the cleaning of our offenses, and for the obtaining of the favor of thy almighty power.”
And then the books instruct the celebrant to conclude the prayer audibly, singing: “throughout all ages, world without end,” to which the congregation responds, “Amen.” And then we come to the Sursum Corda, the dialog between celebrant and congregation that runs:
The Lord be with you.
And with thy spirit.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up unto the Lord.
Let us give thanks unto our Lord God.
It is meet and right so to do.
But that, as I say, is a topic for a future Sunday.
Fr. Joseph Jungmann, my guide throughout this study of the mass, notes the seeming peculiarity of the inaudible prayer of the Secret concluding with the celebrant saying audibly, “throughout all ages, world without end.” He suggests that this audible conclusion is actually the conclusion of the whole offertory rite, and that it corresponds to the celebrant’s saying “Let us pray,” immediately before the offertory sentence. Jungmann notes that this “Let us pray” just before the offertory sentence makes little sense considered in isolation, because its not followed immediately by a prayer, but by a verse of Scripture (and, in our practice, usually a hymn or a choral piece). But seen in this light, “throughout all ages, world without end. Amen,” at the end of the Secret is actually the conclusion of what began with “Let us pray” before the offertory sentence, namely the whole offertory itself – with all of its individual prayers and exhortations, the arrangement of the gifts on the altar, the ritual of the incense, the washing of the celebrant’s hands, etc. – and thus the whole thing should be seen to be one long, dramatic prayer-drama, with words, silence, music, actions and even aromas. And it is to all of this, as it were, extended prayer-drama, that the gathered community finally adds its “Amen,” at the conclusion of the Secret.
One might object that this strand of thought is pretty obscure, and that almost no one, in the history of the Church, ever had this in mind as he was celebrating or assisting at mass, and thus how could it be effectual as a prayer, or a scheme of prayer? To such a consideration I would respond that this is just one concrete expression of the mystical reality of our being “the Body of Christ, and individually members of it,” (1 Cor. 12.27), and of the Holy Spirit praying within us, as a body, with groanings too deep for words. In much the same way that your little toe doesn’t know anything about the marathon your whole body is running, but simply does its part, bending and flexing dutifully, under the direction of your mind, to accomplish what your whole body is doing.
Salvation itself is similarly a prayer-drama unfolding within and by means of the whole Church, of which any one believer, individually, is but a very small part. But all is accomplished under the direction of the head, which Paul says is Christ himself. Just because we are very small, and just because the whole scheme is inscrutably obscure to us, does not mean that we don’t have our part to play, our contribution to make. It does not mean, in other words, that our prayers, or the good and bad things that happen to us, or our lives as a whole, are of no account. What we do matters. WE matter. God hears our prayers. Even though we can’t understand how or why – or even sometimes what we are praying for – our task is simply to be faithful, to DO what we have been given to do, to pray what we have been given to pray, and to trust God to see to it that it all fits together into one grand, salutary work.
Which brings me to my final point about the Secret. And that is to address the question of why it is silent to begin with. Why does the celebrant not just say it aloud? Is this not just a relic of some opaque medieval superstition? Or, perhaps, as I thought, maybe its silence was an ancient relic of its being prayed by the celebrant while the choir was supposed to be singing something. It turns out the correct answer is: none of the above. We know that the celebrant has prayed this particular prayer silently for a very long time. For one thing, the emperor Justinian issued a special ordinance forbidding the clergy to pray the Secret silently in 565 AD – which he would only have thought necessary if it were already a widespread practice. Fr. Jungmann suggests that the emperor might have thought the practice redolent of some dimension of paganism (p. 93), but in fact we don’t know why Justinian didn’t like the practice.
But Fr. Jungmann offers a better explanation of why this prayer, along with a number of the other offertory prayers, is prayed silently. The silent prayers of the offertory, and of the Secret in particular, are in fact sort of the ritual form of an awed hush. Jesus, our Great King, is coming into the assembly of his disciples in the elements of the Bread and Wine that have been placed on the altar, and there he is being proleptically honored with silence. I have searched my mind for a fitting analogy, but there are no obvious ones from the commonplace experiences of our time and place. The nearest I can come is the way a room full of reporters will fall silent when the President, or some important dignitary, emerges and takes the podium. It is like that, only infinitely more so. Jesus is about to appear on the altar. And so we become still and QUIET. And this quiet stillness is reflected in the silent praying of the Secret.
In this regard, Jungmann points out that in the corresponding place in the Divine Liturgy of St. James – an ancient liturgy still in use among Orthodox Christians – during what we might call their “offertory,” but which they call “the great entrance,” the hymn that we know as “Let all mortal flesh keep silence,” one of my favorites, is sung by the deacon. The Bread and the Wine are being brought to the altar. Very shortly they will become the Body and Blood of our Lord. Therefore, in the words of the Orthodox hymn, as we have them translated in our hymnal (by the Rev. Gerald Moultrie):
Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth
Our full homage to demand.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.