In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
In the ongoing sermon series on the mass, from which I departed last week on All Souls’ day, having more recently discussed the Sanctus and Benedictus, we arrive now at what has often been called “The Great Prayer,” and among the Christian Celts, “The Most Dangerous Prayer” – what we know as “the Canon of the Mass,” or as the Prayer Book calls it, “The Eucharistic Prayer.” Whatever its called, its the apex of the mass, the prayer for which all the other prayers are in some sense either a prelude or a postscript. It is the prayer that envelops the central action of the mass – THE Action, the “anaphora,” in Greek – namely, the offering of the Body and Blood of Jesus to God the Father. With this prayer, we arrive spiritually at the pinnacle of Calvary; we come to the foot of the cross of Christ and in communion with him, we participate by the mysterious operations of God’s grace, in the “one oblation of himself, once offered,” on a hillside outside the walls of Jerusalem some 2,000 years ago.
There is a lot that might be said about the Canon of the Mass, and I will dwell on it further in the coming weeks. And, preliminarily, I should note that the canon that we use at Holy Cross is not the ancient canon of the Western church, but is the canon of the Book of Common Prayer, and was composed about 500 years ago by Thomas Cranmer, who was at that time the Archbishop of Canterbury. Nevertheless, it expresses many of the sentiments of the ancient, Western canon, and the ritual actions in which it is enveloped are the same.
For our purposes today, I want to draw your attention to one particular peculiarity of the Canon – and that is its relative secrecy. Unlike most of the other prayers of the mass, the canon is recited – and not sung – by the priest, who stands alone at the altar, while the rest of the assembly kneels. Even when the mass is celebrated in it solemn form, with a deacon and a subdeacon along with the priest, the deacon and subdeacon do not remain at the altar during the canon, but retire to the steps behind him as the celebrant recites the canon alone at the altar. Not only so, but for much of the history of the Western church, the canon was not merely said, but it was whispered so that no one, not even the other clerics standing around the altar could hear the words. This was the normal way of celebrating mass for about a thousand years, right up until the 1960’s. And some Catholic churches, even today, retain the practice. Likewise, we should remind ourselves that not only was the canon whispered, but like the rest of the mass, it was whispered in Latin, a language that was mostly incomprehensible to ordinary people since probably around the 7th century.
Historically, the isolation of the celebrant at the altar was heightened even further. For example, Fr. Jungmann notes that “In many churches of the eleventh and twelfth centuries the choir of clerics surrounding the altar, taking up the Orate-plea of the priest [i.e. the Celebrant’s petition, “Pray, brethren, that this my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable…”], began to recite psalms for him in a loud voice,” that is, while the priest himself recited the canon in a soft voice.
Similarly in the ceremonies prescribed for pontifical celebrations of mass, right down to the 20th century, clerics holding lighted tapers were supposed to arrange themselves symmetrically around the altar, forming a kind of screen that heightened the separation of the celebrating priest from the assembly of the faithful. We have a residue of this in the practice, that we maintain here today, at a solemn celebration of the mass, wherein two acolytes holding candles take their places in front of the altar, on either side, during the canon.
In some places, says Fr. Jungmann, it was the practice of two clerics to stand on either side of the altar, swinging censers as the canon was recited, thus enveloping the altar in the smoke of the incense, and obscuring it from view – even more than our solitary thurifer does here at Holy Cross.
Such practices prevailed during the middle ages, only dying out finally within living memory; while the residue of them, hints of them, as I mentioned, live on in the practices that we, and many other churches, maintain even today.
The Protestant reformers of the 16th century certainly saw these kinds of practices as unnecessary, at best, and superstitious or even quasi- pagan at worst. And many of our Protestant brothers and sisters today regard them similarly. But, as I hope has become clear by now, in this sermon series on the mass, these practices don’t just hang out there arbitrarily and on their own. They came about by a process of organic development beginning with the apostles themselves – a process that is ongoing, despite the efforts of some in the Church to stop it and replace it with a more pure ritual from an imaginary golden age of the Church.
So what does it MEAN? What conclusions might we draw from this dimension of the mass that I am highlighting today – the isolation of the celebrant as he recites the canon quietly, standing alone at the altar – and from the rituals from which it developed, like the celebrant whispering the great prayer inaudibly, or his being shielded off from the congregation by clouds of incense and retinues of minor clerics holding their candles? We certainly should NOT conclude, as some have erroneously concluded, that it is because the priest is more pure or more morally exemplary than everyone else, that he alone is somehow worthy of doing this thing. Far from it. I am living proof – at least to myself – that this is not the case.
The real reason for it is that the priest is – presuming nothing on his own merits, and acting entirely in virtue of the grace given to him from God at his ordination – the priest is, I say, a sacramental eikon of Christ. He is acting in persona Christi, in the person of Christ and on behalf of Christ. And when the celebrating priest ascends to the altar alone to recite the prayer of the canon, he is making present the isolation of the Lord at Calvary. As Romano Guardini put it: on Calvary Jesus acted alone, on the highest thinnest pinnacle of creation, entirely cut off from the mass of humanity (even while doing acting on its behalf) before the justice of God the Father. None of Jesus’ disciples, none of the Twelve, nor even the Blessed mother herself, hung upon the cross. It was Jesus alone offering his Body and Blood acceptably to God on behalf of mankind. No other human being could enter the solitude of Jesus’ “one oblation of himself once offered” on the cross. And the isolation of the priest celebrating mass, alone at the altar, speaking quietly to God in prayer as he memorializes the cross of Jesus, is a sacramental icon of that central mystery of our salvation, indeed the means by which it becomes present to the whole assembly of the faithful at mass.
If I may speak personally, as your priest, I will say that this christic dimension of the priesthood is very palpable to me. Every time I go to the altar to “do this” in memory of the Lord, the solitude in which I stand is thick and very palpable. And it is the catalyst for some inner fear and trembling. I know well that I am no more “worthy” of this office than anyone else. And yet it has pleased God, for reasons known only to him, to call me to the priesthood.
And herein may be discerned a related mystery of Christian life in this world, namely that when we are most alone, most filled with dread or fear or desolation or a sense of our own insufficiency, in those very moments we are most like Jesus on the cross, and therefore very close to God’s heart, very present to him. Then we may be confident that God sees us, that he regards us with the most tender love, that he hears our prayers, and that we, on our part, may address him confidently as “our Father,” just as we do together at the end of the canon.
But when I am at the altar, wrapped in the incense, speaking to God alone on your behalf, I am also aware of your presence just behind me. And indeed your presence comes rushing back into my awareness unmistakably when you sing the great “Amen,” at the end of the canon.
And this also reveals a truth of the spiritual life. Namely, that no matter how alone we may feel from time to time, we are never truly alone. We are always united to Christ – and precisely in virtue of our suffering with and in him, as St. John Henry Nemwan put it, solus cum solo – alone with the One who is alone. And because of our communion in him, we are likewise inextricably bound up with one another. Despite every appearance to the contrary, because of our communion with Jesus, nobody is a nobody.
That’s the lesson I would draw from the seemingly occult rituals that surround the canon of the mass. Whatever anyone else may say.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.