I grew up in New Jersey as the daughter of a Knight of Columbus. I lived down the street from my parish, Saint Joseph’s Catholic Church, and nearly everyone I knew was Catholic. Those who weren’t knew so many Catholics that there was never any question as to whether or not Catholics were really Christians. In fact, the first time I met a person who said such a thing, I was 19 years old. I think I looked at her as if she had two heads when she matter-of-factly told me that I wasn’t really a Christian. I believe my answer to her was, “What are you talking about? The Catholic Church is the original Christian church!”
I don’t think my amazing apologetics skills did much to persuade her, but I’d never needed to defend my faith before.
Our family soon moved to Florida, where I came in constant contact with people who were a little suspicious of the Catholic Church, though I believe most of them knew we were Christian, albeit confused ones. I remember a time when we were involved in a business venture, though, in the early-to-mid-nineties, and we attended many motivational weekend seminars filled with Evangelical Christians who were boldly proclaiming the Gospel as they understood it. Their faith was on fire, and on Sunday mornings there were non-denominational services that included altar calls.
This whole phenomenon was new to me, and, I’m sad to say, most of the time I failed to fulfill my Sunday obligations on these weekends. I recall my husband going up for an altar call (he’d lost his faith for a time and was renewing his beliefs) and praying the “Sinners’ Prayer.”
At the end of these services and altar calls, they’d hand out small New Testaments to those who went forward and encourage everyone to attend a “Bible-based church.” This was a new phrase to me, as well, and I remember saying something to my father about it.
“You do that already!” he snapped. “You’re Catholic! Think of all the Bible reading we do!”
And when I did think about it, I realized he was right. I might not carry my own Bible into Mass each week (though I do have a Sunday missal these days), but the Catholic Mass is filled with the Bible in a way these services never were. While the services at these weekend functions had lots of preaching and singing of worship songs, the preaching was typically focused on a few verses from here and there that seemed to support the general idea of the Prosperity Gospel. (This was a phrase I didn’t hear until years later, but immediately recognized when I read a description of it.) The verses were chosen by the one who would be preaching, whether it be someone who was an official minister or a layman who felt “called” to preach that morning.
It’s been years since we’ve been involved in that business venture, but occasionally it comes back to me in bits and pieces, and I mentally compare what I heard on those Sundays and what I experience each time I assist at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
I had an opportunity, thanks to The Maximus Group, to review a new book by Edward Sri called A Biblical Walk through the Mass: Understanding What We Say and Do in the Liturgy (Ascension Press, ©2011). Because the book’s look at the Mass incorporates the new translation of the English Liturgy that will be implemented this Advent, I was extremely excited to read it. Along with this book was a wonderful pamphlet that sums up some of the “big” points in the book and contains a tear-off sheet with the new translations of the various parts of the people for Mass, such as the Gloria and the Creed.
First, a word about the pamphlet. Titled “A Guide to the New Translation of the Mass,” it is short and sweet, containing questions and answers about the translation and why the changes are being made. I think one of my favorite parts about it is the tear-off reference card that can easily be used during Mass. The question-and-answer format was easy to understand, as well. Just to see how it would appeal to younger people, I asked my daughters to read the pamphlet. My twelve-year-old liked it and got a lot out of it, but my nine-year-old was less enthused. ”It’s just a little hard for me to understand,” she explained. She liked it better if I read one or two things to her and explained it rather than reading it. I’m certain Mr. Sri was not aiming to a target audience of fourth-graders, though; this was simply an idea I had to see who might be able to get something out of it.
I’m afraid I got so excited by the guide that I immediately passed it onto my parish priest, who is still in possession of it! (For the record, he said it looked interesting when he first glanced it over.)
But now, on to the book itself!
I’ve read other books on the Mass since the day my father reminded me that as Catholics we do, indeed, attend a Bible-based Church. These books, such as Scott Hahn’s Supper of the Lamb, helped educate me on exactly what I was doing at Mass. Sri’s book, however, gave me a wonderful lesson on why we do many things, and tied it back, not only to the Bible, but to ancient Jewish traditions that preceded Our Lord’s Incarnation.
The book’s format is outstanding; it’s divided into sections that correspond with the Liturgy. Because of this, the book can easily be used as a reference tool (though I certainly recommend reading the entire thing front-to-back). But before Mr. Sri gets into instructing us on the Mass itself, he begins with a story that illustrates the necessity of a book like his. In his anecdote, he tells of a time when he encountered a woman who was reading a Bible. After asking if she was a Christian and getting an enthusiastic reply of “yes!”, she cooled a bit when she learned of his Catholicism. He tried engaging her by explaining with enthusiasm that he was going to teach a seminar on the Mass’ roots in the Bible, and her response was that she’d been to a Mass once and it had “something deeper going on there”.
If only she knew even a hint of it!
As Catholics, we can tend to take the Mass itself for granted. The way it’s structured, the prayers we say, even our three-year cycle of Sunday readings … it can all seem so common after a while. But what happens at Mass is anything but common. And yet, after 40 years of celebrating Mass, we are about to have a great change in what we say. For some of us, this will be an opportunity to learn more about the Mass – to see it with fresh eyes. It will be an opportunity, Sri tells us, for catechists and priests to educate us anew about the central action of our lives: the Holy Mass.
He begins with the Sign of the Cross, an action that is taken so often that we don’t always think about it. But it’s a prayer, and one with great power! Mr. Sri writes about the theologian Tertullian, who lived in the late second century to the early thrid, who described how believers marked themselves with the sign of the cross:
In all our travels and movements, in all our coming in and going out, in putting on our shoes, at the bath, at the table, in lighting out candles, in lying down, in sitting down, whatever employment occupies us, we mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross. (pp. 17-18)
Modern and Ancient Taw
And yet, there seems to be an even older connection to be found in Holy Scripture in the book of Ezekiel (Ez 9:4-6). Here, Ezekiel describes a vision not too dissimilar from Revelation, where the faithful would be marked with a sign: the taw, a Hebrew letter that is shaped a bit like an X or a cross. Some Church Fathers saw this as a type for what has become the Sign of the Cross. Yet it’s more than just a motion or a symbol. By crossing ourselves we call upon God’s very name – a name so powerful that demons tremble at its mention.
While every part of the book was fascinating to me, what really drew my attention were the portions of the book dedicated to the parts of the Mass that will be changing. Because each chapter of the book deals with one portion of the Mass, Mr. Sri starts that chapter with the words of that portion.
For example, the chapter on the Confiteor (“I Confess”) begins with the new translation that we will be using come late November (emphasis added):
I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do, through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault; therefore I ask blessed Mary ever-Virgin, all the Angels and Saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God.
By beginning with the new translation of the prayers in each chapter, Sri immediately grabs our attention so that we might be attuned to where his explanations will go throughout the rest of the chapter. Each line is looked at in context of Scripture and tradition (and Tradition), and we are challenged to be more mindful of the words we say even now as we await this translation to take effect. Every chapter, every part of the Mass, is examined in careful detail.
And still A Biblical Walk through the Mass itself is not difficult to understand. You don’t need to be a scholar to grasp the lessons, and you don’t need to have been reading about the translation or even a history of the Mass to “get it.” This book is truly meant for “Joe and Mary Catholic” to use to gain a deeper understanding of and appreciation for the Mass both as it is now and as it will be later this year.
I can wholeheartedly recommend this book to everyone from the person who merely wants to get a better grip on the changes we will all be facing with the new translation to the person who, like me, is a bit geeked-out by the whole thing and hungers for an in-depth look at the Mass. For the latter, I recommend just diving in with a Catechism and Bible on hand for reference. For the former, use the index and the general order of the Mass to pick and choose what you’d like to know more about.
One group who will most benefit from this book, from what I see, would be those who are tasked with educating their parishes on the new Mass translation. They, too, will appreciate the ease with which you can use A Biblical Walk through the Mass as a reference tool. While I plan on loaning this book to my own pastor, I also plan on getting it back ASAP so I can help guide my own children and prepare them for the changes coming our way.
(Cross-posted at Domestic Vocation.)