A Guide to the Mass

The mass is the central act of Christian worship. The New Testament tells us that, for as long as Christian communities existed, they have followed the example of Jesus in breaking bread and drinking wine together to make his presence known among them. What we do in our High Mass is, of course, far removed in its external character from the simple meal which was the Last Supper. But at the same time, it is not radically different from the celebrations Christians have conducted from as early as the second and third centuries. A church or chapel has no purpose apart from the worship of God. It has other uses, to be sure, but no other purpose. It is holy, set apart, for God. For this reason, the atmosphere of a church should never be ordinary. Just as in worship we offer our whole selves to God, so every aspect of that worship the sights, sounds and even the smells are different, set apart. We strive to offer what the Psalmist calls the beauty of holiness.


We begin with the entrance of four servers, and three sacred ministers. Each wears a cassock, a simple, ankle length garment which goes back to the basic dress of the Roman world. Round their necks and shoulders they tie an amice, a large piece of white linen which protects the more precious vestments from sweat or staining. Above the cassock, each wears an alb which simply means white. It derives from the ordinary under tunic a citizen of the empire would have worn under his cloak or outer garment. Then each minister puts on a stole, a coloured scarf which displays his office. The celebrant puts his round the neck to indicate that in this mass his is the part of the priest. The deacon wears his over his shoulder to show the diaconal role. Above the stole, each puts on a large coloured garment: the priest wears a chasuble, the deacon wears a dalmatic, rich outer garments which would have testified to someone's importance in the ancient world. In our context, they point not to an important person, but to the importance of the liturgical function the priest and deacon have. The colours we use change according to which season of the church's year we are in.

You will also see a thurible, for burning incense. The use of incense in public worship is mentioned frequently in the Old Testament, and of course the frankincense which Matthew records as one of the gifts to Jesus is a sign of his divine origin. The priest censes the altar on which our offering will be made. In the mass we cense objects and people to indicate their holiness, to set them apart for God's purposes. The altar is the physical centre of our offering. At its centre is the cross, and you will have noticed that it is given special attention by being censed before the ministers move along the altar. We start with Preparation. We are about to offer ourselves to God. And so we begin with self examination and penitence. We know, all too well, that we're not able to stand before God and offer him praise: our failings and weaknesses prevent us. But God asks us to offer those to him as well, to confess our sins, so that he may forgive them, and accept us just as we are. To remind us of God's forgiving grace which we received in baptism, the priest sprinkles us with holy water, and then pronounces this forgiveness of God, and an ancient hymn will be sung. Like this hymn either the Kyrie or the Gloria - some of what we say, sing and hear we have every week, and some of it is particular or, as we say, proper to certain days or occasions. The readings change each day, and so does our next prayer, the collect. This 'collects' our thoughts and intentions, and captures the theme or the event proper to the day.

The Ministry of the Word

The Mass tells the Christian story through words and actions. Like any community in history, we come to know our identity by telling and retelling the stories of our birth and origin. And so, having prepared ourselves, we come now to read the scriptures. We read of God's saving acts in the days of ancient Israel, we read about the earliest Christian churches, and we read the good news of Jesus, the records of what he said and did. The reading of the gospel is, of course, a tremendously important part of Christian worship, and so we make a great fuss of it, processing with candles, having incense to show its importance and with the gospel book itself held high aloft by the deacon. Before he sets off the deacon bows to receive the celebrant's blessing: the priest represents Christ, the chief character in our drama, and so all our actions flow out from him. The gospel book is held high and carried into the midst of the people, but once it is read it resides in each of us, so the book loses its significance. Something else you will notice, and can practise, is the making of the sign of the cross. + In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. This is, as it were, a shorthand of the faith. We use it at the beginning of mass and at the end, but at several other points, usually indicated by a cross on your order of service. We cross ourselves at the absolution, for example, when the priest pronounces God's forgiveness. We do it three times at the gospel, asking that the Word of the Lord might be in our minds, on our lips and in our hearts. And we cross ourselves at the climax of the eucharistic prayer, to acknowledge God's presence among us.

The Peace, Offertory and Consecration

We have come to the middle, more or less. In many early liturgies, this is the point when all visitors and those still learning the faith would have left. Those whom remained greet one another as a Christian should, offering the peace of Christ, and this greeting marks the transition from reading to offering, from word to sacrament. We are now setting out on the journey which will end in Christ's own presence.

So the deacon prepares the altar, bread and wine are brought, and prayers of blessing are said. The gifts of bread and wine are then censed by the priest, who now censes the altar again, before being censed himself. We are all part of the offering of this mass and we are all important, all made holy by God. So we are all censed. Finally the priest washes his hands to remind himself of the enormity of the act which God performs through him. We are offering a sacrifice. The word sacrifice means, not to give up, but to make holy. We are making these gifts, and ourselves holy, or rather God is making them holy through us. And it is our sacrifice; it is not the property of the priest. That is why the church is arranged as it is, with the ministers forming a kind of spearhead to focus the prayers of all upon the offering of the altar so that all our worship is channelled on to that one place.

The eucharistic prayer is the focal point of our service, which we mark by kneeling, with candles and with incense. 'Eucharist' means thanksgiving. The miracle of the eucharist is that, even as we thank Christ, he comes among us again to make us holy, to offer us to the father. So the prayer rehearses, yet again, the story of our redemption. God created us, and all belongs to him. He sent Christ to redeem us, and caused us to live in the power of the Spirit. So we worship and honour him, and pray that his grace will transform our gifts into the body and blood of Christ. We obey Christ's command, we repeat his words. We ask the Holy Spirit to come upon the gifts at this point a bell rings, because the central act of our drama is upon us. At the words of Christ and the invocation of the spirit the gifts are transformed, they become something which they were not before. Christ. Not something you can see touch or taste, but something which is divine, and hence more real than our dim grasp of reality can ever understand. So as we consecrate first bread, and then wine, the bell rings, the incense rises, we make the sign of the cross and we honour our Lord's presence by genuflecting. As our prayer reaches its end, we celebrate our Lord's coming by holding him aloft in joy, and glorifying God. The end of the prayer is called the great Amen. Not because it is very loud, but because it is being said not just by us, but by the whole church. In the mass we unite ourselves with the church in every place, and we unite earth and heaven together, and all say 'Amen' to our prayers.

The time is almost come to receive Christ into ourselves. We must give full thought to the importance of this action. We offer ourselves to God's mercy in the best way possible, by praying in the words Jesus taught us. We invoke him as the Lamb of God, the sacrificial offering who takes away our sins, and we rejoice that, despite the infinite divide between our weakness and his glory, one word of forgiveness is all that he needs to welcome us again. 'I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word, and I shall be healed.' The bell rings again, because it is time. We come forward, we kneel, we make again the sign of the cross, and Christ himself gives himself to us, to unite us once again with him.

Post Communion and Dismissal

We have received Christ again, and he has fed us with himself, the food that brings salvation. The grace of God strengthens us not just in this place, but in all our lives, so now God sends us out to live out the story we have told ourselves again - to be his people, in the world, the body of Christ on earth. Our drama is almost over. Just as we began by invoking God and greeting one another, so we end with the priest pronouncing the blessing of God, and the deacon inviting us to 'Go in Peace to love and serve the Lord'.