The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass: The Prayers at the Foot of the Altar
What is most holy must be treated in a holy manner; therefore, a careful preparation for the mystery of the Divine Sacrifice is required. How cautious should we not be to keep ourselves wholly and unreservedly for Christ, who so greatly honors us, as to descend unto us and place Himself in the priest’s hands when the words of Consecration are pronounced!—Monsignor Nicholas Gihr
In this article we will examine the prayers at the foot of the altar, presenting solely the work of Monsignor Nicholas Gihr in his fundamental liturgical commentary The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass: Dogmatically, Liturgically, and Ascetically Explained. Monsignor Gihr was a priest of the Archdiocese of Freiburg in Breisgau whose work of liturgical research took place during the time frame spanning the pontificates of Popes Pius IX to Pius XI, including that of Pope St. Pius X. The early years of his work were contemporaneous with the last years in the work of the eminent Benedictine liturgist Dom Prosper Guéranger of Solesmes. The English translation of his study appeared in 1902; the original is: Gihr, Nikolaus. Messopfer dogmatisch, liturgish und aszetish erklärt (Herder: Freiburg im Breisgau, 1877).
The first principal division of the Mass liturgy, which includes the prayers at the foot of the altar, bears a preparatory character; it may be considered as the public and common preparation of the priest and the people for the actual celebration of the holy mysteries. These prayers aim principally at purifying the heart and enlightening the mind, at animating the faith and exciting devotion, in order that all present may be placed in the proper dispositions and thus be able to offer worthily the most Holy Sacrifice to the Most High.
The Sign of the Cross
Certainly it is highly proper that the most sacred act of Sacrifice should begin with the Sign of the Cross. As he invokes the Triune God, the priest signs himself with the Sign of the Cross, to express by word and action, that “in the name,” that is, by the commission, with the power and the assisting grace of the three divine Persons, as well as to promote the honor and glory “of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost” he intends to celebrate Mass, this mystical representation and renewal of the Sacrifice of the Cross, to implore for himself at the same time protection and security against the snares of Satan, as well as help and assistance from on high for the devout celebration of the sacrifice.
Introibo ad altare Dei
“I will go up to the altar of God: to God who giveth joy to my youth.” This verse introduces and concludes Psalm 42, Judica. This antiphon contains the fundamental thought of the aforesaid psalm which should here have the prominent place, and hereby indicates the special point of view in which it is to be taken and recited, that is, it gives the key to the liturgical and mystical understanding of the psalm with regard to its application to the celebration of Mass. It expresses the sentiment which animates the priest; it powerfully attracts him to the altar. He longs to ascend to the altar of God, there to perform his holy office, to draw near to the Lord God and to be united to Him and, by this union with the Eucharistic Savior, to be cheerfully and joyfully strengthened in the interior life. This longing and desire for the holy place and for the celebration of the Sacrifice is expressed three times. By the words: “to God who giveth joy to my youth,” the priest may, indeed, also acknowledge that from his early days God has been his delight and bestowed on him a thousand joys; but the term youth (juventus) is here to be understood first and chiefly as the supernatural and spiritual new life which is obtained by regeneration in the grace of the Holy Ghost.
This life of grace and of spirit, ever young and imperishable, is nourished and refreshed at the altar by the Holy Sacrifice and its banquet. Whoever approaches the altar as a spiritually newborn child, that is, full of holy simplicity, innocence, and purity of mind, possesses a youthfulness of spirit in the life of grace that daily grows and waxes stronger under the blessed influence of the Divine Sacrifice and Sacrament.
The Psalm Judica is omitted in all Requiem Masses and in all the Passiontide Masses from Passion Sunday to Holy Saturday. The reason for its omission is justly founded on the contents of the Psalm, and on the character of the Masses. For this Psalm seeks to banish sorrow and sadness from the soul (quare tristis es, anima mea, et quare conturbas me?), to awaken a joyful mood in him who prays; therefore, it is proper to omit the Psalm at a time when the heart should be penetrated with profound sorrow, painful sadness, and intense compassion, as is supposed to prevail in Requiem Masses and the Masses of Passiontide.
“Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth” (Adjutorium nostrum in nomine Domini) may be regarded as a transition, that is, as referring as well to what precedes as to what follows. In connection with the desire and purpose previously expressed of drawing nigh to the Lord on the altar and of applying the mind to the Holy Sacrifice, it signifies that in carrying out this purpose, we depend on and confide in the unlimited power and goodness of God.
The Confiteor is an open avowal of compunction of heart, a contrite and penitential prayer which should cleanse the soul from even the slightest stains of guilt and from all sinful defects. But in order that its recital, together with the threefold striking of the breast, may prove cleansing and salutary to the soul, it must in truth be the outpouring of a contrite spirit, proceeding from the depths of a heart touched with love and sorrow.
The Confiteor is divided into two clearly distinct parts: for it contains an acknowledgment of sin, as well as a petition to the blessed and the faithful to intercede on the priest’s behalf with the Lord our God. The confession of guilt is made not only before Almighty God, but also in presence of the blessed in heaven and the faithful upon earth. Before them, the priest humbles himself, chiefly that they may be better disposed to become by their powerful intercession and mediation his support before God and his help to obtain from Him more perfect pardon.
The position of the body corresponds to the meaning of the Confiteor and serves, on the one hand, to express, after a perfect manner, the interior penitential disposition, and, on the other hand, to intensify it and stimulate it the more. The profound inclination of the body, the joining of the hands and the striking of the breast, all betoken that humble position and disposition of a poor sinner who, laden with sin and full of compunction, stands before His Judge to implore grace and mercy.
The striking of the breast, that is, of the sinful heart, is a very natural symbolic sign of a penitential spirit: it includes a sincere acknowledgment of guilt, sorrow and displeasure for sin committed, the will to make satisfaction and to undergo punishment for sin which has been heartily repented. The striking of the breast means that the heart concealed within is the cause of sin and deserving, therefore, to be punished, bruised, and humbled; that the insolent pride of the sinful heart is to be broken and destroyed, in order that God may create a new, clean heart within the penitent breast.
The striking of the breast three times signifies, in general, the intensity, the sincerity and the vehemence of our contrition; in a stricter sense it may be understood as the suitable accompaniment and confirmation of guilt thrice acknowledged, each time with increased fervor (mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa) and it may, moreover, be referred to the three kinds of sin (in thought, word and deed) of which we accuse ourselves.
The priest publicly acknowledges, and in a most humble posture, his guilt not merely before God, but also before the angels, the saints and the faithful, to move them to intercede with God for him, and thus, by means of joint supplication, the more readily to obtain his forgiveness. Those present accede to his desires and they beg for him by the mouth of the server mercy and favor (Misereatur). Then the server also in the name of the faithful recites the Confiteor, that they, too, by the intercession of the saints and of the priest may obtain favor, that is, be cleansed from the guilt of sin in order to have a share in the fruits of the Holy Sacrifice. After the Confiteor of the server, the priest likewise intercedes for the faithful, in pronouncing the Misereatur and the formula known as the Absolution (Indulgentiam).
If we repent and acknowledge our guilt, God favorably turns toward us, giving back to us His grace and mercy (Deus tu conversus), as the Living God, as the Giver of life, from whom we draw anew joyful courage and fresh life (vivificabis nos). After receiving fuller reconciliation with God and a more abundant life of grace from Him, the heart finds its peace, joy and felicity in God, it rejoices and exults in God, its Savior (et plebs tua laetabitur in te). In order that we may attain this happy end, we beg our Lord that He deign to extend to us His mercy and to let it rule over us (ostende nobis, Domine, misericordiam tuam); to send us our salvation, that is, Jesus, our Light and our Life on the altar (salutare tuum da nobis).
By the formula Dominus vobiscum—Et cum spiritu tuo, both priest and people implore the assistance of divine grace to enter in devout prayer, to which all are now invited by the Oremus, “Let us pray,” given out in the hearing of all.
Prayers of Ascent
Not until after saying Oremus does the priest stand erect in order to ascend the altar, this mystical Mount Calvary, on which He, as Moses on Sinai, stands nearer to the Lord God than do the people who are present. Ascending, he prays the Aufer a nobis: Take away from us our iniquities, we beseech Thee, O Lord, that we may be worthy to enter with pure minds into the Holy of Holies. Through Christ our Lord. Amen. Then the priest says the Oramus te while bowing down moderately before the altar and resting his joined hands thereon: We beseech Thee, O Lord, by the merits of Thy saints, whose relics are here, and of all the saints, that Thou wouldst vouchsafe to forgive me all my sins. Amen.
In order to share more abundantly in the heavenly treasures of grace merited and obtained by Christ and by the saints with Christ’s assistance, the celebrant devoutly kisses the altar in the middle when saying the words quorum reliquiae hic sunt: whose relics are here (preserved). As the accompanying words show, this kissing refers chiefly to the relics concealed in the altar, that is, to the martyrs and other saints, whose earthly remains at the consecration of the altar were placed there; and, in the next place, it refers generally also to all the saints, who are mentioned at the same time (et omnium Sanctorum), and above all to Christ the Head, the Crown, and the King of all the saints, of whom the altar is and will ever be the symbol.
By kissing the altar enriched with relics the priest would evince his love and veneration for the Church triumphant, for Christ and all the saints, and he would thereby animate anew and confirm his communion with them. How exceedingly consoling this supernatural communication between earth and heaven, this communion of life and of goods between the glorified children of the Church who are reigning in heaven, and the wretched children of Eve still in their earthly pilgrimage, struggling amid want and hardship!
Bringing before our eyes the glorious treasures that have been acquired for us by the blood of Jesus Christ, the tears and sorrows of the Blessed Mother, and the charity and penances of all the saints, how could we not be overflowing with gratitude and joy? This reflection and this sentiment take possession of the priest on his first arriving at the altar, as he prays before it, makes his confession, then deliberately ascends to its summit and reverences it, to testify his love and reverence for his heavenly Benefactor, and to begin the oblation of the Holy Sacrifice.