Before diving into this post I should answer a question I was emailed about processions. I didn’t deal with processions when I wrote about the opening rites because I plan to treat processions separately later. The emailed question really referred to entrance processions, but we’ll look at all types of processions in one post, after we finish the Mass.
Liturgy of the Word or Mass of the Catechumens
As you know, the Mass can be thought of as having two parts, plus an Opening Rite and Closing Rite. We’ve dealt with the opening, so the first half, nowadays often called the “Liturgy of the Word,” as it focuses on the Scripture, is more traditionally known as the “Mass of the Catechumens,” because it was the only part of Christian worship that catechumens, that is, those who were preparing for Baptism, were allowed to attend. This restriction made sense in the first through fourth centuries, when the Christian Church was surrounded by a pagan culture, but the restriction was dropped with the rise of Christendom. It may well be, as we’ll see later, that the Church should consider returning to that discipline now that we are again islands in a pagan culture. Nevertheless, the Liturgy of the Word was the only public part of worship for centuries.
Originally, this section was based on the synagogue service, and included readings from Scripture alternating with psalms. The Psalter, of course, was Israel’s hymnbook, and the Church, which is the new Israel, simply carried on in the same practice. The Scripture readings included readings from the Tanakh, that is, to use the terms Jesus did, the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. In other words, what we today call the Old Testament. As apostolic letters were written and circulated, they were added to the readings, being seen as commentary on the Old Testament scriptures, and eventually also were the Gospels added to the readings, as the culmination, the telos of all Scripture. The Church didn’t settle on which apostolic writings were allowed to be read in worship until very late; the first list that corresponds to what we now call the New Testament didn’t appear until St Athanasius’ festal letter! Our protestant friends are always embarrassed to find how long the Church was around before she canonized the New Testament. After all, Christ founded a Church, not a literary society!
In time these alternating readings and psalms were pared down until they reached the form we have today, an epistle reading and a Gospel reading, with a psalm between. In the Anglican rite we see the final form in the Western Church: after the Collects (one for the day and two that vary by season) come an Epistle reading and then a Gradual psalm (so-called because it was sung from the step, or gradus.) After the Gradual follows a verse that is preceded and followed by “Alleluia” except in Lent and the three preceding weeks, when a longer section is sung, called the Tract, and the Alleluias are omitted. Following these verses on some major feasts is a longer song called the Sequence (because it follows, sequentiae.) At last we have the third (of seven) salutation and then a reading from the Gospel. After the Gospel follows the Nicene Creed on Sundays and major feasts, and a homily either before or after the Creed, and a word here about order is important.
The Book of Common Prayer lists the sermon after the Creed, which is an alteration of the tradition and turns the creed into a simple segue. The best practice is for the sermon to be preached immediately after the Gospel, which underlines the fact that the sermon is meant to be an explication of the Word just read, and then the Creed sung as the climactic festal hymn responding to Word read and preached, as well as the introduction to the second half of the liturgy, the Mass of the Faithful.
Now having looked at what, let’s talk about the major point of these posts, how. There are two major ways this can be done, and I’ll address each way.
Foremass at the Altar
This is the most traditional method. Let me preface this by saying that parishes with one or more deacons and one or more subdeacons and a fully trained server corps should offer the High Mass as detailed in Lamburn or Fortescue, but for those without the full range of clergy and servers, do as much of what follows as you can. I will leave out the instructions for incense and bells, as those can be found in all the regular manuals, which should be followed. Again, what follows is for places that can’t mount a High Mass with all three sacred ministers and trained servers.
After the Collect for Purity, the Celebrant ascends to the altar,greets the altar with a kiss in the center, where the corporal will be spread, and goes to the epistle horn where the book is waiting, square with the front edge of the altar–this is usually referred to as the epistle position. The acolyte moves to kneel below the first step in front of the gospel corner (remember to stay on the opposite side of the book) but if there is an MC, he should stand next to the book, but off the steps. After the kyrie, the celebrant moves to the center, and the Gloria in Excelsis, when appointed, is begun. It should be intoned by the celebrant, and then all join in , unless he absolutely cannot sing, in which case all should begin together. All make the sign of the cross at “the glory of God the Father,” at the end. Then the celebrant turns by his right (all turns should be made in such a way as to keep the heart closer to the tabernacle), parts his hands approximately shoulder width (a greeting gesture) and gives the salutation, then brings his hands together during the response. Some clergy bow slightly during the response, but I can find no authority to support that practice and in fact find it a little precious; it’s probably best to simply turn back to the altar. The celebrant returns to the epistle position and prays the collects.
A brief word about moving at the altar is in order here: always turn and walk toward where you’re going. I actually saw a priest once, who had never been competently trained, sliding sideways back and forth at the altar like a crab. Follow the advice of the old song: walk like a man.
After the collects, at a High Mass, the subdeacon takes the epistle book, goes to the rail and sings it there, then returns to the south side of the altar, holding the closed book up as he kneels, and the celebrant, who has been facing the altar, turns, blesses him and places his hand on the top of the closed book for the subdeacon to kiss. In smaller celebrations, it may be that the MC or acolyte (if there is no MC) will sing or read the epistle, and whoever does so should return to the south side of the altar for the blessing. There is no good basis for an often seen modern practice of unvested laity stepping up to a lectern to read the epistle. The same rule holds true for places where the local bishop has permitted use of the Ordo Lectionum Missae, the reader of the Old Testament reading should be the MC or acolyte, or a subdeacon or vested lay reader, if you have one. Reading scripture in worship is a ministry, not a way to “include” untrained and often sloppy readers. Just because your local Roman Catholic church does it does not make it a valid part of the Western tradition of the Church.
The celebrant returns to the middle, and if there is a deacon, the deacon kneels as the celebrant blesses him. If there is no deacon, the celebrant himself quietly prays the prayer “cleanse my lips…” and turns to the gospel corner of the altar. While this blessing or prayer is happening, whichever it is to be, the book is moved: the MC or acolyte picks up the book and stand together, goes down the steps to the center and, facing the altar, bows (NEVER genuflect when carrying something), then back up the steps to the gospel corner and plaes the book there, angled slightly in for the convenience of the deacon or celebrant. The path followed here is best thought of as a “V.” The MC or acolyte should stand beside the book and with his right hand flat against his breast use his left hand to point to the beginning of the gospel reading. A gospel procession, if it is not a High Mass, is neither necessary nor desired, it should be saved for a High Mass. After the deacon or priest has announced the gospel and made the sign of the cross at its opening words, the MC or acolyte should pick up the book and move in front (i.e. west) of the deacon or celebrant, down a step (or two, depending on the relative heights of the men involved), and hold the book as the gospel is sung or read.
If it is desired, one can do a gospel procession, but but it is better to have a separate book of Gospels (not a NT, not a lectionary, not a whole Bible), which can live on the credence table or better, on a shelf above it, with appropriate lights. If one absolutely must do a gospel procession, the best way is to take the Gospel book to the crossing–not any farther into the nave–and read it there, facing North, in order to make use of the ancient symbolism. The Gospel book alone is sufficient, but if you have the acolytes, it can be accompanied by lights, cross, incense, just as at High Mass. If you have the acolytes, it is best to use them, after all, as the old saying goes, ‘acolytes don’t hold candles; candles hold acolytes.’
After the reading, the deacon or celebrant, whoever read the gospel, should kiss the opening words of the gospel with the usual prayer, said softly, and the MC or acolyte returns the book to its place and moves it closer to the center for the Creed, which will be begun by the celebrant in the same way and position as the Gloria in Excelsis.
Foremass from the Sedilia
This method is more in keeping with the current Western Rite, and may be in many ways easier to follow for places with smaller staff. Everything is as above, except that after osculating the altar, the celebrant moves to the sedilia at the epistle side of the pavement facing north. The sedilia, traditionally three in number, should never be occupied by acolytes; if you have no deacon or subdeacon, the seats for them should not be taken by others, and even should be left in place, empty, as a sign to the congregation that there are ministers missing from the community. There will be no missal on the altar, as it should be with the celebrant. Although a stand for the book may be found useful in front of the celebrant, the use of a prie-dieu will not be convenient, as the height is far too low for a standing celebrant to read from while praying. The best practice will be for the MC or an acolyte to hold the book standing in front of the celebrant. All else in the Mass of the Catechumens is just as above, except the celebrant is at the sedilia instead of the altar.
It should be emphasized that neither of these two methods is more correct than the other, both have good authority to support them, and both equally are part of the Anglican Tradition in the Western Rite of the Church.
I find I need to append here a word about rubrics. Although no one wants to promote a narrow rubricism that verges on what may be neologized as “rubriolatry,” it is important to note that Dom Aidan Kavanagh was fond of observing that “the rubrics are the floor beneath which the liturgy must not be allowed to sink.” I agree. I am reminded of the ad clerum letter from a newly appointed Roman Catholic bishop after he had just taken possession of his see, a diocese notorious for sloppy practices. He greeted his clergy with affection and appreciation, then issued the instruction “all the rubrics will be followed by everyone, all the time.” This is good advice. Unless there is very, very good reason to the contrary (such as following the tradition of the Western Rite of the Church, or holding explicit permission from the bishop of the place so to do), always follow the rubrics. You will find that where the instructions given in these writings differs from the rubrics, the former has both better provenance and better logical basis than the latter.