We continue this week our reflection upon the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in the Extraordinary Form. When Father processes in for Holy Mass, he first brings the chalice, which is covered with a veil because all sacred things are veiled, and places it upon the altar. He then turns to the missal, which he opens to the correct page. The priest then retraces his steps back to the bottom of the stairs leading up to the altar. There he begins, with the sign of the cross, what are called the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar. These prayers prepare the priest and prepare us for what is to come. We prepare before every important event; the more important the event, the more we prepare for it. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the most important event, so we do not just launch into the action, but prepare for it. The priest has also prepared for Holy Mass by his own prayers and by the prayers he offers as he vests for Holy Mass. We, too, have prepared by our prayers before Holy Mass, especially by the Prayers of Saint Thomas Aquinas which we recite in common before our Sunday Masses.
Like the Lavabo Prayer, upon which we reflected previously, the prayer at the foot of the altar is also taken from the Psalms. The first words the priest says are, “Introíbo ad altáre Dei,” that is, “I will go to the altar of God.” These words express the joyful longing of priest and congregation alike in his going to God’s altar. The priest then prays Psalm 42 which expresses our desire, joy and confidence in going up to the altar of sacrifice. The psalm is prayed in a dialog form, the priest alternating with the server or the people. If there is a server who is making the responses, we in the congregation do not respond, except by silently joining our voices to the voice of the server. If there is no server responding, then we may respond out loud. All the unchanging texts of the Holy Mass, including the words for the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar, are in the red booklets we have available at Saint Mary’s.
After reciting the joyful Psalm 42 (precisely because it is joyful, that Psalm is omitted during the sorrowful period of Passiontide), both the priest and the faithful confess their sinfulness by reciting an act of contrition in which we call upon the help of powerful saints such as the Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint Michael the Archangel, Saint John the Baptist and Saints Peter and Paul. It is because we all suffer from the consequences of sin that we need redemption and need the Holy Mass. So, before the Holy Mass begins, we remind ourselves of how much we need the fruits of Redemption which come to us from the Holy Mass. Again, when there is a server who is making the responses, we silently unite our act of contrition to his voice, but, if there is no server making responses, we can make it.
Having expressed joy in going to God’s altar and having asked forgiveness for sin, the priest is ready to ascend the altar. As he goes up to the altar he prays two prayers silently (they are found in the red booklet or missal), asking God again to forgive our sins and asking the help of the saints, especially the saint whose relic is in the altar.
You will note that, every time the priest turns away from the altar, for example, when he says “Dominus vobiscum,” he first bends down to kiss the altar. Why does he kiss the altar? There are a number of reasons. First, the altar symbolizes Jesus Christ Himself. The Catechism of the Catholic Church quotes Saint Ambrose who says, “For what is the altar of Christ if not the image of the Body of Christ?” He continues to explain that the “altar represents the body [of Christ] and the Body of Christ is on the altar” (no. 1383). Every altar also contains relics of saints. Our altar at Saint Mary’s contains the relic of Saint Anna Schäffer. Saint Anna Schäffer is a beautiful contemporary saint, just canonized in the year 2012 (more about her in a forthcoming article…) In kissing the altar the priest, as it were, is taking a moment’s leave from Christ, he is excusing himself for turning away from Him and never leaves the altar without at least giving it a kiss.