When we think of the many ways in which God has revealed himself to his people in the Old and New Testaments, we find that the response to these manifestations of God’s presence is always one of reverence and awe. When God called Moses into his presence while Moses was tending his father-in-law Jethro’s flock, God said to him, “Come not near. Take off your sandals, for the place you’re standing on is holy ground. (Ex 3, 5) Let us also remember the account of the Transfiguration of Our Lord. In the Gospel of Saint Matthew, we read: “At the end of six days, Jesus took with him Peter, James and John, the brother of James, and made them go up alone on a high mountain. There, he was transfigured before them… Peter said to Jesus: “Lord, it is good that we are here, if you want, I will erect three shelters, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah. While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice came out of the cloud and said: “This is my Son whom I love; I’m very happy with him. Listen to him!’ When his disciples heard this, they fell face down in terror. (Mt 17:1-6) We can see that in both cases, when manifesting the presence of the Most Holy to Moses and then to the disciples, there is a sense of awe and reverence, a recognition that they were not ready to stand on this holy ground or to stand straight before God Himself.
When we come to Mass, we enter into a true manifestation of God himself. We are in holy land. We come to hear His voice in the proclamation of the Holy Scriptures and then find ourselves in His substantial Presence as the bread and wine become the very Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ who is true God and real man. Ah yes, we come into the presence of God and, by the faith given to us, we know in our hearts that we are not worthy to be there. Yet, God calls us to come. We know he is God and we are his creatures. He is the All-Holy and we are sinners. The only response to this recognition of who we are as sinners is to ask His forgiveness. Then we are delighted to realize that his overflows with mercy for us.
The liturgy of the Mass offers us the opportunity to ask forgiveness from God in the beautiful dialogue of the penitential rite. The priest invites us to enter into this sacred action by saying: “Let us recognize our sins and thus prepare ourselves to celebrate these holy mysteries. These sacred mysteries are, of course, those of the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus which become present on the altar in the offering of His Sacrifice to the Father. It is our moment to humble ourselves before God, to recognize his holiness and to see with the eyes of faith the mysteries into which we are called to enter.
Often the Confiteor follows. This heartfelt expression of faith is prayed in common by all present, providing a beautiful expression of humility and sorrow for sin. “I confess to Almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned greatly, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and what I have not done, for my fault, by my fault, by my most serious fault; and, therefore, I ask the Blessed Mary ever Virgin, all the Angels and Saints, and you my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God. The Confiteor exemplifies both the individual taking responsibility for their unworthiness and the reality that we are bound together in the Body of Christ, the Church, both on earth and in heaven. We confess to God with a contrite heart, then we ask for the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints and the heavenly host so that our sins may be forgiven and we may be ready to be united in the Lord’s Sacrifice. Jesus.
This type of confession of sins has occurred since apostolic times. Saint James tells us to “confess our sins to one another”. (Jc 5, 16) In the Didache (the “Teaching of the Apostles”) of the first century of our era, we hear this description of the mass: “Assemble yourselves on the Lord’s day, break the bread and offer the Eucharist ; but first confess your faults, so that your sacrifice may be pure. Even if it is not a sacramental confession like the sacrament of penance or reconciliation, it is an outpouring of grace which prepares us for the Eucharistic encounter with the Lord Jesus.
The acknowledgment of our sins is not a passing thought or an inconsequential moment in the liturgy of the Mass. It describes what the position of our hearts should be when we approach the Most Holy God and His altar. The priest then continues with absolution: “May Almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins and lead us to eternal life”. All appropriate this prayer by responding with a sincere “Amen”. We could say this is the time when we “take off our sandals” and recognize that where we stand is truly “holy ground” before the presence of the Lord Himself. It prepares us for what comes next when we explicitly ask for God’s mercy.
Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison. “Lord, have mercy…Christ, have mercy…Lord, have mercy!” This part of the Mass is so old that it is often preserved in Greek which was the official liturgical language of the Church in Rome before the adoption of Latin. This ancient litany is the whole Body of Christ calling Christ the Head imploring mercy. The Church is united in supplication: “Have mercy on us, you who are the Lord God of all, you who became flesh like us, in order to bear to the cross this flesh offered in sacrifice for the salvation of the world!” “It is each of us with the whole Church imploring God’s mercy that we may be prepared and worthy to enter into the mystery of Christ’s Sacrifice and the glory of His Resurrection who will be made present on the altar. The priest, who stands in the person of Christ in the liturgical assembly, and all the faithful implore mercy as they stand on the threshold of the Holy of Holies, the sanctuary of God, which has been sanctified by the Blood of God Himself made flesh. By His Blood our sins are washed away, mercy is poured out on us, and we are healed of all evil. It is not surprising that the Church has always given great importance to the confession of sins and the appeal to mercy at the beginning of Mass.
My dear friends, do not miss the penitential rite at the beginning of the mass. Enter into it with all your heart. It speaks of God’s mercy for us sinners. It proclaims that as we approach the Holy of Holies, we are kept in company with the Mother of God, angelic hosts and saints who intercede for us. In it, our threefold response, “through my fault, through my fault, through my greatest fault” is answered by God’s loving response of “mercy, mercy, mercy”!
Bishop William J. Waltersheid
Auxiliary Bishop of Pittsburgh