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Sunday 20, Year A: The House of Prayer

Taking my cue from those words of Isaiah in the first reading, “my house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples”, I thought it worthwhile, as much as for myself as for you, to reflect once more on what this place is, what we do here and on some of the signs and symbols we use whilst we are here.

The first thing is that this church is a house of prayer. It is a sacred space. It is not a hall or a mall. It has been consecrated to God so that we can do the holy things of God here. That’s why we should always enter the church with a sense of reverence and a desire to pray. So, for example, we bless ourselves with holy water before entering it. We are reminding ourselves that we entered the Body of Christ in baptism. The sacred space of the church building is in fact the symbol of the sacred, Risen Body of Christ. It also signifies the whole community of the Church which is his Mystical Body and, indeed, the sacredness of our own bodies. We, too, are sacred spaces.

We ought not to enter the church just with our bodies, though. We ought also to enter it with our minds and hearts. It is these above all which we bring to God at church. That’s why we first examine our conscience and ask forgiveness for our sins. It’s also why we should enter the church in silence. In silence, we quieten and calm the things of every day concern. It’s true that maybe we only see certain people when we come to church and there is the natural urge to talk and catch up. But church is not the time or place to do that. Our main concern when we come in here is to pray and to worship. And so, we need the discipline to keep our chat for outside or when we go for tea or coffee after Mass. Then, of course, we need to be considerate of others who are trying to pray, and who maybe only get the short time they are here at Mass to find peace, and to talk in their hearts to the Lord. Being silent, therefore, is not only for our own spiritual good, so that we may listen to God. It is an act of charity to others. And it’s good to recall that sometimes whispering is louder than actually talking! 

One particular reason why the church is a sacred space is because of the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the tabernacle, the Blessed Sacrament. That is why, before taking our seats, we should genuflect, provided we are not physically impeded from doing so. Even in that case, though, we can stop and bow before sitting down. A genuflection or bow, when done purposefully and with meaning, is a very simple but effective way of expressing and confessing our faith in the Real Presence. It is an act of humble adoration of the Saviour. Genuflection is a powerful counter-cultural sign. It’s the opposite of the arrogance and presumption which is so common today. It is also an expression of grateful love to Christ, that He would want to be here, in this very place, for me.

It is this astonishing truth of the Presence of Christ which then displays itself even more intensely in the Mass. One sign of it is the fact that the priest wears clothes which set him apart from the rest of the congregation. The vestments cover his ordinary attire to emphasize the presence of Christ the Priest in him by virtue of holy orders. They signal that he is acting, or rather that Christ Himself is acting in him, as the mediator between the congregation and God the Father. This is why the priest is a priest at all: to bring God to you, to bring you to God.

At the 11am Mass, we use incense. Why? Incense was a very precious commodity in earlier times. In Old Testament times, God commanded His people to burn it as a sign of veneration of God and as a medium to bless and sanctify the people. The smoke conveys a sense of mystery and the perfume is a reminder of the aroma of the Risen Body of the Lord. The rising smoke signifies our prayers of adoration and supplication to God and thus the link between earth and heaven which takes place at Mass. Again, the smoke symbolizes the burning zeal of faith of the community gathered here, while the fragrance speaks to the Christian virtues and goodness of our lives. I’ve also heard the “waste” of burning incense described as a symbol of the outpouring of gratuitous love. So, when the minister incenses the altar, Cross, Gospel, bread and wine, people and elevated host and chalice, all these many meanings of incense are expressed. Incense solemnifies our ritual and opens it up and out to the transcendent God.

The Presence of Christ is also marked when the priest or deacon kisses the altar and the Gospel. He does it not only on his own behalf, but on behalf of the community. The kiss joins a loving tenderness to the reverence and gratitude we give to the Lord for his sacrifice on the altar of the Cross and for the gift of His Word.

Then there are the bells which ring. These, too, alert the congregation to the holiest moment of the Mass. It is the moment when Christ’s offering of himself to the Father in the Holy Spirit is once more made present for our sakes. It is the moment when the Real Presence “happens” once more. The first ring occurs when the priest stretches his hands over the gifts and calls down the power of the Holy Spirit on them to turn them into the Body and Blood of Christ. The second ring occurs when the priest, after reciting solemnly the words which Jesus Himself pronounced over the bread at the Last Supper, shows the now consecrated host to the people. And the third ring is made when he does the same with regard to the chalice.

The climax of the Mass is not, however, the consecration. The Mass is not just about Jesus doing something wonderful for us to look at and go away. No, the whole purpose of it is to give Himself to us in Holy Communion. This living communion between Him and us, to the point of giving us and uniting us to his Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, is to build us up as His Church. And the point of that is, in turn, that we, strengthened in our life in Him, become His witnesses by the way we live. Through us, He attracts others to Himself. That is why, at the end of the Mass, we are sent forth in peace to love and to serve the Lord.

It’s no wonder, then, that God says through Isaiah, “I will make them joyful in my house of prayer.” No matter what worries you have, no matter what problems assail you, no matter what sins may weigh you down, it is difficult to resist the deep joy of God which the Mass instils even if our hearts are only open a little. And as you leave the church and the congregation breaks up, bless yourself again with holy water and consider what a privilege has been yours, to love and to worship Jesus Christ. Carry that privilege with you back home and into your week until you return next Sunday to the house of God and take your place among His holy people, the joy of His Heart, the apple of His eye and the reason for which He did not hesitate to surrender Himself to death and rise again on the third day.