Project Canterbury

A Guide to High Mass

London: Church Literature Association, no date.

IN some churches, before the principal Mass on Sundays, it is customary for the Celebrant to sprinkle the congregation with holy water. This ceremony is known as the Asperges, from the Latin word meaning "Thou shalt purge me," this being the first phrase of the anthem sung at the sprinkling. The Asperges expresses in action the thought of the familiar prayer at the beginning of Mass: "Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts . . . that we may perfectly love thee."

The Preparation.--As the Celebrant, Ministers, and servers enter for Mass, the choir sings an anthem called the Introit, consisting of a portion of one of the Psalms with Gloria and Antiphon. The proper Introits for Sundays and great feasts are to be found at the end of the English Hymnal. (Sometimes a hymn is sung in the place of this anthem.)

Meanwhile the Celebrant and Ministers say together a short form of preparation at the foot of the altar. First they recite Psalm 43, stressing the joy with which the worshipper approaches the altar of God; then bowing low they make a confession of sin, first the Celebrant to the Ministers, and then the Ministers to the Celebrant. The Preparation ends with the Our Father and Collect for Purity. The Celebrant and Ministers ascend to the altar.

The Kyries.--When the Commandments are not rehearsed, the choir now sings the petitions known as the Kyries, while the congregation kneels. Originally, these formed the end of a long Litany which was sung at the beginning of Mass. Three times they address God the Father: "Lord have mercy" (Kyrie eleison); three times God the Son: "Christ have mercy" (Christe eleison); and three times God the Holy Ghost: "Lord have mercy" (Kyrie eleison). These petitions are sometimes sung in English, sometimes--following a very ancient tradition-- in Greek.

Meanwhile the Celebrant and Ministers cense the altar. The significance of this ceremony is twofold. It symbolizes our preparation for the coming of our King, and also the ascent of our penitent prayer for mercy to the throne of grace.

The Gloria in Excelsis.--In some churches this hymn is sung here in its ancient place in the service. There are several reasons which make this practice commendable. It is the song sung by the angels before the shepherds made their journey to Bethlehem; it, therefore, should be sung before and not after we have pleaded the sacrifice of the death of Christ. It betokens our faith in the promised mercy of God for which we have just pleaded in the Kyries; and it emphasizes the element of thanksgiving. At the Last Supper our Lord "gave thanks" before he blessed the bread which was to be his Body; and the Church has always regarded the Mass as "this our Sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving." Hence it is right that this song of joy should have an early place in the rite.

When the Ministers have said the Gloria at the altar, they go to sit in the sanctuary until the choir has finished singing. The Gloria is sung on Sundays and feasts (except in Advent and Lent).

The Collects.--The Celebrant turns to the people with the salutation, "The Lord be with you." The choir reply, "And with thy spirit." This mutual greeting is made at several points in the service in order to introduce a new stage in the rite. Here it introduces the prayers known as the Collects, brief prayers in which the petitions for mercy which have been voiced in Kyrie and Gloria are collected and gathered together.

The Epistle.--After the Collects the Sub-deacon reads aloud the Epistle or another portion of scripture appointed in its place. He stands at the foot of the altar steps immediately behind the Celebrant on the south side of the sanctuary. He faces the altar throughout, to show that the reading of the scriptures is part of our offering of worship to God, and not merely intended to instruct the congregation. At a Sung Mass the Celebrant reads the Epistle aloud at the altar; at High Mass quietly, as indeed he does all that the Ministers or choir sing in the Liturgy.

The Gospel.--After the Epistle the choir sings an anthem consisting of verses from the psalms or other scriptures, interspersed (except in Lent) with the joyful cry "Alleluia," which ushers in the good tidings of the Gospel. (Sometimes a hymn is sung in place of this anthem.) During this the Celebrant reads the Holy Gospel at the altar.

Meanwhile the Deacon is blessed by the Celebrant and goes with lights and incense to a place on the north side of the sanctuary, where the Gospel is to be read. This little procession suggests the sending forth of the disciples to preach the Gospel; the lights call to mind the shining of the light of the Gospel in the heathen world, and the incense the devotion and prayers which always accompany the missionary journeys of the Church. The Subdeacon holds the book open before the Deacon. The Deacon salutes the people with, "The Lord be with you," and chants the Gospel while the congregation stand, thus declaring their readiness to perform the commandments of the Gospel. At the end of the Gospel, the Subdeacon takes the book to the Celebrant, who kisses it in reverence for the Word of God. He is then censed by the Deacon. At Sung Mass the Celebrant himself sings the Gospel at the north end of the altar.

The Creed.--On all Sundays and greater feast days, the Creed is now sung by the choir. When the Ministers have said the Creed in a low voice at the altar they go to sit down till the singing be done. During the sentence, "And was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made Man," the congregation kneels in remembrance of the humility of God the Son, when he became Man for us. At the end the sign of the cross is made, recalling our Baptism into the Faith which has been recited. The Creed is usually followed by notices and a sermon.

The Offertory.--The Ministers return to the altar, and the Celebrant again salutes the congregation, before he makes in their name the offering of bread and wine to God. The choir sings the sentence of scripture appointed for the Offertory; usually this is followed by a hymn or other music.

It is important, however, that at this point the attention of the congregation should not be distracted by anything that is being sung. The Celebrant, assisted by the Ministers, now places the bread and wine upon the altar and offers them to God. A little water is mingled with the wine in the Chalice, following the usual Jewish custom of our Lord's day which was doubtless observed at the Last Supper. Moreover, the mingling of wine and water represents the two natures of our Lord, his Godhead and his Manhood, existing together in one Person. The Celebrant next censes the elements and the altar on which they stand, in token that they are now dedicated to God, and made as holy as the power of man can make them, though God is soon to make them holier still. After the censing he washes his hands, showing the cleanness and purity of heart which is needed before he presumes to offer the Holy Sacrifice. Meanwhile the Deacon censes any clergy who are present in choir, and the Sub-deacon. He is censed by the server who bears the incense, who then censes the other servers, the singers, and the congregation. All bow before and after they are censed. This custom of censing everyone in church signifies God's giving of his grace to all who worship at his Holy Mysteries.

The Subdeacon at the Offertory wears a wide silk veil over his shoulders. In this, after the offering of the elements, he holds the Paten, the plate from which later the Celebrant receives the consecrated Host in communion. He stands at the foot of the altar steps holding the Paten in the veil till it is required at the altar. At Sung Mass, naturally, this ceremony does not take place, and the Paten remains on the altar throughout.

After the ceremonies of the Offertory the Celebrant recites the Prayer for the Church Militant.

The Communion Devotions.--The Exhortation, "Ye that do truly," the Confession, Absolution, and Comfortable Words form a short office of preparation for communicants. If no one except the Celebrant is to receive Communion, they are consequently omitted. And sometimes they are said later, immediately before the Faithful receive Communion and are conveniently placed at the altar.

The Preface.--The central act of the Divine Sacrifice begins with an act of thanksgiving. The Celebrant once more salutes the people with " The Lord be with you," and bids them lift up their hearts and give thanks unto our Lord God, Then he chants the ascription of praise to God which is called the Preface, because it serves as an introduction to the offering of the Sacrifice of Christ. It ends with the singing of the angels' hymn, "Holy, holy, holy." A bell is rung to express the joy of the worship of the Church both in heaven and earth; and servers with lighted torches and incense kneel before the altar, preparing for the welcome of the Lord who soon will be present in the Blessed Sacrament. The choir likewise join to the angels' hymn the song of those who welcomed the Lord into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday: "Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest." During the singing the Celebrant prays for the whole Catholic Church, the Bishops, the Clergy, and particular members of the Church who have asked for the prayers of the Faithful, or who stand in need of them. He also calls to mind the Saints whose prayers in heaven are joined with those of the Church on earth, and the souls departed.

The Consecration.--A bell rings at the beginning of the Prayer of Consecration to call the congregation's attention to the most solemn moments in the Mass. The Celebrant recites the prayer in a low voice. When he has said the words of our Lord over the bread, he kneels on one knee before the Sacrament thus consecrated, and incense is offered in adoration; next, lifting up the Host in his hands, he shows it to the people; then, replacing it, he genuflects again. He does the same at the consecration of the wine. The elevation of Host and Chalice suggests the lifting up of Jesus upon the Cross; while the separate consecration of bread and cup recalls the separation of the Blood of our Lord from his Body on Calvary.

The Oblation.--After the consecration, the choir may sing the anthem "Blessed is he" (if this has not already been sung), or a hymn. In some churches silence is observed for a space. Whatever the choir is singing, this is the important moment in which the personal devotions of members of the congregation should be centred on the thought of our Saviour's sacrifice on Calvary, now pleaded on the altar, and on prayer to the Father that he may accept that perfect offering on our behalf. At the altar the Celebrant prays that he may "mercifully accept this our Sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving"; that "by the merits and death of his Son Jesus Christ, and through faith in his Blood, we and all thy whole Church may obtain remission of our sins." At the end of that prayer he slightly lifts the Chalice and Host above the altar in sacrifice, recalling our Lord's cry--"It is finished." Then he sums up all the petitions of the Church in the prayer which our Saviour Christ hath commanded and taught us. In some churches the Celebrant sings the Our Father aloud at this point, since this is its ancient position in the rite of the Holy Sacrifice.

The Fraction.--After the Lord's Prayer has been said, the Subdeacon brings the Paten to the altar. The Celebrant breaks the Host and places a fragment in the Chalice in commemoration of the reunion of our Lord's Body and Blood at his Resurrection. As he does this he says or sings the Easter message of John xx. 19, Luke xxiv. 36: " The peace of the Lord be alway with you."

The Kiss of Peace.--The choir sings the anthem:

"O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.
"O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.
"O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, grant us thy peace."

Note that these are the first words addressed at Mass to God the Son. Hitherto we have asked the Father to accept the sacrifice of Jesus on our behalf. Now we turn to Jesus himself, seeking peace and union with him.

Meanwhile the Celebrant prays silently for the peace and unity of the Church. Then, placing his hands on the shoulders of the Deacon, he salutes him with the words, "Peace be with thee." The Deacon does the same to the Subdeacon, who hands on the greeting to any other clergy who may be in choir; finally, the greeting is given to the servers. This ceremony typifies the union of love which should subsist among all members of the Church, and is one of the most primitive ceremonies of the Holy Sacrifice. It expresses the meaning of the direction in the Prayer-Book Catechism that those " who come to the Lord's Supper " are required to " be in charity with all men." (This ceremony is omitted at Sung Mass.)

The Communion.--The Celebrant now receives the Blessed Sacrament, first saying thrice, "Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof; but speak the word only, and thy servant shall be healed." If any in the congregation are to receive Holy Communion, a bell now rings as a sign for them to come to the altar rails, and the Communion devotions are said. Those who are not receiving Communion should here make an act of spiritual communion, silently asking Jesus Christ to come and take possession of their hearts. After the Communion, the Celebrant cleanses the vessels; the choir sing a verse from Holy Scripture.

The Thanksgiving.--The Celebrant salutes the people again with, "The Lord be with you," and reads the Prayer of Thanksgiving from the Prayer-Book, and sometimes additional collects. [If the Gloria in Excelsis has not been sung at the beginning of the service, it is sung now.]

The Dismissal.--The Celebrant again sings "The Lord be with you" to the people before they depart. Then the Deacon sings the Dismissal, the choir responding, "Thanks be to God." The Celebrant gives his blessing; then, going to the north horn of the altar, he reads the "Last Gospel" (usually the opening verses of St. John's Gospel, which tell of the coming of God the Son into the world). At the words "And the Word was made flesh" all genuflect. (Usually a hymn is sung during the reading of the Last Gospel and the return of Ministers and servers to the sacristy.)


On the Feast of the Purification of St. Mary the Virgin, candles are blessed before Mass, in memory of Simeon's words when he took the Infant Jesus in his arms in the Temple: "A light to lighten the Gentiles." The Celebrant, wearing a purple cope, blesses candles at the altar, and distributes them to those present at the altar rails, while the choir sing the Nunc Dimittis. Those who receive the candles kiss first the candle and then the Celebrant's hand. After this a procession is made round the church; the clergy and others hold lighted candles in their hands. Then Mass begins in white vestments. The congregation hold their candles lighted at the Gospel and from the Consecration to the Communion.

On Ash Wednesday before Mass the Celebrant blesses ashes. The members of the congregation come to the altar rails, and the Celebrant smears their forehead with the ashes, saying to each: " Remember, O man, that dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return." This ceremony is a partial revival of the "godly discipline" mentioned in the Communion Service of the Prayer-Book, where it is said that its restoration is "much to be wished." It signifies the penitence and humiliation necessary in Lent.

On Palm Sunday crosses of palm are blessed and distributed at the altar rails. The congregation receive the palms in the same manner as they receive the candles on the Purification. The procession usually goes outside the church, the congregation following. Before it enters the church again, cantors within sing the hymn "All glory, laud and honour," those outside the church joining in the refrain. At Mass the faithful hold their palms in their hands while the story of the Passion is read.

Maundy Thursday.--On this day, being the day on which the Last Supper was instituted, High Mass (which is the only Mass of the day) is sung at an early hour, and all the Faithful receive Holy Communion. After Mass a procession goes from the High Altar to the Altar of Repose, bearing the Blessed Sacrament. It is placed among lights and flowers on the Altar of Repose, and the Faithful offer continuous prayer there until Good Friday morning.

Good Friday.--On this day, being the day of our Lord's crucifixion, the Holy Sacrifice is not offered. The service consists of the following parts:

1. The reading of the prayers and scriptures for the day, including St. John's Passion-Gospel.

2. The Prayers for the Church.

3. The Worship of the Cross. The Celebrant takes the Cross from the altar, and shows it to the people, saying three times, " Behold the Wood of the Cross." Then he places it on the ground, and kneeling thrice before it, kisses the feet of the figure of our Lord. The Ministers, clergy and servers do the same. Then the congregation come up to the altar rails, where a priest brings a crucifix, which they kiss in the same way. All genuflect three times on their way from their seat to the altar rails, in memory of our Lord's three falls, as he carried the Cross up the hill of Calvary. Meanwhile the Reproaches (English Hymnal 737) and hymns 95 and 96 are sung.

4. The Mass of the Pre-sanctified. After the Worship of the Cross, a procession is made to the Altar of Repose. The Celebrant brings thence the Blessed Sacrament, and after a few short prayers and ceremonies, receives it in Communion at the High Altar. So the service ends.

Corpus Christi.--Since the shadow of the Passion hangs over Maundy Thursday, it is usual to observe the Thursday after Trinity Sunday as a joyful feast in honour of the institution of the Blessed Sacrament. At Mass on this day the Sequence " Laud, O Sion," a long hymn in honour of the Blessed Sacrament, is sung between the Epistle and the Gospel (E.H. 317). In some churches a procession of the Blessed Sacrament takes place during the day.

The Assumption of St. Mary the Virgin.-- August 15th is observed in many churches as the day on which the Mother of our Lord passed from this world. (This is the only feast in the year which is observed on the same day by the whole Church, in East and West alike.)

All Souls' Day.--The first weekday immediately following All Saints' Day (i.e., Nov. 2nd or 3rd) is observed in memory of all the Faithful departed. On this day, as also at Masses of the Dead, which are sung on other occasions, black vestments are worn, and the ceremonies of High Mass are somewhat curtailed. Between the Epistle and Gospel the Sequence "Day of Wrath" is sung (E.H. 351). The Creed, Gloria and Blessing are omitted; the clauses of the anthem "O Lamb of God," and "grant them rest . . . grant them rest . . . grant them rest everlasting." Instead of the Dismissal the Deacon sings "May they rest in peace," the choir responding "Amen."

High Mass of the Dead is frequently followed by the ceremony known as the Absolutions. If the body of the dead person commemorated is brought into Church, the Celebrant, wearing a black cope, censes the coffin, sprinkles it with holy water and recites the final prayers of commendation. In the absence of the body, or if (as on All Souls' Day) Mass has been offered for all the Faithful Departed, these ceremonies take place over a catafalque or cenotaph representing the coffin.

Christmas Day.--The first Mass of Christmas is sung at midnight, that being the traditional hour of the birth of Christ. It is customary before this Mass for the Celebrant to bless the Crib, or representation of the stable at Bethlehem, which stands in the church at this season, and to place therein the image of the Holy Child.

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