I went to an all-girls Catholic school, and during my High School years, they offered training for altar servers (we were called acolytes, but really, we functioned as altar servers) for the first time. This was a very new (and for some, controversial) thing back then, and even in parishes today, we still don’t see many female altar servers in front, if at all. I was already a renewed Catholic at the time, so when the Campus Ministry called for applicants, I signed up without hesitation.
Before we formally started serving, we were given an orientation on the sacred vessels, the different roles of altar servers, and other elements of the mass I had never paid attention to before: what vestment colors meant (I thought the priest got to pick his favorite color!), how to correctly “assemble” the chalice with all the differently named layers that go on top of it, the seasons of the Church Calendar, among other things. For our first “launching” mass, I carried the thurible–that metal, goblet-shaped vessel suspended by chains and swung like a pendulum, sending sweet-smelling incense wafting in the air. I remember this because I ended up being the thurifer pretty much at every mass after that since no one ever wanted the job (either they were intimidated by the task, or by the hot, burning coals inside).
Not to brag (okay, maybe just a little bit), but being the thurifer was pretty daunting because there were so many things to remember (even without the constant threat of sustaining minor burns from swinging a piece of hot metal). I had to know where to stand, where to go, when to give the thurible to the priest, and, for certain parts, how many swings of the incense for who, what, when (do you still follow?). And on top of all that, I had to conduct myself reverently and confidently. I like to think I mastered the solemn-prayerful look, so much that when I forgot to incense the priest at one time, I don’t think anyone noticed (except, of course, the priest I had left standing there).
I remember those masses fondly not just for the sake of nostalgia, but because I felt I was completely present during those masses. Since the task of serving at the altar called for such effort and discipline, I couldn’t afford to let my mind wander. I heard every prayer, I sang every hymn…and during Consecration, I knelt right in front of the altar, staring up as the white wafer transformed into His Body, swinging incense upward once, twice, three times. There was no response missed, no gesture fumbled. Each action meant something; it was prayer, it was reverence…it was worship.
It took a new way of participating at mass for me to appreciate it more fully. But it wasn’t just the fact that I was there in front where all the action was–it was being aware of the rich symbols, rites and prayers that make up the Holy Mass, our highest form of worship. The ringing of the bells, the priest kissing the altar, making the Sign of the Cross, greeting with “the Lord be with you”…and that’s just the first five minutes! To not let familiarity get in the way of worshiping in Spirit and in Truth, to come to the Table with new eyes and an expectant heart–ready to be blessed each and every time.
What would it take for you to have a renewed appreciation of the Mass? Is it looking for a book or a website where you can learn more about the meaning of the Mass (Edward Sri’s “A Biblical Walk Through the Mass: Understanding What We Say and Do in the Liturgy” is a really good one I’ve come across recently, available here)? Or is it looking up the Gospel reading for the day to be able to reflect on it before going to church on Sunday? For some, it might simply be coming a bit earlier to spend a few minutes in silent prayer.
Familiarity need not be a stumbling block to experiencing God’s presence in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. A desire to do so goes a long way. Think about it: a sincere prayer for the Holy Spirit to touch and move our hearts, making each mass one to remember–How can God refuse?