Our Catholic Mass is the highest form of prayer we can offer God. It is made up of two parts – the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The Liturgy of the Word is the 1st part of the Mass with roots in early Jewish synagogue worship. It includes the Gloria, Scripture readings, the homily, and Intercessory Prayers (the petitions). The Liturgy of the Eucharist is the 2nd half of the Mass originating from the Last Supper. It includes preparing the Altar, presentation of the gifts, prayer, and receiving Holy Communion. “Liturgy” comes from the Greek word “ergos”, meaning “work”; and “leiton”, meaning “of the people. So, our Liturgy is the work of the people to give glory and honor to God.
God uses our human senses to reveal Himself in our physical world so our worship of Him can involve our entire being – body and soul. Throughout Mass, we use symbols and gestures to help our senses connect our human body to our soul. They remind us to turn our hearts and minds towards God. Many of these symbols are handed down from Early Christian worship. So, what are they?
The Sign of the Cross is a symbol of our faith and salvation that is used to bless people and objects. Christians have marked themselves with the Sign of the Cross since the Early Church. Striking of the Breast is a sign of repentance, contrition, and humility. Standing is a sign of joy, respect, and our adoration of God. Kneeling is a sign repentance or adoration. Genuflecting is a sign of reverence in the presence of God. This is why we genuflect in front of the Blessed Sacrament, or the Tabernacle containing the Blessed Sacrament, which is the Real Presence of Jesus. Bowing of the head is a sign of reverence often made when saying the name of Jesus, or Mary, or before receiving the Eucharist. Bowing of the body is a sign of respect and submission. This gesture replaces genuflecting by bowing to the Altar when there are no hosts in the tabernacle. Processions are a symbol of the Pilgrim Church. They occur several times within the Mass, and sometimes in and around the church (such as at Easter Vigil or a Eucharistic Procession for the Feast of Corpus Christi.)
Understanding the meaning of the signs and symbols we use at Mass can have a positive influence on our attitude towards prayer and reverently being in the presence our loving and gracious God.
Adapted from an “Introduction to Catholicism” by Father James Socias