At the Foot of the Mountain
Either the evening or the morning before Mass, I thoughtfully review the Mass readings. I do not try to spend a lot of time on them, but I want to be familiar with the main points beforehand.
When the time for Mass approaches, I travel through space to the Church building. All the while I reflect that the Mass itself will be a journey, but not through space: it will be a spiritual ascent, a journey in thought, love, and grace. It will be a journey more real than the physical journey to the Church, just as spirit is more real than body.
This is the law of the temple: the whole territory round about upon the top of the mountain shall be most holy. – Ezek 43:12
In the Church before Mass
As I look around the Church, I become aware that this a sacred place in which everything has a message for me. The people who sit in the pews, although few in number, represent all the Catholics around the world who celebrate this same sacrifice; they all sit facing the same direction—east—because all wait for the same Savior. The statues and pictures of saints represent all those members of the Church who are already in heaven. The walls, the corners, and the high ceiling of the Church building itself represent all the members of the Church, and show how different members have different places and tasks: some are lowly but foundational, others are exalted but connected with those below, but each has a place and purpose. All together, the visible Church building with its ornaments and the people in it make me vividly aware of the entire Catholic Church gathered together in spirit to offer the one sacrifice to the one God. The room is filled with a patient but joyful sense of expectation.
All the people face the altar, but behind the altar it appears to me that there is no Church wall: where the back wall of the Church was there now arises a mountain that stretches up, up, and out of sight into the sky. The gathered people wait facing the mountain, but no one ascends yet: it is a sacred mountain, the very mountain of God, and no one may set foot on that mountain who is unclean.
Who shall climb the mountain of the Lord? Who shall stand in his holy place? The man with clean hands and pure heart, Who desires not worthless things.
The Priest Enters
The priest enters and walks in procession to the front of the Church. In a moment he will continue in procession up the side of the mountain and the entire Church will follow him, but first he stops to prepare himself and the people.
The Sign of the Cross
Together with the priest, I trace the sign of the cross over my heart. This means that I take the cross of Christ on myself, entering into his life and death. Out of the corner of my eye as though I saw a dancing beam of sunlight, it almost seems as though I see a stern but joyous young man flash through the pews drawing an X-shaped cross on every breast.
Confiteor and Kyrie
Before we can ascend, we have to purify ourselves of sin. I call to mind not only the general fact that I have sinned, but also particular sins that have plagued me recently. My heart aches to think of how unworthy I am to process forward with the priest, but hope surges within me when I remember the sign of the cross. With a hope inspired by Christ’s sacrifice, I confess my sins sincerely along with the priest and the congregation. The Kyrie inspires me still more with hope as I earnestly beg Christ to have mercy on me and everyone gathered here.
And the priest strides forward up the mountain, followed by the congregation!
The moment I set foot on the mountain, the air shimmers with a joyful, majestic song that seemingly comes from every side at once: the angels of God chant his praise! Our steps take on the rhythm of the song as we continue walking up the steep hill.
As we walk on and on, up and up, the priest raises his hands and speaks to the God ahead of us, up the mountain. On behalf of all us gathered, he begs the particular grace we desire from this ascent.
At length we reach a level meadow. A noble man [a prophet or sage or apostle, depending on who wrote the first reading] meets us coming down the mountain. He gestures that we should sit down, and then speaks in a quiet but commanding voice. I open my heart to let his words enter in, and I accept with firm belief whatever he tells us. When he has finished, he retraces his path up the mountain.
Suddenly, the sound of a thousand voices comes down to us from the mountain’s peak and surrounds us like a flood. Thousands upon thousands of angels sing in chorus, and although I cannot see them yet, I am caught up in their song: Alleluia! No one hearing that joyful sound could remain sitting!
I leap to my feet and stand at attention. Then a tremendous voice speaks like thunder from the mountain top. This one voice is like the roaring of all the oceans, like a blast of the trumpet of eternity, a voice that seems to speak at once the voice of every man who ever lived: it is the voice of Jesus. I gaze upward to the mountain top and listen, straining to open my heart as widely as possible to let every syllable enter in and lodge there.
As the echoes of the Gospel fade away, the priest turns to face the rest of us. He speaks to us in order to prepare us for the final ascent. We listen to him as the guide Jesus has given us, and as he speaks all kinds of flowers spring up in the meadow around us: a little daisy of insight, a beautiful rose of affection, and too many others to describe. Out of all this exuberant growth, I pick one flower, gaze at it thoughtfully, and tuck it in my pocket for later.
Together we stand and, facing up the mountain, reply to the tremendous voice that spoke down the mountain to us. I try to express how firmly I accept everything that has been said, as I recite the sacred words: I believe!
Offering of Bread and Wine
Then bread and wine are brought to the priest. The bread is heavy, because it contains all the work and hardship I have endured; the wine is thick, because it contains every joy and every inner pain God has given me. I think of particular pains and joys and commit them to the priest’s hands in the bread and the wine. He turns to face the mountain top and offers the bread and wine to God, because the next ascent, the final ascent, will be an ascent by love: by the gift of myself.
The Priest Washes His Hands
The priest himself will hold the sacred things of the altar, and so he must be most pure. He washes his hands out of respect for what he will hold, and to show how he wishes to wash himself interiorly to be worthy for this final ascent.
Who shall climb the mountain of the Lord? Who shall stand in his holy place? The man with clean hands and pure heart, who desires not worthless things.
The ascent of God’s Mountain is not made by moving the feet but by lifting up the heart. The priest calls on us to do just that: Sursum corda! “Lift up your hearts!” As I turn my heart fully toward the Holy Trinity in adoration, I join the congregation marching up the mountain. The priest, leading the way, sings aloud our praise and our desire to join the very angels in their worship.
And suddenly, our prayer is answered: two colossal seraphim appear, one on either side of the mountain, calling out to one another, Sanctus, Holy! Sanctus, Holy! Sanctus, Holy! Their voices shake the earth beneath my feet even as I blend my voice with theirs. A thick, luminous cloud covers the mountain top above us, and we stop at its edge. No one can enter on his own, no matter how hard he strains to lift up his heart: it is the glory of the Lord.
The priest stands boldly at the very edge of the cloud, speaking the words Jesus Christ himself gave him. Only Jesus Christ can enter through the veil, and so the priest takes on the very person of Christ to speak the final words of consecration. As the bread is changed into the body of Jesus, a pathway opens into the cloud. When the wine is changed into the blood of Jesus, a divine power suddenly lifts me and the entire congregation through the seeming bread and wine, and we find ourselves on a dizzying peak.
The peak towers over the whole world: in one glance I see below me all the cities of the world and even all the underworld, with all its dead. Above me, filling the entire heavens, stand all the saints and angels, rank up on rank as far as the eye can see. Behind me kneels the congregation, the whole Church alive on the earth. Right in front of me, where a moment ago I saw the priest holding up bread and wine, now I see a very high throne, and seated on it the Ancient of Days, his face and his garments shining like the sun. At his right stands Jesus Christ with his hands extended to the right and to the left as though he were still crucified; I see the wounds in his hands and feet and side.
Prayers of the Canon
While Jesus offers his wounds to the Father, I offer him and me in him to the Father. Uniting my prayer with the worship of all the angels and saints spread out above me, I remember my sins, and offer this sacrifice in reparation for my sins and for the sins of the whole world I see around and below me; I offer this sacrifice to thank God for his innumerable gifts to me and to the whole world; I offer this sacrifice to ask God for all my needs, the needs of the Church gathered with me, the needs of the world I see sprawled out below me, and for the innumerable dead I see in the depths of the netherworld, especially my family and friends. Above all I ask that all of us may be united forever with all the saints and angels in heaven to proclaim the glory of God through Jesus Christ forever and ever. And all the Church, and all the saints, and every angel cries out with a single voice: AMEN!
Approach to the Throne
Pater Noster – Our Father
Then I see the priest again approaching Jesus to receive a scroll. We need to prepare ourselves for the final stage of our journey: we do not need to ascend any higher, because we are already in the Holy of Holies, but it remains for us to approach the throne of God. The priest takes the scroll from Jesus and opens it up for all of us to read, and so we pray in the words we have been given: Pater noster, “Our Father.”
Agnus Dei – Lamb of God
Before this approach, we must purify ourselves one last time. We beg Jesus himself, the lamb on the throne, to have mercy on us.
Domine, non sum dignus – Lord, I am not worthy
Again, insistently, we beg Jesus to have mercy on us, to heal our souls that we may approach him not only in body but also in soul. Many will walk through space to the sanctuary and receive communion; how many will also approach the throne in spirit?
Here I stop using my imagination to represent the peak of the mountain. My eyes see the appearances of bread in the priest’s hand; I see the Church building around me and the people shuffling up to receive communion; I move my feet to walk through space toward the Church sanctuary. But without removing my eyes from that sacred appearance of bread, which is in reality the body of Jesus himself in heaven enthroned in glory, I remain in spirit on the mountain peak. I will take Jesus into myself, and in the same moment he will take me into himself—not an image in my mind, but a reality beyond all imagining.
After a few blessed moments of communion with Jesus, we take up our position again at the foot of the mountain. The priest gives us his blessing, and tells us that the Mass is ended: Ite, missa est! “Go forth, it is sent!” Where before he stood at our head and led the way up the mountain, now he stands behind us and urges us forward into our lives out in the world. “You have stayed long enough at this mountain; turn and take your journey! [Deut 1:6-7] Go, carry with you Jesus Christ into the world! Go, Go, and know that he is with you always, to the end of the age.”
Oh, and don’t forget your flower!