First Sunday of Lent, March 5, 2017

Dominica 1 in Quadragesima / Evening, 4 March 2017 / Church of St John

He will overshadow you with his shoulders, and beneath his wings you will hope (Ps 90:4).

The Roman Canon has been spoken silently by the priest for more than a thousand years.[1] Often this is one of the most striking differences between the usus antiquior and the modern form of the Roman Missal. But why is this done? Why in the middle of the Holy Mass does a curtain of silence descend upon Catholic worship?

Because a death occurs.—Remember what the Mass is, especially as taught by the Council of Trent:
In this divine sacrifice . . . the same Christ who offered himself in a bloody manner on the altar of the Cross is contained and is offered in an unbloody manner. . . . For, the victim is one and the same: the same now offers himself through the ministry of priests who then offered himself on the Cross; only the manner of offering is different.[2]

Christ does not die again. Rather, the Mass as it were transports us through space and time, as if we gathered here were standing beneath the Cross, at the one sacrifice of Christ on Calvary. This is the Mass. And if you and I were there on that most solemn, sorrowful, and yet glorious afternoon, what would have been our reaction?—Silence. Even now in the face of human death, the only appropriate reaction is a reverent silence. All the more appropriate then is this silence of the canon of the Mass, when that very death of our Savior is set before us in a sacramental way.

If that is true, then you, the faithful, need silence in order to pray. You need silence to form your intentions. You need silence to tell Christ your burdens. You need silence to place your prayers into the hands of the priest. You need silence to thank God for the gifts he gives, to praise him. You need silence to ask his pardon, to understand his will for you, to pray for the people you know and love. This silence is not meant to exclude you or hide the worship of the Church from you—on the contrary, the silence of the canon is given to you as a gift, as a time of intimacy and freedom and peace.

If you do not mind me saying, the priest also needs this time of silence. He needs this time to quiet his lips in order to quiet his heart. He too comes laden with prayers and burdens, and he needs to place them before Heart of his Master. The more devoutly he offers the sacrifice, this aids the devotion of the people—though it must be said that an unworthy minister does not stop up the flow of grace. Nevertheless, between the Sanctus and the Doxology, the priest enters into the very heart of the Father through the Heart of Christ: he passes into the Holy of Holies, like the priests of the Old Law in the Temple.

The canon is silent because the priest is uttering the most important, profound words of his life; the canon is silent because this is the most sacred action that a priest performs. The canon is silent because the priest speaks to God on behalf of all the people, the whole Church, in point of fact—for every intention that affects the salvation of every human person. Memento Domine famulorum famularumque tuarum et omnium circumstantium. That truly means everybody. Moreover, what would the priest’s life be without those magnificent words?—Hoc est enim corpus meum.

It must also be said that the priest offers the Mass “with his back to the people” for much the same reason. The point is not that the priest has turned his back away from anyone, but toward the one to Whom all our worship is addressed. Because the priest has begun the Canon and so entered into the most intimate places of our worship, his personality ceases to matter: both his voice and his face descend into a kind of sacred anonymity. Why? So that every mind and heart may be directed to Christ’s sacrifice, present in sacramental reality.       

Today, the First Sunday of Lent, we pray much with Ps 90: the introit, gradual, tract, offertory, and communion are all different verses from this psalm. In fact, the offertory and communion antiphons are identical, and in them we hear: “He will overshadow you with his shoulders, and beneath his wings you will hope.” It is the silence of the Roman Canon that acts like the sheltering wings of God’s protection and fidelity.

How can we really appreciation enough the mysteries we handle? Perhaps in his time the good God will deign to reveal something of this mystery to us. In the meantime, the only right attitude is one of awe-filled silence, of happy wonder, of tender gravity.      

[1] Cf Jungmann, vol 2, p 104ff. Jungmann’s discussion is disjointed and does not treat the silence of the Canon in one segment, but weaves it into his discussion about the separateness (or not) of the preface from the canon—it seems in order to assert that “the whole prayer was said in a loud voice.” The reader is left wondering.    
[2] DS, 1743; cf also, CCC. 1367.   

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