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A to Z of the Mass - Language

Thursday, August 12, 2010
Clearly, language plays an important part in the celebration of the Eucharist: after all, we say that it is the words spoken by the priest (its ‘form’) over the bread and wine (its 'matter') that effect the sacrament in which Christ is really present under the appearances of that bread and wine. But how do we dare claim such power for these words, elements of human language? And why these words in particular? And what about the rest of the liturgical rite of the Mass, also composed of various texts? After all, is God not beyond language, limited as it is by the boundaries of the human mind? How can any prayer we say, with any form of words, be worthy of any response from God, let alone the gift of the Body and Blood of Christ which He gives us in the Eucharist?

In brief, yes, God is beyond our language. We cannot praise or thank him as we ought. It is because of this gap, however, this distance from Him, that He sent his Son into the world to become a human being like us: Jesus calls us to unite us to himself, the Word made Flesh, and by his Spirit to come to participate in the eternal love which the Son speaks to the Father and the Father to the Son.

Thus, as our humanity is raised up to God through the Incarnation, so our human language is raised up, and made capable in the sacraments of pointing to something beyond itself, bringing about something which it is not fully able to describe. At the consecration of the Mass it is Jesus who speaks the words of institution through the priest as his instrument: they are truly his words, given to the Church at the Last Supper and handed down in the gospels and the tradition of the Church.

The various other texts which constitute the different rites of Mass have also developed within the tradition of the Church. By using these texts, ordered and selected according to a set pattern, we remember and signify that every celebration of the Eucharist is an action of the whole Church, not of some individual or special group: it is language which makes human beings capable of society, and through a particular use of language that something can be said on behalf of a society as a whole.

Our language, then, is not capable of speaking definitively about God, or of expressing the praise and thanks which is his due, but through the Incarnation, God elevates our speech so that, by the power of the Word made flesh, Christ’s Body and Blood can be made really present, under the appearance of bread and wine, by the speaking of words. These words form part of a rite given to us by the Church, to whom Jesus gave the command to celebrate the Eucharist.

Gregory Pearson OP


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