Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Time for the Soul to Absorb the Mysteries — Part 4: The Ablutions to the Last Gospel

Last week I considered how the Communion rite in the traditional Mass afford a spacious home for corporate and personal prayer, so that the virtue of actual devotion, which is required for fruitful communication, may thrive in clergy and in laity alike. One may say, in fact, that the traditional Mass continually supports and strongly encourages the positing of all the acts of the virtue of religion discussed by St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa, such as devotion, prayer, adoration, sacrifice, and praise.[1] In this way, the Mass is not only an “oasis” of peace in which prayer may be kindled and fed, but also a training or proving ground for the heavenly Jerusalem, whose citizens heroically exercise just these virtues. (Links to Part 1; Part 2; Part 3.)

Today I shall continue my exploration with the rites that take place once the priest and the faithful have received the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Our Lord.

The Ablutions

After communion, there is a long pause for the people while the priest cleanses his fingers and the sacred vessels, and the other ministers puts things aside or back to their places for the end of Mass. Here again we see the genius of the Roman Rite as it developed organically: there is no unseemly haste in this matter of ablutions, and, as a providential side effect, there need be no haste in the people’s time of thanksgiving. How welcome, how utterly necessary is this time of grace, when the Lord is most intimately present to and within us! Many great saints have spoken about the privileged prayer that is possible only at this time, in the minutes following sacramental communion with the Word made flesh. What a shame if the very form of the liturgy — or, it must be added, the particular customs of a given community, even in the sphere of the usus antiquior — should thwart this communion of minds and hearts!

The Placeat Tibi

Instead of racing to the finish line as the Novus Ordo does, in its eagerness to “send us out on mission,” et cetera ad nauseam, the old Mass takes a moment to beseech the Lord in a prayer of burning intensity, said by the priest bowing before the altar, in between the Ite missa est and the final blessing:
May the performance of my homage be pleasing to Thee, O holy Trinity, and grant that the Sacrifice which I, though unworthy, have offered up in the sight of Thy Majesty, be acceptable to Thee, and through Thy mercy, be a propitiation for me and for all those for whom I have offered it.
A magnificent summary of the very essence of the Mass, and a summons to embrace its ascetical-mystical reality! The usus antiquior never forgets and never allows us to forget God’s majesty and our unworthiness, God’s mercy and our dire need of it. Centered from start to finish on the primal mystery of the Holy Trinity, serious about the Father’s business, the Mass is here simply styled “the Sacrifice.” That is what it is — and that is how it should look, sound, feel, and exist for us.

The Last Gospel

Over the years, one of the things about the Novus Ordo that has grated on me the most is the rapid-fire conclusion. The celebrant may well take his time with the homily (sometimes it seems as if this is viewed as the most important point of the entire Mass), but when it comes to everything afterwards, it’s “life in the fast lane” — particularly when communion is done. The vessels are hastily put away and “Let us pray” booms out like an ultimatum over the heads of people who could not have had the slightest chance to pray. Within seconds, the floodgates are opened and the crowds, impatient to get home to leisure pursuits that are vastly more significant than anything that happened on Calvary, pour into the parking lot to simulate bumper cars. It is thoroughly disedifying for the few devout Catholics who, due to some unanticipated freethinking, wish to stay in the pews to make their thanksgiving after Mass.

At a traditional Mass, this travesty is unheard of.[2] The liturgy itself builds in time for thanksgiving from the ablutions through the Placeat tibi and, finally, the sweet balm of the Last Gospel, which, no matter how slowly or quickly it is read, whether aloud or sotto voce, always seems like a well-placed comma or ellipsis in the grammar of worship. The end is rejoined with the beginning, like the circulation of divine lifeblood: In the beginning was the Word… the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory… Deo gratias.

It is well to recall the beauty of the Last Gospel, the Prologue of the loftiest of biblical books, on this feast of its author, St. John the Evangelist. For it is he who teaches us, perhaps better than anyone else, the very virtue of restfulness in God that I have been arguing is one of the chief characteristics of the ancient Roman rite. The Beloved Disciple took his time at the Last Supper when leaning on the breast of Jesus; he did not think that there were more urgent things to do, be it selling ointments to get money for the poor, strategizing against the enemies of his Lord, or even preaching the good news that he was later inspired to write down. No, at the solemn moment when the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass was instituted, John knew where he had to be and what he had to be doing: at the side of his Master, in the adoring silence of a friendship so intimate that it would later spill out in the most sublime revelations vouchsafed to man. John heard his Gospel beating in the heart of Jesus, High Priest and Victim; there he learned the meaning of adoration, reparation, supplication, and thanksgiving — Eucharistia. St. John is therefore the patron not only of theologians but of all who “worship God in spirit and in truth.” He leads us back, again and again, to the authentic liturgies of the Catholic Church, whose seeds the Lord sowed into the soil of His apostles’ souls in the Upper Room.


[1] See Summa theologiae, II-II, qq. 81 to 91.

[2] Cf. my article "Priestly Preparation Before Mass and Thanksgiving After Mass."

Photos courtesy of and (c) Corpus Christi Watershed and Fr. Lawrence Lew.

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