Introductory Rites a time of self-examination, hope
Why do we start Mass right away by acknowledging our sins?
It may seem strange that almost at the beginning of Mass, there is a mention in the Penitential Act of our sinfulness. The Penitential Act includes a moment for us to consider our sins and plead for God’s mercy. Why should we begin with a confession of our sins and an acknowledgment of our weakness? If we look in Scripture, we see several examples where God has chosen to reveal himself in some way to his children. These encounters are marked by the same emotion in those to whom God reveals himself: holy fear and awe as individuals become aware that they are unworthy to be in his presence. Moses’ encounter with the burning bush offers a great example of this, as well as Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Exodus 3; Genesis 3).
However, these examples of awe are not restricted to the Old Testament. In the New Testament, we see the response of the apostles at the Transfiguration when they hear the voice of God in the cloud and “fell upon their face, and were very much afraid” (Matthew 17:6). Thus, we see that our Penitential Act at Mass is the appropriate response to God’s initiative as we prepare to encounter him in the most intimate manner available to us – the Eucharist. Additionally, Jesus teaches that before offering our gift at the altar, we should be reconciled with our neighbor (Matthew 5:24).
What is the Confiteor? Why do we strike our breasts during the Confiteor?
After a moment to examine our consciences, we pray a prayer traditionally called the Confiteor – from the Latin word that begins the prayer, I Confess. In this prayer, we admit before God and the church, represented by the priest and the people around us, that we are sinful and are unworthy of the divine encounter we are about to experience. Looking at the Israelites, they had the same notion of unworthiness – so much so, that only the high priest was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies and even then, only once a year. If that was true for them, then how much more is it true of us who approach the Holy of Holies to receive Christ? We must couple this authentic sense of unworthiness with a true sentiment of sorrow. This true sense of sorrow for our sins is represented by our threefold repetition of sinfulness – “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault” – coupled with the action of striking our breasts, helping us to remember that our internal disposition should match the outward dispositions we are expressing.
Additionally, there is a biblical reference here to Luke 18:10-14 in which the tax collector is praying in the back of the temple, while the Pharisee thanks God that he is righteous and not like the sinful tax collector. The tax collector prays for God’s mercy, and as he did this, he “beat his breast.” Here, the church asks us to be like the humble tax collector asking God for pardon so that we may be reconciled with him and our neighbors.
What is the Kyrie?
This recitation of the Confiteor is followed by the threefold plea for God’s mercy in the Kyrie. Therefore, we not only admit our guilt and sinfulness, but we also ask for God’s mercy, confident in his unfailing love. Interestingly, the Kyrie is the only part of the Mass that is in Greek. The Kyrie translates into Lord, have mercy; Christ have mercy; Lord have mercy. This comes directly from Matthew 20:31 in which two blind men beg the Lord for mercy upon them. With their confidence in his mercy, the Lord heals them of their blindness. Here, the church is asking us to have the same disposition as these two blind men – we too must be confident in God’s mercy and his power to heal us.
What is the Gloria? Where does it come from in Scripture?
As we finish this expression of sorrow and this plea for mercy, we have the opportunity to move to an expression of great joy and hope. On all Sundays, except during Advent or Lent, and on solemnities and feasts (as well as solemn celebrations of the local church), the Gloria is sung or recited. Despite the fact that the Gloria has been retranslated and has some different wording, the message remains the same. This prayer has a familiar origin in the jubilant announcement of the angels at the birth of our Lord (Luke 2:14). This is not accidental, as the church wishes us to recall the miraculous birth of our Lord and make the connection between his birth and his coming in the Eucharist – just as miraculous and joyous as his nativity. This prayer of joy has a lot for us to meditate upon and can easily be overlooked as we recite it repeatedly from memory. The Gloria, steeped in scriptural references, is in effect a confession of faith in God and a reminder of our proper response toward him.
When prayed from the heart, the Gloria, in reminding us of all of this, sparks within us a confidence in God’s mercy and the plan of our redemption. For this reason, the church is very wise in placing the Gloria after the Kyrie so that we have a plea for God’s mercy, followed by a confident expression of our hope in his love and forgiveness. Thus, we too can confidently proclaim with sincerity and faith, “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth!”