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Imagine

Terry McKinney
Sun, May 20

The Seventh Sunday of Easter
Luke 2: 14, Isaiah 6:3, Mark 11:9-10, John 1:29

I invite you to use your imagination with me. We’re in the 12th century. We live in a cathedral town. It’s Sunday morning. We enter into a magnificent building in the shape of a cross. You and I are in the long part of the cathedral. There are no chairs or pews. Behind me is a screen around 10 feet high, more or less, made of wood, stone, iron, or some combination.

The service begins. In the middle of the screen is a gate. You and I can’t go through it; only the clergy and monks, the choir, and the nobility.

We outside don’t know exactly what they’re doing, but we know it’s holy and mysterious. And whatever is happening, it’s in another language. We can’t see anything and we’re essentially just waiting, so it’s pretty boring on this side of the screen. So some of us are chatting away, and, believe it or not, some are selling things like eggs or bread.

Beyond the screen, the service is going on. The choir chants at different times, also in a language we can’t understand. At some point, bells ring both inside and outside to signal to everyone hearing them that the bread or host is being broken. But most of us know only that something important and holy is going on. Finally, the gates open and we’re given a portion of the host…

There. How did your imagination do? It’s amazing to think that this is what a medieval mass setting would have looked like compared with how we Protestants think of communion today.

So what is a mass? Most simply put, it’s a liturgical rite in which Communion is celebrated, most commonly within Roman Catholic practice. It’s a particular medium for worshipping God.

But to dig a little deeper, it has a specific form, specific parts, and a specific order. There a few flavors of this format including Latin Rite, Roman Rite, Western and Eastern Rites, Tridentine.

It has its roots in liturgical prayers that grew out of the very earliest church and became codified over time, recognizable as a form by the eighth century, and fixed by Rome in its current form by the late 16th century. And it’s changed very little since then.

If you go to a Catholic church today, you’ll still hear those bells during the Sanctus, inside and sometimes outside as well, to let everyone hearing them know that something important and holy is happening.

There are parts of the mass such as different prayers that change from day to day and Sunday to Sunday depending on whether it’s Advent season or Easter Day, for example. And then there are the parts that are fixed, that are included in every mass, no matter what the occasion.

So now we can say “mass” in a few different ways. We can say it meaning a service, such as, “I went to Mass today,” or “We go to Mass every Sunday.”

You can say “Mass” and mean the format and order, such as I’ve been doing.

And you can say “Mass” and mean a musical setting of those parts that never change from Sunday to Sunday. And that’s what we’re hearing today: Vaughan Williams’ Mass setting.

To de-mystify it a bit, the words of the mass aren’t made up of a bunch stuff monks wrote down. They’re entirely biblical. Every part of it is a mosaic of scripture, strands of parts and sentences all woven together to form a whole. The bits of scripture I just read are found in different parts of the mass:

"Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!"
"Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory."
"Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!"
"Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!

But let’s move away from history now.

Even though it’s centuries old, the mass isn’t a calcified piece of history: it’s a living, breathing act of worship. Though the words and format are different, most of the parts – and sometimes even all of them – are in our services here on a given Sunday. See what you think:

The Kyrie, sung earlier, asking for forgiveness.
The Gloria, an act of praise.
The Seventh Sunday of Easter
The Credo, a testimony of belief.
The Sanctus, joining the seraphs singing their praise.
The Benedictus, announcing the coming and arrival of Jesus.
And finally, the Agnus Dei, petitioning Jesus directly as the Lamb of God for mercy and peace.

Though it’s easy for us UCC-ers to think of the mass and its form as completely foreign or ‘other’ somehow, its part of our lineage and practice of worship too. Here at First Church, when we celebrate Communion, we sing the Sanctus (“Holy, Lord God of Hosts”) and Agnus Dei (“O Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, look mercifully on us, grant us thy peace.”)

So let’s imagine. It’s the 21st century. We live in a university town. It’s Sunday morning. We enter a beautiful sanctuary that’s in the shape of a cross. We’re in the long section. The choir is behind us. But there’s no screen separating us.

We sit in the midst of a mass setting that’s part of our inheritance. As we listen, it not only stirs our senses, but we experience it as a living, breathing act of worship in participation with the choir, as together we proclaim, “Glory be to God on high, and peace to God’s people on earth.”

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