Have you ever tried to have a conversation with someone who won't respond? Or tried to dance with someone who won't move? What would happen if the outfielders just stood there and stared as the ball was hit deep into center?
In all of these situations, the participation of each person is necessary for the event to be successful. We admit the outfielder that won't run and catch has little right to complain about the score. You can't complain if you didn't try. And the better you become at the task, the greater your satisfaction.
Believe it or not, this is true of liturgy, too. In one sense, you take from the liturgy what you put into it. (In another sense, all the good that comes from the liturgy is a pure gift from God.) When you participate in the liturgy fully, consciously, and actively, you benefit more from it.
Sure, sometimes you'll be bored. Sometimes you'll just go through the motions… that's human nature. And it's not a problem when it's occasional. But if you strive to participate, most of the time your mind, heart, and body will be caught up in our great act of thanks and praise.
This is true even when the liturgy is not enacted with care. Even if the music is out of tune and poorly accompanied, even if the prayers and readings are delivered as though being read for the first time, even if the homily is inane, it's still possible to leave the celebration nourished and on fire. We may not be able to control how the liturgy is done in our parish – although we should speak up if it is not being celebrated with care – but we can control whether or not we listen with our hearts and sing our parts with gusto.
The good news is this: While we need to cooperate with Christ in celebrating the liturgy, the power of the Mass does not depend on us. Christ always and perfectly does his part. We need only to open ourselves up to him and the Mass will work.
Lift up your hearts! the priest bids us at the very heart of the Mass itself. That's the challenge: Put your heart into this. Liturgy is a divine-human affair. God always fulfills the divine part of the bargain. So how might we participate better at Mass?
1. Enter into mystery
The Greek word for church means "those whom God has called together." Adopted by God in Baptism, we are brothers and sisters of Christ and hence brothers and sisters of each other. No other bond, not age or race or ethnicity or sexual orientation or political affiliation or economic status or educational background – not even biological relationship – is stronger than the bond of the water of Baptism that draws us together. This water is thicker than blood. This does not mean we all have to be best friends. But we have to act like we are more than just a bunch of strangers in the same room at the same time doing the same thing.
Try this: Be aware of others as you get out of your car or walk toward your church. Make eye contact. Smile, nod, say hello. Remember that after he rose from the dead, Christ appeared to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus as a stranger. And Mary Magdalene mistook him for the gardener.
Consider arriving early so you can spend some time in quiet solitude in the Blessed Sacrament chapel if your church has one. The Eucharist reserved in the tabernacle came from a prior celebration of the Mass, so praying in the presence of Christ in this manner can help us meditate on how to enter more deeply into the sacrifice the next time we go to Mass.
Bless yourself with holy water to remember who you are (a baptized person) and why you are here (because you are a baptized person). If you see the gifts of bread and wine set out, stop for a minute. Look at the bread. Place alongside the bread all that you accomplished in the past week: the work you did, the test you took, all the simple acts of kindness you performed. Also place there all the things the parish did this past week to educate children, care for the sick, feed the hungry, stand up for the oppressed.
Look at the flagon of wine. Put into the flagon all the struggles that you undertook in the past week: to understand others better, to love others more. Put in the flagon, too, all the things the parish struggles with: the attempts to be a more inclusive community, a more vibrant community, a more faithful community. These, then, are the things we will offer to God under the signs of bread and wine.
Take a seat up front and move to the center. This isn't being proud. Save the seats by the doors for those who arrive late. Save the seats on the aisles for those who may have to exercise a ministry, walk a baby, or sit next to someone in a wheelchair.
Bow to the altar before taking your place. Don't just nod your head: Bend deeply, gracefully from the waist. Recognize Christ in this sign: a dining table where God eats with us and heaven comes to earth like a feast comes to those who are starving. When you bow to the altar, you bow to Christ.
If the tabernacle is not in its own chapel but in the main body of the church, our tradition is to genuflect to the tabernacle instead of bowing to the altar. After acknowledging Christ present at the altar or in the tabernacle, acknowledge Christ present in those sitting around you. Say hello, or at least offer a simple smile and a nod. Some people like to kneel and pray after taking their seat. In some monasteries, the practice is to stand attentively for a few moments before sitting. When you sit, prepare your donation and find the opening song. If you picked up the bulletin, don't read it now.
2. Sing for your supper
Singing together blends many voices into one. Won't you join your voice to the great voice of the Body of Christ? The musicians are there to lead and to help, not to perform. We are there not to be entertained, but to sing.
Singing together is a great experience. Assembling as the church at liturgy gives us an opportunity rarely found in our technological culture: an opportunity to make music with our voices, to sing together. There is a power in our common song to spread joy to hearts that are without joy, to share sorrow so that the burden is lighter for all, to give voice to hope and yearning and gratitude and love that words alone cannot express.
3. Listen: it's hard work
It's hard to simply listen today. We are so used to seeing a story as well as hearing it: watching television, going to the movies. And it's hard enough to follow the plot of a contemporary soap opera, let alone the stories of ancient Israel and the first Christians. But Baptism gives us the grace to hear the Word of God. Just as Jesus opened the ears of the man who could not hear, he opens our ears to hear God speaking to us today in the old and holy words of scripture.
Think of the times a loved one tried to tell you something you didn't quite understand at first. What did you do? You probably positioned your body carefully so you could pay attention. You listened hard, with your heart and mind as well as your ears.
The proclaiming of scripture and preaching at Mass is like this. The One who loves us beyond all telling is telling us. The proclaiming of scripture and the preaching of the homily at Mass is not like someone giving a report, it is a living dialogue between God and the church. And when God speaks, things happen.
So strive to listen. Position your body so that you can concentrate. Unless you have a hearing impairment or difficulty understanding the language in which the scriptures are read, put down the missal and truly listen. When we have a lively dialogue with someone we love, we don't read the newspaper at the same time. We look into each other's eyes and listen deeply. We should do the same thing with the reader and the preacher.
Not every homily will be engaging. Some will even be horrible. If the preaching is consistently terrible, we need to speak up. Charitably, we need to make some positive suggestions to help the priest or deacon do better. Offer to be part of a homily preparation group that meets early in the week to allow those who preach to pray together, share insights into the scripture, even practice and be critiqued. But remember that even in the worst homily, God may still be trying to tell us something. Listen for that, and try to disregard the rest. Don't worry about understanding every word. Let the scripture and homily wash over you, and pay attention to the droplets that stick.
Some people read the assigned scriptures before Mass. The citations are often in the bulletin, or the readings themselves can be found online at www.usccb.org/nab/index.htm. Most people, though, can't always make such preparation. So try this: Return to the scriptures that were read first at Mass again and again throughout the week. If nothing else, try to remember the verse from the responsorial psalm and use it as your prayer during the week.
During periods of silence, don't pick the lint off your lapel, futz with or read anything. Listen for God's voice. If you listen hard, you'll hear it.
4. Be a beggar
After the homily, the general intercessions – or prayers of the faithful – often slip by us. Too bad, because what could happen here is powerful. As baptized people, we share in Christ's priesthood. Part of what a priest does is to ask God to care for those in need, especially those who can't ask for themselves.
The general intercessions are our opportunity to beg God for help. Not because God needs to be persuaded to lend a hand. it's more like this: When we hear a cry for help in the world and bring it to the liturgy, we begin to generate in ourselves and in our community the energy and momentum of compassion. And we know that if we are going to dare to ask God for help in this matter, we had better stand ready to be part of God's answer to our prayer. So by praying these general intercessions, we begin the long and hard work of bearing one another's burdens. The early church took this so seriously that only the baptized were allowed in the room when the prayers of the faithful were prayed.
5. Give it up!
When we come to the heart of the Mass, the great prayer of thanks and praise, put your heart into it! After you make your donation, stop for a second and think of all the things you are most thankful for right now. As you watch the gifts of bread and wine being placed on the altar, remember that you put yourself alongside that bread and in that flagon when you first came in. Know that you (and we) are being offered to God under the signs of bread and wine.
And here's the miracle. The God who created the heavens and the earth and everything in them, the God who wove the night sky and buttoned it with stars, the living God accepts our gift of self under the sign of bread and wine. Then God changes those gifts into the Body and the Blood of his beloved child Jesus Christ and gives it back to us.
Our medieval ancestors wanted to know precisely at what point the bread and wine become Christ's Body and Blood. They settled on Christ's very own words that the priest repeats in the middle of the eucharistic prayer, and these words came to be called "the consecration." Today we are aware that the whole Eucharistic Prayer consecrates the gifts. It would be a grave mistake for a priest to omit all but the words of consecration. In fact, a few years ago, the pope approved an ancient Eucharistic Prayer for continued use in some of the Eastern churches. it's called the Anaphora of Addai and Mari. It does not contain the words of consecration but in other words calls down the Holy Spirit to make the gifts the Body and the Blood of Christ. The pope said that this prayer still consecrates.
It's easy to check out while the priest says the long Eucharistic Prayer. Don't do it! Don't miss out on the divine gift exchange. Especially important are our acclamations that are part of this prayer: the Holy, Holy, the Memorial Acclamation; and the Great Amen. Sing them from your heart, and remember that in doing so we are joining in the singing of the angels and the saints before God's throne.
Next we pray the Lord's Prayer together, and it's easy to simply recite it from memory without thinking much about it. Here's where posture can help. Our bodies can help keep our minds centered on the meaning of these most beautiful words. If your parish holds hands, then hold hands. But otherwise, try this: Pray the Lord's Prayer standing in the orans position. Stand straight with your arms extended from the elbows, hands open, fingers relaxed, palms facing up. Raise your eyes to heaven, too.
This is an ancient prayer gesture that the priest still uses in the Mass today. But it is not a priests-only gesture. It used to be used by all Christians.
The kiss of peace is probably the most misunderstood part of the Mass. But like the general intercessions, in the early church giving the kiss of Christ's peace was something reserved to those who were baptized. Although in the United States we have changed the kiss to a handshake, there's nothing "how-do-you-do" about this gesture. When two baptized people wish peace to each other, they are imparting to each other the blessing of Christ's peace.
So enter into this gesture knowing that you are giving and receiving Christ's peace. Don't chit-chat. Look the other person in the eye. If you don't embrace, then clasp – but don't shake – hands. Hold the other person's hand in both of yours. Wish him or her peace. Share the peace with those around you. This is a symbolic gesture, so you don't have to reach everybody.
6. Sing, walk, eat, drink
Going up to Communion is not meant to be like going through the drive-through at a fast food restaurant. it's a communal procession in which we walk and sing together in order to eat and drink together. The communion that we share is on two levels: our communion with Christ and our communion with each other.
So sing as you walk! Most music ministers now use Communion songs with short refrains so that you won't need to carry a hymnal or song sheet. (If they don't, you might suggest it.) Walk with the music. If you receive Communion in your mouth, walk with hands folded. If you receive Communion in your hand, walk forward with your one hand cupped in the other, palm upward, ready, eager, to receive.
Don't pass by the cup! (Unless of course, you have a very specific medical reason for doing so.) The chances of catching a cold or worse are minuscule. But the chances of catching Christ's life and spirit as well as communion with Christ and your sisters and brothers is high.
If it's your parish's custom to bow before receiving the consecrated bread and the consecrated wine, then do so slowly, deliberately, gracefully.
Sing on your way back to your place. Even though most parishes in the U.S. don't do so, the official posture during Communion is to stand until all have received. But if your parish kneels or sits, then do what you are comfortable doing. Keep singing. This song is not distraction, but one of the methods that Christ uses to make us one with him and with each other.
If you were taught to kneel and bury your face in your hands after Communion, you may want to rethink this practice. it's not that it's bad or wrong, although it is hard to sing this way. Rather, on further reflection, there may be practices that better enable you to participate fully in the Mass at this point. The Mass is not time for private prayer – it is thoroughly a communal act. This may sound harsh, especially since many of us yearn today for moments of solitude.
The Mass, especially at this point, is not about solitude, but about communion, being one with others in Christ.
Try this: While singing the Communion song, watch the faces of others going to and coming back from the altar. See in each face the face of Christ. Remember that after his Resurrection, Jesus often appeared to his followers in the guise of a stranger. But it was in the breaking of the bread that they recognized him.
There should be a period of communal silence after all have received Communion and the singing is completed. Here is our opportunity to "rest in the Lord" for a moment before finishing up and going back into the fray of daily living. Here, you may bow your head and close your eyes if that helps you pray. Whatever posture you assume, don't fidget with your belongings or read the bulletin. Simply say "thanks" to God in the silence of your heart.
7. Go to do likewise
Participating fully in the Mass trains us to live more fully outside of church, too. When we recognize Christ present in our neighbor-parishioners, we learn to recognize Christ in all people, especially in the poor. When we train our hearts to listen to God's Word, we become better listeners for those we love. Our ears are better attuned to the cries of the poor.
When we intercede for those who are too downtrodden even to ask for help, we find the strength and wisdom to help them. When we offer ourselves to God with the bread and wine, we learn to be bread for those who hunger and wine for those who thirst. And when we share together in the Lord's supper, when we eat and drink the Body and Blood of Christ, well, you know what they say: You are what you eat.