EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a series of articles in which Fr. Longenecker explains the deeper significance of elements of the Catholic Mass.
We’re lined up at the back of church. The high school student who is thurifer holds the incense thurible, which is billowing smoke. To his side a little boy holds the “boat” containing the incense. Behind them the crucifer is standing tall, proud of the role he is playing in the liturgy. On either side, front and back are four torchbearers. Behind them, the boys who serve the altar hold the book, and there are two more who hold the patens at Communion.
The bell rings, the organ swells, and the procession begins. I have instructed the boys: “We walk in a dignified and slower pace, orderly and beautiful because God’s world and God’s worship is orderly and beautiful. Remember boys, as you process into church, you are leading worship. The people watch you, and in their minds and hearts, they too are processing into the presence of God.”
Mass begins with what should be a solemn procession, and there are two times in the Church year when the liturgy prescribes a procession: Palm Sunday and Holy Thursday. On Palm Sunday there is to be a procession that echoes the Lord’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday. On the night of Holy Thursday there is to be a procession of the Blessed Sacrament from the altar to the altar of repose. This represents Jesus’ progress from the Last Supper to the Garden of Gethsemane. Catholics accept these liturgical traditions without question, but what do they mean and why do we do them?
Rooted in antiquity
Students of antiquity acknowledge that processions were part of most ancient religions. The pyramid-like temples of the Mayans, Aztecs, and Babylonians featured external staircases. On top of the pyramid stood the temple where the priests offered sacrifice. The temples usually stood at the head of a processional avenue, and worship included a solemn procession of priests, kings, and religious officials. They processed along the avenue, then up the stairway to the temple on top of the pyramid.
The psalms give evidence that the Jews worshipped in a similar way in Jerusalem. A procession began on the Mount of Olives on the opposite hillside outside the city walls and went up through the city gates to the temple itself. This processional path would have been used by King David and King Solomon who led the ceremonies. Psalm 24 seems to be one of the psalms that was sung as the crowd processed up to the temple.
In the psalm, the people sing:
Who may go up the mountain of the Lord? Who can stand in his holy place? The clean of hand and pure of heart … (verses 3–4).
The victorious king was seen to be the representative of God on earth, so as the procession would near the city gates, the people would sing:
Lift up your heads, O gates; be lifted, you ancient portals, that the king of glory may enter. Who is this king of glory? The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in war. …Who is this king of glory? The Lord of hosts, he is the king of glory (Psalm 24:7–8, 10).
In the procession the priests and people make their way into the temple of the Lord. It is, if you like, a mini-pilgrimage. The people of God go on a little journey out of their ordinary world into the realm of God. They move physically together out of the mundane into the divine.
But there is more to it than that.
Worship in the round?
I once attended a summer production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. It was a delightful performance, with the audience seated around a central stage. The actors’ movements were brilliantly choreographed so that people on all sides could see the action. Theater can be in the round, but can Christian worship be in the round?
Since the Second Vatican Council, the trend has been to build circular or fan-shaped churches in which everyone sits around a central altar. This is contrary not only to 2,000 years of tradition in Christian architecture, but also to the designs for the tabernacle and temple laid out in the Old Testament.
Traditional churches are linear, not circular. This means they are designed with a front and a back, an entry point, and a focal point. Christian churches are linear because the Christian view of history is linear. We do not believe in “the circle of life” — in which all things continue in a never-ending natural cycle. Instead, we believe that salvation history has a starting point and a conclusion. In the Book of Revelation, Jesus is called the Alpha and the Omega — the beginning and the end.
A round church building could give the impression that life is an endless cycle. Someone has observed that many Native American tribes lived in round teepees placed in a circle around a circular fire pit because their worldview was that of the “cycle of life.” Whether this is true or not, it is an interesting symbol of different worldviews. In contrast, the Christian understands history as having a beginning and an end.
When the baptismal font is placed at the back of the church, it too reminds us that the font is the beginning point and the sanctuary (which represents heaven in the liturgy) is our final destination. The procession at the beginning of Mass, which begins at the font and terminates at the sanctuary, is a visual, liturgical reminder that our Christian journey is linear. It begins in Baptism and ends in God’s presence.
Procession and process
The word “process” is embedded in the word “procession,” and the procession also reminds us that the Christian life is not only a journey with a beginning and a destination, but it is also a process. It is a development. Each one of us is a work in progress, and we are in the midst of a partnership with God through which we are traveling step-by-step to the end point of perfection.
In St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he prays that we might be empowered “until we all attain to the unity of faith and knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the extent of the full stature of Christ” (4:13). In other words, following Jesus Christ is a process of growing up.
St. Paul continues:
So that we may no longer be infants, tossed by waves and swept along by every wind of teaching arising from human trickery, from their cunning in the interests of deceitful scheming. Rather, living the truth in love, we should grow in every way into him who is the head, Christ (Ephesians 4:14–15).
Elsewhere St. Paul uses the image of an athlete who has worked and trained hard to win the prize (see 2 Timothy 4:7). We get the picture, therefore, of the Christian life as a job to be completed, a quest to follow, a journey to be taken, and a race to be run. There is no room for complacency or laziness. Instead, with hearts overflowing with joy, we run the race to the very end.
The procession at the beginning of Mass carries this symbolism: We are all called to make regular, stately, determined progress to our heavenly home and the perfection to which we are called.
The triumphant procession
When a Roman emperor won a great military victory, he would be awarded a “triumph.” This was an officially sanctioned day of celebration in Rome that centered around a magnificent victory parade. The armies would march through the capital, the slaves and prisoners would be paraded through the streets, the rich booty of treasure, exotic animals, and looted wealth would be hauled on carts, and at the end of the procession, the emperor would ride in a beautiful chariot wearing the most splendid regal costume. As part of the celebration, the emperor shared the bounty with his people. Prisoners were pardoned, a holiday was given, and gifts of bread, wine, and money were distributed.
In the same chapter in his letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul uses this image from the surrounding culture to refer to the ascension of Jesus back to heaven. He writes, “He ascended on high and took prisoners captive; he gave gifts to men” (4:8).
What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.
The procession at the beginning of Mass, therefore, carries an even greater significance. It is not only a symbol of our earthly pilgrimage and a reminder that our journey of faith has an Alpha and an Omega point. It also offers a visual pointer to the great triumphal procession of Christ the King back to his heavenly home.
Sometimes the procession at Mass seems like a casual and senseless stroll up the aisle — servers and clergy shuffling from the back to the front seemingly without any real sense of awareness or understanding. However, once we come to appreciate the full significance of the liturgy, we will approach our worship and service with a much greater sense of dignity, awe, and reverence.