External forms of participation in the Mass

From posture and gesture to the saying of ‘Amen,’ we can engage more fully in the liturgy

By Father Randy Stice

Our participation in the Mass is most fruitful when we do so “fully aware of what [we] are doing, actively engaged in the rite, and enriched by its effects” [Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (SC), 11]. However, it can be the case that we know what to say and do, but we don’t know why—the meaning and spiritual reality of the words and actions. In my last column I looked at interior forms of participation during the Mass. In this column I want to look at the meaning of some of our external forms of participation, “acclamations, responses, psalmody, antiphons, and songs, as well as by actions, gestures, and bodily attitudes” (SC, 30).

Posture and gesture are an important part of the liturgy and have many meanings: placing ourselves in the presence of the Trinity by making the sign of the cross, “standing to pray, sitting to listen, kneeling in adoration, bowing to show reverence, striking the breast in sorrow for past personal sins, moving forward to present and receive, and exchanging the sign of peace” (Introduction to the Order of Mass, No. 28). Each gesture and posture not only expresses “the intentions and spiritual attitude of the participants,” each also “fosters them” [General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), 42]. Just as our mind “instructs” our body, so also our body helps form in us, often without our realizing it, attitudes essential to our relationship with God: listening, adoration, reverence, contrition, giving, and receiving.

An acclamation sung or said at every Mass is the Holy, Holy, Holy (Sanctus). It is based on Isaiah’s vision in Isaiah 6 when he saw the Lord in majesty and seraphim above crying to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts!” (Isaiah 6:1-3). When we sing the Sanctus, says the Church, we are “joining with the heavenly powers” (GIRM, 79b). This reveals a vital dimension of the Mass. “In the earthly liturgy,” said the Second Vatican Council, “we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, a minister of the holies and of the true tabernacle; we sing a hymn to the Lord’s glory with the whole company of heaven” (SC, 8).

This aspect of the liturgy is well-attested in our tradition. Origen (died 254) said, “I do not doubt that angels are even present in our assembly…[there is] a double church present, one of men, the other of angels.” St. John Chrysostom (died 407) said that when we sing the Sanctus we are invited to “abide there beside the very throne of glory, hovering with the seraphim, and singing the most holy song of the God of glory and majesty.” St. Gregory the Great (died 604) asked, “Can any of the faithful doubt that at the hour of the eucharistic sacrifice of Jesus Christ the choirs of angels are present, the heights joined to the depths, earth linked to heaven, the visible united with the invisible?” This is so intrinsic to the Mass, said Pope Benedict XVI, that our “earthly liturgy is liturgy because and only because it joins what is already in process, the greater reality” (A New Song for the Lord, 166). And St. John Paul II said it is “an aspect of the Eucharist which merits greater attention.” Why? Because “the Eucharist is truly a glimpse of heaven appearing on earth. It is a glorious ray of the heavenly Jerusalem which pierces the clouds of our history and lights up our journey” (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, No. 19).

“Amen” is the most familiar and frequent acclamation, a Hebrew word that is the people’s response to many of the prayers of the Mass. In Revelation, Amen is a name given to Jesus—“The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness” (3:14). When we consider this in conjunction with Jesus’ assurance to his disciples in John 15:16 that His Father would grant whatever they asked in His name, we understand that when the people say “Amen” to a prayer “they are saying ‘yes’ to its contents, but they are also pronouncing the name of Him through whom they pray God will grant their request” (At the Supper of the Lamb, Paul Turner, 23).

The “Amen” said at Communion in response to the minister’s, “the body of Christ,” merits special attention. St. Ambrose (died 397) explains: “Not without reason do you say ‘Amen,’ for you acknowledge in your heart that you are receiving the body of Christ. When you present yourself, the priest says to you, ‘The body of Christ,’ and you reply ‘Amen,’ that is, ‘It is so.’ Let the heart persevere in what the tongue confesses.” St. Augustine (died 430) adds another dimension: “If you are the body and members of Christ, then . . . it is the sacrament of what you are that you receive. It is to what you yourselves are that you answer ‘Amen,’ and this answer is your affidavit. Be a member of Christ’s body, so that your ‘Amen’ may be authentic.” Our “Amen” affirms our belief in Christ’s real presence and renews our commitment to be faithful members of Christ’s body, the Church.

As we become more aware of the formative power of our gestures and postures, of how we are participating with the choirs of heaven when we sing the Sanctus, and of the rich meanings of the simple “Amen,” we can engage more fully in the Mass and be enriched by its graces.


Father Randy Stice is director of the diocesan Office of Worship and Liturgy. He can be reached at frrandy@dioknox.org.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *