Experiencing the Mass: The Penitential Act
Wednesday, January 18, 2023
by Fr. David M. Knight
View readings for today:
Dear Readers: Since the Church is presently engaged in a Eucharistic Revival, we thought it would be helpful to post excerpts from his booklet called Experiencing the Mass, for the next few weeks. (This is not a sales pitch. However, the booklet is available for order on this website for $5 per copy if you would like have a copy.)
Then the [presider] invites those present to take part in the Act of Penitence, which, after a brief pause for silence, the entire community carries out through a formula of general confession.... On Sundays, especially in the Season of Easter, in place of the customary Act of Penitence... the blessing and sprinkling of water to recall Baptism may take place.
I confess to almighty God
and to you, my brothers and sisters,
that I have greatly sinned....
At meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, people introduce themselves by saying, “I am (first name only), and I am an alcoholic.”
That levels the playing field. No one is there as “doctor, lawyer, or Indian chief.” Just as an alcoholic. Nothing else. That is the way we introduce ourselves at Mass. As sinners, nothing else.
The presider has already identified us as divine children of the Father, the living body of Jesus Christ, each of us a walking temple of the Holy Spirit. We are conscious of all this.
But as we stand in the presence of God and others at Mass, we choose to present ourselves simply as sinners. Everybody does. No one is “holier than thou.” There are no accepted and unaccepted. No one should feel excluded or there with less right to celebrate than any other. All, without exception — the presiding priest or bishop included — are saying, “I have greatly sinned. In my thoughts and in my words. In what I have done and in what I have failed to do.” We are all there as sinners. Without exception.
And no one is minimizing or making excuses. Each says, “What I have done was through my fault. Yes, through my fault. Through my most grievous fault.”
That should make us all, even if we identify ourselves with the “tax collectors and the prostitutes,” feel at home. As indeed we should. The Church — and the church building — is our home. No one can say we are unwelcome in our Father’s house. No one has a greater right to be there than the people Jesus died for. Within the Church, “sinner” means “citizen.” It means more than that. We will see it also means “family.”
Is this exciting? Is it a reason to “give God thanks and praise”?
We begin the Mass declaring ourselves accepted and accepting. But the liturgy takes us another step into the mystery of God’s love. Why are we accepted?
The root of it, of course, is just God’s “steadfast love,” which is Scripture’s “virtual definition of God.” It occurs 171 times in the Old Testament alone. But there is another reason. We are acceptable to God because we are family.
We follow up the Penitential Rite by repeating after the presider the triple prayer, Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison.
Presider: Lord, have mercy. People: Lord, have mercy.
Presider: Christ, have mercy. People: Christ, have mercy.
Presider: Lord, have mercy. People: Lord, have mercy.
“Have mercy” does not just mean “Help!” Much less is it a terrified cringing under the upraised arm of a threatening God. Nor do we “have mercy” when we just give help to others because they are needy. The merest whiff of condescension in this is what moved St. Vincent de Paul to caution his Sisters, “Pray that the poor will forgive you the bread you give them!”
“Have mercy” is a translation of the Greek eleison. It is rooted in the Semitic word for a mother’s womb. It means to come to the aid of another out of a sense of relationship. It carries the same weight as the foundational virtue of Roman culture — the pietas of pius Aeneas in the Aeneid — which referred to the “gut bond” of loyalty to family, friends and fellow citizens, to the gods of hearth and homeland. This connection is explicit in the Spanish Mass, where “Have mercy” is translated, “Ten piedad.” When Jesus taught us to “have mercy” on everyone in need, he extended pietas and “love of neighbor” to embrace the whole human race.
When we ask God to “have mercy,” we are reminding him that he has made us family. We are his relatives. We address this prayer to Jesus as “Lord” and “Christ”” (“Anointed”) because it is “through him, with him and in him” that we have become sons and daughters of the Father.
More: we are Jesus’ own body. What Paul said of our relationship with other members of the body is true of our relationship with Jesus the head: “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” It is out of awareness of his identification with us as members of his own body that we say to Jesus, “Have mercy.” He suffers with us in our sinfulness. He rejoices with us in our purification. They are his.
We were taught as children to say, when we saw someone suffering from poverty, sickness, or even sin: “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” But this can have different meanings.
If I say these words when I see a homeless drunk panhandling on the sidewalk, I might be thinking: “Thanks be to God I am not a drunk.” Then if I give him a dollar, that is not mercy. But if I myself am a recovering alcoholic, when I say “There but for the grace of God go I,” it has a totally different meaning. I am seeing myself in the drunk on the street. I have been there. I am what he is — and only one drink away from winding up where he is. There is no feeling of superiority. Whatever help I give him will come from a sense of identification. Of relationship, not condescension. It will be “mercy.”
When Jesus sees us in our sins, or suffering the consequences our free choices have brought upon us, he sees himself. On the cross he was “made sin” for us. He took us, with all our sins, into his own body, making our sins the sins of his own flesh. When he sees us, he says, “There because of the grace of God go I! I took their sins into myself. I became what they are. For their sake the Father made me to be sin who knew no sin, so that in me they might become the righteousness of God.” He cannot despise us without despising himself on the cross. When he comes to our aid, it is out of a sense of identification with us. That is “mercy.”
Christ’s identification with us and ours with him did not end on the cross. In his resurrection we rose ”in him,” a “new creation,” having become, in him, “the very holiness of God.”
Is it any wonder that we exclaim with Paul, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies”? We say to the Father during Mass: “You gave us your Son” to be made “one like ourselves,” — even taking our sins into himself — so that through our dying and rising with him in Baptism “you might see and love in us what you see and love in Christ.”
This is the true mystery of our relationship with Christ. Through the Baptism that made us one with him in his death and rising, we have become “the very holiness of God.” We have become Christ. It is on the basis of that relationship that we ask God for “mercy.” We come before the Father as identified with his Son. We come before Jesus as identified with himself.
I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.
On that day you will ask nothing of me. Very truly, I tell you, if you ask anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete.
The Introductory Rites celebrate the new identity we have through the Baptism by which we entered into the mystery of Christ’s redemptive sacrifice on the cross. Is this, or is this not exciting?
If only we pay attention to the words.
Questions for reflection and discussion:
• Is the Penitential Act for you an “upper” or a “downer”?
• Does it give you joy that at Mass no one claims to be anything but a sinner? Does it make you proud of your Church?
• What is the difference between “having mercy” and just helping someone?
• On what relationship with the Father and with Jesus do we base our confidence when we ask for “mercy”?
General Instruction on the Roman Missal, 2002, no. 51 Matthew 21:31-32.  See the Jerome Biblical Commentary (1968) on John 1:14. 1Corinthians 12:26. 2Corinthians 5:21.  This is the translation of 2Corinthians 5:21 in the 1970 New American Bible. For “new creation” see 2Corinthians 5:17.  See 2Corinthians 1:3 and Preface VII for Sundays in Ordinary Time. John 14:13-14; 16:23-24.
Reflections brought to you by the Immersed in Christ Ministry