First, let’s start off by going over what a “Liturgical Tidbit” is. Father Peter Mussett coined the phrase at his parish where he gives his parishioners a little piece of theology to go along with what is done in the Mass. The aim of the posts in this category are to bring about a new and deeper meaning to the words/actions/items used in the liturgy.
For the first edition of “Liturgical Tidbits”, let’s discuss the three Eucharistic elevations in the Mass – that is, the three times that the consecrated elements are lifted by the priest. The elevations would not be done if there were no purpose to doing it, so there must be a deeper, more spiritual reason for lifting the Body and Blood during the Eucharistic prayers, and in fact, there is as we will come to find out.
The First Elevation – The Incarnation
The first elevation occurs after the Sanctus prayer (Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts…) when the priest says,
You are indeed Holy, O Lord, the fount of all holiness. Make holy, therefore, these gifts, we pray, by sending down your Spirit upon them like the dewfall, so that they may become for us
the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.
At the time he was betrayed and entered willingly into his Passion, he took bread and, giving thanks, broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying:
What comes next is the actual elevation, but before we get to that, I’d like to point out the invocation for outpouring of the Holy Spirit in this prayer. The descent of the Spirit to make Christ present in the Eucharist is done in parallel with the Holy Spirit descending upon Mary to conceive Christ within her womb. At this point in the Mass, the bread and wine are next to one another as the priest invokes the Holy Spirit to come upon them – this is the beginning of the consecration of the true Presence in the Eucharist, just as Christ was conceived within the Virgin when his Body and Blood were brought to earth. Next, the priest consecrates the host by saying
Take this, all of you, and eat of it, for this is my Body, which will be given up for you.
At the instant he finishes this sentence, the bread, through transubstantiation, becomes the Body (and Blood) of Christ.
An interesting side note is that in receiving the host alone, one receives both the Body and Blood of Christ; the host, through consecration, becomes the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ. The reason we also have the chalice (which is also Christ’s Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity) is to symbolize the separation of the Body and Blood in Jesus’s death on Calvary, but when we actually receive communion, we are receiving Christ resurrected, as Body and Blood reunited. A very good answer to this question at this link. But, I’m getting ahead of myself; more on the death and resurrection in elevations 2 and 3.
Back to the first elevation: as the priest is saying the words above, he raises the host and the description in the Missal tells the priest to “[hold] it slightly raised above the altar”. To me, the slight elevation draws from the modest birth of Jesus who came to the earth not in splendor and fortune to the sound trumpets and choirs singing praises, but in a barn where he was laid in a manger filled with straw by his humble parents to the cries of livestock.
In many ways, I see the first elevation symbolizing the Incarnation of Christ. Not only are there parallels between the conception of Jesus into the world, but the actual words that are said, the words of the Last Supper, indicate the institution and the creation of the Eucharist, a parallel to the Incarnation of Christ in the flesh.
The Second Elevation – The Death
The next elevation occurs when the priest raises the ciborium (or paten) and the chalice, one in each hand announcing the Doxology:
Through him, and with him, and in him, O God, almighty Father,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is yours, for ever and ever.
Notice how the Body and Blood are separated and extended at arm’s length opposite to one another. If the priest is assisted by a deacon, the Body and Blood are each held by a different person. As we touched on earlier, this is suggestive of Jesus’s death on the cross, the separation of his Body and Blood as his side was pierced, when blood and water poured out of his body. This was foreshadowed at the Last Supper when Jesus said that his Body would be given up for us and, separately, that his Blood would be poured out for us for the forgiveness of sins.
The Third Elevation – The Resurrection
The third elevation brings us past the Our Father, the Rite of Peace, and the Agnus Dei to one of my favorite parts of the Mass. The priest breaks the host, then places a small piece into the chalice, in the reunification of the Body and Blood. Then, from The Order of the Mass:
The Priest genuflects, takes the host and, holding it slightly raised above the paten or above the chalice, while facing the people, says aloud: Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb.
There before us is the resurrected Body and Blood of Christ, his very presence held up for all to see. As profound as this is, there is some more profoundness that can be discussed. Why does the priest break the host? To answer that question, we can turn to John 20:19-31 which describes Jesus after his resurrection. The wounds from his Passion were not healed, but fully present during the rest of his time on Earth. When the priest holds up the broken host, the wounded, yet resurrected Christ, we are reminded of the image given to us in by John describing Heaven, the eternal banquet of salvation, in Revelations 5:6 which says,” And I saw between the throne (with the four living creatures) and the elders a Lamb standing, as if slain…”
Let’s take a moment to reflect on that. A Lamb, the Lamb of God standing as though slain. The Missal could have just as easily said, “Behold Jesus Christ,” but instead, we have “Behold the Lamb”. That’s profound. The image of Heaven we are given from Revelations is the Mass! Likewise, the Mass is Heaven on Earth, a foretaste to our experience of the eternal life with God where we will be present with Christ who is the Lamb of God, who conquered death and was resurrected, and who’s broken Body and Blood are elevated by the priest, standing as though slain, victorious over sin.
Actions and Words – They’re Different
Often, the words spoken by the priests in the Liturgy, especially during the Eucharistic prayers, are not directly about what the priest is doing. That is to say, it’s not a narration of movements, rather, it is a combination of spoken words and physical actions that make up the fullness of the Mass. This can easily be seen as a contradiction, but in fact, it’s not. The separation of words and actions speaks to who Christ is and to his duality, the hypostatic union (there’s your Catholic vocabulary word of the day) making Jesus true God and true man.
The fullness of revelation God gave to the world was not only in words, but with a combination of words and deeds. Words are not enough and it’s through the combination of actions and words that God makes himself known to us by sending his Son to walk among us. In the same way, when we re-present Christ to the world in Mass, it’s not just the words that have meaning, but also the actions.
The language of God is not Aramaic, Hebrew, Latin, Greek, English, or any other language, known or forgotten by man. Rather, the language of God is humanity itself. His word, his humanity was brought to us not in a spoken tongue, but through flesh, through his Son, Jesus Christ.
Let us celebrate the fullness of revelation in the Eucharist and may these “Liturgical Tidbits” lead to an increased understanding of our faith and of the Mass, and lead us to unceasing thanksgiving to God.