So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter (2 Thess. 2:15). Guard what has been entrusted to you. Avoid the godless chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge, for by professing it some have missed the mark as regards faith (1 Tim. 6:21-22).

Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Altar Server: a meditation.

[UPDATE April 27/15: #2. The Cassock: duplicated text for English translation of Latin. Error corrected.]

The Altar Server: Model Disciple

1. Washing—Character
  • virtue, strength, confidence, purity of mind and body.
Before donning his vestments, the server washes his hands and recites the following prayer [cf. Psalm 27:7-8 Vulgate; 28:7-8 RSVCE]:
Da, Domine, virtutem manibus meis ad abstergendam omnem maculam ut sine pollutione mentis et corporis valeam tibi servire.
Give virtue to my hands, O Lord, that being cleansed from all stain I might serve you with purity of mind and body.
The prayer accompanying the washing of hands helps us acknowledge our dependence on God for help to overcome temptations and (the stain of) sin. The prayer is a weapon in our battle to overcome temptation and sin. Even if we routinely commit the same sin and find ourselves repeatedly confessing the same sin, we must trust in God's grace and continue to persevere in the struggle to overcome habitual sin. The devil wants us to despair. The devil wants us to believe that people cannot change. Don't give the devil the satisfaction of winning by giving up. God's love is stronger than any temptation or sin. With God's help, people can and do change! Ask for the strength to persevere. Recommit to changing your life and train yourself daily, moment to moment if necessary, by turning to God in prayer. The struggle against a habitual sin can be particularly exhausting. When our spiritual muscles are weary and we are weak, that is exactly the time we need to ask God for the grace to persevere.

The altar server, therefore, is a warrior, not some limp attendant. The server is attentive, eager to serve, focussed on his duties and watchful so that every detail points to Christ. The discipline of the server is to anticipate the needs of the priest as he reverently celebrates the Liturgy. Thus, the server's actions are deliberate, efficient and precise. The art of serving requires that servers look and act dignified to remind everyone that the Mass is the one and same Sacrifice of Calvary worthy of our complete attention. The skilled altar server has mastered the art of disappearing into the background by drawing attention to ritual. The fervent altar server serves with love and devotion and prays for the priest as he carries out his sacred duties.

2. The Cassock—Humility & Dignity
  • inheritance: redemption and eternal life.
    When donning the cassock [cf. Psalm 15:5 Vulgate; 16:5 RSVCE]:
    Dominus, pars hereditatis meæ et calicis mei, tu es qui restitues hereditatem meam.
    O Lord, the portion of my inheritance and my chalice, You are He who will restore my inheritance. [corrected April 27/15]
The prayer when donning the cassock hints at the prayer for the surplice that follows. The black cassock reminds us that we are sinners and that we are made of the clay of the earth.
In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.—Genesis 3:19
Recall, too, the words that accompany the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday:
Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.
As sons and daughters of Adam and Eve we are dust, subject to disease and death. God has mercifully sent His Son to redeem us from spiritual death. It is God Who restores our dignity. Salvation is nothing we can invent. We cooperate with God and respond to His invitation to eternal life. Our inheritance is life among the saints. In baptism we have been saved by God's supernatural grace. We are being saved by cooperating with God's grace. We live in the hope we shall be saved by God when our earthly lives are spent. 

Chalice. The mention of the word chalice can remind us of the Roman Canon (EP I)
Therefore, O Lord, as we celebrate the memorial of the blessed Passion, the Resurrection from the dead, and the glorious Ascension into heaven of Christ, your Son, our Lord, we, your servants and your holy people, offer to your glorious majesty, from the gifts that you have given us, this pure victim, this holy victim, this spotless victim, the holy Bread of eternal life and the Chalice of everlasting salvation.
—and the Second Eucharistic Prayer—
Therefore, as we celebrate the memorial of his Death and Resurrection, we offer you, Lord, the Bread of life and the Chalice of salvationgiving thanks that you have held us worthy to be in your presence and minister to you.—Roman Missal, EP II (Third Edition).
The Lord's life is poured out for us. He pours out His life sustaining Presence so that we might drink in His very Presence and have life.
I will take the chalice of salvation; and I will call upon the name of the Lord.—Psalm 115 (116):13
3a. Sign of the Cross
  • hands of prayer; heart of faith
We are reminded that all prayer and all service begins and ends with the Cross. We recall God's self emptying to become human to walk among us. By dying (colour black) to self we receive back our lives.

Service at the altar must be selfless. The degree to which we are truly attentive to Jesus in the Liturgy and to our duties is the degree to which others can measure and embrace our humility. Lest our humility become a cause for sinful pride, we would do well to forget any thought of competing for anyone's attention.

We recall that the priest, as icon of Christ, acts in persona Christi in the Mass. We serve Christ in the Liturgy. Christ is the principal actor in the Mass. Jesus acts in and through his priest to make Himself present in the Holy Eucharist: bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ.

Hands of Blessing

Typically, when not handling sacred vessels, candlesticks, the Missal or other items, the altar server's hands are held palms together, thumbs crossed (right over left), at a slight angle upward (pointing to heaven), at the breast (heart). The palms held together suggests communion. The shape of the hands suggest a flame—the flame of a lively faith. The crossed thumbs held close to the heart indicates a heart centred on Jesus, His crucifixion and resurrection. Like our hands, our example should point others to heaven.

3b. The Surplice—Symbolism and Identity
  • white baptismal garment, justice, holiness, truth.
  • the outer garment, the white surplice of the “new” man, "covers" the black inner garment of the “old” man.
When donning the surplice [cf. Ephesians 4:24]:
Indue me, Domine, novum hominem, qui secundum Deum creatus est in iustitia et sanctitate veritatis. Amen.
Clothe me, O Lord, as a new man, who was created by God in justice and the holiness of truth. Amen.
The surplice reminds us of our redemption in Christ. To wear the surplice is to be clothed in Christ. Through the sacrament of baptism we are immersed in the death and resurrection of Jesus. By dying to self we rise with Him. The white surplice covers the black cassock. Though we are dust (colour black) as sons of Adam and daughters of Eve, we are redeemed dust (colour white). We are dust that is redeemed by Christ. The surplice and cassock taken together remind us that Christ has saved us from Original Sin. The two colours taken together remind us that while we are redeemed in Christ, we are, in this life, still engaged in the battle against the world, the flesh and the devil.

Modelling the Mantle of Truth: life is black & white.

Truth with a capital "T" is a foreign concept to many people, even though they probably know in their heart—perhaps when they get cut off in traffic or have a wallet stolen—that there is a wrong and a right, evil and good. Without a lengthy digression into the obvious contradictions in play, there will always be those who deny an objective morality while at the same time demanding others be conformed to their twisted code. The modern mind has bought into the arch-contradiction that there are no absolutes, except of course that the statement 'there are no absolutes' is absolute. Such is the inversion of reason that is relativism.

Ruled by Truth

To be clothed in God's grace is to be ruled by truth. One cannot be holy unless one is ruled by the truth of God. Being ruled by truth is to be ruled by the truth about ourselves. Nothing is hidden from God. Jesus is the way, the truth and the life.

The server and his vestments remind others that:
  • life triumphs over death. Just as all Catholics are called to be witnesses to the Resurrection, servers can be particularly effective witnesses to the Resurrection by drawing on the joy of serving at the altar of the Lord, i.e., the joy of serving in close proximity to the Consecration, and sharing that joy with others.
  • hope overcomes despair. Servers, in their daily lives, are called to be symbols of hope for others.
  • the poor in spirit are blessed (St. Matthew 5:3). The black that covers our "street clothes" reminds us that love serves. We cover our street clothes to leave behind, albeit temporarily, our life outside the temple. In a sense, we veil our bodies in preparation to enter the sacred precincts of the Lord and to reduce distractions. The 'uniform' helps all servers to blend together visually as both a sign of uniformity and unity of service. Thus, the server is able to blend into the background in the same way orchestral musicians wearing their equal attire (black & white) draw attention away from themselves to the music. Orchestral musicians serve the music; altar servers serve the Lord of the Liturgy and thus serve the Liturgy of the Lord.
    Dress for orchestral musicians is historically explained as the standard evening wear for servants, as the modern public orchestra evolved from the private orchestras of the 18th and 19th century aristocracy in Europe. From about the early 18th century onward, the dress for any orchestra was the same livery as other servants of the noble or ecclesiastical household. By the 1860s, roughly, this meant the black-tie tuxedo. As women began to be incorporated into performing ensembles, the standard dress for them became a black dress or suit as well, to match.—Quora.
  • Vestments are a sign of collaboration (co/with; laborare/work or labour: to work, one with another). Working together as a team requires a willingness to forgo selfish concerns for the good of others. True love is self sacrificing love. We are called to put the good of others ahead of concern for self.
The vesting prayers help form each altar server in the knowledge that his service must become a prayer to God. Each gesture, including his silence and stillness, are signposts pointing to the action of Christ in the Mass. In the Presence of Christ, we are attentive and receptive, docile and silently adoring the Eucharistic Lord.

Office for the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff
Liturgical Vestments and the Vesting Prayers

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