David's Dialogues

Fr. David Colhour, C.P.As we continue looking at the elements of the Eucharistic Liturgy, I invite you to spend some time this week with the Penitential Rite.

Looking back in the scriptures, whenever there was a direct experience of God, there was almost always an experience of unworthiness, and even a falling to the ground or hiding one’s face. Recall, Isaiah lamented his sinfulness and needed to be reassured by the angel (Is 6:5). Ezekiel fell to his face before God (Ez. 2:1). Daniel experienced anguish and terror (Dan 7:15). Job was silenced before God and repented (42:6); John the Apostle fell to his face before the glorified and ascended Jesus (Rev 1:17). It makes sense that in acknowledging the presence of the Lord and longing to see the divine more clearly, we ought to repent of our sins and seek the Lord’s mercy. How can we, who enter the presence of the Holy, not see more clearly our sins and desire to be free of them? Thus after the greeting we have a brief penitential rite.

I personally have another theory which to me is more anthropological. I watch and notice that developmentally there is a stage many children go through which I call the “I Know” stage. A parent tries to explain something to their child and the child simply gives back this blank stare and says, “I know, I know.” Underneath that answer the child is sadly saying something like, “I really don’t have a desire to listen to what you are saying to me.” Thus the child really isn’t at a teachable place. So, the next question we need to ask is when do parents have some of the deepest teachable moments? Frequently it is when a child has made a mistake, understands the significance of the mistake, has moved beyond the fear of what punishment will be coming to them, and takes ownership of it. Suddenly the child is most open to hearing, listening and learning.

So if we bring this humility to the liturgical setting, then the best way for any single person to want to actually begin readying himself to hear God’s word is to honestly ask, can I put aside my pride, my ego, and my need to tell God how the world should be run, so I can be open to hearing what God’s word is going to say to me? Thus, the Penitential Rite.

Historically, the Confiteor (I confess to Almighty God) was never part of the official Mass until the Second Vatican Council. It was part of the prayers the priest said before ascending the steps to the Altar. In the 7th century the priest was asked to pour forth prayers for himself and the people in an apology to God, and thus began the penitential theme. By the 11th century the Confiteor form was taken from the texts used in the sacrament of Confession. “I confess to God and before all His saints and you, Father, that I have sinned in thought word and deed through my fault. I ask you to pray for me.”

Another form of the Penitential Rite is the Kyrie, (Lord have Mercy). This invocation predates the Confiteor by several centuries. After the death of Constantine in the 4th century, this form becomes more popular. In the church of Jerusalem, it was inserted into a prayer of praise sung after the Gospel. Prayers or petitions were added to it as we now understand as intercessions. As its popularity spread, some churches placed it at the beginning of the liturgy. In the early 7th century, Pope Gregory the Great removed all the prayers and kept the chanting of Kyrie eleison and Christe eleison. Gradually the singing of these became more elaborate and tended to be done only by a choir of trained singers. Today, both the Confiteor and the Kyrie are used with the goal of softening our hearts so as to prepare us to hear and listen to God’s Word. Next week we will reflect on a more joyous part of the liturgy, the Gloria.