The Gathering Rite

What happens on Sunday when we have come through the door to this room, this house of the church, and have taken the water that identifies us as persons baptized into Christ, into the church?

Maybe to answer the question What do we do?, ask: What is this gathering called? It is sometimes called "the congregation." What do we do? We congregate. It is sometimes called "the assembly." What do we do? We assemble. The first thing we have to do is congregate, assemble. Both those words mean "to get ourselves together." Like a lot of preliminaries, it isn't the most important thing that is going to happen. Except in this sense: If it doesn't happen, if we don't get ourselves together, then all the other things can't happen. It is like a good recipe. Turning on the oven isn't all that important, but if I don't turn it on, then no matter how carefully I mix the flour and baking soda and oil and milk, there isn't going to be any cake. That's how it is here. I can have a fine homily prepared, the song leaders can be rehearsed and ready, the acolytes and lectors and communion ministers know their service well, but if nobody turns on the oven, we can't get anywhere. And the oven is the assembling-our gathering together.

If I board a bus alone, I probably look for a seat alone. If I board a bus with a friend, we probably sit together, but we don't need to pay much attention to anyone else on the bus. That's a bus. We ask nothing more from a bus than that it take us from one spot to another. But if we come in here and act like we are on a bus-looking for a place to sit alone or just with a friend or family-we've misjudged what sort of thing is going on here. This isn't a bus, it is a boat that is rowed by everyone on board. It only goes when all the people move together. That's what liturgy is: something done by everyone together. Sure, different members have different roles, but the deed itself-moving the boat-is done by everyone.

That's a long way of saying that when we come through those doors, it's clear what we have to do. We have to make the church look like the church, act like the church, sound like the church. We have to congregate to make a congregation. We have to assemble to make an assembly. There are lots of times in life to come in here and pray alone. There are lots of times in life to pray alone wherever you are. But Sunday Mass is not one of those times. Sunday Mass is what we do together. That isn't a theory that will work no matter how we look in here, how we sound, how we act. It isn't a theory, it's practice. The church has to get itself together. If we work at it, all of us, maybe we'll come to a time when we'll walk through the door and, without even thinking about it, head for the empty place closest to the altar. If we work at it, we won't have to imagine that we are one in Christ; we'll act like we are. The room will fill from these seats to those seats to those and only as far out as there are people here. The reason, let's be clear on this, is not that there is some special holiness in getting close to the altar; the reason is that the holiness of the church lies in getting close to one another and doing this deed together. So, maybe we can begin. Come forward when we arrive. And if a row is empty, don't sit on the end protecting it-let us take a place in the middle of that row as if inviting others to sit beside us.

There should be graciousness in our gathering. Kindness and hospitality are not the enemies of peaceful assembling. Smiling, nodding in welcome even to those I do not know by name, greeting others warmly: These are building up the body of Christ. Ushers and sometimes other persons have the task of helping us in these first moments together: a greeting, help with getting to a seat, other hospitable deeds. But ushers only specialize in what we must all do for one another: Make it clear that all alike are welcome here. That is why we have to do the best we can to make this place welcoming to all of us, those of us with disabilities, those with young children, those who are elderly.

Is all of this important because we are like a club or a group of intimate friends getting together? We are not like that at all. Almost the opposite. Here we welcome people who would probably never be our friends. What we have in common is far more than blood, far more than the mutual affection of friends. What we have in common is baptism in Christ. That's it. That's all that matters here. That's why rich and poor should be sitting side by side. Every barrier society erects to keep us apart is worthless here. Every bond society builds up to put us into this little group or that clan or the other club is also worthless here. In a sense, we are naked here, like a baby in the waters of baptism. All the externals are gone. All that we wear is Christ. We all wear Christ. And that-not simply that we might like one another-is why we come forward and ring this altar round.

That is the preparation for Mass. Such preparation goes a step further when we begin the gathering rites or entrance rites. Please don't think that "entrance rites" means the entrance of the priest who presides at the liturgy and the other ministers. It means the entrance of all of us together into the liturgy. Some may be in the ritual procession, but in reality we are all in procession, all moving into our liturgy. All the words and song and gesture are ways to get from where we are to where we want to be: a church ready to hear God's word. We get there with song and procession and the sign of the cross and prayer, and sometimes with sprinkled water or penitential prayers and the Gloria. At their best, these are things we all know how to do and do them fully and with a sense that here, in making the sign of the cross, in singing out loudly, in saying familiar words, here we are really at home, in our element, one with brothers and sisters making up the church.

There are at least three moments in these gathering rites when we have to do our work well. First, we sing. The song at the beginning of the liturgy is for all of us. It lets us know we are not in this room alone. We hear this news: A whole assembly is processing into this liturgy together. We sing to hear each other, to let our voice-good or poor as it is-get lost with all the other voices. We sing to signal the transition into communal activity.

Second, we make the sign of the cross. This simple gesture stands at the beginning of the liturgy because it stands at the beginning of the Christian life. The baby and the catechumen are claimed for Christ with this sign. It proclaims who we are and whose we are. We make it deliberately, with care. Remember, the liturgy is not what the priest who presides is doing: The liturgy is what the people are doing. The liturgy is this sign of the cross.

Third, just before the first reading, we pray. Sometimes we talk as if the whole liturgy is a prayer, but really there are all kinds of things that happen in the liturgy, and prayer is one of them. So we come to the moment when the presider first says, "Let us pray." Then we should be quiet together, be still and calm and aware of all these people silent and praying together. In the silence, simply prepare to pray. Then attend to the words of the prayer that is spoken by the presider and, if you can agree that this is indeed our common prayer, join in saying Amen.

Copyright © 1992, Gabe Huck. Used by permission.

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