Reflection is important and even necessary for the spiritual life. “Reflection” comes from a Latin word meaning “to bend back.” The spiritual life calls for a “bending back” of the mind to what has occurred in order for the mind to become open to any and all movements of the Lord in the individual’s life. Thus, a good and proper source of reflection is the liturgy of the Church, especially the Eucharistic liturgy.
As a preliminary, let us note that reflection offers the mind and the heart a means of protection; particularly, a protection from familiarity. The liturgies of the Church are profound moments of mystery. They are mysteries because they bring the people of God into the living presence of the Lord. God desires to be known by us. Yet, the knowledge of God is inexhaustible. The human mind can never fully understand who God is.
Through reflection, God shows us that the spiritual life is about an ever deepening relationship with Him that has its foundation in His love. Familiarity can produce a sense of routine that creates a dullness of spirit, closing both the mind and heart to the mystery of God, a mystery that is expressed but not exhausted through the liturgies of the Church. Remember, when we give time over to God to reflect upon Him we become renewed in the splendor of His mystery. Let us focus on two aspects of the Mass which are sources of reflection for us and, hopefully, lead us to a newness of vision.
The Alb: A Symbol of Eternal Splendor
The first symbol of the Eucharistic liturgy to reflect upon is the alb. The alb is a white garment worn by all those who serve at the Mass. It is the primary symbol to show that we who serve are the baptized: white is a symbol of purity that comes from the water of Baptism. Of course, purity here is not limited to the cleanliness of the soul and body but also symbolizes the focus of the heart upon the one true God.
A distinction needs to be made, however. During the Mass, the act of remembering is special and not necessarily the same as reflection. The communal remembering, called anamnesis, is not just a pleasant concept, but is the remembering of the Pascal Mystery of Christ through which we are brought into that same mystery. We do not crucify Jesus again at the Mass. Instead we are brought into His Crucifixion, Death, and Resurrection, thus allowing the Mass to carry within its nature an atmosphere of Christ’s victory. The distinction between anamnesis and reflection is important because each one presents a different position of the faithful soul in relationship to the actions of the liturgy.
Yet, even though those acts are different, the use of the alb displays and offers a taste of our eschatological future. (Eschatology is the study of the last things: death, judgement, heaven, and hell.) The victorious atmosphere filled by the Spirit is what we breathe in during the Mass and offers us the strength necessary to reflect upon the blessed Eucharist made known through the liturgy.
Wider Symbolism of the Alb
For example, the white garment worn at Mass symbolizes the white garment of the victorious ones in the book of Revelation. The third chapter of Revelation makes three references to the white garment. The first is in the fourth verse, where the writer reminds a group of people about the connection of the white garment to Baptism. The second is in fifth verse where he reminds them that the One who has conquered death is the One who has placed the garments upon the victorious people. Finally, the eighteenth verse uses an image of gold being refined, which is an allusion to the Book of Wisdom, as a way of showing the fullness of humanity realized. The message is that, once the people are tried by fire, the garment is a source of healing for the bearer of it. This may be an insight into Purgatory but that is merely speculation on my part.
The Book of Revelation also describes the garment as a robe. In Chapter 7, the 144,000 souls who are redeemed are wearing white robes as a sign of their cleansing by the Blood of the Lamb. Also, in Chapter 19 the true Word of God, who rides upon the white horse, comes down from heaven in victory, and all the victorious ones follow him dressed in white. The color white emphasizes, once again, the new life symbolized by the garment.
The alb points to this future reality of celebrating the victory of the Lord at His heavenly banquet. We taste this eschatological victory at each Mass, which floods our minds and hearts with our Lord’s heavenly grace. The act of reflecting allows us to permeate the depths of these flood waters drawing us into that victorious reality revealed by hope and faith, which came through God’s love manifested in the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The Hands in the Liturgy
We may also reflect on our hands in the Eucharistic Liturgy. Why? Because we use are hands a lot during Mass. Christ also had hands, so our hands are made for doing holy things like His. St. Teresa of Avila teaches that Christ has no hands but ours now. So, I will be focusing on the use of the hands in regards to preparation, disposition, and reception of the Eucharist during the Mass.
I know reception of Communion in the hand can be a contentious issue within the Church; however, it need not be one. Whether one receives our Lord on the tongue or in the hand, both are valid forms and beautiful reverential acts as the history of the Church shows. One of the saints who played a key role in my journey to receiving First Holy Communion was St. Cyril of Jerusalem. In fact, he was one of the three names I submitted to my religious superior when I requested a religious name. As my religious name is now Fr. Nicholas you can guess quite easily that my superior did not choose Cyril as a name for me!
St. Cyril of Jerusalem, the patron saint of catechists, weaves an immensely beautiful tapestry connecting the Eucharist, our lives, and our hands. His feast day is the eighteenth of March, a day that is easily overlooked given that it falls between the feasts of St. Patrick and St. Joseph. Also, his feast usually occurs during Lent, so St. Cyril is not celebrated very widely, which causes my heart sadness.
As the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Cyril wrote many catechetical letters to prepare adults for baptism during Lent. He also wrote a number of letters to guide them in their new life after Baptism, during the period the Church commonly calls mystagogy (the follow-up catechesis after Baptism). Cyril also lived during the same time period as St. Nicholas, who we know as Santa Claus, my personal patron.
His Desired Throne
One of the beautiful insights from St. Cyril was “In approaching therefore, come not with your wrists extended, or your fingers spread; but make your left hand a throne for the right, as for that which is to receive a King. And having hollowed your palm, receive the Body of Christ, saying over it, Amen” (Catechetical Letter, #23). Our hands are like a throne meant to support and carry Christ. That attitude is one we are invited to cultivate when we handle the things we use at Mass as well as when we receive our Lord.
For example, the chalices and the ciborium hold the bread and the wine that become the Body and Blood of Christ at Mass. Thus, when people help to prepare those things for Mass or bring them up in the offertory, their hands manifest in an ordinary but yet almost miraculous way that the human throne desired by Christ is realized. May we never forget our hands can offer our Lord rest; may Christ’s humility never be lost on us.
St. Cyril also wrote: “A great thing is a faithful man, being richest of all rich men. For to the faithful man belongs the whole world of wealth, in that he disdains and tramples on it” (Catechetical Lecture, #5). A symbol of greed is visually shown via the hands reaching out to take something in excess of what one’s needs require. In that regard, even those physically poor can commit and suffer from the sin of greed.
Properly using our hands before and during the Mass expresses our faithfulness to Christ by not desiring in excess but, rather, in receiving what is offered as a gift from God. What truly matters only comes from God, not the world. The world did not create itself but flowed from the love of God. When the things of this world live in accord with God’s will, the world reflects the goodness and beauty of God. When we are open to Jesus and willing to participate in His life at Mass, we open ourselves to Him. By that openness, symbolized by the openness of our hands, His loving presence makes our being an extension of His incarnation. This is the way He desire to express His care for His brothers and sisters who are also ours. We even extend this care to our enemies.
Reflection nourishes and also safeguards our souls from becoming overly familiar with the liturgies of the Church, particularly, the Mass. The incorporation of reflection into one’s prayer life is a means of allowing one’s heart to become attuned to the heart of the Church.
Reflecting upon what the Church has received from Christ through His Apostles allows the hearts of the faithful to remain true to the beauty of Christ. The act of reflecting keeps the purpose of liturgy at the front of the mind; namely, that through the liturgies we worship and give praise to God, who is the foundation of our religious and spiritual lives. For “it is in God that we live, move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28a). Therefore, a true Christian spirituality and prayer life must be about purely desiring and praying these words of Christ: “Thy will be done” (Matthew 6:10).
Living in a Eucharistic way means coming out of oneself, out of the narrowness of one’s life, and growing into the immensity of life in Christ. ~ St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (St. Edith Stein)