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The Introductory Rites
"OFF TO A GOOD START": The Introductory Rites
The "General Instruction on the Roman Missal" describes the structure of the Mass this way: The Mass is made up as it were of the liturgy of the word and the liturgy of the eucharist, two parts so closely connected that they form but one single act of worship. For in the Mass the table of God's word and of Christ's body is laid for the people of God to receive from it instruction and food. There are also certain rites to open and conclude the celebration. (GIRM 8)
Clearly the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist are the "heart and soul" of the celebration. The secondary parts of the Mass - the Introductory Rites, Preparation of Gifts and Concluding Rite - serve respectively as an introduction, transition and close in the liturgy.
Although one of the secondary elements, the Introductory Rites have a very important role. Their purpose is to gather the people together as a worshipping community, to prepare them to listen to the word and celebrate the Eucharist and to begin the liturgical celebration.
Every human action has to have a beginning. This is true of ordinary events like cooking a meal and planting a garden, and it is true of sacred actions. Before we do anything important, we need to prepare ourselves, set the scene, and make sure everyone is focussed.
It is clear that throughout the history of worship this need for preparation before the celebration was felt strongly. From a simple opening prayer in the liturgy of the early church, the introductory rites gradually became quite elaborate. During the Middle Ages they were also "privatised": the Introit chant and the Kyrie litany were recited by the celebrant alone and a collection of private penitential prayers by the priest were added.
Some of the elements of the present Introductory Rites date back to antiquity while others come from the medieval period. The revision of the rites was aimed at shortening and simplifying what had become protracted and complex over time.
More importantly, the private nature of the prayers was reversed. All of the ritual elements of the current rites are now intended for the preparation of the assembly as a whole. They demonstrate the principle that the liturgy is the action of the whole church and the human need for preparation in order to participate fully in that action.
The ordinary sequence of Introductory Rites includes: the entrance song and procession; the sign of the cross and exchange of greetings, formal and informal; a penitential rite, which includes the Kyrie; the Gloria (according to the season); and the opening prayer, which is the climax of this series of ritual actions.
These rites are dropped in whole or part for certain special occasions such as a nuptial or funeral Mass, and the celebration of some seasonal feasts requires the rearrangement of these elements to accommodate other rituals.
There is a popular children's book about a symphony orchestra. It begins with some hundreds of people, scattered throughout the city, rising from their afternoon naps, getting themselves ready, setting out for the orchestra hall on various modes of transportation, taking their places, tuning their instruments….. and it concludes with the first, glorious, totally harmonised opening chord of the symphony. Perhaps it is not too far-fetched to think of gathering for the Eucharist in these terms, the Introductory Rites being everything that precedes and enables us to offer God total and harmonised worship.