Rorate Caeli

At the Altar at the Ninth Hour. Silence and Solitude of Golgotha: Assisting at the Traditional Mass

By Antonio Margheriti  Mastino

There are two facets in particular that afford us a deeper understanding of the Mass, especially according to the Extraordinary Form, which I personally prefer:  silence and solitude.  The altar, before, during and after the Sacrifice is covered in silence. And by solitude: that of the celebrant, the “Alter Christus.”

But how can this be, one will say, since Easter and therefore the celebration are triumphs?  That is true.  But the celebration of the Mass is also the re-presentation of the Passion and Death of Christ, which unfolds in silence, in solitude, in betrayal, in denial, in the flight of the disciples.  At the Last Supper Christ is betrayed and sold by Judas. In the Garden of Olives on the night before his death Christ is left alone to sweat blood, while his disciples sleep instead of praying with him, the only thing he had asked of them.  On that same night Peter denies him three times. No one tries to save him, no one offers to bear the burden of his cross even for a while (the Cyrenian was forced to do this).  No one seems to know him or recognize him.

Christ, in a moment of truly human pain, cries out in a loud voice to his God, to Abba, the abyss of wretchedness and aloneness into which he plunges in stillness.  “Aloneness”.  The same aloneness that the priest, the Alter Christus, experiences in that moment on the altar of the Supreme Sacrifice, the renewed Golgotha, where in a real way and once again the Passion of Christ breaks through. The priest is alone at the altar.  And to this aloneness is joined the protecting shade of aloneness:  silence. On the desolate hill of Golgotha,  first in the Garden and then as well in the tomb, Christ is alone and in silence: the silence of his obedience, of the chalice of bitter woe, of the sweat mingled with blood.  And this is the silence of powerlessness, a powerlessness that for a moment seems even that of God.  “My Father, Abba, why have you abandoned me?” The “silence” of God, in this moment when the wave of the abyss is breaking over Christ, seems almost like the sinking of Divinity into nothingness.

But it is also the powerlessness and the desolation that comes from the first and eternal “Yes” in obedience from Mary at the foot of the Cross, in accepting this Son that was not for her to keep: “Stabat Mater dolorosa…” This is the fearful silence that was experienced by the wonderful St. Thérèse of Lisieux on her death-bed, when she cried out, in that final moment of agony and darkness, that she had no sense of the presence of God.

Silence.  Just as the disciples were silent, just as Mary was silent, all of whom loved Christ as man and Messiah.  There was silence at the foot of the Cross. There was silence where the others hid.  There was silence because of obedience. There was silence because of cowardice.  They were silent, transfixed by pain. They were silent in confusion. Or because in the end things “had to turn out” in this way….All stood in silence.  They just stood there:  at the Passion and Death of the Son of God.  For the same reason, at the Mass of Sacrifice, the faithful should not “participate” but "assist", by keeping watch in silence, in that silence that cloaks the priest while he offers the Sacrifice of Christ and of himself.  And they must be in a state of active acceptance, they must offer their support of what is not penetrable, the miracle that, as the Messiah promised, he has not left us as orphans.

But what of the Resurrection?  It is the triumph, that is true.  But it is a triumph lived out in hiddenness, by a God without arrogance. It happens yet again, but in silence and solitude.  Within the tomb of stone, at night, no one there, except for the soldiers guarding the entrance.  In the same manner, in the lowered voice, in the silence that lies hidden in the depths of the words of the priest, the “Alter Christus” at the altar of Sacrifice, the Resurrection will once again be present.  In silence and aloneness.

And so we see the “why” and the “how” of what it means “to be at Mass”, how one “assists” at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the Missa antica.  This is far from the shouting and the applause, far from the freneticism and the syndrome of wanting to be the center of attention, far from the crackling and sound-warping microphones, far from the flood of frigid phraseology, and far from the reformed Mass in the style of the 1970s, a decade full of tiresome rhetoric laced with populists slogans that in the end are of no use to anyone of any time, one of the worst decades ever lived through on the face of the earth. 

Translated by Father Richard G. Cipolla

Source:  “La Cuccia del Mastino", January 14, 2014