I wrote yesterday in a general way about the part of the Mass that is called the “preface.” It is called this because it introduces the Eucharistic Prayer by stating a theme or reason for our gratitude. The text of the preface has a standard opening and closing which surround a varying text that speaks to the time of year, the feast, or the theme of the votive Mass.
As I remarked in yesterday’s post, I consider the prefaces to be minor masterpieces, stating succinctly, creatively, and beautifully some of our most fundamental Catholic themes from Scripture and Tradition. Many of the prefaces are ancient, while some are newly composed. Don’t miss these short gems of the Liturgy. Listen carefully to them as they are sung or proclaimed.
I would like to look in detail at the first four prefaces for the Sundays of the year. Each of these focuses on the Paschal mystery: the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
In each case below, the text of preface itself is shown in bold italics, followed by my commentary in plain text. In the case of the first preface, I have included both the opening and closing sections as well as the varying, “middle” section, which is its core. In the other three prefaces, I have included only the middle section.
Enjoy these beautiful prefaces!
Preface 1 of the Sundays in Ordinary Time
It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation,
Always and everywhere to give you thanks,
Lord, Holy Father, almighty and eternal God,
Through Christ our Lord.
For through his Paschal Mystery,
he accomplished the marvelous deed,
by which he has freed us from the yoke of sin and death,
summoning us to the glory of being now called
a chosen race, a royal priesthood,
a holy nation, a people for your own possession,
to proclaim everywhere your mighty works,
for you have called us out of darkness
into your own wonderful light.
And so, with Angels and Archangels,
With Thrones and Dominions,
And with all the hosts and Powers of heaven,
We sing the hymn of your glory,
as without end we acclaim,
Holy, Holy, Holy …
In this preface, the Paschal mystery is not described in detail, as it is in some of the other prefaces to follow. Here it is called, simply and beautifully, a “marvelous deed.” The Latin word used is mirificum, meaning something that is amazing or wonderful. Indeed, it was glorious work of Jesus’ to save us as He did. We must spend the whole of our life meditating on the Cross such that we are grateful and different.
The preface goes on to say that this work of the Lord freed us from the yoke, the heavy and crushing weight, of sin and death. We had a debt that we could not pay, a burden that we could not carry; an eternal death or exile from the Lord awaited us. But Jesus has freed us, Hallelujah!
And yet salvation is not merely being freed from something; it is being freed for something. We are not merely restored; we are exulted, raised higher. The preface goes on to teach of the positive and exalting effects of the Paschal mystery. In Christ we are all able to join the chosen people. Christ has chosen us for redemption, we are chosen by Him and bought at the price of His blood. We attain to a royal priesthood, for in Baptism we are made members of the Body of Christ, who is High Priest. All of us are now, by Christ’s grace, able to offer sacrifices acceptable to the Father; sacrifices of praise, time, talent, and treasure, the sacrifice of our very own self. For indeed, in the priesthood of the new covenant, the priest and victim are one and the same. Through the grace of ordination, ministerial priests also attain to make the once for all perfect Sacrifice of Jesus’ present to us in the Liturgy, and by extension, in all the sacraments.
And by the great work of God we are rescued … from the domain of darkness and transferred to the kingdom of His beloved Son (Col 1:13). And thus, when we light a light on a lampstand or a bright city on a hill, we proclaim the mighty works and power of God.
Thus this preface paints a beautiful picture of the effects of our redemption in Christ Jesus.
Preface 2 of the Sundays in Ordinary Time
For out of compassion for the waywardness that is ours,
He humbled himself and was born of the Virgin;
By the passion of the Cross he freed us from unending death,
And by rising from the dead he gave us life eternal.
This preface states clearly enough why we need the work of the Paschal mystery: we are wayward; we wander; we stray. Like the sheep we are compared to in Scripture, we are wayward creatures. Left to our own devices, we will wander off and into trouble every time. And sure enough the wolf is not far behind, stalking us. Thanks be to God for Jesus the Good Shepherd, who seeks us and draws us back away from error, away from danger and the wolf.
The Latin word used here is erroribus, meaning a wandering, or a straying. Thus the root meaning of the English word “error” is a deviation from a standard or goal, a missing of the mark by straying into the weeds.
The text speaks of the Lord’s compassion for us due to this tendency of ours. So easily and arrogantly we claim to be so smart! And then the next thing we know, we’re lost in confusion and our senseless minds are darkened.
Without this work of Jesus’ to shepherd us back, we would surely die spiritually, carried off by the wolf (Satan), the deceiver and a liar from the beginning. So Christ, by His passion, has saved us from death and restored us to life. Even more, He has offered us eternal life: a fuller life than we had in the Garden before the fall!
Preface 3 of the Sundays in Ordinary Time
For we know it belongs to your boundless glory,
That you came to the aid of mortal beings with your divinity
And even fashioned for us a remedy out of mortality itself.
That the cause of our downfall,
Might become the means of our salvation,
Through Christ our Lord.
This preface states why God became man much in the same way that St. Anselm did in Cur Deus Homo? It was necessary and fitting for Jesus to become man in order to be our representative, to have something to do with our case. But it was also necessary for him to Be God, in order to have the power to save us. Thus the preface points to Jesus’ divinity as the glorious power by which He saves us.
But in terms of developing the Lord’s humanity, the text not only points to it but adds a respectful reason. God, in effect, does not undo our choice or its effects. The wages of sin is death. So Jesus takes death and from it fashions the very remedy of our salvation. And, as the cause of our downfall was a man, a woman, and tree, so, too, are these the means of our salvation. The new Adam (Christ) cancels the no of the old Adam by His yes to the Father. The new Eve (Mary) says yes where the old Eve said no. And the tree in the garden that bore our rebellion is replaced by the tree of the Cross that bears the fruit of obedience in Christ Jesus our Lord.
This is a very compact theology of reversal, in which death brings life and rebellion is cancelled by obedience.
Preface 4 of the Sundays in Ordinary Time
For by his birth he brought renewal
To humanity’s fallen state,
And by his suffering, canceled out our sins;
By his rising from the dead
He has opened the way to eternal life,
And by ascending to you, O Father,
He has unlocked the gates of heaven.
This preface indicates that Jesus brought renewal to our “fallen state.” The Latin word used is vetustatem, which has within it the nuance of having grown old (vetus) in sin. Hence not only is the Lord born as an infant, but His infancy represents a new life, a fresh and innocent start for humanity. The infant Jesus overtakes the old man in us, the Adam grown old in sin. An ancient hymn by St. Ambrose says,
Thy cradle here shall glitter bright
And darkness breathe a newer light;
While endless ages shine serene;
And twilight never intervene.
And thus into the dark world of man, grown old in sin, comes the cry of an infant, sounding new life and innocence.
Note again the other parallelisms and progressions. Jesus’ sufferings cancel the sufferings of sin. His rising is not merely a return to earthly life, but a rising to eternal life: a fuller, richer, a supernatural life far surpassing what we ever had in the garden.
The reference to the Ascension completes the picture painted by this preface. The condescension by Christ to be born an infant and suffer death at our hands is followed by His rising and ascending to Father to open even the very heavens for us. Here, too, the same hymn by St. Ambrose says,
From God the Father he proceeds,
To God the Father back he speeds,
Runs out his course to death and hell,
Returns on God’s high throne to dwell.
Indeed, there is a great circular movement of the Paschal mystery described in this preface!