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A general of a king's army wanted to rule the whole land himself, so he rose up against the king with a large number of soldiers. The battle lasted a long time, but the rebel general was finally routed and fled with his family into another country.
The general was very unhappy in exile, trying to live with the shame he'd brought on himself and his family. So, dressed like the beggar he'd become, he went back to the palace and entered the hall where the king held court. He walked to the royal throne, holding the king's own 2-year-old child in his arms. He approached, knelt before the king and said, "Your Majesty, I'm the general who fought against you and wanted to take your life. I, as well as my wife and children, deserve to be put to death for my crime. But for the sake of this little boy, whom Your Majesty loves, I beg you to spare my family and me."
There was silence in the hall. Everybody wanted to hear what the king would say. The king stood and, with a stern look, began to speak:
Yes, you and your whole family deserve to be put to death because of your treason. But because you ask me to spare your life for the sake of my little son, I cannot refuse your request. I love my son and cannot refuse him anything. For his sake, then, I not only pardon you and your wife and children, but I shall also bring you all back to my palace to live with me — in even greater honor than you had before.
This is what happens every time we go to Holy Mass. We are like traitors who offend a King with our sins. But because the Son is offered to the Father at Mass and we beg for mercy for the Son's sake, the Heavenly Father can't refuse our request — because it's Jesus Himself Who pleads our case.
Knowing this truth, any person who's grateful to the Father is certain to want to show God the proper signs of respect that He demands from His Holy Church. There are many abuses that have crept into the laity's form of participation in the Mass, though, thanks be to God, they're minor compared to certain other abuses (that we've discussed previously). Still, we should observe all of the proprieties — both as our sign of respect to God and to help us remember the great mystical event taking place when we attend the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
Let's begin by clearing up a common misconception. I frequently hear Catholics saying that they "went to church to celebrate Mass." Frankly, it's not possible for us to celebrate the Mass. Only the priest celebrates Holy Mass. Laymen participate in that celebration, but we can't actually perform the celebration; that's for the priest alone.
Many also have a misconception about what to do upon entering a church. Note that bowing is not the proper posture to take upon entering the pew. We are to genuflect — unless we have a physical limitation that prohibits us from so doing. Only then is it appropriate to bow. And we're not, contrary to what seems to be the popular belief, genuflecting to the altar. When we enter the Church and genuflect, we're genuflecting to the King of Kings in the tabernacle. It's always amazed me to see people genuflect on Good Friday when the tabernacle is empty. Some say they do it out of habit and know better. That's understandable. But most actually don't know better. I once attended Mass at a cathedral where the bishop had moved the tabernacle off to the side, displacing it from its noble and prominent location behind the high altar. When people came in, they still genuflected to the altar, instead of the tabernacle. This made it obvious that they didn't know why they were genuflecting.
Why do we genuflect at all? We genuflect to show His Majesty our respect, love, reverence and devotion. After all, it's a little hard to believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist and not pay Him homage.
In the missalettes that are so common in parishes today, as well as in missals and the priest's sacramentary, there are what are called rubrics. These rubrics are instructions on what is to be done at this or that moment during Mass. They're complete in the priest's sacramentary, as they come from an ecclesial document called the General Instruction of the Roman Missal. The rubrics are reasonably complete for the laity in most missalettes (although rather incomplete in some). These rubrics are there for a reason — so we can give God the worship Holy Mother Church insists we give Him.
When readers go to the pulpit to read, I often hear them ad lib the introduction to the reading. That's wrong and shouldn't be done. They should read only what is there.
When we recite the Creed, there's one required thing I hardly ever see anyone do. The Nicene Creed says, "For the sake of us men and for our salvation, He came down from Heaven, was made flesh by the Holy Spirit from the Virgin Mary and became man." During this sentence, we're supposed to bow (except at Christmas Mass, when we kneel). The reason we do this is to pay homage to the fact of the Incarnation — when God became man.
There are also two things people frequently do during the Our Father that shouldn't be done — holding hands and holding hands out with their palms upward. There is absolutely nothing in the rubrics that authorizes these practices; they are innovations that crept into the Mass during the rebellious 1970s. Additionally, the "palms upward" gesture is a priestly gesture symbolizing the prayers of all the people going through the priest to Heaven.
Finally, there's the sign of peace. Jesus is already on the altar at that point, so our focus should be on Him rather than on one another. While the Church leaves establishing the manner of the sign of peace to the conferences of bishops, the typical way to perform the sign of peace is to turn to the persons on each side of you and, as you do so, gently grasp their hands and say, "Peace be with you." We are not to turn to the people behind us, wave to people across the church or leave the pew. The focus at the Mass is Christ, not other people.