Missal Moments III: “Behold the Lamb of God…. Lord, I am not worthy….”

Since the internet here is actually working today, it seems opportune to get the next installment on the revised Missal online. In the current Missal (1975) immediately prior to the reception of Holy Communion is this short dialogue, familiar to us all:

Priest: “This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Happy are those who are called to his supper.”
Priest & People: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.”

Actually, this is not truly a dialogue between priest and people. Rather the celebrant presents the Lord’s Body and Blood to the people and then joins with them to affirm the Presence and to declare their unworthiness. It is one of the occasions, far fewer than common practice would suggest, of the celebrant and the people saying the same words together. In the revised Missal (2011) it will become:

Priest: “Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb.”
Priest & People: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”

This is another change that has received some adverse comment, though if the principles behind it are understood it will appear quite reasonable, and indeed necessary.

The opening half, said by the priest not the people, has two significant changes. The first is that “This is” has been replaced by “Behold”. The change is a more accurate translation of the Latin in the source prayer, “Ecce”. More importantly, the nuances of “Behold” is far more suitable at this point of the Mass. “This is” has an air of mere factual statement about it. “Behold” is also an affirmation of fact, but also contains within it an invitation, to focus on him we are about to receive in Holy Communion. There is, of course, a scriptural allusion here, to John 1:29 when St John the Baptist sees Christ coming towards him and says, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world”. John did not use the rather tepid words “this is”. Rather the original Greek is ide, which is an exclamation, and is matched well in English by “behold!”. While John is said to have mentioned “sin” rather than sins, the Church has deliberately made this plural, “sins”. Hopefully those who wish to parade their scriptural knowledge by using the singular at Mass might take this oppirtunity to say what the rest of us are saying, and what the Church wishes us to say.

There is another point which could be made here. Again, the more scripturally minded might recall that throughout the Old Testament it was axiomatic that to see God would entail death, such as in Judges 13:22 when Manoah says to his wife “We shall surely die, for we have seen God”. Even more powerful is the exchange between God and Moses in Exodus 33:18-23:

Moses said, “I pray thee, show me thy glory.” And the LORD said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you my name `The LORD’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But you cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live.” And the LORD said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand upon the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”

In Christ, of course, God has taken human flesh, and in seeing – beholding – Christ we behold God, and yet do not die. Indeed, through Christ’s Body offered to the Father and given for us, and to us, we truly live. Thus as the celebrant elevates Christ’s Body and Blood, he calls us to behold God himself, sacramentally present, and as really present to us as can be possible this side of heaven. We need not hide our faces any longer. In beholding God in Christ in the Blessed Sacrament we have yet another sign that the Old Testament has passed into the New.

The second significant change in the celebrant’s part is that they are “blessed” who are called “to the supper of the Lamb”. In Greek the same word, makarioi, can be used both for “happy” and “blessed”, which we have all experienced, possibly without realising it, in the differing translations of the Beatitudes. However, apart from the Kyrie, and some Hebrew words we do not translate at all (Alleluia, Hosanna), the source language of our liturgy is Latin.  In the Latin text of the Mass we find at this point beati, which though it also admits of being translated as “happy” in certain contexts, usually always has the sense of  “blessed” in ecclesiastical Latin. Perhaps in our modern context, where it is so easy to seek “happiness” in earthly and passing things, the nuance of blessing is more appropriate, pointing us to supernatural gifts and a heavenly destiny.

And a heavenly destiny is certainly to the point here, as we see in the change to “supper of the Lamb”. Once again, this is an accurate translation of the Latin original, cenam Agni. Moreover, it is yet another example of the revised translation making more explicit the scriptural references with which the Mass is filled, in this case Revelation 19:9, “Then the angel said to me, ‘Write this: Blessed are those who have been called to the wedding feast of the Lamb’.”  So, more importantly, the change makes it clear that the reference is not directly to the Mass we are celebrating at that moment, but to the heavenly banquet that the elect will share with Christ. Many times I have heard celebrants change the words to “Happy are we who are called to his supper”. Clearly the celebrant thinks the reference is to the Mass he is celebrating then and there. Yet since the Liturgy itself is referring specifically to the heavenly banquet of the Lamb, the “we” takes on a disturbing note of presumption and smugness. We receive the Lord’s Body at Mass precisely that we may be made worthy to sit with him at the heavenly banquet. We can now hope to be there, but we cannot presume that we will be.

The second half of this pre-communion dialogue has attracted more attention, in particular “that you should enter under my roof” which replaces “to receive you”. Most likely it is the shock of the change that has shaken some people, and their self-consciousness, embarrassment even, in talking of us as having “roofs”. Here again, the translators are following the principle that allusions to scripture in the Mass must be made clearer and more explicit. In the current translation we do not hear the scriptural echo; in the revised translation we do. The reference of course is to the healing of the centurion’s servant in Luke 7:6-7:

And Jesus went with them, but when he was only a short distance from the house, the centurion sent friends to tell him, ‘Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof. Therefore, I did not consider myself worthy to come to you; but say the word and let my servant be healed.

Now in the context of general usage “receive” is a sensible translation: we receive the Eucharist and we also receive visitors to our homes. In fact there is a lovely ambiguity in the current translation. However, the Church considers it more important that we identify with the centurion as we receive the Lord in his Body and Blood. It is why this element of the Mass was included in the first place. The centurion’s faith-filled humility is what we aspire to emulate at Communion. The new translation makes this more immediately obvious. This is a case of a good translation giving way to a better one, for pastoral above stylistic reasons. And it is not so incongruous as it sounds: as one commentator has pointed out, tongue partially in cheek to be sure, our mouths have roofs!

Lastly the Mass-goer will soon be saying not “I shall be healed” but “my soul shall be healed”. Again, this has attracted some criticism. Is not the human person body and soul? Why should only our souls be healed? It is not enough to assert that the new translation now accurately translates the Latin of the Missal, sanabitur anima mea, though this is certainly true and warranted. Instead we should take this as yet another catechetical moment offered by the new Missal.

Without getting into an abstruse discussion of philosophical theology, which would probably lose me before you, suffice it to say that the body and soul elements of human being are distinct. For a start, our souls are immortal, our bodies are not. Our bodies die, though thanks to Christ’s saving self-sacrifice, our bodies will live again at the end of time. Our more desperately required healing, then, is not for a body which will die, but for a soul that could yet be lost to the disease of sin. Moreover, we should not lapse into the mistake of thinking the body contains the soul. Rather it is the soul that, as it were, contains the body, gives it life and form and directs it rightly. In the Genesis account of creation God breathes into Adam’s inanimate body to give it life, that is to say, he gave it a soul. If our souls are healthy our bodies will have a health that may include, but certainly transcends, mere health in a medical sense.

Interestingly, after the Anglican breach with the Catholic Church the new vernacular liturgy of the Protestant Church of England contained what is called the Prayer of Humble Access. It is a conflation of the scripture the Church uses noted above as well as some elements from the Liturgy of St Basil, and (surprisingly) St Thomas Aquinas. It is in effect the Anglican version of what has been examined above. It is a beautiful prayer and can be said in good conscience by Catholics, and possesses a wonderful balance between humility and hope. The version to follow is the original one from 1548, later modified. It is offered here both as a possible extra preparation for Holy Communion, and as a commentary on the pre-Communion prayers of the Roman Missal.

We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We be not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy. Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the Flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his Blood, in these holy Mysteries, that we may continually dwell in him, and he in us, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his Body, and our souls washed through his most precious Blood. Amen.

7 thoughts on “Missal Moments III: “Behold the Lamb of God…. Lord, I am not worthy….”

  1. Father
    I just wanted to say so much for your helpful reflections and explanation of the new translation of the Mass. They make me both look forward to the new translation with great anticipation and enhance my understanding of the Mass in the meantime.
    In Domino,


    1. Dear Toby,

      Thank you for very much for taking the trouble to encourage me! If even one person get something from these reflections then it is an effort worth the while. Indeed, I am getting a lot from having to put my thoughts together. Hopefully now that we will hear the voice of the liturgy more clearly we can derive even greater grace from the Mass.

      Pax et bonum.


  2. Dear Fr Hugh

    Thank you very much for your explanation.

    Could you enlighten us on the significance and meaning behind the
    greeting response of the congregation when we say, “And with your

    Why can’t the celebrant say, “May the Lord be with your spirit” and
    we response likewise.

    Please enlighten us on this. Thank you.


    1. Dear Mike,

      It is good to hear I have been of some help. As for the dialogue between priest and people, and in particular the use of “spirit”, you might want to read my post on that question from last year. After reading it, it should be clear why the priest does not use “your spirit” to the people – http://wp.me/p15nQz-gr

      Advent blessings!


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