The Silence Of The Canon

The Silence Of The Canon

Sunday within the Octave of Christmas

While all things were in quiet silence, and the night was in the midst of her course, Thy almighty Word O Lord, came down from heaven from Thy royal throne (Wisdom 18:14-15). We spoke briefly during the midnight Mass about the importance of silence, especially during the consecration of the Holy Mass. Let’s return to this, for it is in silent prayer that we find the grace to discover ever deeper vistas of divine truth that will fortify us and make us stronger witnesses to that truth.

A well-known commentary on the Roman Mass by Fr Nicholas Gihr gives the chief reasons for which it is necessary and fitting to recite the Canon in silence: 1) The consecration and sacrificial act are exclusively priestly functions. 2) It harmonises with the essence of the mystery: the material elements are changed without the senses perceiving it. 3) Silence betokens awe. 4) It withdraws the sacred words from ordinary discourse. 5) It mystically represents Christ praying in silence during His agony.

Even one of the greatest promotors of liturgical reform in the 20th century, Fr Josef Jungmann, wrote in his monumental work on the Mass of the Roman Rite: “The priest enters the sanctuary of the canon alone… A sacred stillness reigns; silence is a worthy preparation for God’s approach. Like the High-priest of the Old Testament, who once a year was permitted to enter the Holy of Holies with the blood of a sacrificial animal, the priest now separates from the people and makes his way before the all-holy God in order to offer up the sacrifice to Him”.

This brings up a question: when did the Church start the practice of the silent canon? The simple answer is that we do not know. In-depth studies on the history of the Roman Mass seem unable to furnish us with a single date or place for the introduction of the silent canon, which of itself points to a very ancient practice.

An anonymous commentator of the eighth century writes: “A great silence has begun to be observed everywhere; the priest, his mind fixed on God, now begins to consecrate the salutary oblation of the Body and Blood of the Lord… I think the consecration of the Body and Blood of the Lord is always celebrated in silence because the Holy Spirit remaining in secretly performs the effect of the same sacraments”.

Similarly, another author of the same period, Almarius of Metz, who had first-hand knowledge of the liturgy in Rome, writes: “It was the custom of the our Fathers that those who pray should offer sacrifice to God. Therefore, that which we say in a loud voice before the Te igitur (first prayer of the Roman Canon) pertains to the praise of our Creator… Then follows the Te igitur, namely, the special prayer of the priests… because this prayer in a special manner belongs to the priest, the priest alone enters upon it, and secretly recites it”.

Why is this so important? One of the most fundamental reasons is that it is only by steeping ourselves in prolonged silent prayer and presence to the truth that we can face all the challenges to our faith. For if the child of Bethlehem was born in silence, He was straight away forced to face the hostile forces of evil. The frail babe is born, thrown out literally to the winds. Hardly is he born, a bloody sword hangs over his head. His parents are obliged to take him by night and run for their lives. Already he is a sign of contradiction, a threat to the powers that be. And so will He ever be. Why else have His disciples ever been the object of so much hatred and vile scheming? And where else do we need to turn to find a refutation of any form of Christianity that seeks to embrace the world and adopt its mores?

Who can fail to think of the vision of the Book of the Apocalypse, ch. 12: A great sign appeared in heaven: A woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. And being with child, she cried travailing in birth: and was in pain to be delivered… And she brought forth a man child… And when the dragon saw that he was cast unto the earth, he persecuted the woman who brought forth the man child…. And the serpent cast out of his mouth, after the woman, water, as it were a river: that he might cause her to be carried away by the river. And the earth helped the woman: and the earth opened her mouth and swallowed up the river which the dragon cast out of his mouth. And the dragon was angry against the woman: and went to make war with the rest of her seed, who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.

Yes, in every age, the truth of God, His eternal Word, is contradicted by the world and by those who live according to the maxims of the world. But that has never really been a cause of concern for the true disciple of Christ, whose only concern should be to preach the word of the Lord clearly, without compromise and without ambiguity.

May this Christmas season, Our Blessed Mother, who pondered all these events in her heart, teach us the value of silent prayer, and may we learn how to dig deeper into that well of unlimited peace, of which the angels did sing: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good will. One author, commenting on these words, offers this reflexion:

“Peace is the gift that Jesus Christ brought us from Heaven—His gift, the gift of God; a gift so beautiful, so profound, so all-embracing, so efficacious that we shall never truly comprehend it… If we but understood this God-given gift of peace, we could appreciate how it is the synthesis, the very climax, so to speak, of all the graces and heavenly blessings that we have received in Christ Jesus. Peace is the seal of Christ. It is not just one of His many gifts; it is, in a certain way, His own gift… Almost all the sacramental rites terminate with an expression of peace… The entire liturgy is impregnated with this spirit of Christ; at every turn, it echoes Jesus’ word to His Apostles after the Resurrection: ‘Peace be with you’… Our Lord’s peace has distinctive characteristics that call for at least a brief consideration. First, it is a peace exclusively His own; He has a monopoly on peace. One the eve of His Passion, He said to His disciples: ‘My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you’. The world, which counterfeits everything, cannot counterfeit peace, however much it tries. It misrepresents joy; the world’s happiness is always superficial and sometimes even bitter. The world counterfeits wisdom, dazzling the credulous with a showy but empty knowledge. It counterfeits love, giving this sacred name to brute passion or to vile egoism. The world, the offspring of Satan, father of lies, is essentially an impostor, falsifying everything. But it is powerless in counterfeiting one thing: peace. The world cannot give peace, because peace is a divine thing; it is the seal of Jesus Christ…”

The God of peace pacifies all things, and to gaze on this stillness is to find repose. (Saint Bernard, Song of Songs, 23, 16).

In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength (Is 30:15).

Holy Mass