The custom of striking our breast during Mass
When was the last time you broke your heart?
While that may seem like a Valentine's Day question, it really speaks to the season of Lent.
The first reading for Ash Wednesday, from the prophet Joel, told us: "Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God. (Jl 2:12-13).
"Rend your hearts" relates to the sense of penance and the need for reconciliation that weaves through our Lenten preparations for Easter. "A contrite heart" is the goal of our self-work during this time.
"Contrite" comes from the Latin verb "conterere," which literally means to grind or bruise. Now our society doesn't like to talk abut "beating up on yourself." And overly excessive worry and guilt about things we have done wrong is not healthy.
However, we truly are called to be broken-hearted about our sins, about those things that have damaged our relationship with God and with other people. And, in a prayer sense, this is something that should affect us deeply, it really does cause us spiritual pain. It should break our heart.
We are meant to be in communion with each other, walking humbly with God and with others. And we don't always do that. And that hurts others, and us.
At each Mass, we are given many opportunities to reflect upon our lives and make a move to bring about "a change of heart" in how we interact with others. And, at each Mass, we are given a chance to "rend out hearts" in a physical way.
At the beginning of Mass is the penitential rite. Part of that rite includes a prayer called the Confiteor. It begins, "I confess to Almighty God and to you by brothers and sisters that I have sinned through my own fault."
At this point in the prayer, even though many of us do not realize it, we are called to strike our breasts in sorrow. In the Latin form of the Mass, the phrase "mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa" is said. This is a three-fold restating of the above words: "through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault." The revised form of the Roman Missal, which is set for completion this year, will reintroduce this phrase. But even today, the rubrics of the Mass call upon us to strike our breast during this prayer.
There is another point in the Mass, during one of the Eucharistic prayers, where the priest is to strike his breast as he says, "Though we are sinners, we trust in your mercy and love. Do not consider what we truly deserve, but grant us your forgiveness."
Traditionally, some Catholics will strike their breasts during "the Lamb of God" or after, when they behold the Body of Christ and say, "Lord, I am not worthy..." Such a gesture at this point is not required, but has developed as a form of personal devotion and penance.
This striking of one's breast, at the place where the heart beats, is quite an ancient symbol of sorrow and remorse. We can see it in the Bible, including Jesus' parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee (Lk 18:9-14). The tax collector kept his distance, "beat his breast and prayed, 'O God, be merciful to me a sinner.'"
Some Christian artwork depicts various saints, such as Jerome, beating their breasts with rocks. While this seems extreme, it does serve to remind us of the pain that our sins cause to others, to ourselves, and to God. And it reminds us that we can be so hard-hearted at times, that it can seem that only stones will soften our hearts.
The late theologian Msgr. Romano Guardini noted that striking our breast is meant to have such a big spiritual impact — literally.
"To brush one's clothes with the tips of one's fingers is not to strike the breast," he wrote. "We should beat upon our breasts with our closed fists. ... It is an honest blow, not an elegant gesture. To strike the breast is to beat against the gates of our inner world in order to shatter them. This is its significance. ... 'Repent, do penance.' It is the voice of God. Striking the breast is the visible sign that we hear that summons."
Lent is a time full of symbolism — from ashes and purple to sand and dead branches. A physical form of penance such as striking our breast before God is a symbol of our sorrow and of our need for healing. It brings back to us a sense of sin, of a need to do better. Like the tax collector, sometimes called "a publican," we are publicly declaring our broken-hearted sorrow over our sins by word and gesture.
Sources: General Instruction of the Roman Missal; Catholic Encyclopedia; Praying the Mass: the Prayers of the People; Sacred Signs; www.catholic.org