Understanding the Mass

What is the Mass and where does it come from? 

“In the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, a minister of the holies and of the true tabernacle; we sing a hymn to the Lord’s glory with all the warriors of the heavenly army; venerating the memory of the saints, we hope for some part and fellowship with them; we eagerly await the Savior, Our Lord Jesus Christ, until He, our life, shall appear and we too will appear with Him in glory.”

Sacrosanctum Concilium, par. 8 (Second Vatican Council)

A look at early Christian worship allows us to see quite a similar ceremony as the Mass today.  Of course, they were men of their time and culture.  They were heirs to the style of worship which Christianity inherited, naturally and organically, from its Jewish origins.  The bread and wine were the center of their gatherings, and prefigure the Mass.

Justin Martyr (100 – 165 AD) wrote a number of apologetic works.  His “First Apology” was addressed to the Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius as an explanation of Christian practices.  Chapter 66, in particular, discusses the practice of the Eucharist and clearly lays out the early Church teaching that it is the Body and Blood of Christ.

“And this food is called among us the Eucharist . . . so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh . . . .”

In Chapter 67, he provides information on the weekly Sunday meetings of the congregation, consisting of readings from the Jewish prophets and “the memoirs of the apostles”, prayers, and a meal.  This is the layout of the Catholic Mass.

“And on the day called Sunday , all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.  Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen . . . .”

In the first two centuries the Mass contained the two part formula we still use today.  It began with teachings and readings from Scripture followed by the breaking of bread and the wine.  The Word of God was followed by the word of God made flesh.  The Bible describes a gathering where they had teachings and readings until midnight followed by the breaking of bread (Acts 20:7-12).

Of course, the early Christians did not call it “the Mass.”  Mass is a medieval English word derived from the Latin Rite’s words of dismissal, which are: lte, missa est (“Go, it is ended”).  The first generations of believers called their worship by many other names, each evocative and some even poetic.  In the beginning, it was most commonly referred to as “the breaking of the bread.”  This, however, was immediately supplemented by “the sacrifice,” and related terms such as “the offering” and “the oblation”; for the Mass was understood to be the Church’s participation in the once-for-all sacrifice of the new covenant.  Some called the new rite “the liturgy,” from the Greek leitourgia, meaning “public service,” or “the work of the people.”  Latin terminology from an early date used the term “sacrament,” while Greeks favored using “the mysteries.”  Some terms were merely descriptive, such as “the table of the Lord,” “the Lord’s supper,” “the chalice” and “the altar.”

So that there be no confusion, the Mass is not the re-sacrifice of Jesus Christ.  He died once for our sins and his presence remains forever.  We offer up the fruits of the sacrifice.