Understanding the Mass (Paperback)
Understanding The Mass Introduction
To Catholics nothing is as common as the Mass. It’s ordinary, and it’s routine. It’s the one thing the Church requires us to attend regularly. It’s familiar, a family event.
Yet it’s also enigmatic—even to Catholics, when they stop to think about it. The priests wear unusual clothing that would draw strange looks if worn in public. The banquet is served from antiquated vessels made from precious metal. People make ritual gestures and strike postures that would be out of place at work or at home. They speak in a language that’s highly symbolic, referring to an historical person as a “lamb.”
Why do Catholics do what they do? What do these practices mean?
The questions occur even to Catholics these days as a new edition of the missal, the book of Mass prayers, is introduced to the English-speaking world. We recite the ancient prayers in slightly different form, and they appear suddenly new to us. The texts used in this book are those approved by the Vatican for the missal whose use is standard as of Advent 2011.
The Mass may be routine, and it may be the common property of millions of Catholics, from all nations, from all social classes, for two thousand years. But it’s not a simple reality. It’s profound. It’s rich. It’s thick with symbolism. Its theology reaches out to touch the small details of ordinary life, including home and work and leisure. Its vision, meanwhile, stretches as high as heaven, and its power touches the depths of purgatory. Its typical worshippers include a cross section of society, from the wealthiest to the homeless, as well as countless hosts of angels and saints. Its words and postures and gestures have deep historical roots and profound mystical meanings.
This book answers the most common questions about the Mass—and anticipates dozens of others that are less often heard but fascinating nonetheless. It ranges from the sublime to the silly—at least in the minds of people who are afraid to ask.
This book deals with practical and doctrinal questions about the Mass, moving from the basics to the more theological. It describes the various participants in the drama (the clergy, the laity, and God) and the proper “equipment,” so to speak, including vessels and vestments. The final chapter walks through the Mass, step by step, describing the drama of the ritual, the words and the movements.
So follow your curiosity and your sense of wonder. If you’re a Catholic, you may be surprised by how much you’ve missed in the Mass or taken for granted. If you’re not Catholic, you’ll get a glimpse of the glory that holds Catholics in thrall, so that even if you can’t embrace it yourself, you can at least understand why Catholics can’t let it go.
The First Mass
Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a chalice, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I shall not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. (Matthew 26:26–30)
Basics of Mass
1. Why do we call our worship “the Mass”?
The word Mass is really an accident of history.
In the early days of Christianity, only the baptized were allowed to witness the Eucharist. After the Liturgy of the Word—the first part of our Mass, in which we hear the Scripture readings and the homily—the unbaptized were sent home with the words “Ite, missa est”—roughly, “Go; you are dismissed.” Christians knew that important division in the service as the missa, the dismissal. Soon they began to use the word missa for the whole service of the Eucharist that followed the dismissal and then for the entire worship. Our English word Mass comes from that Latin word missa.
The words Ite, missa est are still used to conclude the Mass when it is celebrated in Latin.
2. What other names does the Mass go by?
We often call it the liturgy, from a Greek word meaning “public service,” although technically the word liturgy also includes all the prescribed rites of the Church, including the ones that take place outside the Mass. In Eastern traditions the Mass is often called the Divine Liturgy.
We also sometimes say “the Eucharist,” which refers more specifically to the part of the Mass where the sacrament of the Eucharist is celebrated.
We call the Mass the Holy Sacrifice because the Eucharist makes the sacrifice of Christ on the cross present to us on our altar (see question 6, Why is the Mass a sacrifice?). We call it the Lord’s Supper because it looks back to the Last Supper and forward to the marriage supper of the Lamb (see Revelation 19).
There are many particular styles of Masses that come from different Christian cultures and different times, and they have particular names.
The Novus Ordo (“New Order”) is a name sometimes used for the form of the Mass that was adopted by the Western Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council; because some schismatic traditionalists have used Novus Ordo pejoratively, many Catholics dislike the term, preferring to call it the “ordinary form.”
The Tridentine Mass was the common form of Mass used in the West from the Council of Trent in the middle 1500s until the Second Vatican Council; it can still be used by any Roman Catholic priest. (See question 44, What is the Tridentine Mass or Extraordinary Form?)
The Eastern Churches celebrate Mass according to different ritual forms, depending on the traditions of their culture of origin—Byzantine, Ukrainian, Chaldean, Coptic, and so on.
But although there are multiple styles of the Mass and multiple names for it, there is only one Mass. It may change clothes as it moves from country to country or age to age, but the Mass is always fundamentally the same, with the same elements and the same miracle of meeting Christ face to face at its heart.
3. What happens at a Catholic Mass?
At every Catholic Mass the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross is made present on the altar; it is re-presented, not as a symbol but in reality and in the fullness of truth. That’s the short answer.
The longer answer is that there’s a certain ritual we go through at every Mass. Though some of the details change, the main parts of the ritual are always the same and have been century after century, going all the way back to the time of the apostles.
This prescribed ritual is what we call the liturgy. Each part of the liturgy has a meaning, and the more you know about those meanings, the more you’ll understand and be fascinated by the Mass that goes on in your own parish church.
4. Why do we need this ritual? Can’t I worship God just as well using my own words?
Praying to God in our own words is good, and we can hardly do it often enough. But it’s not all we need.
We could answer the question by saying that Jesus told us to use a ritual, and that’s that. At the Last Supper he gave the apostles explicit instructions to repeat the breaking of the bread and the passing of the cup (see Luke 22:19). But that wouldn’t really be an answer. Jesus did nothing without a reason.
Rituals are what keep us on the right track. They can include the habits we learned as children, like the way we get dressed in the morning or the way we eat a pizza. We have a set way of answering a phone call, of ending a letter, of greeting the queen of England. The most important things we do—eating, being born, being married, dying—are surrounded by ritual.
We have all these rituals because it’s not possible for us to think through everything we do. We don’t decide when to breathe or when to beat our hearts in order to pump the proper amount of blood. Our bodies are wisely designed to take care of these processes automatically. Rituals likewise help us toward an appropriate reverence and love for God.
We also have rituals to convey certain messages to other people. What we do is really as much a part of communication as our spoken language. Someone we meet may say, “Pleased to meet you,” while shaking our hand; the person sends a different message if he says exactly the same thing while thumbing his nose. Shaking hands is a ritual that conveys a certain meaning; for that matter, so is thumbing your nose. Rituals are part of the way we communicate, and they often speak louder than our words.
Each part of our liturgy—the collection of rituals that make up our worship—has a particular meaning. These meanings have been refined over many centuries, but—just like many of our social rituals—the core goes back to the Beginning.
5. Why does the Mass refer to Jesus as a “victim” and a “lamb”?
We call Jesus a victim because he offered himself as a sacrifice for our sins.
A sacrifice is an offering made to God by a priest. In Old Testament times the Israelites offered many different kinds of sacrifices to God for many different purposes. But the main point of a sacrifice is always the same: It acknowledges that God rules all creation and that everything we have really belongs to him.
The death of Jesus Christ on the cross is the perfect and final sacrifice. Of course, the people who killed him weren’t intending to offer a sacrifice. They were intending to kill a wandering preacher who had started to annoy them. But Jesus, our High Priest, offered himself to be killed as a sacrifice. “On the part of those who killed him,” St. Thomas Aquinas explains, “the suffering of Christ was an evil; but on the part of the one who suffered out of love, it was a sacrifice.”
In Old Testament times a lamb was the sacrifice offered at Passover, the feast of unleavened bread (see Exodus 12 and question 48, Why does the Church use unleavened bread?). When Jesus came to the Jordan to be baptized, John the Baptist recognized who he was instantly: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).
Christ is our Passover lamb, as St. Paul explicitly told the Corinthians: “Christ, our Paschal Lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us, therefore, celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthians 5:7–8).
St. Peter makes the same connection for us: “You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:18–19).
In John’s vision recorded in the book of Revelation, Christ appears again as a lamb: “And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders, I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain” (Revelation 5:6). Although the Lamb here has been “slain,” he is very much alive. And John sees preparations for a wedding feast:
Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty thunderpeals, crying, “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure”— for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are true words of God.” (Revelation 19:6–9)
The bride is the Church, and the marriage supper is the eternal worship of God in heaven. We participate in that celebration when we participate in the Mass.
6. Why is the Mass a sacrifice?
The Mass is a sacrifice because it makes present to us, right here in our own parish church, the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross.
That doesn’t mean the priest is somehow killing Jesus again or that there needs to be another sacrifice after Jesus died on the cross. There is one sacrifice of Jesus for all time and for all people. But we’re dealing with eternity here. That one sacrifice is present to us on our altar at every Mass. We see the Body and Blood of Christ offered today because Christ is living and eternal.
7. Why is the Mass the same sacrifice that Christ made on the cross?
It’s the same sacrifice because both the offering and the one who offers it are the same. Christ, our “great high priest” (Hebrews 4:14), offered his own flesh and blood to be sacrificed on the cross. Acting through his priests, Christ today offers his own flesh and blood to be sacrificed on our altars. Because Christ is eternal God, his sacrifice is eternal. Even though the sacrifice of the Mass is “unbloody,” as generations of catechumens have learned to say, it is the same as the bloody sacrifice Christ made of himself on the cross.
8. Is every Catholic worship service a Mass?
No. There are services of prayer in which there is no Eucharist. The evening service called Vespers, for example, consists of prayers, hymns, and Scripture readings but no breaking of bread. In small or remote Catholic communities where there is no resident priest, laypeople may gather for prayer services or Communion services, but these are not Masses. The service is a Mass if the entire liturgy of the Mass is celebrated, including the consecration of the bread and wine.