Since the changes to the texts of the Mass are rapidly approaching (I can’t believe Advent only about 2 months away!) now seems like an ideal time to look a little more closely at the Mass itself.
The Mass has two main parts: the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Why these two parts? Because the Church follows the example Jesus gave her at Emmaus. You probably remember the story of Jesus appearing two disciples right after His resurrection, though they don’t recognize Him. Confused about all that has happened, Jesus patiently explains it to them.
And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, He interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning Himself. So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He appeared to be going further, but they constrained Him, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” So He went in to stay with them. When He was at table with them, He took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized Him; and He vanished out of their sight (Luke 24:27-31)
In the Mass, we follow the pattern Jesus set here. We begin with the Scriptures, then have the Word of God explained further for us in a homily (which finishes the Liturgy of the Word), and then we celebrate the breaking of the bread, that is, the Eucharist.
This is why our Mass is so amazingly similar to the Mass of the early Christians – because we’re just following Jesus’ example. Descriptions of the Mass from St. Justin Martyr in the 2nd century, from St. Hippolytus in the 3rd century and from St. Cyril in 4th century are so close in form to our Mass that I can’t recommend enough checking it out for yourselves (Mike Aquilina’s The Mass of the Early Christians is great, or you could also go straight to the sources and read the saints’ primary texts). It will give you goosebumps!
It’s incredible to think that for nearly 2,000 years the Mass has had a rough form of: confession/contrition for sins, alternating verses between the congregation and the celebrant (i.e., the Psalms in our Mass), the reading of Scripture, a homily, an offering/donation we make to the Church, prayer intentions, a sign of peace, the consecration and finally the distribution of the Eucharist. And so each time we go to Mass we’re sharing in a Tradition that is truly ancient!
The Mass is the “source and summit of Christian life” (according to the Second Vatican Council) because it is the highest form of worship. It is where the Church, and we as individuals, give the greatest glory to God as we remember and make present Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice. And it’s also where we are most fully united with Him since the Eucharist makes possible a participation in His very divinity!
St. Paul was very careful to ensure the words of institution, which Jesus established at the Last Supper, would be passed down. He wrote:
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11:23-25)
Jesus’ words are very explicit – not only here, but also in John 6 in His famous Bread of Life discourse. Jesus is telling us that we are to eat His Body and drink His Blood. Not symbolically, not figuratively, but literally. “So Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day’” (Jn 6:53-54). (For more on this check out my post Why the Real Presence Matters)
This literally understanding has been the teaching of the Church from the very beginning. The early Church Fathers are unanimous in their belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Less than 100 years after the death of Jesus, St. Ignatius of Antioch explains, “Take note of those who hold heterodox opinions on the grace of Jesus Christ which has come to us, and see how contrary their opinions are to the mind of God. . . . They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ.”
Likewise, St. Justin Martyr just a little over 100 years after Christ’s death wrote, “For not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught, the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by him, and by the change of which our blood and flesh is nurtured, is both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus.”
The Eucharist is the heart of the Mass. If we don’t properly understand it, if we can’t explain it to others, then we’re shortchanging ourselves and our relationship with Jesus. The Eucharist is the greatest expression of Christ’s love (and I say this because it’s the flipside of His sacrifice on the Cross – the two are so intimately connected they’re like the two sides of one coin) and we must always be striving towards a deeper understanding of this love so that we may experience it more fully, and then return it more fully.
Since changes are coming, now is the perfect time to learn more about the source and summit of our lives as Christians: the Mass! The small amount of time it takes to read a book on the subject will pay dividends not only in this life as you attend Mass, but for all eternity as well. Some of my favorites include:
For more on the Eucharist: The Lamb’s Supper, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, Worthy is the Lamb: Biblical Roots of the Eucharist
May the Lord bring us all to deeper understanding of His great gift: the Eucharist. And may that same Eucharist bring us all to everlasting life, where the veil around His presence will fall and we will finally see our Lord face to face.