What is this thing we call the Mass?
Editor’s Note: Father Bryan P. Babick, SL.L., vicar for Divine Worship and the Sacraments for the Diocese of Charleston, begins a series on the Mass and the forthcoming revised English translation of the Roman Missal.
For many Catholics, attendance at Sunday Mass is the most direct experience of their faith each week.
If someone asked you what Mass is, you might start out by describing what we do. We sit for a while before it begins, then we stand and sing, or try to, for a while, then we sit again to listen to some Bible readings, only to stand up when the priest reads a Gospel passage, and then sit afterward while he talks a while. Finally, at some point, we kneel for a few minutes.
As with anything else done regularly, it is sometimes helpful to remind ourselves not just what we do, but what it all really means and why it is important.
Essentially, the Mass is as old as the church. We may say that the event which we just commemorated on Holy Thursday evening, the Last Supper, was the first Mass because it was during that traditional Jewish Passover meal that Jesus instituted the Sacrament of His body and His blood.
The apostles did not immediately understand His command to “do this in memory of me” and this instruction might have been forgotten had it not been for what happened the next day, Good Friday.
Jesus’ declaration on Holy Thursday night, “this is my body, which will be given up for you …” and, in reference to His blood, “it will be shed for you …” was fulfilled the next day. Good Friday was the day on which Christ sacrificed Himself for all who would believe in and follow Him, becoming literally the lamb of God that John the Baptist had called Him.
Without Good Friday and what happened on the cross that day, the apostles might well have asked themselves many times throughout the rest of their lives just what Jesus meant that night He took bread and wine and said that they were His body and His blood, which would be offered up, and why he told them to do it in His memory.
Of course Good Friday could have been lost to history without the event that occurred three days later. If Jesus had not been resurrected on Easter Sunday, His death on Good Friday might have been retained for only a few years by His closest followers as a catastrophic, even senseless, execution of an innocent man.
Jesus’ resurrection becomes, then, the final fulfillment of His preaching because it proves more perfectly than any other act He performed that He is the Son of God. This is what St. Paul says in his first Letter to the Corinthians: without Jesus risen from the dead, Christian faith is in vain. Who else could come back from the dead but the Son of God, who is one with Him?
What, then, does all of this have to do with the Mass? The Mass is clearly an imitation of Jesus’ last evening with His apostles because we take bread and wine just as He did and repeat His words over them, just as He did at the Last Supper.
Again, that has no meaning unless Jesus had given up His body and blood on the cross. From this we may conclude that in the Mass, both Holy Thursday and Good Friday are memorialized. This is why St. Paul says, again in 1 Corinthians, that when we eat Jesus’ body and drink His blood, we proclaim His death until He comes again.
This is all meaningless, however, unless Jesus has risen from the dead. How can He return in glory as He promised at His ascension unless He rose from the dead in the first place? Our faith is in vain if Jesus didn’t rise.
Faith refers not just to Jesus’ death or resurrection, or merely to one of the miracles He performed. Rather it references faith in everything He did and said, including “this is my body” and “this is my blood.”
Let us now return to our original question: what is this thing we call the Mass? From all that has been said, we may conclude that each time we gather at Mass to be led by the priest who stands in Jesus’ person, the Last Supper, Christ’s sacrifice of Himself on the cross, and the glory of His resurrection are all made present to us, not just as a recollection of a memory, but rather in a real and tangible way.
The Mass is in essence Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday wrapped into one.