Index Catholic Church What is the Mass?

What is the Mass?

In celebrating the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and in the custom of sacrificing all first-born animals and redeeming all first-born sons, the Jews reminded themselves of the great events that took place when God rescued his people from slavery in Egypt. 'When your son asks you in days to come, "What does this mean?" you will tell him, "By his mighty power the Lord brought us out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery"' (Exodus 13:14, and similarly 12:26-27; 13:8). The Passover celebration, to this day, contains a similar question-and-answer ritual.

This is more than just remembering the past, however important. What happened in the escape from Egypt is fundamental to the identity of the Jewish people, not just in the past, but also here and now. In celebrating the Passover, the people confirm and renew the relationship with God which was established when those events first took place. In a sense, the past is brought into the present, and becomes effective here and now.

Christians see Christ as the climax or turning-point of the whole of human history, and particularly of the history of God's relationship with the human race as recorded in the Old Testament. For example, the institution of the monarchy, even under David, the greatest of the kings, was limited and imperfect. The promises that God made in relation to the office of king are only completely fulfilled in the person of Christ, the Messiah, Son of David. Similarly, the Passover says something very profound about the relationship between God and his people -- but it is only a hint or a clue to what was going to happen in the death and resurrection of Christ. The Passover is part of a pattern whose significance only becomes clear when we see the key to that pattern in the events of the first Easter.

From the earliest days of Christianity, the disciples gathered for the 'breaking of bread', commemorating what Jesus did at the Last Supper and remembering how he died and rose again. The celebration developed with time, into what we now call the Mass. It became more fixed in its general format and the prayers became rather more formal and less spontaneous -- but it remained the same in its essence. As the Passover is in some ways the centre of the Jewish identity, so the Mass has a similar place in the life of the Church. Like the Passover, it is more than just a celebration. Unlike the Passover, it doesn't only bring the past into the present in a certain sense, but in reality. Just as the Jews recalled in words and actions the events of the first Passover, so we do the same with the events of the first Easter -- and as we do so, we are drawn into the mystery of Christ's death and resurrection, so that it becomes a power to renew and reform our own lives, and Christ comes among us in the forms of br ead and wine.

For this is what I received from the Lord, and in turn pass on to you: that on the same night that he was betrayed, the Lord Jesus took some bread, and thanked God for it and broke it, and he said

        'This is my body, which is for you; do this as a memorial of me.'

In the same way, he took the cup after supper, and said,

       'This cup is the new covenant in my blood.
        Whenever you drink it, do this as a memorial of me.'

Until the Lord comes, therefore, every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you are proclaiming his death, and so anyone who eats the bread or drinks the cup unworthily will be behaving unworthily towards the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone is to recollect himself before eating this bread and drinking this cup; because a person who eats and drinks without recognising the Body is eating and drinking his own condemnation. (1 Cor 11:23-29 -- the earliest account of the Last Supper).

The central prayers of every Mass contain, in one form or another, the following elements:

    1. A prayer asking the Holy Spirit to come down upon the gifts of bread and wine,
        so that they may become the body and blood of Christ.

    2. A brief account of Christ's words at the Last Supper, along the lines of the
        section in bold italics in the above passage.

    3. A prayer which calls to mind the fact that Christ died for our sake, rose from the
        dead, and one day will come again in glory.

    4. A prayer for the Holy Spirit to come upon those who are gathered in this
        celebration, so that the events we recall may be effective in their lives.

There was some controversy, during the period of the Reformation, over the idea that the Mass is supposed to repeat the events it describes. This was probably due to the Catholic habit of speaking of the Mass as a sacrifice, and was quickly corrected by official Catholic teaching. Christ's death and resurrection were once-and-for-all, never to be repeated. The Mass does not repeat them, it re-presents them -- it makes them present and effective here and now amongst us. The Mass is a sacrifice insofar as it unites us with the one and only sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, and in the sense that -- in a manner of speaking -- we offer to the Father all that Christ did on our behalf.


© Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church 2018
A parish of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Southwark.
CIO Registered Incorporated Charity Number 1173050.