A Biblical Walk Through the Mass

Adriaen Ysenbrandt, The Mass of Saint Gregory the Great (16th c.)
Adriaen Ysenbrandt, The Mass of Saint Gregory the Great (16th c.)

“But Mass is so boring!”

It’s a common complaint. from kids objecting to having to go to Mass on Sunday, to adults explaining why they left the Catholic Church for an Evangelical church down the road (or simply left organized religious worship altogether). And the complaint is largely true: one only needs to look around to see that many Catholics go through Mass looking like they’re bored to tears.

And yet the Mass is simultaneously the most amazing thing that we will participate in during our earthly lives. As my aunt’s sister Patricia once told me, “if we knew what was going on in the Mass, we’d worship with our faces on the ground.” At the very least, if we knew what was really going on in the Mass, maybe we wouldn’t be as bored.

Before we look at the different parts of the Mass, let’s start with a sort of “20,000 foot view.” In the words of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM),

The celebration of Mass, as the action of Christ and of the People of God arrayed hierarchically, is the center of the whole of Christian life for the Church both universal and local, as well as for each of the faithful individually. For in it is found the high point both of the action by which God sanctifies the world in Christ and of the worship that the human race offers to the Father, adoring him through Christ, the Son of God, in the Holy Spirit.

So if the Mass isn’t the center of your life, you’re doing something wrong. So why is the Mass so (literally) awesome? Just think about what’s actually going on.

I. Confession of our sins

Think of the Mass as an upward trajectory, starting at a low point. The Mass involves the coming together of God and man, and the first step in that is recognizing that our union with God is ruptured, and ruptured as a result of our own sins. This is how Jesus begins the process of healing in Scripture. It’s why He sends John the Baptist out first, to preach about the need for repentance (Mark 1:4). It’s why His first words in Mark’s Gospel are “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).  Jesus explained His Mission this way: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17).

In other words, the first step to getting healed is admitting that you have a problem. (Otherwise, we aren’t open to being forgiven. In Jesus’ response to the Pharisees in John 9:35-41, He shows them that they remain in their guilt, because they can’t even recognize their own blindness and woundedness.) “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects” (James 5:16).

II. Prayer

The Mass is rich with prayer, and it’s to take prayer for granted. But think about it this way: imagine if, instead of God, you were given the chance to talk your crush, or your favorite celebrity, or a world leader. And imagine further than this person really wanted to hear from you, and was interested in whatever you had to say. You’d count that as an amazing gift and opportunity, right? Well, instead of that, you’ve got the chance to talk to the God of the Universe, the God who loves you (and Who you should love) most, the God who knows what He has  in store for your life, the God that people have spent their whole lives seeking. You know this God, and you get to speak to Him at your leisure. And He wants to hear from you. Wow.

Hebrews 4:14-16 says it best:

Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

In prayer, you approach God. Do you get how radical that is?

III. Old Testament Readings

Given that salvation by faith is open to Jews and Gentiles alike, St. Paul asks “Then what advantage has the Jew?” (Romans 3:1). He continues: “To begin with, the Jews are entrusted with the oracles of God” (Rom. 3:2). These “oracles of God” are prophecies (1 Peter 4:11), including the Old Testament prophecies. In other words, it’s not just that we talk to God in prayer. It’s that He’s spoken to us as well, through the Scriptures, beginning with the Old Testament.

In the light of Christ, the gift of the Old Testament is even greater. Jesus shows this in Luke 24:25-27, on the road to Emmaus:

And [Jesus] said to them, “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.

In other words, Jesus shows the disciples that the Old Testament was about Him the whole time. In the Mass, this connection is often spelled out for us: the First Reading is paired with the Gospel so that you can more easily see the countless ways in which the Old Testament prefigures the New. This is a good exercise, by the way: try to see what the connection is between the two. (The Second Reading, by the way, isn’t tied to the other two.)

IV. The Gospel

Of course, we’re not left with the Old Testament. Hebrews 1:1-4,

In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has obtained is more excellent than theirs.

We don’t just get to hear God communicate Old Testament prophecies about Jesus Christ to us. He went and sent us Jesus, and then His Holy Spirit guided the Evangelists to record the words of Christ. This is an intimate encounter between God and us (and for those without the Eucharist, perhaps the most intimate encounter that they will ever experience). Hopefully, the Gospel message is then unpackaged by the homilist, but even if the homily is weak, the Gospel isn’t.

V. The Offertory

After this, we turn from the Liturgy of the Word to the Liturgy of the Eucharist. That starts with a seemingly insignificant moment, the offertory.

“O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures for ever” (Psalm 136:1). In these and similar words, the Bible repeatedly calls upon us to offer up our thanksgiving to God for His goodness to us. This is an important moment in the Mass, because we’re acknowledging that even our pitiful contributions to the Eucharist (the bread and the wine) are really God’s gifts to us. We’re just giving Him back what He’s already given us, and He turns it into something more incredible than we could ever. It’s a model for the Christian life.

VI. The Sanctus

The upward trajectory of the Mass continues at this point straight into Heaven. That might sound like an exaggeration, but if Heaven is to be in the Presence of the Living God, that’s precisely where the Liturgy takes us.  We pray “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts, Heaven and Earth are full of Your glory,” as we fall to our knees. All of it harkens to the heavenly vision of Isaiah 6:1-3,

In the year that King Uzzi′ah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

Just look at the posture of the seraphim in Isaiah’s vision, beholding something so holy that they cover their eyes. If you get this – if you get that this is what happens at every Mass – you can see the insanity of getting bored.

VII. The Consecration

At this point, the priest calls down the Holy Spirit (in a prayer known as the epiclesis) to consecrate the bread and wine by turning them into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. And then he speaks the words of institution, which we find in slightly varying forms in Matthew 26:26-29, Mark 14:22-25, Luke 22:19-20, and 1 Corinthians 11:23-26. Here’s how Matthew describes it:

 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 cup, 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.”

So the priest is just doing what Jesus did. And why? Because Jesus told him to do so (Luke 22:19). In doing so, Jesus Christ becomes bodily present. The Flesh and Blood of Jesus Christ are upon the altar. There are many words which could be used to describe that reality, but “boring” isn’t one of them. Instead, I’m reminded of St. John Chrysostom, who said:

For when you see the Lord sacrificed, and laid upon the altar, and the priest standing and praying over the victim, and all the worshippers empurpled with that precious blood, can you then think that you are still among men, and standing upon the earth? Are you not, on the contrary, straightway translated to Heaven, and casting out every carnal thought from the soul, do you not with disembodied spirit and pure reason contemplate the things which are in Heaven? Oh! What a marvel! What love of God to man! He who sits on high with the Father is at that hour held in the hands of all, and gives Himself to those who are willing to embrace and grasp Him. And this all do through the eyes of faith! Do these things seem to you fit to be despised, or such as to make it possible for any one to be uplifted against them?

VIII. The Reception of Communion

If everything stopped here, the Mass would already be amazing beyond words: through the words of a simple priest, Jesus Christ – the God of the Universe – becomes bodily present upon the altar. But somehow, it’s even better than this. Our sacrifices of prayer and praise are united with Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice on Calvary, and the Son is offered to the Father. And then, we receive Christ. That is, we do what He tells us to do: we eat His Flesh and drink His Blood.

As Jesus says in John 6:53-56,

“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. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.”

In partaking of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, we are united to Christ and to the Church in a radical way. St. Paul talks about it in 1 Corinthians 10:16-18,

The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participationin the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. Consider the practice of Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices partners in the altar?

So that’s what happens at Mass, even at Masses with half-hearted music or bad preaching. We sinners confess our sins, and are led on a journey of encounter with the Living God, until Jesus Christ is made present on the altar, and we are given the opportunity to receive His Flesh and Blood into our own bodies.

6 Comments

  1. Thank you for the description. It builds and builds until yes, we are united to him by receiving Christ. Of all the epiphanies I encountered on my long path to the Church, nothing could have prepared me for the moment that God graced me with that realization. Thank you God for the Mass, a taste of heaven here on earth.

  2. I mn light of this great essay I was curious about how/when the prologue of john’s gospel got placed at the end of the EF rite? Eliminating it probably wasnt difficult seeing how it probably wasnt there for very long. I dont know. jyst wondering.

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