Understanding the Mass

Bishop Stika celebrates Mass with Cardinal Rigali, Deacon Sean Smith and other priests from the Diocese of Knoxville.

Bishop Stika celebrates Mass with Cardinal Rigali, Deacon Sean Smith and other priests from the
Diocese of Knoxville.

Matthew, Mark, Luke and Paul (1 Corinthians 11:23-26) all record Jesus’ institution of the Lord’s Supper on the night he was betrayed. On that night, he commanded the church to do this often in memory of him. In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke tell us that from the very beginning the church was obedient to the Lord’s command and frequently celebrated the Lord’s Supper—which we now call the Mass (2:42, 46).

Perhaps the earliest description of the Mass comes from the last chapter of Luke’s Gospel, his account of the walk to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). In this passage the resurrected Jesus encounters two of his disciples who are walking to Emmaus. Jesus joins them, although they are prevented from recognizing him. He asks them what they were discussing, and they relate his mighty works, his passion and death, and the reports of his resurrection.

He then explains to them “the things concerning himself in all the Scriptures,” beginning with Moses and the prophets. They urge him to stay with them, and he does. At table, he takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to them. These are the same actions he performed during the last supper. Blessing, breaking, and giving are actions associated with the Lord’s Supper, the Mass. Only at this point do the disciples recognize Jesus, and he immediately vanishes from their sight.

This encounter between Jesus and the two disciples follows the fundamental structure of the Mass. Jesus greets his disciples, explains the Scriptures to them, then shares a meal with them. Significantly, the disciples only recognize him in the breaking of the bread. Luke is explaining the way the resurrected Jesus is present to his disciples. He is no longer present in bodily form: now he is present in a new way, in the breaking of the bread—the Mass. This presence is just as real as his presence during his earthly ministry, but in a different way, a different “mode” of being.

In this passage Luke is explaining the Mass, only instead of using theological terms, he relates a post-resurrection encounter of Jesus with two disciples. In this story Luke describes the two main parts of the Mass, the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) explains that it is this “fundamental structure which has been preserved throughout the centuries down to our own day. It displays two great parts that form a fundamental unity:

  • the gathering—the liturgy of the Word, with readings, homily, and general intercessions
  • the liturgy of the Eucharist—with the presentation of the bread and wine, the consecratory thanksgiving, and Communion” (CCC, No. 1346).

We see this same basic structure in a description of the Mass from the year 155 by Justin Martyr:

On the day we call the day of the sun, all who dwell in the city or country gather in the same place. The memoirs of the apostles and the writings of the prophets are read, as much as time permits. When the reader has finished, the president admonishes and challenges them to imitate these beautiful things. Then we all rise together and offer prayers for ourselves . . . and for all others, wherever they may be, so that we may be found righteous by our life and actions, and faithful to the commandments, so as to obtain eternal salvation. When the prayers are concluded, we exchange the kiss.

Then someone brings bread and a cup of water and wine mixed together to him who presides over the brethren. He takes them and offers praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and for a considerable time he gives thanks (in Greek: eucharistian) that we have been judged worthy of these gifts. When he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all present give voice to an acclamation by saying: ‘Amen.’ When he who presides has given thanks and the people have responded, those whom we call deacons give to those present the ‘eucharistified’ bread, wine,  and water and take them to those who are absent.

This description from the year 155 reveals the same structure found in Luke 24:13-35 and in the description of the Mass given in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Mass acquired its characteristic structure very early and has retained it with great consistency through the centuries down to the present day. Christians from the second century would easily recognize the Mass as it is celebrated today.

In the above description, Justin Martyr makes two references to the Greek word eucharist. This is the Greek verb that means “to give thanks.” For example, in the account of the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus took the loaves and “gave thanks”—he “eucharisted” (John 6:11). In addition, the verb to eucharist is used in every account of the Last Supper. Jesus took the cup and gave thanks: literally, he took the cup and “eucharisted” (Matthew 26:27, Mark 14:23, Luke 22:17, also 1 Corinthians 11:24).

In the second century we see the priest doing what Christ did, giving thanks (eucharisting) over the bread and wine, and then distributing the “eucharistified” (i.e., transformed) bread and wine. Justin describes this transformation very clearly: “we do not receive these things as if they were ordinary food and drink. . . . the food over which the eucharist has been spoken becomes the flesh and blood of the incarnate Jesus, in order to nourish and transform our flesh and blood.”

In time Eucharist came to be one of the names give to the Mass, for it is the church’s highest act of thanksgiving to God.

On the night he was betrayed Christ entrusted to the church the memorial of his passion. Over the centuries the church has guarded and celebrated the Mass with fidelity and consistency. She will continue to offer this supreme act of worship with the same faithfulness until Christ returns for her, his bride.

Father Randy Stice
Director, Office of Worship and Liturgy