Sanctifying, renewing, reassuring, comforting, refocusing, amazing, community, fantastic, awesome, peace, joy. My friend Tom suggested that I explain the Mass in my own words so I will start with these.
Catholics participate in the Mass at least every Sunday and some, as often as every day. The Sacrifice of Mass is much more than a Christan “worship service.” It is a celebration in which we not only hear the word of God, but are in His direct presence. We encounter Our Lord in the literal sense. Heaven touches earth. If these seem like extraordinary claims – they are, and Mass is every bit that extraordinary!
Today’s Mass and that of the early Church have much in common. It is a re-presentation of the sacrifice of Calvary. Structurally, it is divided into two primary parts: the first focuses around the word of God and the second around the Eucharist (Holy Communion).
In the Liturgy of the Word, we hear Old and New Testament Bible readings. Not just any readings, but readings prescribed for that day. Any given day, Mass said in every Catholic church in the world will use the same readings. Over a 3 year period the daily readings cover most of the Bible.
Following the readings, a priest or deacon will deliver a homily related specifically to that day’s scripture. These usually range from 5 to 15 minutes and are optional for the daily Masses (but common and short).
The Liturgy of the Eucharist is the second part of Mass. Catholic bishops are direct successors to the Apostles who were present at the Last Supper. They, or ordained priests under their authority, act “in persona Christi” (“in the person of Christ“) to consecrate bread and wine (with a little water) into the real body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus, the Son of God. The Holy Body and Precious Blood maintain only the appearance of bread and wine, just as they did at the Last Supper.
Jesus sometimes taught by parables. Other times he was crystal clear and specific. Establishing the Church, the authority of the Apostles (the first bishops) and the gift of the Eucharist are examples of the later.
“I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died; this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”
The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us (his) flesh to eat?” Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever.”
These things he said while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. Then many of his disciples who were listening said, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” Since Jesus knew that his disciples were murmuring about this, he said to them, “Does this shock you? What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.” Jesus knew from the beginning the ones who would not believe and the one who would betray him. And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by my Father.”
As a result of this, many (of) his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.
After the consecration of the Eucharist, we receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion. “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.” It has been said that the Eucharist is the only food you can not consume, it consumes you. In receiving communion we are truly united with Christ.
The Mass is no mere worship service! Nor is it a social event, entertainment or Bible study. It is solemn and treated with all the respect one should give in the literal presence of Our Lord. Non-Catholics are very welcome to join us, but only Catholics who fully understand the real presence of the Lord in the Eucharist and are properly disposed (including absolved of all mortal sins) may receive communion. Paul explains it this way:
Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. A person should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself.
Our churches are beautiful, our priests dedicated and inspired, the homilies insightful, the music moving, our attention focused and hearts open. Usually. Sometimes in place of a church a tent must be used, the priest is tired, the homilies uninspired, music that you would rather not hear and our focus diverted by worldly concerns. Even then the tremendous blessings and benefits of Mass are received. St. Thomas Aquinas said “The celebration of Holy Mass is as valuable as the death of Jesus on the cross.” St. Gregory noted “The heavens open and multitudes of angels come to assist in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.” Once, St. Teresa was overwhelmed with God’s Goodness and asked Our Lord “How can I thank you?” Our Lord replied, “attend one mass.”
Heaven on earth and literally uniting ourselves with Christ — that is the Catholic Mass. I will give St. John Vianney (Patron Saint of Parish Priests) the last word: “If we really understood the Mass, we would die of joy.”