The Mass—from the Latin, Missa; in Greek, Leitourgos, meaning “the work of the people”. It is the most sacred and solemn action whereby heaven and earth meet. It is the place where Catholics find their weekly (even daily) sustenance before heading out anew to live and proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ in whichever milieu we find ourselves. It is the holiest of hours.
Based on—but not an exact replication of—Jewish liturgy, it is the communal and public act of worship par excellence to almighty God. It is he who calls us in Christ Jesus. It is he who gathers us in the Holy Spirit. In both the Jewish liturgy and the ritual Passover meal a “siddur” is followed—a word meaning “order”…hence the term Seder meal; it follows a strict order and no part may be omitted or altered. Unlike many independent non-denominational services, the Catholic Mass uses a specific order of worship (as do many of the mainline Protestant groups). What makes Mass different from Protestant worship is the belief in the True and Substantial Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.
In an article I read a few years ago about an independent church that meets locally in a theatre (complete with cup-holders for coffee!), the pastor made the comment that “If people are really seeking the Lord, he’ll show up”. At Mass, Jesus IS always present in three ways; all three are confirmed in Sacred Scripture. The first is Jesus’ presence in the gathering of the faithful: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Mt. 18:20). The second is in God’s Word which Paul asserts is “living and effective,” (Heb. 4:12). We know this to be true because of its power to change hearts toward our merciful Father because the Word is “sharper than any two-edged sword…able to discern…thoughts of the heart”. The third manner in which Jesus is present is in his own Flesh and Blood as he himself states in language that is rather straightforward: “Whoever eats (gnaws) my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life…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” (Jn 6:54-56).
But…”How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”. It is the Holy Spirit who consecrates the sacred elements through the hands of a validly ordained priest using the words and gestures as set forth in the New Roman Missal: “Lord, send your Holy Spirit upon these gifts and make them holy so that they may become for us the body and blood of your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Form is important. The priest extends his hands over the gifts — reminiscent of the Holy Spirit who hovered over the waters and of the same Holy Spirit who came upon the Virgin Mary so that the power of the Most High God overshadowed her and filled her with his presence.
For the Passover meal of the Jews in Egypt, a lamb was to be procured and slain with its blood outpoured. Not just any lamb — it had to be a male…unblemished. Its blood had to be sprinkled on the doorposts. Yet, that wasn’t enough…the Israelites had to actually eat the lamb as a family. It was what Jews call a Todah sacrifice — one offered in thanksgiving for having one’s life spared and eaten with one’s family. The word Todah in Hebrew mean thanksgiving; in Greek it is Eucharist. So, too, it is not enough for us today to offer bread and wine — one must partake of it. Symbolism is not at play here…it cannot. For no symbol on earth has the power to save one…or to give any power or strength for anything. We have only to look at the “great cloud of witnesses” who have gone before us — the holy martyrs who willingly shed their blood for the Eucharist. While one or two mainline Protestants may claim to have the “real presence” in their communion, the litmus test is to ask whether they would kneel or bow down and worship Jesus present in the sacred, consecrated host.
The manna in the desert was highly symbolic…the daily bread of the Israelites for their journey, yet still supernatural in origin. From there it is utterly impossible to go from something of supernatural origin in the OT to merely symbolic in the New Testament. Had Jesus meant for the Eucharist to be merely symbolic he would have called back those who left him and explained the hidden meaning of his words…but there were none for he was speaking quite literally.
The Jews themselves have a term that they use for their Passover Seder meals even today…it is Zikkaron which is the act of taking something from the past and making it present now. Jews who gather at the table speak with great joy and thanksgiving at our salvation…what God did for us — not just their ancestors.
But didn’t Jesus give his life for us only once? Yes, he did — in time. The Mass is an un-bloody participation in the one bloody sacrifice of Jesus — “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world”. We offer ourselves (for better or for worse), our gratitude and sorrow and weird neighbors and annoying co-workers along with Jesus’ perfect offering. In fact, I “put” all my cares, concerns, loved ones and gratitudes into the ciborium as it passes by me in the offertory procession. My cares are not always taken away but rather are deeply transformed and given back to me and others in the form of Bread of all breads, Food of all foods. Again, no form of symbolism has that power.
Paul tells us in Hebrews that Jesus is our eternal high priest. If his one sacrifice of the cross in time sufficed for all time, why would he be our eternal high priest “where he lives to make intercession for us”? But didn’t it suffice? Yes…but we offer the Eucharist daily so that we ourselves might participate in it. It is indeed the very same meal of Jesus and the apostles at the Last Supper. If you go to a spaghetti supper at your church and they are serving from 4:00-7:00 p.m., you who eat at 5:45 are present at the very same meal as those who ate at 4:00 p.m. and those who will eat at 6:40. The Eucharist is also an anticipation of the “Supper of the Lamb” (Rev. 19:9) because God stands outside of time. It is the reason why the Last Supper on a Thursday could be a sacrificial meal even though Jesus’ death on the cross was on Friday.
Paul also urges us (in cf. 1 Cor. 11:28-29) to “examine yourselves before (we) eat of the bread and drink from the cup”… and insisted that those who do so in an “unworthy manner…eats and drinks judgment on themselves”. Pretty strong words for just symbolism. In fact, Paul’s next words are rather shocking to those who do partake in an unworthy manner: “That is why many among you are weak and sick and some of you have fallen asleep (v. 30)!!! Further (as if that weren’t enough!), “you will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord (v. 27)”. It is why we do not receive of the Eucharist if we are in a state of mortal sin, also know as grave matter. For more on this see http://www.saintaquinas.com/mortal_sin.html.
Sinner that I am…thus it is that I need this Divine food daily…the Bread of Life…my Beloved Jesus who comes to me quite joyfully in the Eucharist…body, blood, soul and divinity to heal me and to conform me ever more into his image and likeness.
Editor’s note: This article is part one in a series on the Eight Reasons to Love the Catholic Church. Look for a new reason every Tuesday.