Dear Rev. Know-it-all,
I went to my first Catholic Mass last Sunday. I was clueless. All that kneeling and standing and the strange outfits. Could you please explain the Mass?
Churchill A “Churchy” Lafemme
You, like most of us Catholics, have no idea of the meaning, origin and rich symbolism of the Mass, so I will explain it in tedious detail:
The Mass. Mass is only one word for the fullest way we Catholics worship the Lord. The other words are the “Sacrifice of the Mass”, the “Holy Eucharist”, the “Liturgy” and, most interestingly, the Hebrew/Aramaic word “Korban” which is still used by Aramaic-speaking Christians.
“Mass” is an adaptation of the last words of this ancient ritual when it is said in Latin. The last words said by the priest are “Ite, missa est." “Ite, missa est” literally means “Go, it is the dismissal”, in effect, “You are free to go.” Not a very glorious word for the name of something so important to us. A lot of liturgical experts try make something more meaningful of the words, saying that it refers to our being sent on a mission, yadda yadda. Hogwash! It means, “You can go now.” And those were the only words that some people paid attention to.
The more proper word for the Mass is the Holy Eucharist. Eucharist is a Greek word that means “Thanksgiving”. The ancient Israelites offered a sacrifice called the Thanksgiving Sacrifice, “Korban Todah” in Hebrew. It was a communion sacrifice that involved 40 loaves of bread along with a pouring out of wine. It was offered when someone had been saved from death. The Hebrew sages believed that at the coming of the Anointed One (Messiah, in Hebrew, Christ, in Greek) all the sacrifices of the Law would cease, except for the Thanksgiving Sacrifice. The first Christians realized that Jesus had established this Messianic thanksgiving Sacrifice by giving us His own flesh and blood in the form of bread and wine. This is what He promised when He fed the multitude by multiplying a few loaves and fish. This is what He did at the Last Supper and this is what finished on the Cross.
The Mass is a kind of time machine that takes us back to the Last Supper and to Calvary and even to the end of time where we celebrate the great wedding feast of Christ and church. Sometimes we call the Mass the “Liturgy” which is a Greek word. It literally meant the work of the people, but referred to the sacred dramas performed by the Greeks to retell the stories of the gods. These liturgies were very sacred and did not originally change the story. The actors wore masks so that you knew you were not looking at actors but at the faces of the gods. The first Christians who mostly spoke Greek adopted the word “Liturgy” to mean the unchanging ritual that made God present among us. A liturgy belongs to all the Christians ever born or whoever will be born. It is a work of the whole people of God, not just one congregation or community so it is a very structured ritual, not just an optional and changeable church service.
The Aramaic word by which the very first Christians and their Middle Eastern descendants still call the Mass is Korban, the Sacrifice. Jesus died once and for all on Calvary, but St. Paul says, “I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions.” (Col, 1:24) Christ’s sacrifice is perfect. All that is lacking is the offering of myself along with Him for the salvation and redemption of the world. He is timeless. We are still in time. At a Mass, time and eternity meet. Heaven comes to us and we go to heaven. Mass is the un-bloody renewal of the one sacrifice of Christ on the Cross in which you and I have the privilege of participating.
In the Thanksgiving Sacrifice in the temple, 40 loaves of bread, some leavened and some unleavened, were offered to God and then after some had been burned on the altar and wine had been poured out, the loaves were returned to the one making the sacrifice, which he then took home and shared with his neighbors. In the Mass, bread and wine are offered to the Lord and it is Christ himself, the Lamb of God who is returned to us to share with our family and friends. We believe that the bread and wine offered to God become Christ Himself, the Bread of Life, present in a physical way. Bread and wine don’t simply represent Christ. They become Christ. This is real. We call it the Real Presence.
In 1996, in Buenos Aires, a communion wafer was found thrown away on a candle holder in the back of a church after Mass. Fr. Alejandro Pezet put it in water inside the tabernacle (the metal box in which the leftovers of communion are kept safely locked) when he next opened the tabernacle, he was amazed to find that the wafer which we call the host, (a Latin word for sacrificial victim), had changed into something that appeared to be bleeding. He contacted his bishop Don Jorge Bergoglio. The bloody Host was left in the tabernacle for years and continued to bleed and grow. After a few years the bishop decided to have it scientifically analyzed because a host normally dissolves when left in water. It doesn’t turn into a bloody piece of flesh that won’t decompose.
In 1999, Cardinal Bergoglio asked Dr. Ricardo Castanon, an atheist, to examine the host. He sent a sample New York for testing without explaining what it originally had been. One of the examining scientists, Dr. Frederic Zugibe, a cardiologist and forensic pathologist, determined that it was a piece of heart muscle. A piece of unleavened bread had become a piece of heart muscle at a Mass. That’s what Catholics believe happens at every Mass. (By the way, Cardinal Bergoglio is now Pope Francis and Dr. Castanon is now a fervent Catholic.) The same sort of thing seems to have happened in 2008 at St. Anthony of Padua Church in Sokolka, Poland and at the church of St. Longinus in Lanciano, Italy around the year 700. They too, having been forensically examined, turn out to be heart tissue.
Mass is not just a nice religious ritual. It is the Last Supper continued; it is Calvary renewed; it is the Resurrection made present; it is heaven anticipated.
“Well,” you may say, “You haven’t explained the strange clothes, the complicated rituals and all the standing and kneeling and sitting.” Don’t worry, the night is still young.
Next week: Ancient Roman raincoats and other Catholic things.