(Another exciting installment of)
The Rev. Know-it-all’s Wonderful World of Words! (Continued)
There are lots of grand words being bandied about in church these days, words such as Eucharist, and Liturgy. These are Greek words, the meanings of which most people are quite ignorant. When I was a boy and directory information was a free service, we just called it Mass. Unfortunately, Mass is not the best word for the central ceremony of the ancient Christian faith. Mass is a word that comes from the Latin word “Mitto” which means to send or to let go. Among the last words of the old Mass were, “Ite! Missa est,” which essentially means, “you can go now,” or even perhaps “get out of here, the priest needs a nap.” (This second translation is a bit looser than the first which is more literal.) “Go. It’s finished.” To which the congregation responded “Deo gratias!” (Or “thanks be to God!) Again, a more poetic translation of the congregational response may be, “Thank God, the old windbag is finally finished!”
In the early Church, people went to Mass because it was a taste of heaven on earth. In later times when Christianity was the state religion there was a certain amount of force involved in the Sunday and holy day obligation. If you weren’t at Mass regularly the local peasants might think you guilty of witchcraft or heresy or even worse, not believing in all this stuff. One patiently endured the service until those precious words were heard ‒ “Ite, Missa est!” Since “Missa” was one of the only intelligible words heard by the unwashed mob, they started calling it the Missa, in effect the “Go Away!” Imagine a conversation between two mud splattered peasant farmers in Lower Upper Hessia sometime during the Dark Ages “Are you going to the early Go Away or the late one?” “Oh, the early Go Away, of course. They never have a sermon or a choir at that one and it only takes fifteen minutes.” Don’t be shocked at my cavalier attitude. With the exception of knowing that the word “Mass” was derived from the word “to send away,” that is a conversation I often heard in my youth. Where I grew up, the Dark Ages as well as Prohibition lasted well into the 1960’s.
So, what should we call the unbloody re-presentation of Christ’s saving sacrifice on the cross? I’m all for calling it “Mass.” After all, there has been a lot of linguistic water under the bridge. I always find people who talk about the Noon Liturgy or the Sunday Eucharist a bit tedious. Don’t get me wrong, the words Eucharist and Liturgy are useful especially when trying to speak with some theological precision. Still, you can always tell that someone has taken a theology course downtown when they bandy the word Eucharist or Liturgy about too frequently. If you meet any of these bandiers of fancy words, you will be able to ask them what these words mean and I’ll bet you they are clueless. If you can endure finishing this article you will know the precise meaning and origin of the terms and will be abler to make the fancy bandiers feel just a bit foolish. Sounds like fun, no?
The word Eucharist is a Greek word that means thanksgiving. The sages of the Jews at the time of Christ held that when the messiah came all the sacrifices of the law would cease except for the thanksgiving sacrifice, or in Hebrew the Korban Todah, “korban” meaning sacrifice and “Todah” meaning thanks in Hebrew. If you can pull out some Hebrew word you will definitely impress. The thanksgiving sacrifice was a personal sacrifice. It could not be offered on Saturday, the Sabbath unless it was Passover. It is my theory ‒ that I have pushed on you time and time again ‒ that the Christians offered Mass on Sunday, not on Saturday because they thought of the Mass as the fulfillment of the belief that it was the ultimate, the messianic thanksgiving sacrifice. In the law, the thanksgiving sacrifice was offered when one had been saved from death. There was an offering of a lamb whose sacrifice blood was sprinkled along with loaves of bread and a pouring out of wine. The bread was taken home to be eaten by friends and family on that day, provided home was in Jerusalem. The reason that all the sacrifice of the law would be cancelled by the coming of the messiah is that there would be no more sin. The disciples quickly realized that Jesus had offered the messianic sacrifice at the last supper in which bread and wine became the lamb which was Christ. We have been offering it ever since, because our messiah Jesus has saved us from sin, the death of the soul, as well as giving us hope of eternal life.
Next week, Liturgy
PS ‒ the words “missal” and “missalette” (the book or pamphlet from which the Mass is read) as well as “missile” a projectile sometimes carrying a nuclear warhead are all derived from the same Latin root of “Mitto”. It is best not to confuse the terms. If someone shouts, “Watch out, there is an incoming missile!”, he is probably not referring to any kind of prayer book.