The reason many people might get the idea
that Mass is boring is because they don't know what's going on. The
reality of the Mass is far from boring - it is nothing less than a participation
in the liturgy that's going on heaven. The place where we get to
see most clearly what this liturgy looks like is the book of Revelation,
so having an understanding of Revelation helps us have an understanding
of the Mass, and vice versa, understanding the Mass helps us get a handle
on the book of Revelation. One way to do this is to look at one of
the key phrases in the Mass: "Lamb of God". Jesus Christ is the sacrificial
lamb, who takes away the sin of the world. In the Mass we join ourselves
to the once-for-all sacrifice where Jesus did this. This is also
the key phrase of the book of Revelation, appearing nearly thirty times
in 22 chapters. There are plenty of links between what we see when
we celebrate the Mass and what we see in Revelation.
As a really rough outline, reading John's
Revelation, we see Jesus Christ, on Sunday, dressed as a priest, telling
the people of the church to repent, reading from a book, receiving the
prayers of the saints, and God acting in response. We also see Jesus
as the Lamb of God, standing as though slain, with an altar. We are
invited to the lamb's supper. Think about how all that ties in with
the Mass. In his book The
Lamb's Supper: The Mass as Heaven on Earth, Dr. Hahn provides nearly
thirty such allusions.
Jesus says in Revelation chapter 2 "He
who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
To him who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna." We know
from John's Gospel that Jesus is the real manna, "the living bread which
came down from heaven" (see John 6). Jesus invites us to share a
meal with him: "Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears
my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and
he with me" (Rev 3:20). But this is not a dinner for two. Straight
after this, John "looked, and lo, in heaven an open door!" (Rev 4:1).
John sees a vision of heaven and there's all sorts of stuff going on in
there. Sharing the manna with Jesus means being part of a heavenly
banquet, which is a big family meal. And that's what we do at Mass.
The Routine of the Mass
Some people think the Mass is too routine,
but really, routine things are an essential part of our lives. We
don't get tired of hearing routine phrases like "I love you", or "Thank
you". God doesn't get tired of the angels around his throne who "day
and night ... never cease to sing, 'Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty,
who was and is and is to come!'" (Rev 4:8). The routine of the Mass
is a lot like this. We don't have to think about the little details
over and over again; we can concentrate on lifting our hearts up to the
Lord. Routine also helps us make sure we don't get things wrong,
just like St Paul was really careful when he told the Corinthians the words
they should use when celebrating the Eucharist: "For I received from
the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night
when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke
it, and said, 'This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance
of me.' In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, 'This
cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it,
in remembrance of me.' 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink
the cup, you proclaim the Lordís death until he comes." (1 Cor 11:23-26).
Getting things exactly right was a big deal.
The Parts of the Mass
But it's important for us to understand the
parts of the Mass and how they relate to the whole thing, otherwise it
can become the sort of routine that gives routine a bad name. The
first thing is to realise that the Mass is divided into two halves: the
Liturgy of the Word, and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. This is like
the Book of Revelation, where the first part has readings of letters to
the seven churches, and the opening of a scroll. The second half
starts in chapter 11 where God's temple in heaven is opened, and it leads
up to the pouring of the seven chalices and the marriage supper of the
These halves of the Mass can be divided
into four smaller parts each. The Liturgy of the Word includes the
entrance, the introductory rites, the penitential rite, and the readings
from Scripture. The Liturgy of the Eucharist has the offertory, the
Eucharistic Prayer, the Communion rite, and the concluding rite.
We start the Mass with the Sign of the Cross.
This is a really profound gesture. When we cross ourselves, we are
renewing the covenant that we entered into at our baptism. We proclaim
the Trinitarian faith that we were baptised into ("In the name of the Father,
and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit"). With our hand, we proclaim
our redemption by the Cross of Jesus Christ. So with the sign of
the cross, we get the Trinity, the Incarnation of Christ, and the Redemption,
all in one hit. In the Eastern churches, there's even more: they
make the Sign of the Cross with three fingers together apart from the other
two. The three together represent the unity of the Trinity, and the
other two fingers represent the union of Christ's divine and human natures.
They also go from right to left because Jesus is seated at the right hand
of the Father.
So we remember the faith of our baptism, and
as we know, baptism is a sacrament, which comes from the Latin word for
oath (sacramentum). By making the Sign of the Cross, it's
like swearing on the Bible in a law court. We are not at Mass to
watch; we are there as witnesses to offer testimony. And we're not
just witnesses - we are on trial too. St. Paul tells us that we should
examine ourselves before we take part in communion (1 Cor 11:27-8).
This is why we have the Penitential Rite, where each of us says "I confess
to Almighty God... that I have sinned through my own fault...". The
Bible tells us that even the righteous man falls seven times a day (Prov
24:16), and that "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the
truth is not in us" (1 John 1:9). But after we plead guilty we throw
ourselves upon the mercy of the court, and we ask mercy of each of the
three persons of the Trinity "Lord, have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord
Then we pray the Gloria. Its opening
line comes from the prayer of the angels who announced Jesus' birth (Luke
2:14), and it goes on in a similar way to the praises of the angels in
Revelation (especially Rev 15:3-4).
Then we have the readings from Scripture -
Old Testament, Psalm, New Testament and Gospel. The Mass is the Bible's
"native habitat"; St. Paul said that "faith comes from what is heard",
and until the printing press was invented, the Mass was where people learned
the Bible. The high point of the Scripture readings is the reading
of the Gospel. Before it we stand and cross ourselves over the forehead,
lips and chest, praying that the Word of God will be in our mind, on our
lips, and in our heart. It's here that we also say the Alleluia,
like the great multitude in heaven do in Revelation 19.
After the Gospel reading is the homily,
then we recite the Nicene Creed. This is the faith compressed into
just a few paragraphs. Not only does it summarise the Gospel message,
but it contains the faith that early Christians in the Roman empire died
for. When we say the creed, we are again renewing the faith of our
baptism, and we are publicly saying that we stand alongside those who have
died for this faith.
Then we have the prayers of the faithful,
where we enter into the intercessory prayers of the saints that we see
in Revelation. "And another angel came and stood at the altar with
a golden censer; and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers
of all the saints upon the golden altar before the throne; and the smoke
of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints from the hand of the
angel before God" (Rev 8:3-4).
Not only are the saints in heaven praying,
but they pray along with us, even presenting our prayers to God - "the
twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and
with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints"
(Rev 5:8). And not only that, but we also see that the judgments
of God are in some way linked with the prayers of the saints, the prayers
that we are part of.
So that's the first part of the Mass.
The second part is even more exciting, because that's the bit where heaven
really touches down on earth. We join in the eternal worship of heaven,
and the one sacrifice of the Lamb of God that happened from the Last Supper
to Calvary is re-presented to the Father. Jesus Christ becomes really
present, just like he promised and just like the Church has always believed.
We'll look at that in a follow-up article.