Understanding the Biblical Basis of the Mass
A Biblical Walk Through the Mass: Understanding What We Say and Do in the Liturgy
By Edward Sri
Publisher: Ascension Press
Pages: 160 pages
Review Author: Rosemary Lunardini
Over the past few years abundant literature on the Mass has been released to help Catholics prepare for the translational changes in the Roman missal that came into use one year ago this month. The Church desired that the new translation would aid people in understanding and appreciating the Mass in its entirety. The beauty of Edward Sri’s A Biblical Walk Through the Mass is that it incorporates recent important changes in the prayers but looks at the Mass as a whole — most of it still unchanged and much of it adhering to Old Testament influences and early Christian worship.
“One key to unlocking the meaning of the rituals and prayers of the Mass is Scripture,” writes Sri, provost and professor of theology and Scripture at the Augustine Institute in Denver. He sees the entire Mass as “saturated” with the Bible and does a thorough job of pointing out these sources within Scripture, many of which are found in the Old Testament. Yet we find recognizable paths of prayer and worship in both the Old and New Testaments.
The Mass has three aspects: It is a memorial of Christ’s sacrifice; it is His real presence; and it is communion with the Lord. As a memorial sacrifice, it is not just an event recalled but an event made present — a way of thinking also found in the Old Testament. The real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is unique, whole, and entire. It is different from how He is present, for example, in His word or in the other sacraments. In the Eucharist, we receive the body of Christ, which gives us life. This concept is carried to its conclusion in the Gospel of John: “Unless you eat of the flesh of the Son of Man…you have no life in you” (6:53). Because the Mass is the sacrifice and real presence of Christ, it is one of communion with God and with one another, as expressed by St. Paul: “Because this bread is one, we…are one body” (1 Cor. 10:17).
Every Mass begins with the sign of the cross, which dates to a second-century practice of Christians marking a cross on their foreheads. Sri identifies this with an ancient Jewish custom, noted in Ezekiel, of making a mark on the forehead as a sign of divine protection and an identification of the righteous. Likewise, in the New Testament, Revelation describes a protective seal made upon the foreheads of God’s people. The words of the sign of the cross, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” are an example of a biblically based calling on the Lord in worship, prayer, and sacrifice. To say these words is also to repeat the words spoken at our baptism (cf. Mt. 28:19). The supernatural life bestowed in that sacrament is recalled at the beginning of each Mass, as we re-present ourselves to God. Sri provides a wonderful quote from Romano Guardini in Sacred Signs: “Make a large cross…. Let it take in your whole being.”
When the priest says for the first time, “The Lord be with you,” he greets the faithful in the manner of Old Testament figures who assured people of the strengthening presence of God. Why is this done at the beginning of each Mass? We have a calling to participate in the Mass and can trust in God to provide us with His strength to respond as His people. “And with your spirit” is our prayer for the priest — in the words of St. Paul (Gal. 6:18) — as the sacred liturgy begins.
The prayers of the Introductory Rite continue with the Confiteor, another biblically based part of the Mass. A long tradition in the Old Testament calls for confessing one’s sins, sometimes privately and other times publicly. In the New Testament, John the Baptist led people in confessing their sins, and St. Paul preached self-examination of sins before partaking of the Eucharist. The unique wording of the Confiteor, of confessing one’s sins not only to God but also “to you my brothers and sisters,” follows from James 5:16: “Confess your sins to one another.” The rest of the Confiteor draws upon multiple biblical examples of the ways we sin, culminating in the soul-searching “what I have failed to do.” That line also comes from James: “Whoever knows what is right to do and fails to do it, for him it is a sin” (4:17).
After the Gloria rounds out the Introductory Rites, the Mass enters the Liturgy of the Word — the reading of Scripture and the preaching on it. “In the inspired books of the Bible,” Sri notes, “God breathed forth his divine words through the human words of the sacred writers.” Even this idea of “God breathing forth” is from the Bible (cf. 2 Tim. 3:16). Interestingly, Sri notes how the people of Israel prepared themselves for three days before God spoke to them the words of the covenant.
The readings proceed from the Old to the New Testament on Sundays, according to a cycle that is followed religiously. Sri points out that the readings are not “favorites” selected by a pastor or congregation but cover, over a three-year period, “all major parts of the bible in a way that is not dependent on people’s preferences.” One could assume that without such a format or established cycle, selectivity might very well occur in many parishes.
What could be more Bible-based than the Mass, already saturated with Scripture, following a liturgical year of readings that corresponds to the life of Jesus? Additionally, readings at Mass highlight mysteries of the faith on certain days, such as Corpus Christi, All Saints, and the feasts of Mary (whose own life cycle is followed through the year). Sri quotes Pope Pius XII in Mediator Dei: “Hence, the liturgical year…is not a cold and lifeless representation of the events of the past…. These mysteries are ever present and active.”
The preaching of a homily dates to the early Church period, and was intended then as now to explain the meaning of Christ’s teachings and how they apply to our lives. Certainly Jesus did this in His own life. Sri points out that only an ordained minister (priest or deacon), in his apostolic unity with the pope and bishops throughout the world, may preach at Mass.
The Creed is seen as a summary of the story of Scripture, rather than being a scriptural text in itself. When we say, “I believe in one God,” we are echoing the prayer of ancient Israel, “the Lord our God is one Lord” — a countercultural idea in its time and in our own as well. The Creed, Sri writes, “tells a very different story about life than what is commonly taught in the modern, secular world,” where it does not matter what one believes about God or what one chooses to do with one’s life. Coming midway in the Mass, just after the readings and the homily, the Creed helps us recommit ourselves to the divine plan that moves the world, one that was fully revealed in the one Lord Jesus Christ. In the Creed, Sri says, “we publicly stand before the whole congregation and Almighty God and plant the flag with Jesus.”
Sri describes the biblical roots of the presentation of gifts of bread and wine in the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Typically, we may think of the Old Testament sacrifice of animals as the predecessor of the New Testament sacrifice of Christ. Jesus makes clear in His own use of bread and wine at the Last Supper that they become His body and blood, which will be given up for many. Sri mainly cites sources in the Old Testament for bread and wine as sacrificial offerings and does not write about the animal sacrifices that were more important and customary. This is likely because he concentrates on the origins of the Mass prayers, rather than trying to provide a comprehensive history of sacrifice.
The offering prayers of bread and wine in the Mass use words from Jewish blessings over bread and wine at meals that begin, “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation….” Likewise, the Eucharistic Prayer is rooted in ancient Jewish table prayers that always include praise, thanksgiving, and supplication. This long Eucharistic Prayer is very important and yet can be difficult to follow carefully. It is helpful to learn the biblical foundations for some of the lines in the Eucharistic Prayer.
“Lift up your hearts” is from Lamentations (3:41) and is echoed in St. Paul’s words to the Colossians to seek the “things that are above, where Christ is” (3:1). Sri explains, “With all possible emphasis the sacrificing priest exhorts us in this hour to lay aside all the cares of this life…and direct our hearts to God in heaven who hath so loved men.” The line “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God” reflects, in the Jewish tradition, one thing we can offer the Creator that He does not already possess. The New Testament also offers a wealth of examples of thanksgiving. The words “It is truly right and just, our duty and salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks” begin the great prayer of thanksgiving, the Preface. According to Sri, the Preface follows the pattern of thanksgiving for God’s creation, provision, wondrous deeds, and saving acts heard in the Psalms, Psalm 136 being a good example. Several forms of the Preface recall such acts of God as the Incarnation and Jesus’ life-giving death and Resurrection.
The Preface ends at a high point in the Sanctus, “Holy, holy, holy Lord,” which is first found in the heavenly vision of Isaiah (6:3) and later in the ecstatic vision of the heavenly liturgy of St. John in Revelation (4:8). Although Christians might like to lay claim to the words with which the crowd greeted Jesus on Palm Sunday (“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”), those members of the crowd were actually reciting phrases from Psalm 118. The Sanctus wonderfully fits this moment in the Mass, as Christ is about to become present in the Eucharist.
The words of Jesus in the three synoptic Gospels, “Take this, all of you, and eat of it, for this is my body,” are the words of consecration in the Mass. As Sri writes, “In the Passover meal of the Last Supper, Jesus willingly offers up his own body and blood for the forgiveness of sins. All that was left for him to do was to carry out that sacrifice in a bloody manner on Good Friday.”
In the older versions of the missal, the gifts of bread and wine were offered as “the work of human hands.” Now that they are consecrated in the new missal as “the holy and living sacrifice,” we unite ourselves to Christ’s sacrifice and offer ourselves with Him to the Father. Sri touches on the meaning of this not only for individuals but for the Church. It is actually all of us as Church who are gathered together for this offering to the Father.
The famous doxology that concludes the Eucharistic Prayer, “Through him, and with him, and in him,” are words from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans (11:36), and we respond with the great “Amen.”
The Our Father, now said aloud by all together (it is whispered by the priest alone in the Tridentine Latin Mass), is the prayer taught by Jesus Himself in Matthew (6:9-13) and Luke (11:2-4). Once again, we hear Jesus and His followers praying and speaking according to their custom. It would be instructive to learn which words are distinctly Christian in origin — or more about how Jewish prayers become Christian in their use and meaning — but what Sri emphasizes is this: What is new is Jesus Himself and His own sacrifice.
Nearing Communion there are three short, wondrous prayers and actions. The priest breaks the bread as Jesus did — at the mountain when feeding the multitude, at the Last Supper, and on the road to Emmaus after His Resurrection. Another source, not mentioned, might be the breaking of Christ’s body as He hung on the cross. Then the priest comingles a piece of the broken eucharistic host in the chalice with the eucharistic wine. This action expresses the body and blood of Christ reunited in His Resurrection. When we receive Communion, we receive the resurrected Christ. In the final moments before Communion, we say, “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.” This brings us into an awareness of the Mass as heavenly, since the title of “Lamb” reverberates through the Book of Revelation, as angels worship the Lamb who was slain. Of course, Jesus was first identified as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” by John the Baptist (Jn. 1:29). The last words of the priest to us before Communion ask us to “Behold the Lamb of God….”
At the beginning of the book, Sri calls the scriptural approach “one key” to understanding the Mass. This invites us to think of what the other keys might be. Others could be more traditional, theological, or devotional in method. To know something of this scriptural key, however, which is an objective, literal, and historical approach, and to begin to use newfound biblical knowledge in actually praying the Mass, is a good step for anyone to take. Even if we do not learn the scriptural roots, we would each benefit from paying close and prayerful attention to the words and actions of the Mass.
Sri references the Catechism of the Catholic Church, as well as many writings on the subject of the Mass, so that A Biblical Walk Through the Mass serves well as an interesting, readable, sound, and inspirational book for understanding and appreciating the Mass in all its parts.
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