What’s the meaning of Mass?

By Father Lawrence Mick | Catholic News Service
Sunday, September 7, 2014

The hosts and wine await consecration at Mass in this file photo. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)

Every week millions of Catholics around the world gather for Mass, to celebrate the sacrificial meal we call the Eucharist. People come to Mass for different reasons. No doubt they carry with them a variety of understandings of what the Mass is all about.

The Second Vatican Council, in its Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, called for the renewal of the liturgy and said, “In this restoration, both texts and rites should be drawn up so that they express more clearly the holy things which they signify; the Christian people, so far as possible, should be enabled to understand them with ease and to take part in them fully, actively, and as befits a community.”

Understanding what we do at Mass is an important goal, but it may not be as easy as the line from the council suggests. The Mass is a rich and complex ritual, and it bears multiple levels of meaning. We might spend our whole lives celebrating and reflecting on the Mass and still not exhaust its full meaning.

Nevertheless, there are some basic ways of understanding the Mass that can provide a good foundation for our reflection. The name we give this ritual, Eucharist, offers a key insight. The word comes from the Greek and it means thanksgiving. When we gather for Mass, we are coming together to give thanks to God. All that we are and all that we have is given to us by God. Our first authentic response is to give God thanks.

The shape of our act of thanksgiving flows from Jesus’ actions at the Last Supper. We “do this” in memory of him. Jesus chose a meal as the shape of this central religious action because a meal speaks to the meaning of what we do together. Meals draw people together, they reinforce bonds in a family or other group, and they establish bonds even among those who may have been strangers before they shared in the meal.

The meal we call the Eucharist revolves around the body of Christ. Most Catholics understand that the bread and wine we use are transformed into the body and blood of Christ. But that is not the only transformation that is supposed to happen. All of us who gather for this meal also are transformed into the body of Christ.

As the third eucharistic prayer puts it, “grant that we, who are nourished by the body and blood of your Son and filled with his Holy Spirit, may become one body, one spirit in Christ.”

This transformation is not always easy. We become members of the body of Christ when we are baptized, but we have to grow into that identity.

Every time we celebrate the Eucharist, we are called to reaffirm our baptismal commitment. That means committing ourselves to love as Jesus did, to give our lives in service to others. This is what it means to share in Christ’s sacrifice, to give ourselves as he did, in fulfillment of his will.

When we think of the first Eucharist, we tend to think of the accounts in Matthew, Mark and Luke, which describe Jesus saying the blessing over bread and wine and pronouncing them to be his body and blood. But it is also important to remember John’s Gospel, which does not even mention the bread and wine but focuses on Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.

Probably assuming that his readers already knew what Jesus did with the bread and wine, John chooses to focus on the meaning of this sacred meal. Jesus says to the disciples, “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do” (Jn 13:15).

Those who share this meal form the body of Christ and are to serve one another as Jesus did.


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