This is a relevant question to ask. Why is it that we go to Mass every Sunday and not do something else? Where does this thing that we call the Mass come from and why do we it? Why can we not just read the Bible and keep the Sabbath holy in our own way? Isn’t the Mass something that the medieval Church came up with; if so why are we doing it today? All of these questions seem to stem more or less from this initial question: Why is the Mass not in the Bible?
The answer to this question is that the Mass is in the Bible! The Mass’s purpose is to fulfill the command of our Lord in Luke 22.19 “And he took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them saying, ‘This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’” The purpose of the Mass is to celebrate and participate in the Eucharist as our Lord commanded.
So you might be asking, “Well the Eucharist is in the Bible, but what about all of the other stuff. I don’t remember ever reading in the Bible that we have to have this big long ceremony with readings, and songs, and prayers, and incense, and everything else that you see during a Mass. Where does it say that it has to even be in a specific building?”
It is good to be aware of something that is extremely important when such questions are raised. As Catholic we do look to the Bible for guidance, but there is something else that we also look to: tradition. Tradition has a negative connotation in today’s world where everything that is new is better; but for Catholics our tradition should be a source of healthy pride and comfort. It was to the apostles that Jesus commanded that they celebrate the Eucharist in memory of Him. Jesus also gave the apostles the authority to govern over the Church, and He instructed the apostles in its governance.
In some cases, such as with incense, golden vessels, or many of the other smaller details involved in the Mass that we do observe that these things are not explicitly seen within the Bible. As Catholics we observe that it is ultimately from the apostles and their successors that these things come to us though and therefore we do recognize the legitimacy of including these things in the liturgy as we see it today. It should be recognized that these things are not invented arbitrarily, but also come from a long tradition; a tradition that is primarily Jewish.
The use of golden vessels can be seen in the Books of the Old Testament that speak of the Temple, such as Deuteronomy and the Books of Kings. The tabernacle that we see in Catholic Churches is reminiscent of the Ark of the Covenant of the Israelites where God dwelt among his people. The tabernacle (another word for Ark) is the place where we place the Eucharist and thus is where Christ resides physically among us. The incense often used in Mass is symbolic of our prayers rising like incense to heaven calling to mind the Psalms. The idea of adorning a sacred place with beautiful art and vessels goes back to the Temple of Solomon where only the very best materials were allowed to be used. God guided the Israelites in their traditions and when Christ came he did not destroy and abolish all of those traditions. He showed that all of the traditions that were ultimately seeking to glorify God were revealed perfectly in Himself. Christ did not come to destroy our human traditions; he works within our humanity and his humanity to elevate our human traditions to the divine.
So what about the Mass itself? Why does the Mass look the way it does? Does the Mass as we see it today bear any resemblance to the way it was celebrated by the apostles, and does the Bible itself reveal anything about how we are to celebrate the Mass? Yes, it does. We can claim this because it is precisely the Bible, in the New Testament itself, which shows this to be true. Let us look at the Emmaus account in Luke 24: 13-35.
In the Emmaus account there are two disciples travelling to a village named Emmaus shortly after the women from the tomb had proclaimed to them that Jesus was raised from the dead. Jesus appeared to them, but they did not recognize Him. Jesus conversed with them about the scriptures and then broke bread with them. It was only after breaking bread with them that the two disciples recognized Him whereupon he vanished. It is here that the two disciples say, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?” And then they run back to Jerusalem and tell everyone how Jesus was revealed to them in the breaking of the bread.
It is clear that Luke’s intention in relating this story, among all the stories that he could have told, has a precise purpose. His purpose is to show how we are to recognize Christ as present among us today. Christ reveals Himself to us as the fulfillment of all of the scriptures whenever we read them; but like the two disciples we often don’t recognize Christ even then. Luke recognized that in order to recognize Christ we need something more than just the scriptures. It is after listening to the scriptures that that the two disciples recognize Christ in the breaking of the bread. This is the key point of this account. The breaking of bread is in fact synonymous with the Eucharist. The bread that they break with Jesus is in fact Jesus Himself. That is why they recognize Jesus at the moment and why Jesus vanishes from their sight. It doesn’t say that Jesus left them; it says He vanished. Luke uses the word vanished because he is pointing out that Jesus is still with them in the breaking of bread, the Eucharist, but that he is not visible seen. In this roundabout way Luke is providing a basis for the Mass as celebrated by the early Church.
This basis for the Mass comes from Christ himself. It starts with Jesus command at the Last Supper to “do this in memory of me”; Luke shows the earliest Christian community, the disciples, as actually doing what Christ commanded when they share the scriptures and then break bread. They recognize Christ’s true presence among them only when they share in the Eucharist. This, structurally speaking, is what we see when we go to Mass today. We open with the scriptures, the Liturgy of the Word, and then we proceed to the Liturgy of the Eucharist. We open Mass with the Scriptures; the priest, acting in the person of Christ, opens the scriptures up to us in the homily; and then Christ is revealed to us perfectly in the breaking of bread, the Eucharist. The Mass has not really changed all that much since the time that Luke was writing his gospel.
We do have some specific prayers and actions that we say and perform at Mass that are not mentioned specifically, such as the Apostles Creed and offertory; but even these things are addressed in other parts of the New Testament. The reason to say prayers, such as the Apostles Creed, is so that we can profess what we as Catholics believe to be true. This need for a profession of faith is seen throughout the entire New Testament. The offertory can be seen as a fundamental aspect of the early Church as seen in Acts chapter 5. At this point you might be asking why we have included these things in the Eucharistic celebration. We have done this in response to the needs of the Church. We have combined into one liturgical event, the Mass, some of the fundamental aspects of the Christian life that at one time might have been separate events. These ‘additions’ are not just arbitrary additions. They are fundamental actions, such as a profession of faith or seeing to the needs of the Church, that the Church judges as so important that we include them in our most essential event, the Mass.
The Mass can thus be seen as a living out of the Christian gospel. It is an event that is meant to shape the way in which we go out to the world. At its deepest reality it is the event in which we come to know Christ personally as revealed by the scriptures and Himself. Each and every time we do participate at Mass and partake in the Eucharist we are fulfilling that call of Christ to, “do this in memory of me.” If we do this how can we not go out, like the two disciples at Emmaus, and run and tell everyone that we know that we have seen Jesus in the breaking of the bread and that He is risen.