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What is the Mass? 


How many people understand what the Mass really is? For many, missing Mass on any given Sunday is quite acceptable. Many attend Mass simply out of habit, for family or social reasons, or simply to avoid mortal sin.

How many people really live their Mass? Many who attend pay attention to what is going on around them and little attention to what is taking place before them. And how many, after leaving Mass think little more about it?

If we are to live the Mass, we must enter into the Mass. If certain Catholics attend Mass simply to avoid serious sin, then they have little love for the Mass. It is, most likely, because they do not understand it, do not take part in it, do not live it. For these people the Mass is simply an obligation and they remain indifferent witnesses and passive spectators. We can say that the Mass is the centerpiece of Catholic spirituality, but what is the Mass?

The Mass is the reenactment of the Last Supper, when Our Lord ate the Passover meal with His disciples for the last time. Jesus sat at table with His twelve Apostles. He had gathered them together for a final meal as a father might gather his family together to address them prior to his death and tell them of his last will and testament. His desire was to give them a precious gift – the gift of Himself in the form of consecrated bread and wine. He took bread and changed it into His body; He took a cup of wine and changed it into His blood. And then He gave them both to His apostles to eat and drink. Finally, He said “Do this in remembrance of Me” (Lk 22:19). And so this command of Jesus is still being carried out around the world, at every minute of every day, in every country. No moment passes without the Mass being offered somewhere on the earth. For Catholics, Mass is the fulfilling of that command, “Do this in remembrance of Me”.

      What did Our Lord mean by these words? To begin with, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is a living memorial or commemoration. What Jesus did at the Last Supper is done again at the Mass. The priest who has been given special gifts and powers during the rite of ordination, calls upon the power of the Holy Spirit to change ordinary bread and wine into the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of our precious Lord, Jesus Christ. Just as Jesus held himself in His own hands at the Last Supper, the priest now holds Jesus in his hands, almost two thousand years later. The Mass is not a dead memorial, it is a living commemoration. When we celebrate this commemoration, the Lord really comes among us; He becomes truly present under the appearances of bread and wine.

      Just when does the actual change of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ take place? The Church's teaching is that the form of the Eucharist is in the two-fold consecration when a validly ordained priest, with the proper intention says over the proper matter, "This is my body" and “This is the cup of my blood”.[1]

      The Mass is also a Sacrifice. What is a sacrifice? A sacrifice is some good thing that we give to God. When we give this gift to God, we give up all claim to it and it can no longer be used for our purpose. We should give our best to God as Christ gave his all.

      In the Old Testament book of Genesis, we read of the thanksgiving sacrifice of Cain and Abel. Cain and Able offered gifts to God. Cain offered the first fruits of his harvest; Able offered a lamb. They gave these gifts to God by burning them. By utterly destroying these things, they gave up any claim to them, acknowledging the authority of God. Yet, this is not the deepest meaning of the word sacrifice. True sacrifice comes from the recognition of personal sin; it flows from the desire to make reparation for the injuries to our soul and for the prideful rejection of God’s law. Man knew he sinned and the punishment should have been his own death, but this he was not willing to do. By slaughtering a living animal and offering it to God, Able substituted the animal for himself. He transferred the guilt of his sins to the animal, then killed it and begged God to accept the death of the animal to pay for his sin. This was the meaning of most of the Old Testament sacrifices.

      We must ask, can an animal really take the place of man in this matter? How many animals would it take render satisfaction to God for the sins of humanity? Obviously, no animal can substitute for man who is a rational being endowed with free will. God demanded that that the Jews sacrifice animals, which represented the gods of Egypt, as a daily reminder that they were false gods and that there is only one true God.

     What sacrifice could make up for man’s sin? Only one sacrifice would do, and this sacrifice came in the fullness of time in the form of Jesus, the Lamb of God, who was to take away the sins of the world. An animal cannot be substituted for man, but God could. An animal could be killed, but God can never die. So, the Son of God became man; He assumed human form and had a human nature. Only then could there be a fitting sacrifice to bridge the gap between God and man. Jesus, the God-man, offered Himself as the perfect sacrifice which would wipe out the debts of man’s sin. Only Jesus could make full satisfaction for us. Our Lord’s sacrifice on the Cross is this worthy sacrifice for our sins.

      But was that all that was necessary for us to be saved? Is there something else that we must do to gain heaven? Yes, we must embrace the Cross. Jesus said, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mk. 8:34). We must make the sacrifice of the Cross our own; it must become our sacrifice. The Lamb of God must be placed in our hands, and we must, in turn, offer it to our Father in heaven, for our salvation. We must ask ourselves, how can this be possible? Has God given us a way by which we can offer such a sublime offering to God on our own behalf? Yes, Jesus entrusted the means to His Church in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.  

      Jesus knew that He would have to pay the ultimate price in order to reconcile us with His Father. When He instituted the eucharistic doctrine at the Last Supper He was anticipating the great Sacrifice He was to offer on Golgotha, the following day. For at the Last Supper He said: “And as they were eating, he took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body”. And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. And he said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many” (Mk. 14:22-24). This same sacrifice which Jesus offered on the Cross, and which He anticipated at the Last Supper, is re-presented at each and every Mass. So the Mass is not only a living memorial, but also a sacrifice, the unbloody renewal of Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross. Christ’s sacrificial Body and Blood are truly present and are truly offered in this mystical re-presentation of Golgotha.

      When Moses met God on Mt. Horeb, he asked God his name. God said to Moses, “I AM WHO AM” (Ex. 3:14).  Theologians tell us that this expression means that God is the “Eternal Now”. In other words, there is no time or space, as we understand these concepts, for God. For God there is only the “now”. Two thousand years in our future is now for God as He is not limited in time and space as we are. Two thousand years ago in our time is also now for God. The Sacrifice of Jesus, which took place two thousand years ago in our time, is now in heaven; in other words, the Sacrifice is perpetually ongoing in heaven. During the Mass, in one sublime moment the Holy Spirit re-presents that one, original Sacrifice, on the altar of God in our Churches.

    Now we understand that the sacrifice of the Mass is the unique and true sacrifice of Christendom, and that it is the most extraordinary worship on the face of the earth. When we go to Mass, we are walking up to Calvary. Christ is sacramentally dying for us on the Cross and we are kneeling beside Mary, the Mother of God, and Sts. Mary Magdalene, and John.

    Mary’s greatest sacrifice was her consent to the death of her only Son. She did not try to drive back the executioners, the way that Peter did in a gesture of compassion; for she knew that the crucifixion was the Father’s will for Jesus. Mary simply conformed to that will. Standing at the foot of the Cross, Mary endured in her heart all that her Divine Son suffered in his flesh. That is how she became Co-Redemptrix with Christ. If we accept our crosses as the will of our Heavenly Father, we also, through the Mass, may become pleasing to God; and like Jesus and Mary, saviors of souls. 

There is a third aspect of the Mass that we should understand, and that is that the Mass is the primary sustenance of the soul. The fourteenth chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel related the story of how Jesus fed about five thousand men, in addition to women and children, with five loaves and two fishes. Two days later, Jesus preached a very significant presentation, to His disciples and the Jews, in the synagogue at Capharnaum. During that presentation, He recalled the extraordinary, and mysterious multiplication of the loaves of bread and promised a bread from heaven, a living bread, which He would give to His followers. To everyone’s amazement He says: “I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh" (Jn. 6:51). The Jews ridiculed His statement saying: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" (Jn. 6:52).  Yet, Jesus did not retract His words in order to placate them. On the contrary He went on even more forcefully, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever" (Jn. 6:53-58).

Our Lord must have been speaking of something of extraordinarily importance. Jesus knew that this would be difficult for His disciples to understand and that some would leave Him. “After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him” (Jn. 6:66). Jesus also knew that it would be Judas who would betray Him.

What did he mean by everlasting life? He meant that those who would partake of this bread in a worthy manner will have eternal life and will be raised to life on the last day. Jesus clearly stated that those who do not partake of this bread would not have life in them. Here, He was speaking of a life of grace, our adoption as sons and daughters of God, and becoming His brothers and sisters. He also was speaking of the participation in the His divine life, and the opportunity to spend eternity with Him in heavenly glory.

Our Lord promised a bread that would be His flesh and that this bread will assure eternal life. Those who would not partake of it would be never have full unity with Him while living. Jesus provided His Church with this bread, with His flesh and blood at the Last Supper. He said,  “Take, eat; this is my body.”… “Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood”…(Mt. 26:26-28). Christ fulfilled His promise at the Last Supper. We know that the Mass is the completion of Jesus’ command, “Do this in remembrance of Me.”

Finally we should understand that the Mass is a memorial banquet for Jesus said, “Take and eat…drink of this…do this in remembrance of Me.” It is the banquet commemoration the sacrifice that Jesus made for us out of His love. Remember that Jesus ate of the Paschal Lamb before He instituted the Holy Eucharist. The Passover meal was also a commemoration. The Jews killed and ate the Paschal Lamb each year in remembrance of their freedom from Egyptian slavery. We also know that the Paschal Lamb was a sign of Christ’s sacrifice. St. Paul joyfully exclaimed, “For Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us, therefore, celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Cor. 5:7-8).

The Mass is a sacrificial banquet in which we eat the Body and drink the Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ; the same flesh, which Jesus offered up for us on the Cross, and the same blood, which He shed in atonement for our sins, are really consumed as food and drink.

We must never forget that the Mass is: “the source and summit of Christian life”. Attending Mass on all Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation in obligatory, under pain of mortal sin. If we understand a little of what the Mass is about, we shall never miss it through our own fault. It will be for us a loving duty to participate as often as possible. The Mass should become our daily pleasure. Nothing is of greater advantage for sinner and saint alike.


[1] Intention is defined as the tendency of the will towards some end through some means. The priest’s intention during the consecration may be actual: as he pronounces the words of consecration he is conscious of his desire to change the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. Or it may be virtual: he had the desire to effect that transubstantiation, and it is because of it that he is celebrating Mass at that time, even though he is not conscious of that desire. Either of these intentions is sufficient for a good Mass. Simply put, a priest demonstrates his intention by actually doing and saying what the Church intends him to do and say at the time of consecration.


© 2004 – Victor R. Claveau


Part or all of this article may be reproduced without obtaining permission as long as the author is cited.


"The worthiest thing, most of goodness,

In all this world, it is the Mass."

Lay Folk's Mass Book. (13th cent.)




Copyright © 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved