Friday, September 3, 2010

Ask a Catholic: Why "Mass" and not "church"?

Alot of personal introductions in the Deep South would strike non-Southerners as downright nosey. In making aquaintances, many in the South don't think twice about asking a new neighbor or co-worker where they live, where they're from and where they go to church. Around here, we simply don't bat an eye at questions such as these. Of course, when a Catholic mentions attending "Mass", we're sometimes asked the question, "Why do y'all call it 'Mass' instead of 'church'?" Well, here's the answer.

To begin, it should be said that, for Catholics, the Mass is not simply a "church service." It is nothing less than a participation in the singular and timeless sacrifice of Christ's death on the cross and his resurrection and in the eternal worship of Heaven. Pretty deep stuff, huh? "To be a Catholic," writes one modern author, "is to have the Mass at the center of one's whole existence and consciousness." (Thomas Howard, On Being Catholic, p. 89) Why on earth would we believe such a thing? Because we believe that the Mass is one way that Christ fulfills his biblical promise to never leave us (Matthew 28:20). We take Jesus' words literally when, at the Last Supper (the very first Mass), he said about the bread "this is my body," and about the cup, "this is my blood." In other words, we believe that, in the Mass, the bread of the altar becomes the true Body of Christ and the wine the true Blood of Christ (for more of Jesus' teaching on this profound truth, read the entire 6th chapter of John's Gospel where Jesus astonishes a crowd - and loses some disciples - with his compelling foretaste of Eucharistic truth). As St. Paul writes, "The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?" (1 Cor 10:16). With this belief, is it any wonder that Catholics feel compelled to attend Mass each and every Lord's Day (Sunday)? For we believe that at every Mass we have a true encounter with the living Christ, "truly, really, and substationally" present in the Holy Eucharist: Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1374).

Now, about the name, "Mass." The Church has used many names throughout the past 2,000 years to refer to her worship. In the New Testament, the act was called "the Breaking of the Bread," or "the Lord's Supper" (1 Corinthians 11:20; Acts 2:42, 20:7), while early Christians referred to the service with terms such as "Eucharist" (from a Greek word meaning "to give thanks") and "Liturgy," which refers to a public work and/or service. The first known reference to Christians' corporate worship as "the Mass" was made by St. Ambrose (who died in 397 AD). The term is likely derived from the Latin phrase "Ite missa est," which means "Go, you are sent forth." These are the words with which the congregation is dismissed at the end of the Mass. Now how the term missa ("sent forth") came to denote, over the centuries, the entire liturgy of the Church is for the linguistic experts to explain but it is rather fitting that in that name, "Mass," we are reminded that we do not leave our encounter with Christ behind, but we "go," and are "sent forth" to serve our parts throughout the week and throughout the world as the Body of Christ.

Here in Oxford (as in many small towns), we have only one parish. Mass is celebrated three times each Sunday as well as every weekday, from Monday to Friday. And it doesn't matter where you live, where you're from or where you go to church - you're welcome to come and worship with us!