06 January 2007

Mission Mass, not Missing Mass

'They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers' (Acts, 2.42)

And it's the Epiphany, and already one of my aspirations for the year has taken a tumble, as I forgot the day that was in it, and managed to miss Mass on a Holy day of Obligation. Frustrating that. I think it's the first time in three years I've missed Mass on a holy day of obligation, which makes it sound like I've been making a real effort, but I've missed Sunday Mass three times in the last few months too...

So what, you might think. After all, that means I've massed a grand total of five obligatory masses - I missed a Sunday one a couple of summers ago over a sudden dearth of Manchester buses - in three years. So I've attended about 165, and missed five. That's pretty good.

Indeed it is, but pretty good isn't really good enough in this regard, especially when there appears to be a trend developing towards slackness on my part. After all, the first precept of the Church is that we should attend Mass on Sundays and other holy days of obligation, refraining from work and other activities that could interfere with the sanctification of those days. Mind, looking at the other precepts, I have some catching up to do in that regard too.

Still, attending Mass is the big one. There's a reason why it's first on the list. Why does it matter so much? It's a question I've been asked plenty of times, by plenty of people, in plenty of ways. And it's a good question.

It helps, I think, to start with the first real appearance of Christians on the historical stage, which is pretty much the middle of the Second Century. We've got very little to work with at that point, barring the odd tiny scrap from from the likes of Tacitus, Suetonius, Josephus, or Pliny. Granted, the New Testament scriptures are useful historical documents, all dating from the First Century, but almost by definition we don't really know how they fitted into the life of the Church at the time they were written.

So it helps to start with St Justin Martyr. I don't know if you've heard of him, but basically he was a Greek from Roman Palestine who lived in the middle of the Second Century and who, at some point around 150 AD, wrote his First Apology, a substantial explanation to the Roman Emperor of Christian belief and practice. It's a remarkable document, not least for its description of the mass.

It's definitely worth having a gander at what Justin had to say, especially if you've ever wondered why Catholics do what they do when so much of it seems so unnecessary, or why certain people might be Catholics - or Orthodox, to be fair - rather than Protestants of one sort or another.

According to Justin, and he is a bit repetitive in his explanations, Christians always gather on a Sunday, that being the day that God's light entered the world, and the day that that God's son rose from the dead. And having gathered, they read from the writings of the Prophets and the memoirs of the Apostles, after which the presiding minister teaches and explains things to the gathered Christians. After that they all stand and pray, and then bread and wine are brought, and blessed, and those baptised Christians who believe that that the bread and wine have become the body and blood of the Lord are allowed receive them. And somewhere in there there's a collection, and also even a bit where everyone salutes one another.

Sound familiar? Prayers, Scriptural readings, a sermon, a sign of peace, a collection, an offering, and bread and wine - mixed with water, I should add - being received as really having become the body and blood of Christ*. Every Sunday. It's the Mass, isn't it? It's not just a generic Christian ceremony. It's definitely the Mass.

Justin wasn't making any of this up. I mean, okay, you can certainly argue that there's no way that bread and wine became flesh and blood, but that's not what I'm saying. Justin wasn't making this up as a description of orthodox Christian belief. After all, it was a public apology, addressed to the Emperor, and seems not to have been challenged either at the time or in its aftermath, being instead referred to by numerous early Christian writers.

It's the first proper description of a Christian service, so the only real question is what Christian service was like prior to Justin. Did it differ from place to place, for instance? Was every Christian community identical? Had the nature of Christian service changed since Apostolic times?

Well, first of all, of course there's no way every Christian community was identical, and yes, Christian services definitely differed from place to place. For all that, though, Justin is pretty confident that his description applies to the Church in general, and it does seem likely that this was the general pattern of worship, not least because of its Biblical antecdants.

St Paul's exhortations to the Corinthians aside, we have, in effect, two incidents in the New Testament that act as prototypes for the Mass. St Luke's description of the encounter on the Road to Emmaus (Luke 24.13-35) is one, not merely because it's an alarmingly clear demonstration of Our Lord's claim that 'Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them' (Matt. 18.20).

Think about it. Two disciples are joined by Jesus - though they don't recognise him - and proceed to tell him all the things that had happened in Jerusalem regarding the death and rumoured resurrection of their master. Remember how Justin will describe how the Mass would begin with a narrative element - readings from the memoirs of the Apostles, say? Then Jesus himself begins to speak, explaining the meaning of all that happened, showing how all of this was foreshadowed in the Scriptures - well, there's the Homily or Sermon, as interpreted by the Priest. And then, having explained everything, he blesses and breaks bread which he gives to them, and in receiving it they recognise him.

You've got the basic structure there, but the real heart of the Mass is the Eucharist itself, and that's instituted at the Last Supper, recognised from the beginning of the Church as the first Mass. That's pretty straightforward, I think. The chronology of the Gospel accounts is a bit messy here, but even so it's generally thought that the meal was a specially modified Passover Seder. Such a meal would have included a expositions of certain passages from scripture, and singing of psalms and hymns - at the Last Supper we also hear of a lengthy sermon by Our Lord in St John's account, with the other three Evangelists describing him blessing bread, which he breaks and hands round, and likewise blessing wine which he passes round, identifying them as his flesh and blood, and commanding his apostles to 'Do this in remembrance of me'.

It's the one thing he specifically exhorted us to do for Him. Worth remembering, I think. Note to self, basically.
* That last point is a thorny old issue, as I've discussed before.

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