The offertory Photo from W.P. Wittman Ltd.

“If we really understood the Mass,” St. John Vianney said, “we would die of joy.” 

It may seem a bit over the top, but the truth is, the more one learns about the Mass, the truer the Curé d’Ars statement sounds. And learning about the Mass is exactly what Catholics in America are supposed to be doing right now. 

Last year, as the Church began gearing up for the implementation of the new English–language translation of the Roman Missal, Archbishop Arthur Serratelli, then chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Divine Worship, explained that for the catechesis on the new translation “to be as fruitful as possible, it should not simply be a ‘how-to’ on the use of the texts. … We are now given a special opportunity to deepen our people’s appreciation of the gift of the liturgy itself.” 

In other words, in these weeks leading up to the Nov. 27 implementation of the Roman Missal, Third Edition, the bishops don’t just want Catholics learning what “consubstantial” means. They want Catholics seeking to understand more fully what the Mass is, as well as why priests and people say and do what we say and do. 

Consider this package, which uses the new English translation, a place to start.

The Nature of the Mass

The Mass is a mystery, which means we can never fully understand all that it is and does. Nevertheless, it’s still possible to define the essentials. And those essentials are four in number. 

1. A holy sacrifice. 

In the centuries leading up to the Crucifixion, the Israelites atoned for their sins though elaborate ritual sacrifices. They offered sacrifices repeatedly, but those sacrifices were never enough. They never redeemed. They never saved. Which was the point. God didn’t ask for endless sacrifice because of bloodlust. Rather, he wanted his people to understand the gravity of their sins, as well as their inability to atone for them. 

Christ’s sacrifice ended all that. His blood sacrifice was not only the last blood sacrifice: It was the only blood sacrifice that could truly atone, truly save. That sacrifice was offered once on Calvary. But it was offered once “for all.” At Christ’s command, the sacrifice of his Body given and his Blood shed was to be remembered for all time: “Do this in remembrance of me” (1 Cor 11:24). 

The word for “remembrance” there was anamnesis, literally “to make the past present.” And that’s what happens at every Mass. On the altar, bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ offering himself, through his priest, to his father. It’s the offering of Christ by Christ on Calvary, re-presented — sacramentally made present — at your local parish. It is a real sacrifice because Christ’s sacrifice was a real sacrifice: The two are one in the same. (See Catechism of the Catholic Church, Nos. 1362-1372.) 

2. Heaven on earth. 

At every Mass the veil between heaven and earth is drawn back, and those present worship with the angels and saints. It is a participation in the heavenly liturgy. That’s why in the First Eucharistic Prayer, the priest says, “Almighty God, we pray that your angel may take this sacrifice to your altar in heaven.” 

Likewise “with all the choirs of angels and saints,” we sing the Sanctus, the thrice holy hymn that Isaiah witnesses the angels singing (Is 5:2-3). We sing the Gloria, the hymn John hears in the heavenly liturgy depicted in Revelation. And we kneel before the Lamb, “standing as though it had been slain” (Rv 5:6) and proclaim “Amen” (19:4). (See Catechism, Nos. 1090, 1136, 1326.) 

3. A banquet. 

The first Mass was the Last Supper, the Passover meal celebrated by Christ and his apostles the night before his death. There, Christ charged his disciples to “Do this in remembrance of me.” 

In time, the Mass remains mystically united to that banquet, just as it is mystically united to the heavenly banquet of Revelation. It is the Lord’s Supper, where Christ feeds his people with his own Body and Blood, nourishing us with his life, his grace. (See Catechism, Nos. 1382-1386.) 

4. A gift from God. 

The liturgy has meaning — it’s a real act of communication between man and God — because it comes from God. It is God showing us how and why to worship him. It’s not a thing of our own making or a way to express ourselves. It’s not about us at all. It’s about God. It’s the Church’s prayer to him, worshipping him as he asks to be worshipped. (See Catechism, Nos. 1077-1109.)

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor. 

The Mass of the Early Church
Despite all the changes 2,000 years have brought to the world, what hasn’t changed is the basic structure of the Mass. Around A.D. 155, St. Justin Martyr wrote the pagan emperor Antoninus, explaining the worship of the Christian community. To any Massgoing Catholic today, what he describes should sound more than familiar. 
 
“On the day we call the day of the sun, all who dwell in the city or country gather in the same place. The memoirs of the apostles and the writings of the prophets are read, as much as time permits. When the reader has finished, he who presides over those gathered admonishes and challenges them to imitate these beautiful things.
 
“Then all rise together and offer prayers for ourselves…and for all others, wherever they may be, so that we may be found righteous by our life and actions, and faithful to commandments, so as to obtain eternal salvation. When the prayers are concluded we exchange the kiss.
 
“Then someone brings bread and a cup of water and wine mixed together to him who presides over the brethren. He takes them and offers praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and for a considerable time he gives thanks that we have been judged worthy of these gifts.
 

Read more: "Understanding the parts of the Mass"