Origins of the Mass

Origins of the Mass
At a liturgy workshop I conducted recently with a group of young people, I discovered that they were particularly interested in the history of Catholic worship, particularly the origins of the way we celebrate Mass today.
The beginning of the Mass is of course in the command of Jesus at the Last Supper to “do this in memory of me”. The story of Jesus’s last meal with his followers is found in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke and also in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.
These accounts, written years after the event, do not give an exact description of what Jesus said and did, but they do provide a ritual structure based on Jesus’ actions of taking, blessing, breaking and sharing the bread and wine.
After Jesus’ ascension, his followers continued to attend the Jewish synagogue service of readings and prayers on the Sabbath. Later in the day they came together for a meal which included the “breaking of the bread”. The prayer of thanks over the bread and wine was based on Jewish berekah (food blessing) prayers. These often began and ended with “Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe”.
As the Christian community increasingly saw themselves as a separate group, their day of worship moved from the Sabbath (7th) Day to the day which for them held special significance. Christ has been raised from the dead and appeared to his disciples and the Holy Spirit had come upon those gathered in Jerusalem on the first day of the week. So this day, the day we call Sunday, became the Christian day of worship.
The gathering on Sunday evening began with a service of the word. The meal which followed included a recounting of Jesus’ words at the Last Supper as the loaf of bread and cup of wine were shared out.
When the emperor banned meetings of three or more people in the evenings, the celebration was moved to the morning. As the first day of the week was a working day still, this meant the community had limited time to be together and their gathering no longer included the sharing of a meal.
Saint Justin, writing in Rome around the year 155, gives a description of worship from this time:
On the day called Sunday there is a meeting in one place of those who live in cities or the country, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read as long as time permits. When the reader has finished, the president in a discourse urges and invites us to the imitation of these noble things. Then we all stand up together and offer prayers. And when we have finished the prayer, bread is brought, and the wine and water, and the president similarly sends up prayers and thanksgivings to the best of his ability, and the congregation assents, saying Amen; the distribution and reception of the consecrated elements by each one takes place and they are sent to the absent by the deacons.
This order of scripture reading, intercession, thanksgiving and communion is the one we still follow in celebrating the Mass in the 21st century.


Elizabeth Harrington