Why is the Mass structured the way it is?

The Mass is the most beautiful act of worship of Almighty God and a precious treasure of our Catholic Church.  To fully appreciate the Mass, one has to understand its historical development.  Granted, the root of the Mass is the Last Supper, a Passover meal.  Here our Lord and the apostles read the Sacred Scriptures, and then for the first time He took bread and wine, pronounced the words of consecration, and gave His Body and Blood to them.  The action of this first Mass must be understood in the whole context of our Lord’s passion, death, and resurrection.  Since that time, the Church has offered the Mass, which participates in the everpresent, everlasting reality of the Last Supper and the passion, death, and resurrection.

Granted, the Mass has evolved over time, but the essential elements and structure have not.  Three of the best references describing the Mass of the early Church are the Didache (Teaching of the Twelve Apostles) (c. 80), St. Justin the Martyr’s First Apology (c. 155), and St. Hippolytus’ Apostolic Tradition (c. 215).  These references attest to the living tradition of the Mass.  The form of the Mass we have today was promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1969.

The Order of the Mass comprises four major parts: The Introductory Rites, the Liturgy of the Word, the Liturgy of the Eucharist, and The Concluding Rites.  The Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist “are so closely connected with each other that they form but one single act of worship” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy,  #56).  Moreover, “the Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures as she venerated the Body of the Lord, in so far as she never ceases, particularly in the Sacred Liturgy, to partake of the Bread of Life and to offer it to the faithful from the one table of the Word of God and the Body of Christ” (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, #21).  In all, the Mass flows as one sacred action.

The Introductory Rites have a definite objective, namely “to make the assembled people a unified community and to prepare them properly to listen to God’s Word and celebrate the Eucharist” (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, #24).  Since the earliest times of the Church, the people gathered as an assembly on the Lord’s Day (Didache, #14).  As they were gathering, oftentimes psalms were recited in preparation for the Mass.

To give the Mass a definite starting action, at a very early age, an entrance ritual evolved whereby the priest passed into the community to recite the first prayer.  Eventually, the priest entered to the accompaniment of the choir.  Other traditions were soon adopted, which included the incensation and the asperges.  The incensation ritual came from the East.  The blessed smoke was intended to signify and awaken sentiments of purification and sanctification.  Psalm 50, the Miserere, was chanted.  Keep in mind that in the Old Testament times, incense was used to keep demons away as well as to purify the sacrifices to God.

The asperges, or sprinkling with holy water, paralleled the usage of incense.  Also, the asperges aroused in the minds of the faithful their own baptism and thereby their rebirth in the Lord.  Again the Miserere was usually recited.  In both the incensation and the asperges, the faithful called to mind their sins, and the priest prayed for the forgiveness of sins for himself and for the whole community.

The formal greeting sequence at the beginning of Mass is recorded in St. Augustine’s The City of God.  Since the earliest times of the Church, the Mass began with the sign of the cross.  Tertullian (d. c. 250) described the common usage of the sign of the cross:  “In all our travels and movements, in all our coming in and going out, in putting on our shoes, at the bath, at the table, in lighting our candles, in lying down, in sitting down, whatever employment occupies us, we mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross” (De corona, 30).

The Penitential Rite was prescribed by the Didache: “On the Lord’s Day of the Lord, gather together, break bread and give thanks, after confessing your transgressions so that your sacrifice may be pure” (#14).  This rite involved an examination of conscience and a public confession of sins before the celebration of the Eucharist.  However, the penitential rite today should not be confused with the Sacrament of Penance, which remains essential for the forgiveness of mortal sins.

In the present format of Mass, after the greeting, the priest conducts either the Asperges or the Penitential Rite–  the Confiteor followed by the Kyrie, a brief penitential rite, or the Kyrie with petitions.

The Confiteor (“I confess…) originated about the eighth century, but the one we have today is basically from the Mass promulgated by Pope St. Pius V (1570).

The use of the Kyrie spread through the Church about the sixth century, and always preceded the priest’s prayer.  This chant of “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy” originated in the early fourth century in the Antioch-Jerusalem liturgy.  The Kyrie was adapted to be the ending of various petitions.  In the East as many as 42 petitions were offered.  Until the eighth century, the litany would continue until the Pope (or priest) gave a signal to stop.  In the ninth century, it was fixed at nine, and today, there are three petitions offered.  Presently, in the Mass, the Kyrie is chanted after the Confiteor, or three petitions may be offered ending with either “Lord have mercy” or “Christ have mercy.”

The Gloria is a hymn of praise.  The opening verse is taken from the angels announcement to the shepherds of the birth of Our Lord (Luke 2:14).  The Greek version appeared about the year 380 in the Apostolic Constitution and the New Testament Codex Alexandrinus (5th century), both of which contain the Gloria almost exactly in its present wording.  By the sixth century, it was used on Sunday and feasts.  The Gloria is omitted during Advent and Lent to highlight the mood of preparation and penance.

The Gloria is indicative of the glory of God.  Coming together in the Mass, the faithful give glory to God.  The Gloria has two primary sections:  In the first part, we praise and thank the Heavenly Father who has revealed in creation and throughout salvation history His glory to His people.  In the second part, the hymn focuses on Jesus not only as the Lamb of sacrifice but also as the triumphant Christ.  The Gloria ends with a Trinitarian acclamation.

The Opening Prayer or Collect (for summing-up or gathering) concludes the Introductory Rite.  This prayer is addressed to God, the Father, and commemorates the particular day (such as a feast day) or highlights the spirit of the liturgical season.  The prayer ascends to the Father “through Jesus Christ,” the mediator (“…No one comes to the Father but through me” –  John 14:6), and in the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete and Advocate, who is the personified union between Father and Son as well as the uniting force between the Church and God.  Here we invoke God’s divine assistance as we begin the offering of the Mass.

Given the Introductory Rites, the Mass proceeds into the Liturgy of the Word.  In the early Church, the selection and number of readings of Sacred Scripture varied for each liturgy.  In the West, the pattern developed where a reading from one of the epistles would precede the Gospel, since Easter was a New Testament event.  The books of the Prophets of the Old Testament also were also given a priority.  The acclamation “Thanks be to God” (Deo gratias) was in use as early as the fourth century.   Moreover, the Church stipulated that only books attributed to the Prophets or the Apostles (i.e. the books of our present Bible) would be read to the faithful at Mass (cf. The Muratorian Fragment, c. 155).

The Gradual or Responsorial Psalm was inserted in between the readings.  Later, a cantor came forward with a book of chants on the psalms (Cantatorium).  The people would sing the refrain to the chant.  The cantor would stand on the next to the top step of the ambo from which the readings were proclaimed.  This step was called “the gradus,” hence the term gradual.

The Alleluia verse preceding the Gospel is also from the earliest Mass.  This song is the Easter proclamation.

The Gospel was always given a place of honor.  A member of the clergy always read the Gospel.  In the Roman liturgy, the priest or deacon would take the Gospel book from the altar and be led to the ambo in a small scale procession with acolytes bearing candles and incense.  St. Jerome recounted that a similar procession was performed when a dignitary entered a room in ancient court ceremonies.  About the fourth century, the acclamation “Glory to you, O Lord” (Gloria tibi, Domini) was introduced at the beginning of the reading of the Gospel, and the acclamation “Praise to you, O Christ” (Laus tibi, Christe), at the end of the Gospel, to express the conviction of Christ’s presence in the proclaimed word of the Gospel.  For this same reason, the faithful always stood for the Gospel while they sat for the other readings.  By the ninth century, at the beginning of the reading of the Gospel, the faithful made the sign of the cross on the forehead, lips, and heart, signifying that the mind is open to receive Christ’s word, that it is confessed with the lips, and it is taken to the heart.

At Vatican II, the Council Fathers, in providing guidelines for the renewal of the Mass, directed, “The treasures of the Bible are to be opened up more lavishly so that a richer fare may be provided for the faithful at the table of God’s word.  In this way, a more representative part of the Sacred Scriptures will be read to the people in the course of a prescribed number of years” (The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, #51).  Therefore, a three-year cycle of readings for Sundays and a two-year cycle for weekday Masses was devised.  Regarding the Sunday Cycle, each Sunday Mass will have a first reading from the Old Testament (or from Acts of the Apostles or the Book of Revelation depending upon the liturgical season or feast), a responsorial psalm, a second reading from one of the epistles of the New Testament, and finally a Gospel passage.  Each cycle will take the gospel passages from a particular gospel: Cycle A, St. Matthew; Cycle B, St. Mark; and Cycle C, St. Luke.  Passages from St. John are interspersed throughout the year, especially during Easter season and during Cycle B.

After the Gospel, the priest has traditionally delivered the Homily which serves as a catechectical instruction.  The task of the homily is to help the faithful understand the reading of Sacred Scripture and to make the word of God relevant for today.  Moreover, it should link the Word of God with the Holy Eucharist.  The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy taught, “By means of the homily, the mysteries of the faith and the guiding principles of the Christian life are expounded from the sacred text during the course of the liturgical year” (#52).

The Profession of Faith or Creed is the response to the proclaimed Word of God and to the homily.  Presently, the Creed recited at the Mass was promulgated at the Council of Nicea in 325 (with the last part, beginning with “who proceeds from…,” added at the Council of Constantinople in 381).  Actually, in the early Church, baptisms were often performed in the context of Mass, after the Gospel; at this time, a basic profession of faith was made, usually as the response to questions.  Although the Creed was formally introduced into the Mass about the 500s, it was generally recited prior to that time.   Moreover, the earlier version of the creed which is known as the Apostles Creed was also used in the Mass.

The Petitions, General Intercessions, or Prayer of the Faithful have also been used since the early days of the Church.  St. Paul in his First Letter to St. Timothy said, “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings, and all who are in high positions” (2:1-2).  The offering of petitions followed a three part structure:  a call to prayer, the petitions, and the priest’s concluding prayer.  St. Justin said that the petitions should remember the needs of the Church; the intentions of the bishop and clergy; peace in the world; a good harvest; the country and city; the sick, poor, and needy; the dead; the forgiveness of sins; and a holy death.  Later, the petitions were dropped from the Order of the Mass; however, the Vatican Council II directed that the Prayer of the Faithful be restored to the Mass (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, #53).

After the Liturgy of the Word, the Mass proceeds with the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  Here the focus of action is on the altar, as the Liturgy of the Word was on the ambo.  In accord with the earliest custom, at this point the catechumens are led from the church; only the baptized could participate in the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

The Liturgy of the Eucharist begins with the Offertory, the bread, wine, and water, being presented to the priest.  St. Justin attested, “Taking them, he gives praise and glory to the Father of all, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Spirit; and he himself gives thanks at some length in order that these things may be deemed worthy” (First Apology, #65).

People also would bring other gifts– money, food, medicine, clothing– which would be offered to God and for the usage of the Church.  After Mass, these other gifts would be distributed to those in need.  St. Justin again recorded, “Those who are well off, and who are also willing, give as each chooses.  What is gathered is given to him who presides to assist orphans and widows, those whom illness or any other cause has deprived the resources, prisoners, immigrants, and in a word, all who are in need” (First Apology, 67).  In the eleventh century, this kind of offertory generally gave way to simply a money collection.

In the 300s, a formal offertory procession evolved.  People bringing to the altar the bread and wine to be offered would sometimes be accompanied by servers with incense, candles, and processional cross.  This formal procession signified Christ going to His own sacrifice.

The substance of the offertory prayers for the bread and wine is found in the Didache, but are originally rooted in Jewish blessings.  The new formula, “Blessed are you, Lord,…,” has a threefold idea:  The bread and wine are products of creation and provide nourishment, and thereby symbolize our world and our life.  They also signify the work of our hands and our daily labor, and thereby are an offering of ourselves.  Finally, they are the matter or material disguise for what they will become in the Eucharistic mystery.

The prayers for the commingling of the water and wine are found in the eleventh century Roman sacramentaries: “By the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled Himself to share in our humanity.”  St. Cyprian (c. 250) underscored that this action symbolized the divine Jesus who became man and took on also a human nature.

After the offertory prayers, the priest performs the lavabo or washing of hands.  He says, “Lord wash away my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.”  Originating in the fourth century, the lavabo sometimes occurred at the very start of the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  The washing symbolized the interior purity with which the priest wanted to enter into the sacred mystery.

In the early days of the Church, the priest said all of the offertory prayers inaudibly, because only he should enter into the Holy of Holies before God.  They were then followed by “Orate, frates et sorores…” (“Pray brethren that…”) inviting the congregation now to participate.  This practice arose about the eighth century.

The Anaphora or Eucharistic Prayer is the heart of the Liturgy of the Eucharist and contains several parts:

The Preface again originated in the earliest times of the Church.  The introductory dialogue (i.e. Priest:  “The Lord be with you,” People:  “And also with you.”  Priest: “Lift up your hearts,” etc.) is almost the exact wording found in the Apostolic Tradition of St. Hippolytus.  Today, different Prefaces are used, depending upon the feast day or the liturgical season.  The Preface is a “speaking before” the major part of the Eucharistic Prayer, in praise and thanksgiving to God– “the Father, through Christ, in the Holy Spirit, for all His works: creation, redemption, and sanctification” (Catechism, #1352).  Here the Church on earth is united with the Church in Heaven, with all of the angels and saints, to join in one hymn of praise.

The Sanctus concludes the Preface.  It also appears in the earliest forms of the Mass, possibly dating to the time of the apostles.  Several 4th and 5th  century documents record the Sanctus, but surprisingly it is missing from St. Hippolytus’ Eucharistic Prayer.  This hymn was inspired by the text of Isaiah’s vision (6:2-3), which was incorporated in the Synagogue worship during the second century after Christ.

The Benedictus of the Sanctus (“Blessed is He who comes…”) is the acclamation with which the crowds greeted Jesus on Palm Sunday (Matthew 21:9).  It also reflects the Apocalypse’s praise “to God and to the Lamb” (5:13).  The Benedictus was probably added to the Sanctus about the 5th century.   Interestingly, the congregation always sung the Sanctus.

The Canon (the major body of the Eucharistic prayer) has several important elements:  First, petitioning God to accept and bless this offering, the Church begs the Father to send the Holy Spirit.  This calling down of the Holy Spirit is called the epiclesis.  (The priest, who usually prays with arms extended and open hands, brings them together and places them over the bread and wine to be consecrated, and finally blesses them.)  He prays that through the power of the Holy Spirit the bread and wine will become the Body and Blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

Second, the Words of Consecration or Institution Narrative are the words of Christ, used at the Last Supper, as recorded in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  These words are efficacious.  With the power of the Holy Spirit and through Christ acting through His validly ordained priest, the words of consecration transform the bread and wine substantially and make sacramentally present the Body and Blood of our Lord.  At the beginning of the words of consecration, transubstantiation takes place.  Bells are traditionally rung when the priest elevates the Sacred Host and then the Chalice to indicate this miraculous event.  As a response to the miracle that has just occurred on the altar, the priest exhorts the people to proclaim the mystery of faith.

Third, the anamnesis is the remembrance.  The whole Mass in a sense constitutes an anamnesis, a remembrance of the passion, death, and resurrection of the Lord.  This remembering is not just of the past, but a remembering of what happens now and of the living mystery of the Mass.  The faithful also remember that the Lord will come again in glory.   Here specifically the priest recalls the Lord’s mandate to remember Him, what He did, and His glorious return.

Fourth, the supplices is when the Church presents to the Father the offering of Jesus which reconciles us with Him.  He prays to God to take the sacrifice to His heavenly altar, so that those who receive from it the Body and Blood of Christ may “be filled with every heavenly grace and blessing” (Eucharistic Prayer I).

Finally, since the beginning of the fourth century, the Eucharistic Prayer has included several petitions:  “We pray for….”  Here, the saints are invoked, especially the Blessed Mother, St. Joseph, and the apostles and martyrs.  As a sign of unity throughout the Church, the intentions of the Holy Father and the local Bishop are remembered.  Lastly, the living and deceased members of the Church are also remembered.

Four primary Eucharistic Prayers are found in the Missal:  Eucharistic Prayer I (the Roman Canon) originated in its present form with the Mass of Pope Pius V (1570).  In the revisions of the Mass in 1969, three new Eucharistic Prayers were approved and have the following distinctions:

Eucharistic Prayer II is substantially the one of St. Hippolytus of Rome, recorded about the year 215.  Having its own special Preface, the prayer has simple clarity in its thanksgiving prayer and brevity.  Eucharistic Prayer II is not intended for Sunday Mass, but for weekdays.

Eucharistic Prayer III reflects the Roman tradition.  Following the traditional pattern of the Roman Canon, it uses a varying Preface and an invariable Canon.  The Canon is of medium length, and focuses on God’s redemptive work and the gathering of all people into the Church.

Eucharistic Prayer IV was modeled on the anaphoras of the West Syrian type.  Having its own Preface, the prayer describes salvation history in the introduction after the Sanctus, employing heavily Biblical phrasing and imagery.

(Please note that there are also Eucharistic Prayers for Reconciliation and for Children’s Masses.)

The Eucharistic Prayer ends with the doxology, “through Him…,” recited or sung during the elevation of the Sacred Species.  This practice has been performed since the third century.

Probably, Pope Gregory the Great (d. 604) added the Lord’s Prayer to by prayed after the Eucharistic Prayer.  Found in the Gospels of St. Matthew (6:9-13) and St. Luke (11:2-4), the Lord’s prayer is the one prayer our Lord gave to us.  The perfect nature of the prayer was looked upon as good preparation to receive holy communion.  The embolism, “For the kingdom, the power…,” is found in the Didache, but is not part of the actual gospel text.

The image of the Lamb of God symbolizes Christ’s passion and triumph, for He is the new Passover lamb, identified as such by St. John the Baptizer (John 1:29) and in the Book of Revelation.  In the seventh century, the hymn, which we know by the same title, was sung during the breaking of the consecrated Bread.

At this point, the priest, praying quietly, takes a small piece of the Sacred Host and places it in the chalice.  This commingling action represents the unity of Christ’s Body and Blood, and the unity of the sacrifice despite the two separate consecrations.

Tertullian (c. 220) described the Sign or Kiss of Peace during Mass.  In the beginning, it occurred after the Liturgy of the Word to symbolize the fraternity and unity within the community before offering the sacrifice.  (Cf. Matthew  5:23-24).  However, Pope Innocent I in 416 advocated its present location.  The Sign of Peace eventually became restricted to the celebrant and the servers, but was reintroduced into the Mass by Pope Paul VI.

In Holy Communion, the faithful share the Holy Eucharist, uniting them in communion with God, each other in the congregation, and with the universal Church.  St. Justin asserted, “We call this food Eucharist, and no one may take part in it unless he believes that what we teach is true, has received baptism for the forgiveness of sins and new birth, and lives in keeping with what Christ taught” (First Apology, #66).

After the distribution of Holy Communion and the purification of the vessels, the priest offers the Closing Prayer.  The Mass concludes with The Concluding Rite– the concluding prayer, the blessing, and the dismissal.

In all, our Church has a beautiful and precious treasure in the Mass.  None of us must ever take the Mass for granted or become lukewarm toward it.  Moreover, priests should offer the Mass reverently and joyfully.  The Second Vatican Council reminded the laity in particular of their role:  “The Church, therefore, earnestly desires that Christ’s faithful, when present at this mystery of faith, should not be there as strangers or silent spectators.  On the contrary, through a good understanding of the rites and prayers they should take part in the sacred action, conscious of what they are doing, with devotion and full collaboration.  They should be instructed by God’s Word, and be nourished at the table of the Lord’s Body.  They should give thanks to God.  Offering the Immaculate Victim, not only through the hands of the priest but also together with him, they should learn to offer themselves.  Through Christ, the Mediator, they should be drawn day by day into ever more perfect union with God and each other, so that finally God may be all in all” (The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 48).