As a young adult, there was a time when I was lukewarm in my faith and attended Mass on Sundays but was merely going through the motions. Because I was bored by the Mass, there was a point when, out of curiosity, I attended a few Baptist church services with a friend. The experience was memorable, and I was impressed by the enormous number of worshipers in attendance, easily over a thousand people. Throughout the service, most people remained in the area referred to as the sanctuary, but they were also gathering in the hallways and even sitting on couches, socializing and drinking coffee while watching television screens showing the choir and sermon. The choir was incredible, singing exhilarating music for about half of the service, and the other half of the time was the charismatic pastor’s passionate, rousing sermon.
Each time I went to these services, I left feeling moved and inspired – emotions I had not felt during Mass at my local parish – yet, I felt there was something missing. As a result, I continued going to Mass as I had all of my life because I knew it was where I belonged, but, if anyone had asked, I would have admitted I was not getting much out of my experiences. In retrospect, I discovered the problem was not the Mass – it was me. Failing to know my Catholic faith well, I was not able to see the richness, beauty, and power of the divine Liturgy. It is the perfect form of worship and, in every Mass, we come together to give thanks to God for all the blessings He has bestowed on us with one of the greatest gifts being the gift of Himself in the Eucharist.
Worship is always to be God-centered and involves offering sacrifice. Giving glory and praise to God through public or private prayer, using our voices and instruments in adoration, participating in community service, meditating on Scripture and studying our faith, can be forms of worship if one is inwardly offering to God the sacrifice of one’s heart and mind. And though beneficial for sanctification, these uplifting activities are not to be the extent of our adoration. Members of God’s covenant are bound to uphold the perfect form of worship God Himself has revealed to humanity.
In the Old Testament, God legislated how the Chosen People of Israel were to worship Him. God prescribed the location (the Temple in Jerusalem), the sacrificial rites in detail and who was ordained to make the sacrifices (Aaron and the Levites – the tribe consecrated to service of the Lord). God was worshiped daily but there was a Sabbath obligation – a day of rest – on which the Chosen People were to renew their covenant with God, offer prescribed sacrifices and keep the day holy and set apart for God. This Sabbath day of rest was not for sleep and inactivity, but rather a call to spend the day in deep and intense contemplation on God because the Creator, far from being impersonal, calls all men into a relationship with Him.
This structured worship did not end at the coming of Jesus Christ but was rather perfected. In the New Testament, the Church – the New Israel (Gal 6:16) – has also been given God’s commands as to how we are to offer worship. We see this first at the Last Supper when Jesus proclaims the words of institution (“This is my body…this is my blood”) and then commands the Apostles to continue to “do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). Jesus is not merely stating the Apostles were to regularly have a nostalgic moment of recollection, but rather He was calling for the regular celebration of a memorial sacrifice (in Greek “anamnesis”) as the means of offering to God the perfect form of perpetual worship. This form of sacrifice is significant in that its celebration makes past events present and is exemplified for us in the Old Testament Passover feast – when Israelites of every age are united in a mystical way with Moses and their ancestors as they are freed by God from slavery in Egypt. In the New Passover sacrifice, Jesus freely offered His own life on the cross as the once-for-all sacrifice of the new covenant. Additionally, in this covenant, Jesus also gave us the memorial sacrifice of Himself in the Eucharist at the Last Supper to be continually offered so His disciples could be united with Him in a mysterious way both at Calvary and as He stands as an oblation before God the Father in heaven until the end of time.
Scripture shows us St. Paul and the early Christians, in obedience to Christ, continued to celebrate the Liturgy (1 Corinthians 11:17-34) and suggests those who failed to come together were reprimanded (Hebrews 10:25). From the beginning, the Christians have held Sunday, the first day of the week, as “the Lord’s Day” (Revelation 1:10), and, being the day of the Lord’s Resurrection, it was now the day on which Christians were to give thanks to God in a particular way (Acts 20:7). The new covenant people were now called to rest in Christ on this holiest day of the week and spend the time in deep contemplation, strengthening their relationship with God.
Fulfillment of Prophecy
Gathering together daily, and especially on Sundays, to participate in divine worship by offering up the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ present in the Eucharist, has been seen from the beginning of the Church as the fulfillment of the prophecy given by God to the prophet Malachi long before the Incarnation:
From the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations and in every place incense is offered to my name and a pure offering; for my name is great among the nations, says the Lord (Malachi 1:11).
The Church recognizes the fulfillment of this prophecy was made possible by Christ, but not with Christ’s sacrifice at Calvary as some may first think. God promises a future time would come when worship would be continuously offered to Him through a pure sacrifice not simply by the Jews in Jerusalem but even by Gentile people throughout the world. It would be unlike the sacrifices of the Old Testament offered only in one place – the Temple in Jerusalem – and distinct from Jesus’ sacrifice offered at one moment in time on Calvary. The fulfillment of this prophecy is seen in the only pure oblation offered to God throughout the world continuously for the past 2,000 years: the unbloody sacrifice of the Eucharist instituted by Christ at the Last Supper. This sacrifice of anamnesis (remembrance) is the representation of Calvary and, through the instrument of the priest, Christ Himself, both priest and victim, continues to perpetually offer Himself to God for all humanity.
Continuity with the Early Church
The words of the earliest Christians describe the divinely revealed form of worship commanded by God for His New Covenant they received from Christ through His Apostles. In a letter from St. Justin Martyr to the Emperor Antoninus Pius around 150 AD we are given a clear description of early Christian worship:
And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one please, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need. But Sunday is the day on which all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Savior on the same day rose from the dead. For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (Saturday); and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which we have submitted to you for your consideration (First Apology, 67).
Discussing the Eucharist specifically in this same letter Justin writes:
And this food is called among us Εὐχαριστία [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Savior, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh (First Apology, 66).
Our Gift of the Liturgy
By the grace of God, when I experienced an awakening of my faith, this letter by St. Justin Martyr was one of the first documents I read from the Church Fathers. I was blown away when I discovered the Mass is the same as it was in the early Church. The manner of worship has survived for 2,000 years, demonstrating the reality that the Liturgy truly is a gift given by God to the Church. Through our participation in this perfect form of worship – the Mass – we discover an encounter between God and man. This is an experience we should not, and cannot, walk away from without trembling in holy fear. Mass is the moment when heaven meets earth, and if we are not getting anything out of the Mass, the issue is not with God or the design of the Liturgy but the problem lies within ourselves.