Bible Study: The Bible and the Mass (Lesson 1, Part 6)
This is the last part to Lesson 1 of the Bible study we are doing from St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. The other parts can be found here:
Today, we continue with Lesson 1: A Biblical Introduction to the Mass. If the fact that the original Apostles celebrated the two-part Mass (see Acts 2:42, Luke 24:25, and Acts 20:7-12) is not enough to convince a person that the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian faith, then what if the Mass was celebrated by the Resurrected Jesus Himself? Do you know where Jesus gave the first Mass after He rose from the dead? Check out Luke 24:13-35, again, and notice the parts of the Mass throughout the scene of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Jesus proclaimed the Old Testament Scriptures (i.e. the First Reading in Mass), talked about how they are fulfilled (i.e. the Second Reading and the Gospel Reading during Sunday Masses), and celebrated with the blessing, breaking and giving of bread (i.e., the Liturgy of the Eucharist). The phrase “breaking bread” was Luke’s code-word for the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
Lastly, Lesson 1 concludes with the significance of the Sign of the Cross. It’s not only a humble gesture that marks a person as distinctly Catholic, but a mark of protection by which “the Lord knows who are His” (see 2 Corinthians 1:22; Ephesians 1:13; 2 Tim 2:19). The Book of Revelation refers to the seal on our foreheads that spare us from destruction (see Revelation 7:3; 9:4; 14:1; 22:4). Makes you want to do the Sign of the Cross more often, doesn’t it? Amen!
Hearing the Apostles, Breaking the Bread
The first descriptions we have of the Church in the New Testament are decidedly “eucharistic.”
Luke says, “They devoted themselves to the teaching of the Apostles and to . . . the breaking of the bread” (see Acts 2:42).
The “teachings of the Apostles” are sermons like those recorded in Acts and writings inspired by the Holy Spirit (see 2 Peter 3:15-16; 1 Corinthians 2:13). The “breaking of the bread” is Luke’s word for the Eucharist (see Luke 24:35; Acts 20:7,11).
Here then, in this most ancient description of the Church’s life, we see Word and Sacrament, Bible and Liturgy, united.
And the New Testament was composed and developed in the context of the early Church’s worship.
The epistles were first written to be read publicly “before” those gathered for the Eucharist (see 1 Thessalonians 5:26; Colossians 4:16; 1 Timothy 4:13).
Greetings and blessings in these letters were often adapted from prayers and hymns used in the Liturgy (see 1 Peter 1:2-5; 1 Corinthians 16:22; Colossians 1:15-20; Philippians 2:6-12; 1 Timothy 4:16; 2 Timothy 2:11-13).
The Book of Revelation was written to be “read aloud” during worship (see Revelation 1:3). And the shape of the Gospels – which consist of many short episodes from Jesus’ life and teaching – probably indicates that these scenes were first written down to be read in the Mass.
Hearing is Believing
“Faith comes from what is heard,” Paul said (see Romans 10:17). And the early Church heard God’s Word in the Mass.
Early Eucharistic celebrations followed the same “two-part” structure as our Mass today – readings from “the teachings of the Apostles” followed by the “breaking of the bread.”
We see this in a story of Paul celebrating the Eucharist in Troas. His sermon lasted until midnight, causing one of his parishioners to fall asleep and plunge to his death. Undeterred, Paul revived the man and continued the service. He “broke the bread” (see Acts 20:7-12).
In addition to the Apostles’ teachings, the earliest liturgies probably included readings from the Old Testament.
That’s the testimony of perhaps our oldest account of the Eucharist outside the Bible. Describing this part of the Mass in 155 A.D., St. Justin Martyr said “the memoirs of the Apostles and the writings of the prophets are read” followed by a homily (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1345.)
Use of the Old Testament in the Liturgy – as well as the “two-part” structure of the Mass – can be traced to the example of Jesus.
In fact, the Bible and the Mass were inseparably united for all time by Jesus himself on the first Easter night.
Luke tells us that upon rising from the dead, Jesus encountered two disciples on the road to Emmaus (see Luke 24:13-35).
They didn’t recognize Him at first. Nonetheless, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets,” Jesus explained the meaning of the Old Testament to them – showing how all the promises God made there were fulfilled in Him (see also Luke 24:44-48). As He spoke their hearts were “burning within.”
Then Jesus sat down at table, took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them.
Notice Luke’s deliberate use of the same words used in his Last Supper narrative: At table, Jesus takes . . . blesses . . . breaks . . . and gives the bread (compare Luke 22:14-20).
Luke is giving us a picture of the Eucharist, the first to be celebrated after the Resurrection.
Jesus first “proclaims” the Scriptures, showing how the Old Testament is fulfilled in the New Testament made in His blood. Then He gives thanks for this covenant in the breaking of the bread.
When He does this, the promise of the Scriptures, Old Testament and New, is fulfilled – the disciples’ eyes are opened and they come to “know” Jesus in intimate communion.
Since that night, believers have gathered every Sunday, the day of the Resurrection known as the Lord’s day (see Revelation 1:10; Acts 20:7). In this gathering we open the Scriptures, and break the bread.
And when we do that in the Mass, we relive the experience of the disciples at Emmaus. The Scriptures are fulfilled – the Word of His new covenant “burns within” as if being written in our hearts; and our eyes are opened in faith to know Him in the breaking of the bread.
Back to Mass
That’s why we begin the Mass the way we do.
Jesus commissioned His Apostles to preach His Word and to baptize all nations in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit (see Matthew 28:19).
As newborn sons and daughters of the Father, the baptized gain access to the family table of the Lord’s supper. There they “tasted the heavenly gift and shared in the Holy Spirit and tasted the good Word of God and the powers of the age to come” (see Hebrews 6:4).
This is the biblical legacy we recall – and become a part of – at the start of every Mass. As we make the Sign of the Cross and repeat the words of the Lord’s final commission, we remember and renew our covenant with God, made when we were baptized.
The Apostles began the tradition of marking the newly baptized with the Sign of the Cross.
It was a seal of the Lord’s salvation (see 2 Corinthians 1:22; Ephesians 1:13) and a mark of protection by which “the Lord knows who are His” (see 2 Timothy 2:19).
The Bible’s last book reveals that those marked with “the seal of God on their foreheads” are spared from destruction (see Revelation 7:3; 9:4; 14:1; 22:4) and are called to participate in a heavenly liturgy – “the wedding feast” or “marriage supper of the Lamb” (see Revelation 19:7,9; 21:9).
As we’ll see in this course, that’s where we truly are in the Mass. We have been saved from sin and death and are happy to have been called to the Lamb’s Supper.
He is truly with us as we gather in His name (see Matthew 18:20). The words of the biblical promise – “The Lord be with you” – are fulfilled in our hearing (see Luke 4:21).
The Bible leaves off with the Lord’s promise that He is coming soon (see Revelation 22:20). And where the Bible leaves off, the Mass begins.