Everything You Need to Know About Mass

Denis McNamara, director of the Center for Beauty and Culture at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, joined the Cordial Catholic podcast for their episode “Everything you need to know about the Catholic Mass,” and explained that attending Mass is not a passive experience but an immersion into the mystery of the incarnation, passion and death of Jesus.. Some excerpts follow. Listen to the whole thing above or here (Apple) or here (Google).

Why Go to Mass?

The Mass in the Catholic worldview and in many of the deeply sacramental churches is a real participation in the same reality of what is going in heaven — and a recall of the things that have happened in the past in anticipation of the heavenly future — but in a way that makes it real, and not just a referral to somewhere else.

In the Jewish tradition, which has come into Christianity, it is anamnesis. That doesn’t just mean remembering, it means remembering in a way that makes active real and present that which is remembered. So the words in the Last Supper that we often translate as “Do this in remembrance of me,” are actually, “Do this in anamnesis of me,” which means “When you do this again, do it in a way that makes it real, operative and present.”

So when the priest says, “This is my body,” it’s not just a reminder that Christ said that a long time ago. It’s a thing that is actually happening and being made present to people in the room again so when we talk about ritual we are talking about doing something again and again which is a participation in the same reality of what Christ did.

Ritual by its definition implies that there is a predictability to it. Everyone has their ritual in the morning. Get up, make the coffee, talk to the kids, send the kids off to school, get in the car, go to work. Do your things first. Exercise has its own ritual. Ritual allows people across many times and places to do the same thing. If you are going to get hundreds of people in the room doing the same thing, you can’t just make it up every time. Mass is fundamentally the public worship of God by participating again in the actions of Christ, who is standing at God’s right hand.

So you remember, first of all, what Christ did, and you have this proclamation of Scripture, then it is explained to you, like Christ on the road to Emmaus explained it to the people leaving Jerusalem. Then they say, “Wow, now we get it.” You turn around and then say the creed which is, “I believe,” because the mission of Christ has just been explained to you.

Then you enter into this Eucharistic liturgy that is the participation in Christ’s own self-offering, and so it’s not just a holy time where you remember what Christ did and you feel like you have religious feelings. It’s an actual re-living again and again of the process of conversion, the hearing of the proclamation of Scripture and then entering into Christ’s sacrifice, so that you can then enter into his Resurrection.

In many ways it’s like exercise. You don’t have to go once and you look like Arnold Schwarzenegger. You have to go again and again, and every time you go you’re a little bit stronger, a little bit better athlete, and then you do it enough times and then you are an athlete — you have bigger muscles. So if you want to be a bigger Christian in that sense, you do the things of Christian life again and again and again and that requires a predictable, stable way to do it so that everybody can do it together.

Are Sacraments Really Necessary?

There is no such thing as worship non-sacramentally, because we are sensate beings. We know things through the senses. The senses can only encounter things that are material, and so someone says, “I go to a Bible church and they have Bible readings,” well, guess what? They’re looking at paper with ink on it and the message of God’s word is being communicated to their eyes because of matter … paper, ink, bindings, the lights that are reflecting that text into their retinas, and their retinas are sending that to the brain and they are proclaiming that scripture with their mouth that’s going across the airwaves which is actually not empty space but molecules of oxygen and hydrogen, then the people are hearing that. That’s sacramental mediation, some invisible reality that God wants us to know is being made known through the senses. That’s what a sacrament is in the broadest sense.

Die and Rise With Christ

The centrality of the mission is that Christ died and rose again, and he wants us to share in that reality .He doesn’t expect us all to get nailed to a cross, so how are we going to do it? We go to Mass, and we put ourselves on the altar and we say “Father, I join myself to the death of Christ and I ask you to allow me to die with him. I join myself to the resurrection of Christ and I ask you to allow me to rise with him.”

Image: Benedictine Father Matthew Habiger,
a former president of Human Life International

Denis McNamara

Denis R. McNamara is formerly the Executive Director of the Center for Beauty and Culture at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. He is the author of Heavenly City: The Architectural Tradition of Catholic Chicago and Catholic Church Architecture and The Spirit of the Liturgy.