Browsing The Northern Cross

Father Nicholas Nelson: Jesus gave us the Mass, but it needed to be developed

What was the first Mass ever celebrated? It was with Jesus and his twelve Apostles at the Last Supper, the night before he was put to death. What about the second Mass offered? The second Mass offered was offered in the evening of Easter Sunday, the day Jesus rose from the dead. And it was also offered by Jesus. 

Father Nick Nelson
Handing on the Faith

At the end of the Gospel according to Luke, in Chapter 24, we read about Mary Magdalene and some other women going to the tomb early in the morning of Easter Sunday. After that episode, St. Luke tells us about two disciples on the road to Emmaus. We read, “That very day, the first day of the week ….” And while they were walking and discussing the remarkable events that had occurred in Jerusalem over the past few days, Jesus comes up to them and strikes up a conversation. 

Luke tells us, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” He speaks the Scriptures and interprets them. Hmmm, what does that sound like? That sounds like the beginning of the Mass, what we call the Liturgy of the Word. I am guessing you would be hard pressed to find a better homily than that one! 

Then they arrive at the village, and it appears as if Jesus was going to continue on. But they ask Jesus to stay with them because “The day is far spent, and the evening draws near.” And then, St. Luke tells us, “When he was at table with them, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it and gave it to them.” That should sound familiar. It’s what the priest says at every Mass at the altar. We call it the Liturgy of the Eucharist. 

So there you have it. In this encounter of Jesus and the disciples, you have the entire Mass, the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. 

In fact, St. Luke ends the episode by saying, “The two disciples returned to Jerusalem … and recounted to the other disciples how Jesus was made known to them in the ‘breaking of the bread.’” That is the early language or name for the Mass. The Early Church called the Mass “the breaking of the bread.” 

But someone may say, “That can’t be the Mass. It’s missing some things. We don’t hear about the entrance procession, there was no organ or incense, no altar boys, they didn’t profess the Nicene-Constantinople Creed, there were no ushers, and no collection was taken up.” 

You see, Jesus gave his disciples the Mass at the Last Supper, and he offered it here again. And yes, that Mass didn’t have everything we have now, today. But you still had the Mass. The essentials of the Mass were present. 

It would take centuries and centuries for the church to add prayers and develop the rituals and gestures surrounding the essential aspects of the Mass. It would take a long time to solidify and provide official standard prayers. For example, in the beginning the priest would just make up the prayers to the best of his ability. But then there may be a priest in a town who was very charismatic and eloquent and who created beautiful and rich prayers for the Mass and another priest would hear about it and say, “Hey, can I use the prayers that you have developed?” And over time these would become more and more uniform, official, and universal. 

It’s important to realize, that Jesus didn’t just give his Apostles the finished product. He didn’t just hand them the Roman Missal and say, “Here you go. It’s all in here!” It would take time for the church to understand better, go deeper, truly appreciate the Eucharist, the Mass. That’s what we mean by mystery in the theological sense. A mystery is something you never fully grasp but appreciate more and more. 

The Apostles would take the Gospel, including the essential form of the Mass, to the ends of the world and would encounter different languages and cultures, and the liturgy would develop within a particular culture. That’s why, depending on how you count them, there are 20 or so different liturgies, different forms of the Mass in the Catholic Church. Byzantine, Alexandrian, Mozarabic, Ambrosian, Syriac, Armenian, Coptic, Maronite, Chaldean liturgies and even some religious orders have their own liturgies. 

Many things are the same across these different liturgies. The essence is the same. But there is also a number of differences. 

Our liturgy is the Roman or Latin Rite of the Catholic Church. There are two forms of it, the ordinary form and the extraordinary form. We belong to the Roman Catholic Church. Our liturgy developed out of the Roman culture and language of the Middle Ages. That’s why we can never get totally rid of Latin. We need it, it’s part of our culture; it’s who we are as Roman Catholics. 

So this is how God’s providence works. Jesus gave us the faith, including the liturgy in its essence, but it needed to be developed. God uses us, our intellects, our cultures, all guided by the Holy Spirit to bring the liturgy more and more to its fullness over time, slowly by slowly. 

Father Nick Nelson is pastor of Queen of Peace and Holy Family parishes in Cloquet and vocations director for the Diocese of Duluth. He studied at The Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome. Reach him at [email protected]