As I promised two weeks ago, I begin a reflection on the Eucharist and the liturgy, as part of our preparation for the implementation of the new Roman Missal, the official Eucharistic “prayer book” of the Church, scheduled for the 1st Sunday of Advent, 2011. To do in-depth reflection is impossible for a column, but I hope these thoughts help to understand, and therefore, to celebrate the Eucharistic liturgy with a greater sense of appreciation, devotion and participation.
I thought I would approach this Herculean task in four parts; a brief history of the liturgy, some theological reflections, the parts of the Mass, as it is celebrated today, the changes and the reasons for them.
Even before the Gospels were put on paper, Paul gives testimony to the community celebrating what Jesus did at the Last Supper in his first letter to the Corinthians (around 57 A.D.). “For I received from the Lord what I handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.” (1 Cor. 11: 23-26). While the New Testament gives many accounts of this gathering for the “breaking of the bread,” it gives no specifics other than the blessing and sharing of the bread and the cup. This coming together is celebrated on the 1st Day, the day of the Resurrection, not the seventh day, the Sabbath Day, the day of the Lord’s rest from creation.
As hostility developed between the Jewish community and the Jews who had become Christians, the Jewish Christians stopped attending synagogue. Instead, they began reading the Jewish scripture, especially the Prophets, at their own gatherings on the 1st Day, and later added the letters they had received from the apostles, especially the letters of Paul, and eventually the written accounts of Jesus’ life, which we now call the Gospels. Thus, by the end of the 1st Century, the basic structure of the Mass, first the readings (Liturgy of the Word), followed by the blessing and sharing of the bread and wine (Liturgy of the Eucharist) became clearly evident.
The first detailed description of the structure of the Mass is found in the writings of St. Justin Martyr, who died in 165, and in it we can clearly see the structure of the Mass as we celebrate it today. I quote directly from his writings. “On the day called Sunday, an assembly is held in one place of all who live in town or country, and the records of the apostles (both letters and Gospels) or the writings of the prophets (Old Testament) are read as time allows. (Liturgy of the Word). Then, when the reader has finished, the president in a discourse admonishes and exhorts us to imitate these good things. (homily). Then all stand up together and send up prayers (prayer of the faithful), and, as we said before, when we have finished praying, bread and wine and water are brought up (Offertory Procession), and the president likewise sends up prayers and thanksgivings to the best of his ability (Eucharistic Prayer), and the people assent, saying Amen; and the elements over which thanks have been given are distributed and all the people partake, and they are sent through the deacons to all who are not present.
And the wealthy who so desire give that they wish, as each chooses; and what is collected is deposited with the president, and he takes care of all those who are in need.”
As you celebrate the Eucharist today, notice that it is basically celebrated in much the same way that it was celebrated almost one thousand, eight hundred and fifty years ago. That’s some record.