It’s ‘Mass’ and more

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Father Charles Bober

For generations we have lovingly referred to “mass” every Sunday. Now I rarely hear the word used. A variety of terms are used in its place, and people look at us rather oddly when we use the word. Could you please explain why the change from such a traditional term?

Sometimes we tend to see things as if they only existed during our lifetime. We can also misunderstand the meaning of words based on our own day (and our own conflicts) as if those words have no history. I think this may be true of the words “Mass” and “Eucharist”. The word “Mass” is as old as the English language. But the sacred action he describes dates back to the Last Supper.

In the New Testament, Saint Paul referred to it as the Lord’s Supper (eg, I Cor. 11:20). This has been called the “breaking of the bread” in the Acts of the Apostles (eg, 2:42, 20: 7).

A wide variety of terms were also used among the early writers of the Church. Tertulien spoke of the “banquet of the Lord” or simply of the “sacrifice”. Other authors, influenced by the Roman religion, spoke of “actio” (action).

In many ancient communities, the word used was the one that best described the ongoing activity. Thus, “collecta” or “synaxis” (gathering or assembling) was chosen. Even more often, this Greek-speaking world used the word “eucharisteo” (give thanks) to describe what they did when they gathered for prayer. This specific term became very popular because it recognized the great Passover prayer of thanksgiving, as well as correctly expressing the important Christian feeling of gratitude to God.

More general terms have also emerged. In the East, the word “liturgy” has long been used in the secular world to designate any service rendered to the community. The New Testament then uses it to speak of such things as Zechariah’s service in the temple (Luke 1:23) or the collection taken for the poor in Jerusalem (II Cor. 9:12). Particularly in the East, the term gradually became reserved for this unique “service”, the Lord’s Supper, calling it the “liturgy”.

While the word “liturgy” has become most frequently used in the East, a different development has taken place in the West. Originally, the word “missa” was used to designate the “dismissals” that took place in worship (that of the catechumens and the whole congregation at the end). In the time of Gregory the Great (540-604 AD), however, “missa” was the words commonly used throughout the liturgy.

Josef Jungmann, SJ, an authority on liturgy, explains this by saying that referrals were usually associated with blessings. As more and more emphasis was placed on the blessing whereby the bread and wine became the body and blood of the Lord, the more easily all action could be associated with a blessing (a “missa “).

In any case, the English translation of missa (mass) has become the traditional way of describing the Lord’s Supper for our English-speaking world. However, the substitution of an earlier terminology such as “Eucharist” should not be interpreted as a decrease in our appreciation of this great gift.

Photo by Dena Koenig Photography


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