Faith Forum: It’s ‘Mass’ and more

Father Charles Bober

For generations, we lovingly referred to attending “Mass” each Sunday.  Now I seldom hear the word used anymore. A variety of terms are used in its place, and people look at us rather oddly when we use the word.  Would you please explain why the change in such a traditional term?

At times we tend to see things as if they only existed in our lifetime.  We also can misunderstand the meanings of words in terms of own day (and our own conflicts) as if those words had no history.  I think that may be true of the words “Mass” and “Eucharist.”   The word “Mass” is only as old as the English language.  But the sacred action it describes goes back to the Last Supper.

In the New Testament, St. Paul spoke of it as the Lord’s Supper (e.g., I Cor. 11:20).  It was called the “breaking of the bread” in the Acts of the Apostles (e.g., 2:42, 20:7).

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

In many ancient communities, the word used was that which best described the activity taking place.  Thus, “collecta” or “synaxis” (gathering or assembly) was chosen.  Even more often, that Greek speaking world utilized the word “eucharisteo” (to give thanks) to describe what they did when they assembled for prayer.  That specific term became very popular because it acknowledged the great thanksgiving prayer of Passover, as well as correctly expressing the important Christian sentiment of gratitude to God.

More generalized terms also came into being.  In the East, the word “liturgy” had long been used in the secular world to mean any service rendered to the community. The New Testament then employs it to speak of such things as Zachary’s service in the temple (Luke 1:23) or the collection taken up for the poor in Jerusalem (II Cor. 9:12).  Especially in the East the term gradually became reserved for that unique “service,” the Lord’s Supper, calling it the “liturgy.”

While the word “liturgy” became most frequently used in the East, a different development occurred in the West.  Originally the word “missa” was used to describe the “dismissals” that took place at worship (that of the catechumens and of the entire congregation at the conclusion).  By the time of Gregory the Great (540-604 A.D.), however, “missa” was the common words used for the entire liturgy.

Josef Jungmann, S.J., an authority on the liturgy, explains this by saying that the dismissals were usually associated with blessings.  As more and more emphasis was given to the blessing whereby the bread and wine became the body and blood of the Lord, the more easily the entire action could be associated with a blessing (a “missa”).

In any case, the English translation of missa (Mass) did become the traditional way to describe the Lord’s Supper for our English-speaking world.  However, substitution of earlier terminology such as “Eucharist” should not be interpreted as a lessening of our appreciation for this great gift. 

Photo by Dena Koenig Photography