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Biblical Roots of the Mass

Thomas Nash on the importance of the Scripture behind Christ's Sacrifice on the Altar.
by Zenit Staff Writer | Source:

Thomas Nash is the author of “Worthy Is the Lamb: The Biblical Roots of the Mass” (Ignatius). Nash is the senior information specialist at Catholics United for the Faith. His work helps Catholics understand how to dive into the depths of the Mass and fortify their faith by learning its Biblical roots and the power of Christ's sacrifice in the Eucharist.

Q: Why is it important for Catholics to know and understand the Biblical roots of the Mass?

Nash: We need to remember first that the Bible is the written Word of God, and as such has great power in and of itself. As it says in Hebrews 4:12, God's word is living and active; therefore, simply reading the Bible and proclaiming it can bring us and others closer to God.

In addition, in reading God's Word, Catholics will come to appreciate better how true the Mass is, how the Mass' roots are deeply planted in the Old Testament and fulfilled in Christ's sacrifice of Calvary.

The Bible tells the story of how God came to save us, and the Biblical roots of the Mass — the Biblical story of the Mass — is central to that story of salvation history. Why? Because the Mass sacramentally re-presents Christ's one sacrifice whereby man was redeemed and salvation made possible.

If Catholics want to understand God's great love for us, if they want to better grasp the truly awe-inspiring nature of the Mass, they need to know the Biblical roots of the Mass.

Further, when Catholics understand better the Biblical roots of the Mass, they will be able to give a more compelling witness to other Catholics, Protestant Christians, our Jewish friends and other non-Christians.

A Biblical understanding of the Mass is particularly crucial in interacting with Protestants and also with our Jewish friends, given that the great Jewish sacrifices, such as the Passover and Day of Atonement offerings, prefigure and are fulfilled in Christ's sacrifice of Calvary.

Q: How does Bible study help Catholics awaken to the fullness and beauty of the Mass?

Nash: The more we study Scripture, the more we're going to know how much our Lord has loved us and our spiritual ancestors, and how much he loves us now in letting us participate in the wondrous sacrifice of the Mass, at which we become present to, offer and partake of our loving Lord.

The result of such study will be Catholics with much greater conviction, better prepared and more willing to serve the Lord.

Q: What makes your book different from others on the Mass?

Nash: The title indicates its distinctiveness. It provides a comprehensive overview of the Biblical roots of the Mass in a popular yet scholarly way. I didn't see any book that really filled this niche, and other authors and scholars confirmed my judgment.

Also, it "navigates" this overview through the paradigm of Biblical sacrifice: the lamb. Early on in my research and writing I came up with the main title of my book: "Worthy is the Lamb."

Then, in an unrelated matter, my friend, Dr. Scott Hahn, came out with "The Lamb's Supper: The Mass as Heaven on Earth," which focuses on the Book of Revelation. His endorsement has thankfully helped clarify that my book is significantly different from his.

A significant part of my book uses the Day of Atonement sacrifices to show that, while Christ's suffering ended on the cross, his sacrifice — that is, his self-gift to the Father on our behalf — continues forever.

In the Old Covenant, a goat and bull were first slaughtered in the Temple courtyard; then, the high priest would offer their blood to God in the Temple sanctuary.

Similarly, there are two phases to Christ's sacrifice, which fulfills the Day of Atonement Sacrifices, as Hebrews 9:11-12 conveys. He suffers, dies and rises in the earthly phase of his sacrifice, and then he ascends into the heavenly sanctuary, where his sacrifice culminates in everlasting glory, as Hebrews 9:24-25 implies.

Scripture affirms that Jesus continues to serve in the heavenly sanctuary as a priest and that a priest's prime function is to offer sacrifices, as conveyed in Hebrews 8:1-3.

Because Hebrews 7:27 and 9:27-28 proclaim that Jesus' sacrifice is once-for-all, and because Jesus continues to serve as a high priest in heaven, Our Lord must somehow continue offering His one and only sacrifice in the heavenly sanctuary. In the Mass, of course, what is celebrated in heaven becomes present on earth.

I think readers will also particularly enjoy my explication of the priesthood of Melchizedek and its fulfillment in Jesus, as well as my response to Protestant objections about Eucharistic Prayer I and how Christ's body allegedly cannot be in more than one place — that is, heaven — given its limited human nature.

Three indexes — Subject, Scripture and Catechism — and questions at the end of each chapter make the book user-friendly for a variety of contexts.

I have also been very blessed because, right after my book was published, Pope John Paul II announced a Year of the Eucharist from October 2004 to October 2005. That announcement has definitely piqued people's interest.

Q: How does an understanding of the Mass affect Catholics' adherence to the faith?

Nash: When a Catholic really understands and appreciates the truly awesome significance of the Mass, he will not be vulnerable to leaving the Church and he'll be much less likely to dissent from Church teaching.

Q: What has contributed to modern Catholics' lack of appreciation for the Mass?

Nash: The general societal decline we've experienced in the last four decades or so has undermined many people's appreciation of that which is truly sacred and moral. In the process, we've seen a slide in catechesis — in the home, at Catholics schools and CCD programs, and in homilies — although I definitely think things have improved in the last two decades.

In general, Catholics are not as well formed as they could be to appreciate and participate in the Mass. Some blame Vatican II and the Mass rite promulgated by Pope Paul VI, but it's been misrepresentations of both that have actually done damage.

In addition, had we never had a Vatican II or a new Mass rite, the Church would still have had some serious challenges, given the general societal decline, particularly in the West.

As good as things were for the Church in the 1940s to the early 1960s, it's evident that Church leaders and rank-and-file Catholics were not, in general, well-prepared to withstand the cultural broadside that began to really kick in during the 1960s.

The failure to stem the decline of Catholic colleges and Catholic education in general beginning in the late 1960s, as well as the widespread rejection of "Humanae Vitae," are just two examples.

Praise God, we've been seeing improvements on these and other fronts in recent decades.

Q: What can priests and catechists do to combat that trend?

Nash: Sunday Mass should be the fundamental place where Catholics learn about and grow in love with God and his Church.

As Vatican II affirms, the Mass is "the source and summit of the Christian life." It is the "source" because without Christ's sacrifice, we would have no redemption, and thus no Church and sacraments. The "summit" because we will one day participate in the heavenly liturgy, offering and "partaking" of the sacrificial Lamb in a fulfilled manner, that is, offering and having communion with Our Lord without sacramental veils.

The Sunday homily is an excellent place to talk about the Eucharist, because it concludes the Liturgy of the Word and prepares for the ensuing Liturgy of the Eucharist.

In becoming better informed about the Mass, Catholics will be more likely to become more convicted in living the faith. As a result, I think they will be much more likely to participate in other non-Mass parish activities for further catechesis and invite others to do the same.

The Church can help further by assisting the faithful to encounter Jesus more fruitfully, both through general catechesis at various age levels and through the reception of the sacraments, and also by encouraging and empowering parents to start the catechetical process early in the home.

The person of Jesus — and, thus, his Eucharistic sacrifice — is fundamental to Catholic catechesis, and it is in the Eucharist that Our Lord provides us eternal life in a unique self-gift of himself, as John 6:58 conveys.

Q: What do you think a widespread renewal of understanding regarding the Mass could mean for the Church worldwide?

Nash: Because the Mass is the source and summit of the Christian life, we would see the renewal and transformation of Catholic families, priests and religious, parishes and dioceses. As a result, we would see a radical renewal of the Church's mission to make disciples of all nations, as Christ commissions us in Matthew 28:18-20.

The prospects for such a renewal have been heightened by the announcement and imminent arrival of the Year of the Eucharist. May the Lord bless us abundantly.

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