The Mass is the celebration of our salvation, through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and our participation in that mystery.
The Mass is the re-presentation of the one sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary, in the same sacramental way Jesus did at the last supper. The Mass is also the wedding banquet of the Lamb of God with His bride the Church. We do this in obedience to Jesus who said, "do this in memory of me."
In the Mass, we are united to Jesus so that we can offer our lives with Jesus to the Father for the salvation of the world.
Basic Overview of the Mass
"Many people’s experience of Mass is similar to my Italian cousin Stefano’s first experience of a NFL football game. Stefano loves football, but his football is what we in the United States call soccer. American NFL football was completely new to him. So when my family brought him to Soldier’s Field in downtown Chicago to watch a Bears game, he was completely lost.
When the Bears sacked the opponent’s quarterback, everyone stood up to cheer. Stefano did the same. He screamed, “Yeah!” and then he asked me, “Did the Bears score a point?”
When the referee made a bad call against the Bears, we all stood up and booed. Once again, Stefano did the same, raising his fist in the air and shouting, “Boooo!” And then he asked me, “Did the other team score?”
Finally, when the Bears blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown, everyone in the stadium was jumping up and down, cheering and giving each other “high fives”. Stefano did the same, and high-fived the people around him. This time, however, he didn’t bother asking me any questions. Amid the pandemonium around us, he just looked at me with a little smile that seemed to say, “I have no idea what’s going on…but I’m sure it’s good for the Bears!”
I think that’s how many of us experience the Mass. We stand up, sit down, and kneel with everyone else. We say the responses – “And with your spirit”, “Alleluia”, “Thanks be to God” – with everyone else. We make the sign of the cross, exchange a sign of peace, and walk up to receive Communion. Like my cousin Stefano at the football game, we sometimes go through all the motions, but we’re not sure what it all means.
But if we’re attentive to God’s Word, we will begin to notice how the prayers, signs, and rituals of the Mass come from Scripture. Whether it be standing and kneeling, or using candles and incense, or praying “the Lord be with you”, “Glory to God in the Highest”, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord”, and “Thanks be to God”, practically everything we say and do in the liturgy is rooted in the Bible. The more we understand the significance of these rituals and responses, the more we will experience the Mass as a whole as a beautiful prayer in which the God who is love, step-by-step throughout the liturgy, is inviting us to a deeper union with him.
The Two Tables at Mass
The basic structure of the Mass goes all the way back to the early Church, with some of the actual prayers themselves already being recited within just a few generations after the apostles.
The two main parts are the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. We are fed first at what is sometimes called the “table of the Word”, where God’s inspired Scriptures are proclaimed. Then we are nourished at the “table of the Eucharist”, where we receive Christ’s Body and Blood in Holy Communion. These two main pillars of the Mass are flanked by smaller sections known as the Introductory Rites and the Concluding Rites. Let’s now consider these four sections of the liturgy.
The Introductory Rites
The opening prayers of the Mass are all about preparation. We can’t just walk into Mass, go through the motions, and expect the liturgy to bear much fruit in our lives. We need to get ready. We need to transition into this sacred moment and prepare our hearts so that we more fully enter into the Mass. In the bible, when the ancient Israelites prepared to hear God proclaim the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, they consecrated themselves for three days. Similarly, since we at Mass are about to meet God in his inspired Scriptures and in the Eucharist, we also need to get ready.
That’s why the very first thing we do is invoke God’s presence by making the sign of the cross. This ancient practice of tracing the sign of the cross over our bodies and praying, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”, invites God to come into our lives. By starting Mass in this way, we are setting apart this time for God and calling on his holy presence.
Next, the priest says, “The Lord be with you.” This is no ordinary greeting, like “Good morning.” In the Bible, this expression is used to address people whom God is calling to an important mission – one they could never dare to pursue on their own. They need God’s help, and that’s why God or an angel says to the person, “The Lord is with you.” When we hear those words at Mass, we are being reminded of the daunting, sacred mission God gives to us in the liturgy. What is that mission? We are about to encounter God’s Word and God’s presence in the Eucharist – not something we should take lightly. We sinners are not worthy to encounter God in this intimate way. But God invites us, and he will help us as we prepare our souls to enter into these sacred mysteries. So when the priest says, “The Lord is with you”, it’s as if he is saying to us, “Get ready! May God be with you as you prepare for this most sacred encounter.”
One of the most important steps in this preparation is to confess our sins and beg for God’s forgiveness. That’s why we pray, I confess to Almighty God and to you my brothers and sisters…”, and then we entrust ourselves to his loving mercy, praying, “Lord have mercy…Christ have mercy…Lord have mercy.” Then, confident in God’s steadfast love and mercy, we give praise to God for the forgiveness of sins brought about by Christ as we pray, “Glory to God in the highest!”
Notice how all these introductory prayers and rituals have their purpose. They all fit together. Moving from invoking God’s presence in the sign of the cross, to seeking his forgiveness in the “I confess…” and “Lord have mercy…” prayers, to thanking him for his salvation in the Gloria, the Introductory Rites help us be ready to encounter God in his Word and in the Eucharist.
Liturgy of the Word
Think of the Liturgy of the Word as a loving dialogue between you and God. Here, God speaks to each of us personally through the inspired words of Scripture. These readings at Mass are not merely stories from a long time ago. Nor do they simply offer moral teachings and spiritual lessons. For the Bible doesn’t speak about God. It is God’s own words in the words of men. And since they are God’s words, they transcend time and space and can speak to us today. The same Holy Spirit who inspired the words of Scripture thousands of years ago is alive in our hearts today, prompting us and guiding us to apply it to our lives. It is, therefore, a personal Word spoken anew to the hearts of each individual person at Mass. That’s why three people may hear the same reading but each be touched by God in a different way. One might hear something that sheds light on a challenge he is facing in his family, while another person might be inspired to grow in a certain virtue, and still another may find comfort in a time of suffering. As Vatican II taught, “In the sacred books the Father who is in heaven comes lovingly to meet his children, and talks with them.”
The Liturgy of the Word consists of a reading from the Old Testament, followed by a Responsorial Psalm, in which we respond to God’s Word, not with our own human words, but with the words of praise and thanksgiving he inspired in the book of Psalms. This is followed by a reading from a New Testament letter, or the Acts of the Apostles, or the book of Revelation. The Liturgy of the Word reaches its climax in the Gospel reading. All the other readings point in some way to Jesus Christ, but the Gospels present the life of Jesus himself. That’s why we give special reverence to the Gospel reading: we stand; sing, “Alleluia” (meaning “Praise the Lord!”); have a procession with the book of the Gospels; and trace the sign of the cross over our foreheads, lips, and heart, consecrating all our thoughts, words, and actions to Christ.
Just as the ancient Jews had a three-year cycle of readings in the synagogue, so we have a three year cycle of readings that present the wide breadth of Sacred Scripture. By simply going to Mass each Sunday, Catholics journey over and over again through the story of biblical salvation history.
After hearing God’s Word, the priest or deacon explains the readings and helps us apply them to our lives in the homily. And then we respond to God’s Word by renewing our profession of faith in the Creed and by humbly presenting our needs to God in the prayer of the faithful.
The Liturgy of the Eucharist
Now we come to the high point of the Mass. This is the moment when we encounter the God who is love in the most profound way as the priest carries out Jesus’ command at the Last Supper. The bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of Christ. We are drawn into Christ’s sacrificial offering of himself to the Father. And we receive our Lord Jesus in the most intimate Holy Communion.
But this section begins with the Presentation of the Gifts. In the early Church, people brought to Mass the work of their hands – bread, wine, honey, wool, wax, flowers, and other gifts – which represented hours and hours of their lives. These gifts ultimately expressed a gift of themselves to God. Today, a representative of the congregation processes just with gifts of bread and wine and our financial donations to the altar. But these small gifts symbolize the giving of our entire lives to God. This bread and wine is about to be changed into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. So don’t think of this part of the Mass as “halftime” – a time to check out for a bit. When the people process to the altar with the bread and wine, we should be talking to God in our hearts, uniting all our works, joys, sufferings – our entire lives – with Christ’s offering of himself to the Father, which is about to be made sacramentally present.
Next comes the Eucharistic Prayer. The priest begins by exhorting us, “Lift up your hearts.” In the Bible, the heart is the center of all our thoughts, desires, and attentions. For the priest to say, “Lift up your hearts,” is a summons to give God our best attention right now, to lift up all our thoughts and desires to God, for we are approaching the supreme mysteries of the Mass. Then we sing, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord…” – words that echo what the angels say before God’s presence in heaven (see Is 6:3; Rev 4:8). How fitting it is that we do this, for we, like the angels, are about to encounter the all-holy, divine Lord, who will become present on the altar. That happens in the Eucharistic Prayer, in which the priest prays for the Holy Spirit to come down upon the gifts of bread and wine “that they may become the Body and Blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ”, and then he repeats over the bread and wine the words of Jesus at the Last Supper (“This is my body…This is my blood”).
The Liturgy of the Eucharist culminates with what is called the Communion Rite. In just a few moments we will receive Jesus in the Eucharist. Our final preparations involve expressing the unity we have with God and with each other – a twofold unity that will be deepened when we receive Communion. We first recite the Lord’s Prayer, in which we express the intimate union we have with God. We recognize our God not just as Creator and Lord, but we affectionately address him as “our Father”. And then we express the harmony God desires us to have with each other in the Rite of Peace, which can include some sign (such as shaking hands) that expresses the unity between God’s people, which will be deepened in Holy Communion.
Finally, we humbly acknowledge our unworthiness to receive Christ into our souls. We repeat the words of the Roman centurion in the Gospels who wants Jesus to heal his dying servant, but didn’t feel worthy to have Jesus come to his home to perform the healing. The centurion acknowledged his own sinfulness, saying, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof…” We are like the centurion when we approach Holy Communion at Mass. We know we’re not worthy to have Jesus come under the “roof” of our souls, but we entrust ourselves to Christ’s mercy, believing that just as he healed the centurion’s servant some two thousand years ago, he can heal us as he comes to dwell within us in the Eucharist today.
Concluding Rites: Why the Mass Is Called the “Mass”
The only time the Word “Mass” is used in the sacred liturgy is in the conclusion. The priest or deacon says, “Go forth, the Mass is ended.” What does the word “Mass” mean? The term is derived from the Latin word missa, which means “dismissal” or “sending”. It was customary in the ancient world to conclude an assembly with a formal dismissal, and the early Christians did the same, with the priest ending the liturgy with the words Ite missa est – meaning, “God, you are dismissed or sent forth.”
It’s fascinating that the Church eventually named the entire liturgy after the key word in this concluding line: missa. It underscores how the liturgy is actually a going forth, a sending. It involves sending us out to bring Christ’s love into the world. The closing prayer, therefore, is not a directionless dismissal. It sends us on a crucial mission. As the Catechism puts it, “The liturgy in which the mystery of salvation is accomplished concludes with the sending forth (missio) of the faithful, so that they may fulfill God’s will in their daily lives” (CCC 1332). Having encountered God’s love in the Eucharist, we are now sent to carry that love out into the world" (From the Book, Love Unveiled, by Edward Sri).
 For a fuller explanation of all the prayers and rituals of the Mass…see Edward Sri, A Biblical Walk through the Mass: Understanding What We Say and Do in the liturgy (West Chester, Penn.: Ascension Press, 2011).
 Vatican II, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, November 18, 1965, no 21.