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The mass: From mystery to meaning

The mass: From mystery to meaning

The Mass: From Mystery to Meaning
James G. McCarthy

As an altar boy Jim McCarthy was impressed by the mass as performed in his parents' church. But he did not understand what it meant.

Until he started to read the Bible.

In this booklet Jim tells how he gradually found the true meaning of what lies behind the mass. He hopes that this short study will help others to understand better what the Lord Jesus meant when He said, This do in remembrance of Me.

Mr. McCarthy now lives in California with his family.

The Mass:
From Mystery to Meaning

I was upset as I waited for Mass to begin. As a boy, I had gone to Mass together with all my family. The ten of us sat in a long row. Those were happy days. Today I sat alone. Then it was enough just to go to Mass; now I wanted to know God.

I prayed, "God, are you here? My religion is so hard to understand. I have come every Sunday for twenty-three years. The nuns were my teachers for eight years. Priests taught me for another four years. I should know you by now. God, please help me to find you and to understand the Mass."

As Mass began, I carefully studied the priest's every action. Maybe today I would know the Mystery of the Mass. The priest repeated the same sacrament I had seen a thousand times. No, I realized, today would not be different. I needed someone to help me.

Help From God

My Catholic Bible was in my lap. This was the first time I had brought it to church. At my First Holy Communion, a neighbor gave me a beautiful, red leather Bible. I never read it. I did not think I could understand it.

Just three months ago, I had gone with a friend to a Bible study. People were reading and discussing the Bible. They understood it. I began to read mine. It was not as difficult as I had thought.

Jesus was the greatest teacher. He spoke to ordinary people like me. He told stories about farming, fishing, and baking to help people learn about God. He used ordinary things to explain difficult truths.

Could the Bible help me to understand the Mass? Yes, God would teach me through his book.

When Mass ended, I went home and began to read the story of the Last Supper. It was there that the Church says that Jesus started the Sacrament of the Mass. As I read, the Mass took on new meaning which brought joy to my heart. I should have read the Bible sooner!

One of Two Ways

Even at the Last Supper Jesus used ordinary things to make great truths clear. Jesus said, "I am the true vine." (John 15:1). Jesus was not a real vine. He was using a vine as an example. Jesus is like a vine. We are like his branches. A vine brings life to its branches. He brings life to us.

Then he picked up a loaf of bread and broke it. He said, "This is my body." (Matthew 26:26) Was Jesus saying that his body was like the bread? Was he using bread as a symbol to stand for and represent his body?

Never before had I thought of it in that way. The Catholic Church taught me that the bread is not a symbol. It teaches that the priest changes the bread into the real body of Jesus. He turns the wine into the blood of Christ. The bread and the wine become the Son of God.

The Catholic Church says the bread changes: on the outside, it still looks like bread; on the inside, it becomes the body of Jesus.

But what did Jesus mean by his words? I looked closer. When Jesus took the bread, he said, "This is my body." The word is can be understood in two ways.

Usually the word is shows that two things are the same. For example, a young man showing his first car to his family might proudly state, "This is my car." This is how the Catholic Church understands Jesus' words. The bread is Jesus.

The word is can also mean that one thing represents or stands for another thing. Consider the same young man as an example. Later that day at dinner, he must tell his father how he crashed his new car. As he talks, the son moves the knives, forks, and spoons to show how the accident happened. Then he picks up one spoon and sadly states, "This is my car."

Though the young man said the same words twice, each time his family knew exactly what he meant. They understood him, because they heard all that he said.

Or think of a man showing his friends a picture of his son. He takes a photograph from his pocket and says, "This is my boy." No one thinks that his son is a piece of paper, they know at once what he means.

It seemed that Jesus' words at the Last Supper should be taken the second way. Jesus seemed to be using the bread as a symbol to stand for his body. I knew that to understand Jesus' words, I had to read all that he said at the Last Supper.

The Purpose of the Bread and Wine

Jesus took the bread and broke it. He said, "This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me. (1 Corinthians 11:24)

The Catholic Church says that the priest turns the bread into the body of Christ. Then he offers Christ as a sacrifice. The Second Vatican Council calls the Mass the offering of the spotless victim. (Vatican II, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, sec 48) The Mass is a real sacrifice. The Catholic Church teaches that the Mass continues or carries on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. The Mass is supposed to remove the guilt of sin for the living and the dead. The Church says that those who go to Mass will grow in grace.

I could not find these things in the Bible. Jesus never called the Last Supper a sacrifice. Instead he said, "Do this in remembrance of me." There is a big difference between remembering someone and sacrificing him. If the bread is to remind us of Jesus' body, then it is a symbol.

I decided to talk to a priest. Maybe he could help me to understand.

A Visit to the Priest

The priest greeted me warmly, but seemed uneasy when he saw my Bible. I asked him, "Did Jesus say that the bread becomes him or that it is a symbol of him? Does Jesus tell us to sacrifice him or to remember him?"

He smiled. I could tell that this was not the first time someone had asked him these questions. He seemed to understand my problem.

The priest began to explain the teaching of the Catholic Church. I stopped him. "I already know what the Church teaches," I said. "The problem is that I cannot find it in the Bible. Jesus never says that the bread becomes him. It seems to me that what he meant is that the bread represents him. Jesus never called the Last Supper a sacrifice."

Again he answered quickly, "You cannot understand the Mass by just reading the story of the Last Supper. You must learn the teaching of Jesus in the Gospel of John, chapter six. There he promises Holy Communion, the sacrament in which Jesus is present in the bread and wine."

The priest opened my Bible. He read Jesus' words, " 'Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.' (John 6:54) It is important to receive Holy Communion if you hope to get to heaven," the priest warned.

I thanked him for helping me. As soon as I was home, I began to study the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John. I needed to know all that Jesus said in this passage, not just one or two statements. It excited me to think that I would soon understand the Mass. But what I found shocked me.

The Bread of Life

In John 6, Jesus is talking to the Jewish leaders. He tells them that they must believe in him. (John 6:29) They ask Jesus for a sign to prove his claim of being God. They tell him that Moses proved that he was God's prophet by bringing bread down from heaven. They were saying, "Bring bread down from heaven, and we will believe you."

Jesus answers, "I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty." (John 6:35)

Jesus was not saying that he is bread, but that he is like bread. At that time, bread was the main food. Jesus was using bread as an example. As our bodies need food to live, our souls need Jesus to live. He did not want them to eat him. No, he told them to come to him and to believe in him.

When I found the words of Jesus which the priest had read to me, I studied them carefully. They were almost the same as an earlier statement of Jesus. I decided to write the two statements down and line up the parts that were the same. It looked like this:

John 6:40

John 6:54
Everyone who

looks to the Son

eats my flesh

believes in him

drinks my blood
shall have eternal life,

has eternal life,

I will raise him up

I will raise him up
at the last day.

at the last day.

Each part lined up perfectly. Now I was certain. Jesus was using eating and drinking to teach the Jews. He wanted them to know how important it is to believe in Him. Jesus was using the eating of bread to represent believing in him. He was not talking about Holy Communion. He was talking about faith.

Now I knew why the Catholic Church's teaching on the Mass was so different from what I was reading. The Church said Jesus was talking about eating when he was teaching about believing. It had mistaken the example for the truth!

The Jews would not believe that Jesus was the Son of God. Neither could they see that he was using eating to explain believing. They complained and left.

Jesus let them go. Then he asked the twelve Apostles, "You do not want to leave too, do you?" Peter was the first to answer, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God. Peter knew that Jesus was speaking of faith.

If Peter understood Jesus, then why does not the Roman Catholic Church? I went back to the beginning of the church to find the answer.

The History of the Mass

The history of the early church is written in the Acts of the Apostles. This book is in the Bible. It is part of the New Testament.

The first Christians met in homes on Sundays. The Bible says that they met to break bread. (Acts 2:42) They also studied the teaching of the Apostles, prayed, and encouraged each other. The Book of Acts says nothing about what happens to the bread and wine.

The Mass is not found in the Apostles' Creed. This is a statement of the Christian faith from the second century after Christ. Neither is the Mass in the Nicene Creed (325 A.D.).

The Catholic Church did not always teach what it does today about the Mass. Church leaders argued about it from the ninth through the twelfth century. Not until 1215 A.D. at the Lateran Council, did the Catholic church officially state that the bread turns into the body of Christ.

In the sixteenth century, the Catholic Church was still defining and explaining the Mass. This was a time when many Catholic priests left the Church, because they thought it was teaching error. The Catholic Church held the Council of Trent to answer the questions raised by these priests. The Catholic Church said that anyone who did not believe in the Mass, as they taught it, was cursed.
The Second Vatican Council (1963-1965) called the Mass the most important part of preaching the gospel. (Vatican II, Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests, sec 5) But that is not what Paul thought, for he said what was most important, but he did not even mention the Mass. In the New Testament Paul said, "Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you,... For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins,... that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day...." (I Corinthians 15:1-5)

Through the years and the centuries, the simple gathering of the early Christians had gradually changed.

The first Christians wept as they watched Jesus die. They rejoiced when they saw him alive, risen from the dead. They stood in awe as they watched him go up into the sky." They knew that when he arrived in heaven he received a throne at the right hand of God. (Hebrews 1:3-13)

When these first Christians met on Sundays, they would not have thought of Christ as still on the cross. Why should we? Why should we re-sacrifice him at every Mass? I could not find the answer, and so I returned to the priest.

Continuing or Finished?

"You have confused yourself by reading the Bible," said the priest in a kind voice. "The Mass is a real and true sacrifice, but we do not put Christ to death again. With God all things are in the present time. The Mass makes the cross present for us today. We celebrate the sacrifice of Christ which is ever present in the mind of God. The Mass is not a re-sacrificing of Christ, but carries on his first sacrifice."

"Why do we want to carry it on?" I asked. "As he died, Jesus said, 'It is finished.' (John 19:30) The Word of God says, 'We have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.' (Hebrews 10:10) The Sacrifice of the Mass reminds me of my sin and guilt. (see Hebrews 10:1-3) The early Christians celebrated Christ's finished work on the cross and his resurrection. God sees his Son as risen and on a throne in heaven. He is not still on earth hanging on the cross. The Apostle Paul tells us, 'Set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.' (Colossians 3:1-2) Where does it say that Christ is still on the cross in the mind of God?" I asked.

"You are upsetting yourself, my son," replied the priest. "The Mass is a mystery. Accept it by faith."

He wanted me to believe something which God said was not true. I decided that I would listen to Jesus and the Apostles. They never called the Last Supper a mystery. Christ's sacrifice on the cross could not be both finished and continuing.

Common Sense

I went home and again read the story of the Last Supper. I tried to imagine what it must have been like that night in the upper room. What did the Apostles think when Jesus took the bread, said, "This is my body," and broke it? He was right there with them. They could hardly have thought that the broken bread was Jesus.

If the bread turns into the real body of Christ, then we would be eating human flesh. We would be drinking human blood. God commanded the Jews not to drink blood. (Leviticus 17:10-11; Acts 15:29).

I always believed that the bread turned into the body of Christ. Yet, it still looked like bread. It tasted like bread. It felt like bread. It must be bread.

What kind of miracle is that? When God does a miracle, things happen! God has never expected people to blindly believe something has happened when all outward signs show that nothing has happened.

The Catholic Church insists that the bread changes. Inside it is Christ's body, but outside it looks like bread. This is nonsense. The way something looks on the outside is because of what it is in the inside

Broken for Me

What I was thinking frightened me. I remembered the priest's warning, "It is important that you receive Holy Communion if you hope to go to heaven."

All my life I went to Mass to receive grace. I took the sacraments. I kept the Ten Commandments the best that I could. I thought I would go to heaven.

That is not what God says in the Bible. There I read, "There is no one righteous, not even one.... there is no one who does good, not even one.... Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law.... all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." (Romans 3:10, 12, 20, 23).

When I read this I knew I was not good enough to go to heaven. I was a sinner. God's Word says that "the wages of sin is death." (Romans 6:23) The punishment for sin is death, suffering in hell forever.

I read of the final judgment in the last chapters of the Bible. God has a record of all that we have done. Each person will be judged. God will look up each person's name in the Book of Life. If his name is not there, he will be thrown into the lake of fire. (Revelation 20:11-15)

The only ones going to heaven are those whose names are found in the Book of Life.

How could I get my name into the Book of Life? We are all sinners. The punishment for sin is death. Therefore we all must be going to hell. How can anyone go to heaven?

The answer came as I thought again of Jesus with the bread in his hands at the Last Supper. "Jesus took the bread, gave thanks and broke it." (Mark 14:22) He broke the bread! The broken bread must be a symbol of his death on the cross.

Why did Jesus die on the cross? The Apostle Peter gives the answer, "Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God." (1 Peter 1:18) The Lord Jesus Christ died to pay the punishment for my sins. He paid with his own life. (Mark 10:45). His life was taken in exchange for mine. That is why Jesus said, "This is my body, which is for you." (1 Corinthians 11:24).

I considered Christ dying on the cross for my sins, and I realized how bad my sins really were. I became ashamed of my sins. What a fool I had been to think that I was good enough to stand before a holy God. Nothing I could do would pay God back for my sins.

What is God's way to heaven? Jesus said, "I am the way." (John 14:6). "Everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day." (John 6:40). Jesus said, "Repent and believe the good news!" I knew that the good news was that Jesus has already paid for my sins.

I prayed to God, "Father, please forgive me for being so proud to think that I was good enough to go to heaven. I am a sinner. I want to turn away from my sins and follow Jesus. Thank you for sending your Son to die for my sins. His death on the cross is enough. It is full payment for all my sins. Help me never to forget what he did for me. In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen."


At the Last Supper, the bread and wine were symbols looking forward to the cross. Now they are symbols looking back to the cross. Their purpose is to help us to remember Christ until he returns. (Mark 1:15).

Jesus died for your sins. God now offers you salvation as a free gift if you will repent and believe the good news. (Ephesians 2:8-9).

But God will not give the gift of salvation to anyone who tries to receive it, even in part, through his own work. (Galatians 3:10, 2:21, 5:2-5). To seek God's grace through the Mass is to do just that.

Every Catholic must make up his own mind.

Each must ask himself: am I trusting on Christ's finished sacrifice on the cross as the only payment for my sins? Your answer will decide not only what you think of the Mass, but whether you will go to heaven. (John 3:36; Romans 4:5, 9:30-33; Hebrews 10:38-39)

I wanted to be loyal to the Catholic Church, because I thought it was the one true church. By reading the Catholic Bible, I learned that the Catholic Church does not teach what Jesus and the Apostles taught. I could not obey both, so I chose to listen to God's Word.

I made my decision one evening when a group of Christians invited me to join them to remember Christ with bread and wine. They were not Catholics, but they were followers of Jesus Christ. They believed that the bread was a symbol to remind them of Christ.

We sat in a circle. A loaf of bread and a cup of wine stood on a small table in the center. Someone from the group asked if we could sing a song. Then a man stood up and from his heart gave praise to God. An elderly man asked us to turn in our Bibles to a passage describing the death of Christ. He read the passage slowly. He then spoke with love about the grace of God in sending his Son to die for us. My mind and spirit were drawn back to that great day. He ended by worshipping the Lord Jesus Christ who is now on his throne in heaven.

The meeting continued in this way for about thirty minutes. Each person spoke as the Holy Spirit led him. I knew that they deeply loved Christ.

One man gave thanks to God for the loaf of bread and broke it into two parts. Then they passed the bread from one person to the next. Each took a small piece. Another man gave thanks for the cup of wine and passed it around the circle.

At first I felt uneasy seeing several men doing what the priest alone did in my church. Yet it was all so natural and glorifying to God. The Apostle Peter wrote about all believers, "You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light." (1 Peter 2:9). All believers are priests before God to worship and to serve him.

As they freely worshiped the Savior, I knew that here before my eyes was the true meaning of the request of the Lord Jesus, "This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me."

(Bible quotations are from the New International
Version, copyrighted 1984 by the International Bible Society)

M1S 4L8

This and other Catholic related materials can be ordered online from Good News for Catholics.

Related Topics:
The gathering above described by James McCarthy is unlike any of today's modern denominations. It describes a typical brethren assembly which is why, like James McCarthy we gather to break bread in this way. (See Scriptural Principles of Gathering). Other truths lost by modern denominationalism include the believer's Standing and State and how we should address the Lord of Glory, see the extract from Sir Robert Anderson entitled The Lord from Heaven and Basic truth series 2. Jim brings out a very important message, that even though one is religious, it does not lead to salvation. See Cornelius, The First Gentile Believer.

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