Even after attending sporadic school masses in high school, I somehow conceptualized a Catholic Mass as a collection of their songs and readings grouped around the Eucharist just as we (evangelicals) had a collection of our songs grouped around the sermon. Actually, most of the Mass is pulled straight from Scripture, and the structure of the Mass is basically described by Justin Martyr in the 2nd century. It was shocking just how much Biblical content is in the Mass to a degree that made comments about the Catholic Church being ‘unbiblical’ ring hollow.
Today is a great example; today is Palm Sunday. (Though I’m sure you didn’t need my blog to tell you this!) We were given blessed palms as we entered the church. Mass began with a procession, the altar boys, lectors and priest walked around the inside of the church carrying palm branches and incense as we sang Matthew 21:9:
“Hosanna to the Son of David;
blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord;
hosanna in the highest.”
After some words, the priest read Luke 19:28-40, which gives the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into the city of Jerusalem. A prayer was said, then Isaiah 50:4-7, the prophecy of the suffering servant, was read. Then we sang selections from Psalm 22 which is a plea to God in times of trouble, quoted by Jesus on the cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ This was followed by a reading from Philippians 2:6-11 where Paul tells us that Jesus, though equal with God, humbled himself and died on a cross. Then, the choir sang a portion of that reading – Philippians 2:8-9 – as we stood to hear the Gospel reading:
He humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death,
even death on a cross.
Because of this, God greatly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name
that is above every name.
On Palm Sunday, the Gospel reading is read by three individuals and the congregation. One lector functions as the narrator, another reads the response of individuals, the priest reads the words of Christ and the congregation reads group responses. This year the reading stretches from Luke 22:14 – Luke 23:56 and it is a vivid reminder of the Gospel story but also of the fact that Jesus died for us, even as we call, ‘Crucify him!’ (cf. Luke 23:21)
After ‘The Liturgy of the Word’ (what I have just been describing) we have ‘The Liturgy of the Eucharist.’ After the introductory prayers we sang, ‘Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of hosts… Hosanna in the highest.’ which recalls the song of the angels before the throne of God in Revelation 4:8 and the cries of the crowds on the road to Jerusalem. (Matthew 21:9) This is followed by the Eucharistic prayer, which is rather long, but contains within it a retelling of the Last Supper.
We respond to this by praying, as a congregation, the Lord’s Prayer. This is followed by Angus Dei, a song which repeats part of John the Baptist’s cry in John 1:29, ‘Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.’ As we prepare for communion, we pray using the words of the centurion who asked Jesus to heal his slave:
Lord, I am not worthy
that you should enter under my roof,
but only say the word
and my soul shall be healed. (cf. Matthew 8:8)
Communion or the Eucharist is the high point of the Mass and occurs at the close of the Mass. Once communion is finished, there are some brief concluding rites, and a hymn. But I think you get the general picture: the Mass is full of Scripture.
So one of the delightful things about becoming Catholic has been the way that Scripture comes alive in the Mass; along with the rich history around the structure of the Mass stretching back to the first Christians. Still, the differences take a little getting used to. Mass is like a staple food rather than an exotic dinner; certain prayers and the format is almost always the same (with some variation from parish to parish.) I sometimes miss the worship songs I am familiar with. Less often, I miss the challenge of taking apart and analyzing the pieces of a sermon (homilies are normally much shorter and simpler.)
But one of the things that those well meaning people on the road to Jerusalem didn’t do on the real Palm Sunday was recognize why Jesus had come. They hailed him as a king, and a king He is, but they wanted to receive Him on their terms. They wanted Him to be a military hero who would save them from the Romans. They hailed Him as the Scriptures foretold, but later abandoned Him because He turned out to be something different than they had wanted.
So for me, I’m becoming Catholic not because this is the path I would have chosen for myself, but because I want to walk the path that Jesus walked. I don’t always do a good job of that, nor do I claim that I am doing a good job now, but it’s not enough to say ‘Hosanna!’ I need to follow God in the way that He has asked me to, not in the way that I enjoy the most. I need to be receptive to Jesus who isn’t concerned with palm waving so much as he asks me to carry my cross and follow Him. (cf. Matthew 16:24) And one reason the evangelical part of me knows I am now in the right place is because whenever I go to Mass, I realize I’m in the most Biblical church I know.