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What is the Mass?
The Mass is the complex of prayers and ceremonies that make up the service of the Eucharist in the Latin rites. As in the case of all liturgical terms the name is less old than the thing. From the time of the first preaching of the Christian Faith in the West, as everywhere, the Holy Eucharist was celebrated as Christ had instituted it at the Last Supper, according to His command, in memory of Him. But it was not till long afterwards that the late Latin name Missa, used at first in a vaguer sense, became the technical and almost exclusive name for this service.
In the first period, while Greek was still the Christian language at Rome, we find the usual Greek names used there, as in the East. The commonest was Eucharistia, used both for the consecrated bread and wine and for the whole service. Clement of Rome (d. about 101) uses the verbal form still in its general sense of "giving thanks", but also in connection with the Liturgy (I Clem., Ad Cor., xxxviii, 4: kata panta eucharistein auto). The other chief witness for the earliest Roman Liturgy, Justin Martyr (d. c. 167), speaks of eucharist in both senses repeatedly (Apol., I, lxv, 3, 5; lxvi, 1; lxvii, 5). After him the word is always used, and passes into Latin (eucharistia) as soon as there is a Latin Christian Literature [Tertullian (d. c. 220), "De pr scr.", xxxvi, in P.L., II, 50; St. Cyprian (d. 258), Ep., liv, etc.]. It remains the normal name for the sacrament throughout Catholic theology, but is gradually superseded by Missa for the whole rite. Clement calls the service Leitourgia (1 Corinthians 40:2, 5; 41:1) and prosphora (Ibid., 2, 4), with, however, a shade of different meaning ("rite", "oblation"). These and the other usual Greek names (klasis artou in the Catacombs; koinonia, synaxis, syneleusis in Justin, "I Apol.", lxvii, 3), with their not yet strictly technical connotation, are used during the first two centuries in the West as in the East.
All these were destined to be supplanted in the West by the classical name Missa. The first certain use of it is by St. Ambrose (d. 397). He writes to his sister Marcellina describing the troubles of the Arians in the years 385 and 386, when the soldiers were sent to break up the service in his church: "The next day (it was a Sunday) after the lessons and the tract, having dismissed the catechumens, I explained the creed [symbolum tradebam] to some of the competents [people about to be baptized] in the baptistry of the basilica. There I was told suddenly that they had sent soldiers to the Portiana basilica. . . . But I remained at my place and began to say Mass [missam facere coepi]. While I offer [dum ofero], I hear that a certain Castulus has been seized by the people" (Ep., I, xx, 4-5). It will be noticed that missa here means the Eucharistic Service proper, the Liturgy of the Faithful only, and does not include that of the Catechumens. Ambrose uses the word as one in common use and well known. There is another, still earlier, but very doubtfully authentic instance of the word in a letter of Pope Pius I (from c. 142 to c. 157): "Euprepia has handed over possession of her house to the poor, where . . . we make Masses with our poor" (cum pauperibus nostris . . . missas agimus" -- Pii I, Ep. I, in Galland, "Bibl. vet. patrum", Venice, 1765, I, 672). The authenticity of the letter, however, is very doubtful. If Missa really occurred in the second century in the sense it now has, it would be surprising that it never occurs in the third. We may consider St. Ambrose as the earliest certain authority for it.
From the fourth century the term becomes more and more common. For a time it occurs nearly always in the sense of dismissal. St. Augustine (d. 430) says: "After the sermon the dismissal of the catechumens takes place" (post sermonem fit missa catechumenorum -- Serm., xlix, 8, in P.L., XXXVIII, 324). The Synod of Lérida in Spain (524) declares that people guilty of incest may be admitted to church "usque ad missam catechumenorum", that is, till the catechumens are dismissed (Can., iv, Hefele-Leclercq, "Hist. des Conciles", II, 1064). The same expression occurs in the Synod of Valencia at about the same time (Can., i, ibid., 1067), in Hincmar of Reims (d. 882) ("Opusc. LV capitul.", xxiv, in P.L., CXXVI, 380), etc. Etheria (fourth century) calls the whole service, or the Liturgy of the Faithful, missa constantly ("Peregr. Silviæ", e.g., xxiv, 11, Benedicit fideles et fit missa, etc.). So also Innocent I (401-17) in Ep., xvii, 5, P.L., XX, 535, Leo I (440-61), in Ep., ix, 2, P.L., LIV, 627. Although from the beginning the word Missa usually means the Eucharistic Service or some part of it, we find it used occasionally for other ecclesiastical offices too. In St. Benedict's (d. 543) Rule fiant missae is used for the dismissal at the end of the canonical hours (chap., xvii, passim). In the Leonine Sacramentary (sixth cent. See LITURGICAL BOOKS), the word in its present sense is supposed throughout. The title, "Item alia", at the head of each Mass means "Item alia missa". The Gelasian book (sixth or seventh cent. Cf. ibid.) supplies the word: "Item alia missa", "Missa Chrismatis", "Orationes ad missa [sic] in natale Sanctorum", and so on throughout. From that time it becomes the regular, practically exclusive, name for the Holy Liturgy in the Roman and Gallican Rites.
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