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Names for the Lord’s Supper: The Mass
Midweek in the First Sunday in Lent
March 8, 2017
As we continue our Lenten observance, our pondering of our Lord’s Passion, we pray that we will see more and more and take to heart that His Passion—His suffering and death—is not simply something to remember but something that is a gift that He still gives to us through His Gospel and His Sacraments. In the Lord’s Supper particularly the sacrifice of Christ on the cross is given to us in its benefit. In the Lord’s Supper we are actually forgiven. In the Lord’s Supper we are actually strengthened in faith. We are forgiven and strengthened because in this Sacrament we are given the body and blood of our Lord.
The gift of Christ’s suffering and death along with His resurrection is a gift beyond compare. And yet, our Lord continues to go beyond even that in nourishing us with the very blessings of His Passion as He gives Himself to us in His Holy Supper. It’s impossible to comprehend the richness of the benefits we receive in partaking of this sacred meal. But that shouldn’t keep us from delving into that richness of grace and blessing that He gives in it.
We began last week by noting that the first reference to the Lord’s Supper in the Scriptures is the Breaking of the Bread. We continue this week by noting that the term The Mass is the name used most by the Lutheran Confessions. The Lutheran Confessions, also known as the Book of Concord, are those writings which define what it means to be Lutheran. To be sure, there is nothing on earth that determines what we believe and teach other than the Bible alone. The Word of God is the sole source and standard for doctrine and how we live holy lives. But it is shown us in Scripture itself that Christians confess, they profess what they believe and they live by that confession, even dying before renouncing it. Just as the Church has written creeds which we hold to, so has the Lutheran Church written confessions of faith which teach nothing but what the Word of God teaches.
It might come as a surprise then that our own confessions use the name Mass for the Lord’s Supper more than any other name. It also is the name used by most Christians and throughout most of Christian history. One of the things we’re learning in this exploration of the names for the Lord’s Supper is that the Word of God and the Christian Church down through the ages refer to this great gift of Christ in different ways. It is worth looking, then, at the name that is most used. As Lutherans we are careful to speak clearly about the things taught in Scripture and particularly the Sacraments Christ instituted. So when it comes to the name Mass we ought to take an approach that it both faithful to the Scriptures and aware of how it has been used.
It is interesting how the name Mass came about. Early on in the Christian Church the end of the worship service ended with the pastor saying, “Let us go in peace” and the people responding with, “In the name of the Lord.” This was the way of saying, It’s over. We have worshiped, we have celebrated the Lord’s Supper, it’s time to go. So the people would say, We will go in the name of the Lord. In the Latin liturgy it was much simpler: Ite, missa est. “Go, it’s over, we’re dismissed.” The congregation would respond, “Thanks be to God.”
The Latin word missa, Mass, was the end, the dismissal. Everything has been done, so we’re ready to go now. Now the interesting part is that the Lord’s Supper came to be called by the very last words they heard from the pastor. It has been completed. Missa. Mass. Go, you’re dismissed. This has been done in other ways as well. For example, one the names for the Lord’s Supper is the Lord’s Table. The table is only one part of the whole thing, and yet it has come to refer to the whole thing. The Lord’s Table is not simply the table that is used but it is the Lord’s Supper itself.
So that’s how the name came to be used for the Lord’s Supper. The real question is, what does it mean? Is it just another name for the Lord’s Supper or is there some real significance to it theologically? Well, the fact that people began associating the very last thing with the whole thing itself is good theology. Now that you have received this, there’s nothing more you need, you can go.
But it’s also good theology in regard to the picture it shows of what is happening both in the celebration of the Mass and the dismissing of the people of God afterward. In Revelation 4 a vision of heaven is given. The entire book is just that, a revealing of heaven. We are shown a glimpse of the greater reality. Here we are dealing with shadows. The things on earth and in life are shadows pointing us to the greater reality of what we will experience in heaven.
Except that, God breaks into our world from time to time to take us out of time. He breaks in and doesn’t simply give us a glimpse, He actually takes us out of time and joins us with the heavenly eternal celebration. This is what happens in the Lord’s Supper. In Revelation 4 it says, “After this I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, ‘Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.’ At once I was in the Spirit, and behold, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne.”
The apostle John was given a vision of heaven and inspired by the Holy Spirit to write it down in what we know of as the book of Revelation. What does he see? A door that’s open, to heaven. The door is not closed so that he wonders what is on the other side. It is open and he is invited to come in. He says that he is in the Spirit and when he goes through the door what does he see? A throne standing in heaven, and on that throne is one seated. Who is this? The rest of the chapter goes on to say that it is the Lord, God Himself.
This is heaven. God Himself and along with Him all the saints who have gone before, and all the angels and archangels.
And now, our God gives this same thing to us. Gathering at this altar, celebrating the Sacrament of our Lord, the door is open. The light of heaven is beaming down. In the Divine Service, the saints are gathered around. The Lamb has washed you in His blood. You have been out of time, you have been in heaven. This door that is open, you stand at the end. In this celebration of the Lord’s holy Meal you have been brought to the fulfillment of what you will experience for eternity in heaven. Now you’re ready to go back into the world. So the Church sends you out, as witnesses to this glory and grace.
So while it might at first seem odd to call the whole Lord’s Supper by the name of the last thing that is said—Go, You’re dismissed—it is wholly appropriate, as you have been brought to the ultimate end, the fulfillment, even though you remain here in time.
It is not odd at all then that the Lutheran Confessions speak of the Lord’s Supper as the Mass. Even so, it is not only to this Sacrament but also to the entire liturgy, the whole worship service. In Article XXIV of the Augsburg Confession, it is stated, “We are unjustly accused of having abolished the Mass. Without boasting, it is manifest that the Mass is observed among us with greater devotion and more earnestness than among our opponents. Moreover, the people are instructed often and with great diligence concerning the holy sacrament, why it was instituted, and how it is to be used (namely, as a comfort for terrified consciences) in order that the people may be drawn to the Communion and Mass.”
Here, Communion is exhorted along with the proper observing of the entire liturgy, what is called the Mass. So in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, which is the defense of the Augsburg Confession, it is stated, “To begin with, we must repeat the prefatory statement that we do not abolish the Mass but religiously keep and defend it. In our churches Mass is celebrated every Sunday and on other festivals, when the sacrament is offered to those who wish for it after they have been examined and absolved.” They are saying that they celebrate the Mass weekly and with it offer the Sacrament.
The Roman Catholic Church was accusing the Lutherans of destroying the Mass. The Lutheran response was that we not only retain it but celebrate it more fervently, faithfully, and in keeping with the institution of Christ than they do.
In the Lutheran Confessions we also find the name Mass referring to the Lord’s Supper. In the Smalcald Articles it is taught that the Mass in the papacy is a great abomination. The Mass itself is not condemned. It is the wrong way it is celebrated that is condemned. The true Mass is the Lord’s Supper rightly celebrated according to Christ’s institution. The Lutheran Confessions separate the abuse of the thing from the thing itself.
In medieval times the thinking was reversed in regard to the meaning and purpose of the Sacrament. The belief came to be that the Mass was a sacrifice of Christ offered to God. The Lutheran Confessions state that we do not offer Christ as a sacrifice. He offered Himself as a sacrifice on the cross to the Father and we are the recipients of the benefits of that sacrifice. It is what is delivered to us in the Sacrament. As it says in the book of Hebrews, Christ is the one sacrifice, once for all.
The Lutheran Confessions speak against the false view. Because of this many Lutherans associate the term Mass with the wrong celebration of it. The Lutheran Confessions’ way of dealing with that is to extol the proper celebration of the Mass.
The Post-Communion Collect captures well the spirit of the name Mass: “We give thanks to You, almighty God, that You have refreshed us through this salutary gift, and we implore You that of Your mercy You would strengthen us through the same in faith toward You and fervent love toward one another.” We give thanks. He has refreshed us. We implore Him that He would strengthen us in faith and fervent love. We can go now—this is how we go.
But if there is one place where the original Mass, or dismissal, has actually been retained, although in a slightly different form, it is in the blessing given right after the Lord’s people have received this gift, when the pastor says, “Depart in peace.”
Go. You have received everything you need. You are now sent out into the darkness with the light that no darkness can overcome. It is the dismissal of Christ to you. Think of the open door and go. Amen.