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Word Wisdom: Mass

The latest inspirational column from Rev. Dr. John Kreutzwieser.
Word Wisdom

Ray asked a while ago that I research the word Mass as to why that term is used for a church service in many forms of Western Christianity, most commonly in Roman Catholic circles. Since we are now in the Christian season of Lent, that time focused on spiritual reflection and analysis, it seems appropriate to discover why that term is used.

The most common rationale for using Mass as synonym for the main Eucharistic liturgical service comes from the ancient concluding words addressed to the people before they leave the church building after the church service. “Ite, missa est” is the traditional Latin phrase announced by the priest or deacon at the end of the service. A literal rendering of the phrase would be, “Go, it is the dismissal.” The Latin word missa was adopted into Old English as maesse, meaning a sending. The people, gathered as the church, are sent back into their daily lives to bear the fruit of what they had received in the service. Since missa was used as a term of the church service since the 6th century, Mass became associated in the same way in English. The point of using the term Mass implies that the church service is not just an individualistic spiritual event, but God’s gifts are received to be shared with the world. A connection developed between the meaning of dismissal and the deeper meaning of mission. So today the term Mass is used as the most common term for Roman Catholics to indicate their Eucharistic gathering.

However, there are other fanciful etymological explanations for the development of the term Mass. In the 16th century it was proposed that a Latinization of the Hebrew matzah, meaning unleavened bread, became Mass to describe the ritual action of eating unleavened bread in the church service as the main activity of the gathering. The Germanic term mese, meaning assembly, morphed into Mass to indicate the prime gathering of Christians. A 16th century writing, Of the Divine Offices, indicated that the word implies an action that sends people towards God. Thus, Mass is the ritual that provides the encounter between God and people.

At the time of the Reformation Martin Luther continued to utilize the term Mass for the church service. In 1523 he published a revised Formula Missae, Form of the Mass, and in 1526 developed a Deutsche Messe, German Mass. The theological documents of the Lutheran Church state, “Falsely are our churches accused of abolishing the Mass; for the Mass is retained among us and celebrated with the highest reverence. We do not abolish the Mass but religiously keep and defend it. ...We keep the traditional liturgical form. ...In our churches Mass is celebrated every Sunday and on other holy days, when the sacrament is offered to those who wish for it after they have been examined and absolved.” (Article XXIV of The Augsburg Confession, 1530)

Today, most Christian denominations use the terms worship service, church service, service, or Divine Service rather than the word Mass. The Eastern Church uses other terms such as Divine Liturgy or Holy Qurbana (Holy Offering).

Mass is also used for a musical setting of the ordinary parts of a church service, such as Bach’s Mass in B Minor. The ordinary sections of the service are those that do not vary from day to day but remain the same whatever the theme of the Sunday or Day. 

As with many English terms, a word becomes synonymous with the action performed regardless of the actual meaning of the word, which is often forgotten by most people. Thus, Mass is used as a shortened form of describing the weekly gathering of Christians around God’s Word and the Holy Sacrament.

John would like to know if anyone has a sincere interest in a relevant word that he could possibly research for an upcoming column. If so, please send your requests to . Words will be selected according to relevance and research criteria. We cannot confirm that all words will be used.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of this publication. 

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