The Mass developed
 in five main stages

Readings: 2 Kings 4.42-44; Ps. 145; Eph. 4.1-6;Jn. 6.1-15

For two thousand years, the Catholic Church has been re-presenting the First Eucharist which Jesus offered at the Last Supper. Over the centuries, many of the Mass' non-essential aspects have changed, but the essential aspects have remained intact. The non-essential aspects include church architecture, physical distance between the priest and people, theological relationship between the priest and people, vestments, language, the context of intermittent periods of religious freedom and religious persecution, and many other details. What has not changed at Mass are reading of the Scriptures, giving an instruction, using various Eucharistic Prayers, confecting the sacrament of Jesus' Body and Blood, taking up a collection, and at the end of the service sending people from the Church to apply the gospel in the world.

We may say that the Mass developed in five main stages. First. Jesus offered the First Eucharist at the Last Supper in a second floor room, where rabbis customarily would offer the Passover meal for their disciples. Jesus and his apostles reclined on their elbows at a knee high horse-shoe shaped table. Jesus spoke the words which the three Synoptic gospels and St. Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians provide: "This is my body, which is given up for you. This is my blood which is shed for you." Today's gospel, John 6, which pertains to the Eucharist, begins with Jesus' feeding a vast crowd by the multiplication of the loaves. Early first century Christians attended the Jewish synagogue on Saturday, and gathered for Eucharist at a Christian home on Sunday. Differences of beliefs gradually led to a separation between Jews and Christians, which becomes marked around 70AD. As the Christian church grew in numbers and expanded onto three continents, the language shifted from Aramaic to Greek. The Christian population evolved from being predominantly Jews to Gentiles. For its first three hundred years, Christians already known as Catholics in the pagan Roman Empire, celebrated Sunday liturgies either in people's homes in good times, or in catacombs during prolonged persecutions.

Second. In 313, Constantine legislated the toleration of Christianity, and built throughout the empire, many basilicas which held thousands of worshipers. The altar was no longer an ordinary family table, but was made of stone or marble, and was raised so that the large congregation could see the action of the liturgy. Around the year 200, the language changed from Greek to Latin, which had become the language of the majority of the people. Christians began to use genuflections, bells, incense, and processions. The ordinary table cup and plate of the house churches developed into the chalice and paten reserved for sacred purposes.

Third. In the high Middle Ages, around 1000, there evolved a sense of awe about the Eucharist and a correlative sense of people's unworthiness to receive the Eucharist. An iron grating or stone wall began to rise to separate the priests and people. This wall eventually would rise from the floor to the ceiling. We still have a remnant of the reredos in the Communion rail. Feeling very unworthy, believers began to watch Mass individually rather than to participate communally, to receive the host on their tongues instead of in their hands, and soon they did not receive Communion at all. In 1215 at the Council of Lyon, the Church established the law that Catholics had to receive the Eucharist at least once a year.

Fourth. During the Protestant Reformation, ironically the Eucharistic sacrament of Church Unity became a major occasion of division. Protestants differed not only with the Catholics but even among themselves on what Jesus meant by: "This is my Body. This is my Blood." Protestants rejected the Catholic teaching of transubstantiation, whereby Catholics teach that the substance of bread and wine is changed into the sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ. In its place, with the principle of individual interpretation popularized, Protestant teachings ran the gamut from consubstantiation, to temporary Real Presence, to symbolic presence, or to simply a memorial. Catholics retained then and now the apostolic teaching that Christ is really, truly, physically present in the Eucharist. Some positive things in the Protestant Reformation were the reception of Communion under both species, the use of local language in the church service, and impetus for the much needed and too long delayed Catholic Counter-Reformation which may not have occurred without the events of the Reformation.

Fifth. At Vatican II in 1963, the first document which the 2,000+ Church Fathers accepted was the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. The principles included "participation by the congregation" so that altars were turned around and the vernacular language was employed, and a "return to the early roots of the Church" so that people were invited to receive Communion in the hands and under both species, and the sermon on any topic was changed to become a homily related to the day's scriptures.

In conclusion, two thousand years later, the Catholic Church still preaches and practices what Jesus began: "This is my Body, take and eat it. This is my Blood, take and drink it." We do this in the context of a community gathered to worship God, listening to God's Word in the Old and New Testaments, with ancient Eucharistic Prayers. We still take up collections as did St. Paul for the benefit of the Church and especially the poor. We still end Mass with the exhortation: "The Mass is ended. Go in peace." Many things have changed since Jesus had walked on earth. One thing that has not changed is Jesus' desire to feed us as anticipated in the multiplication of the loaves, and as enjoyed through the power of the Church in the sacrament of Our Lord's Body and Blood.

Read other homilies by Father O'Malley