A Biblical Walk Through the Mass: Understanding What We Say And Do In the Liturgy
Dr. Edward Sri holding a picture of Benedictine College’s campus, where he was a professor for years.
By Ted Sri
Dr. Edward Sri is Professor of Scripture and Theology at the Augustine Institute and the author of the best-selling book, A Biblical Walk Through the Mass: Understanding What We Say And Do In the Liturgy (Ascension Press).
Catholics are very familiar with the parts of the Mass—perhaps too familiar. Sunday after Sunday, we recite certain words such as, “Amen … Thanks be to God … Alleluia … Holy, Holy, Holy Lord.” These words are so ingrained in us that we often say them, almost robotically, out of routine. Indeed, if someone poked us in the middle of the night and said, “The Lord be with you,” many of us probably would roll over and instinctively respond, “And also with you.”
But do we really grasp the meaning of these words? Do we understand the significance of what we are doing and saying in the liturgy?
The new English translation of the Mass, which will be promulgated this November 27, will provide a unique opportunity for Catholics to reflect on the meaning of the prayers in the liturgy. This updated translation will bring about the most significant change in the way most English-speaking Catholics participate in the Mass since the years following the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), when the liturgical texts were translated into English and officially used in worship for the first time. The basic structure of the prayers will remain the same, but the change in wording at many points throughout the liturgy will be quite noticeable. For a time, most Catholics will no longer be able to walk into church on Sunday and automatically recite the Gloria, the Creed, and other Mass parts by memory. They will need a guide to help them become accustomed to the new translation of these prayers.
As we are taken out of our routine, we will have the opportunity to ponder the significance of all that we say and do in the liturgy and re-discover the splendor of the Mass.
For example, consider the meaning behind one of the most noticeable changes found near the opening of Mass. It involves the people’s response to the priest’s greeting, “The Lord be with you.” In the new translation, we will reply, “And with your spirit.” This more adequately reflects the Latin text of the Mass and the biblical language of St. Paul (see Galatians 6:18; Philippians 4:23; 2 Timothy 4:22).
It also more fully expresses an important theological point. When we said, “And also with you” in the older translation, one might get the impression that our response was merely intended to express an exchange of personal greetings or reciprocal good will: “May the Lord be with you, too, Father.”
But there is much more to this response. When a man is ordained a priest, the Holy Spirit comes upon him in a unique way, enabling him to perform the sacred rites of the Mass and consecrate the Eucharist. By responding, “And with your spirit,” we acknowledge the Spirit’s activity through the priest during the sacred liturgy. We are referring to the ‘spirit’ of the priest, the very core of his being, where he has been ordained to offer the sacrifice of the Mass. Indeed, we are acknowledging that while God works through the priest who is offering the Mass, ultimately it is Jesus Christ who is the head of the community gathered for the liturgy and it is his Spirit who is the primary actor in the liturgy, regardless who the particular priest celebrating Mass may be.
The updated translation will help deepen our worship of God by making the many Biblical allusions and important theological points found in in the foundational Latin text of the Mass come out more clearly.
As theologian Jeremy Driscoll explains, “The people are addressing the ‘spirit’ of the priest; that is, that deepest interior part of his being where he has been ordained precisely to lead the people in this sacred action. They are saying in effect, ‘Be the priest for us now,’ aware that there is only one priest, Christ Himself, and that this one who represents him now must be finely tuned to perform his sacred duties well.”
Indeed, while God works through the priest who is offering the Mass, we are acknowledging that ultimately it is Jesus Christ who is the head of the community gathered for Mass and it is his Spirit who is the primary actor in the liturgy, regardless who the particular priest celebrating Mass may be.
The Confiteor (“I confess to almighty God…”)
In the prayer known as the Confiteor (which begins, “I confess to almighty God…”), the new translation better reflects the Latin text of the Mass and helps us cultivate a more humble, sorrowful attitude toward God as we confess our sins. Instead of simply saying that I have sinned “through my own fault,” as we have in the old translation, we will now repeat it three times while striking our breasts in a sign of repentance, saying: “Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.”
This repetition more fully expresses our sorrow over sin. When we are at fault over something small, we might simply say to the person whom we have wronged, “I’m sorry.” But if it is a more serious matter and we deeply feel sorrow over our actions, we sometimes apologize several times and in varying ways: “I’m so sorry…I really regret doing that…Please forgive me.” This prayer in the liturgy helps us recognize that sinning against God is no light matter. We must take responsibility for whatever wrong we have done and whatever good we failed to do. At Mass, one does not simply offer an apology to God. The revised translation of this prayer helps the Christian express even more heartfelt contrition and humbly admit that one has sinned “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.”
3. The Gloria (“Glory to God in the Highest …”)
In the new translation, Jesus is addressed as the “Only Begotten Son.” This more closely follows the theological language used in the early Church to highlight how Jesus is uniquely God’s Son, sharing in the same divine nature as the Father. This also reflects the biblical language in John’s gospel, which uses similar wording to describe Jesus’ singular relationship with the Father. While all believers are called to a special relationship with God as his sons and daughters through grace (see John 1:12; 1 John 3:1), Jesus alone is the eternal, divine Son by nature. He is the “only begotten Son” of the Father (see John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18).
4. The Creed (“I believe in one God …”)
Several changes have been made to the translation of the Nicene Creed used in the Mass. Here are some of the major revisions:
“We believe” is now “I believe”
We have begun the Nicene Creed with the words “We believe in one God…” The new translation, however—“I believe in one God”—unites us with the rest of the Catholic world in using the singular. After Vatican II, English was the only Western language that translated the opening Latin word of the Creed (Credo, “I believe”) with the plural “We believe.” The singular “I,” however, makes the Creed more personal and challenges each individual to interiorize the faith. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, “I believe” expresses “the faith of the Church professed personally by each believer” (no. 167).
This is what we do when we renew our baptismal promises during the Easter season or when we attend a baptism. The priest asks if we believe in the various statements of faith in the Creed: “Do you believe in God the Father Almighty…?” “Do you believe in Jesus Christ…?” “Do you believe in the Holy Spirit…?” Each individual answers for himself or herself, saying, “I do.” It is fitting that we will regularly make a similar personal act of faith by using the singular “I believe” whenever the Creed is recited in the Mass.
“One in being with the Father” is now “Consubstantial with the Father”
While this change involves what some may see as arcane or technical theological language, it is important to be as precise as possible when speaking about the nature of God. The revised translation of the Creed aims at helping us more precisely profess a concept about the nature of the Son and his relationship with God the Father. The previous wording referred to Jesus as “one in being with the Father.” We will now speak of Jesus being “consubstantial with the Father.”
So what’s the difference? Simply put, the new wording more closely reflects the theological language of the bishops at the Council of Nicea (A.D. 325) who wanted to safeguard that Jesus was acknowledged as the eternal Son of God, equal to the Father. The council condemned the false teaching of a man named Arius who held that there was a time when the Son did not exist. According to Arius, God created the Son and then adopted him. He said the Son of God “came to be from things that were not” and the Son was “from another substance” than that of the Father (Catechism, no. 465).
In opposition to this, the Council of Nicea taught that the Son is “God from God, light from light, true God from true God” and “of the same substance” (homoousios in Greek) as the Father. The Son was not created by the Father, but rather is a distinct divine Person who has existed from all eternity, sharing the same divine nature with the Father and the Holy Spirit.
When homoousios was translated from Greek into Latin, it was rendered consubstantialem, which has traditionally been translated as “consubstantial” in English. The new translation of the Mass returns to this traditional rendering. Although the term “consubstantial” might not roll easily off the tongue, its use preserves the precise theological tradition of the Council of Nicea and invites us to reflect more on the divine nature of Christ and the mystery of the Trinity.
“Was born of the Virgin Mary” is now “Was incarnate of the Virgin Mary”
Another important theological term is now preserved in the new translation of the Creed’s statement about Jesus’ unique conception. The older translation referred to the Son in this way: “By the power of the Holy Spirit he was born of the virgin Mary, and became man.” The new translation says that Jesus “by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.”
This phraseology more accurately reflects the Latin text of the Mass, which includes the word incarnatus (“incarnate”).This theological term refers to “the fact that the Son of God assumed a human nature in order to accomplish our salvation in it” (Catechism, no. 461). In the words of John’s gospel, “The Word became flesh” (John 1:14). Accordingly, we now say that the Son “by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.” Not only is this a more precise translation, it also captures more of the theological point expressed in the Creed. The Son of God was not just born of the Virgin Mary; he actually took on human flesh!
5. The Sanctus (“Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of Hosts…”)
The opening line of the Sanctus is taken not from a hymn book, but from the angels’ worship of God in heaven. In the Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah was given a vision of the angels praising God, crying out, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts” (see Isaiah 6:3). The word “hosts” here refers to the heavenly army of angels. When we recite “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord” in the Mass, therefore, we are joining the angels in heaven, echoing their very words of worship.
The previous translation of this prayer referred to the Lord as “God of power and might.” In the new translation, we address him as “Lord God of hosts.” This more clearly echoes the biblical language of the angels in Isaiah and underscores the infinite breadth of God’s power. All things in heaven and on earth are under his dominion—including the angels, who adore him unceasingly. Indeed, he is “the Lord God of hosts.”
6. The Words of Institution
Some changes have been made to the translation of the Words of Institution from the Last Supper, including the following:
“This is the cup of my Blood” is now “This is the chalice of my Blood”
While the previous translation of the Words of Institution referred to the “cup” of Christ’s blood, the new translation renders it “chalice.” This is a more accurate and more formal rendering of the Latin text of the Mass and one that underscores the liturgical nature of this vessel. This is no ordinary cup, but the Eucharistic cup (see Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25ff.) that the Lord consecrated at the Last Supper. This most sacred of vessels has traditionally been called a “chalice,” and this is the term used in the new translation.
“For all” is now “For many”
The previous translation of the Mass referred to Jesus’ blood having redemptive value “for all.” But the new translation replaces the words “for all” with “for many.” This revision remains closer to Jesus’ actual words of institution in the gospels (see Matthew 26:28). It is also more harmonious with the Latin text of the Mass—and with wording that has been used in the liturgy for centuries. The new rendering also has implications for understanding how Christ’s saving work is applied to our lives. Some have raised concerns that the words “for many” limit the universal scope of Jesus’ saving mission. They hold that the new wording gives the impression that Jesus did not die on the cross for everyone—that he offered his blood on Calvary not “for all” but just for a select group of people, “for many.” This is a misunderstanding of the text.
The new translation points to the reality that while Jesus died for all, not everyone chooses to accept this gift. Each individual must choose to welcome the gift of salvation in Christ and live according to that grace, so that they may be among “the many” who are described in this text.
Moreover, a number of Scripture scholars have observed that Jesus’ language at the Last Supper about his blood being poured out “for many” recalls “the many” that are three times mentioned in Isaiah 53:11-12. In this prophecy, Isaiah foretold that God one day would send his servant who would make himself “an offering for sin,” bearing the sin of “many” and making “many” righteous (Isaiah 53:10-12). Jesus, by speaking at the Last Supper about his own blood being poured out “for many,” was associating himself with this “suffering servant” figure prophesied by Isaiah. Jesus is the one who offers his life for the “many.” This should not be understood in opposition to the fact that Jesus died “for all” (1 Timothy 2:6). The other prophecies in Isaiah about the Servant of the Lord make clear that he has a universal mission, one that announces salvation to all humanity (see, for example, Isaiah 42:1-10, 49:6, 52:10). In this context, the expression “the many” can be seen as contrasting the one person who dies—the Lord’s Servant (Jesus)—with the many who benefit from his atoning sacrifice.
7. Ecce Agnus Dei (“Behold the Lamb of God…”)
A few changes have been made to the translation of this prayer that comes shortly before holy communion is distributed, including the following:
“Happy are those who are called to his supper” is now “Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb”
In the previous translation of this prayer, the priest said the words, “Happy are those who are called to his supper” as he held up the Eucharistic host shortly before holy communion. But the new translation highlights even more how the Eucharist is no ordinary meal. The new words more directly recall a climactic moment in the book of Revelation when Jesus comes to unite himself to his people in a great heavenly wedding feast. In this scene, Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, is depicted as a bridegroom intimately joining himself to his bride, the Church. An angel announces this loving union by saying, “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:9).
In the new translation, the priest at Mass more clearly echoes the angel’s invitation to the heavenly wedding supper of the lamb. Here, we see how the Eucharist we are about to receive involves an intimate, loving communion with our Lord Jesus—one that is likened to the union shared between a husband and wife. Indeed, holy communion is a participation in that heavenly wedding supper of the Lamb, which celebrates the union of Jesus with his bride, the Church.
“Lord, I am not worthy to receive to you” is now “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof”
These new words reflect the humility and trust of the Roman centurion in the gospels who asked Jesus to heal his servant who is at his house, paralyzed and in distress. As a Gentile, outside of God’s covenant, and a Roman officer in charge of a hundred soldiers who were oppressing God’s people, this centurion humbly acknowledges, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.” Yet he expresses a great faith that surpasses that of many others in the gospels and amazes even Jesus: he believes Jesus can heal from afar, simply by speaking his word: “But only say the word, and my servant shall be healed” (see Matthew 8:8; Luke 7:6-7). Jesus praises this man for his faith.
Like the centurion, we, at this moment in the Mass, recognize our unworthiness to have Jesus come sacramentally under the “roof” of our souls in holy communion. Yet just as the centurion believed Jesus was able to heal his servant, so do we trust that Jesus can heal us as he becomes the most intimate guest of our souls in the Eucharist.
We are standing at a unique moment in the Church. As we have read, the new translation of the Mass represents the most significant liturgical development for English-speaking Catholics since Vatican II. For nearly forty years, Catholics have become quite familiar with the English translation of the Mass: “We believe in one God … Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might…It is right to give him thanks and praise ….” Many of us have heard these words since childhood and know them by heart, simply out of routine. So ingrained in us are these responses that if someone were to say, “The Lord be with you,” many of us would instinctively respond, “And also with you.”
But what do these words mean? Sunday after Sunday we recite these prayers and perform certain rituals. But what is the meaning of all we say and do in the liturgy?
The revised English translation provides a unique occasion for Catholics to reflect on the meaning of the Mass. As we have seen, many of those familiar words for the Mass parts will be changing. We will need to learn new responses and new musical settings. It is my hope that this period of preparation and transition will not be merely mechanical—simply about training people to say new responses—but catechetical and spiritual. As we are taken out of our routine, we have a unique opportunity to ponder anew what we say and do in the Mass and rediscover the splendor of the liturgy, so that we might grow deeper in our communion with Jesus every time we go to Mass.
“Through My Most Grievous Fault”
In the prayer known as the Confiteor (which begins, “I confess to almighty God…”), the new translation of the Mass helps us cultivate a more humble, sorrowful attitude toward God as we confess our sins and accept responsibility for our wrong actions. Instead of simply saying that I have sinned “through my own fault,” as we have done in the old translation, we will repeat our sorrow three times while striking our breasts in a sign of repentance, saying: “I have sinned through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.”
But some people might wonder, “Why do we have to repeat this three times? This seems to be an awkward way of talking to God. Wasn’t the older translation simpler? And besides, this change will make Mass 2.5 seconds longer!”
Actually, the three-fold repetition reflects human communication more than we may realize. And if we understand the meaning of this change, the extra 2.5 seconds will be well worth our while!
When we are at fault over something small, we might simply say to the person whom we have wronged, “I’m sorry.” If, for example, I accidently step on your toe, I might say, “excuse me.” If I bump into you while waiting in a line, I might say a quick, “sorry” or “pardon me.”
But in a deep, personal relationship, things are different. If I have done something to hurt my wife, I don’t simply say, “Excuse me, honey!” or “Oh, sorry about that!” That would not go over well in a marriage! When we have done something wrong to someone we love, we do not merely make an apology. We deeply feel sorrow over our actions and we often apologize several times and in varying ways: “I’m so sorry…I really regret doing that…I should not have said that…Please forgive me.”
The same is true in our relationship with the Lord. This newly translated prayer in the liturgy helps us recognize that sinning against God is no light matter. We must take responsibility for whatever wrong we have done and whatever good we failed to do. At Mass, one does not simply offer an apology to God. The revised translation of this prayer helps the Christian express even more heartfelt contrition and humbly admit that one has sinned “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.”
The Gloria: “Only-Begotten Son”
The opening words of the Gloria echo the hymns of praise sung by the angels over the fields of Bethlehem on that first Christmas night: “Glory to God in the highest…” So the Gloria is somewhat like a Christmas song. Why do we singing a Christmas song at Mass? Because the mystery of Christmas is, in a sense, made present at every Eucharist. Just as the Son of God was made manifest to the world some 2,000 years ago, so He is made present sacramentally on our altars at the consecration at every Mass. Thus, it is fitting that welcome Jesus with words of praise that echo how the angels heralded Christ’s coming in Bethlehem.
One noticeable change in the new translation of the Gloria involves Jesus being addressed as the “Only Begotten Son.” We had been saying that Jesus was the “only Son of the Father,” but the new translation more closely follows the theological language used in the early Church to highlight how Jesus is uniquely God’s Son, sharing in the same divine nature as the Father. This also reflects the biblical language in John’s gospel, which uses similar wording to describe Jesus’ singular relationship with the Father. While all believers are called to a special relationship with God as his sons and daughters through grace (see John 1:12; 1 John 3:1), Jesus alone is the eternal, divine Son by nature. He is the “only begotten Son” of the Father (see John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18).