What Is a Mass?

Let Us Clear Up a Misunderstanding

When most non-Catholics hear the word “Mass,” they naturally associate the word with a Roman Catholic communion service, and they think that the word is somehow intrinsically connected with the doctrine of transubstantiation and the Catholic merit system of salvation. However, the English word “Mass” is simply an Anglicization of the Latin word missa, which means to dismiss.

The early Christian worship services ended with the congregation celebrating communion together. However, before the communion began, those who were not yet members of the congregation were dismissed. This is perhaps why the communion service came to be known as the dismissal. Or, it may be because at the end of communion, the presiding leader would say, “Ite missa est”— you are dismissed. Either way, the term had become a common synonym for communion long before the dogma of transubstantation or the Catholic merit system had been established.

In music, a “Mass” does not mean a communion service, but rather a musical rendition of the six ancient hymns—the Kyrie, Gloria, Nicene Creed, Holy Holy Holy, Hosanna or Benedictus, and Lamb of God. Musical “Masses” were written by both Catholic composers like Palestrina and Protestant composers like Bach. Nowadays, these musical compositions are rarely sung in church services, but instead are normally performed by university choirs.

These six hymns date at least as far back as the 4th century, and most of them probably date back to the 2nd century, if not earlier. The words to these ancient hymns are purely Scriptural and contain no references to Mary or to transubstantiation. To read the texts of these six ancient hymns , click on this link.

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