The Biblical Roots of the Mass | An interview with Thomas J. Nash, author of "Worthy Is The Lamb" | Ignatius Insight
Thomas J. Nashs book, Worthy
Is The Lamb: The Biblical Roots of the Mass, is both profoundly
insightful and highly readable. In it he refutes, in a resoundingly biblical
fashion, the common charge that the Mass is "unbiblical".
From the Garden of Eden to Christs Ascension, Nash illustrates how
the biblical roots of the Mass go much deeper than the Last Supper and Christs
Passion. Old Testament sacrifices like Abels, Abrahams and
the Passover all prefigure and are fulfilled by Christs Sacrifice.
Indeed, Nash shows how Christs Sacrifice has two distinct, yet inseparable
phases: What began on the Cross culminated in everlasting glory when Jesus
entered once for all into the heavenly holy of holies.
In other words, at Mass the Church does not become present at the foot
of the Cross in sorrow but rather to a never-ending, heavenly drama in
joyful celebration, offering and partaking of Christs Sacrifice
according to the priestly order of Melchizedek! As the renowned apologist
Frank Sheed concisely observed, "The essence of the Mass is that
Christ is making an offering to the Father of Himself, Who was stain for
upon Calvary The Mass is Calvary, as Christ now offers it to His Father."
In a time when the Catholic Church is under attack from within and without,
Worthy Is the Lamb reminds the faithful why they believe and where
they are heading, that the Mass is, as Vatican II affirms, "the source
and summit of the whole Christian life". This book will transform
your understanding of and participation in the Mass.
Dr. Scott Hahn, noted theologian and co-author
Sweet Home, states: "Its high time Catholics discovered
the Old Testament roots of our Churchs worship and priesthood. The
New Covenant did not abolish the Old, but fulfilled and transformed it.
Our Lord wants us to experience the reality of the Mass in all its fullness,
and thats what Tom Nash wants you to know."
And Steve Ray, author of Upon
This Rock and St.
writes, "A sprout emerges from the seed, then a tree from the sprout.
In the same way the Church and the sacraments emerge from the Jewish Scripturesthe
Old Testament. To understand the Passover Lamb and ceremonies of ancient
Israel is to fully appreciate Our Lord Jesus, the Mass, and the Catholic
Church, Nash has done us all a great service by pulling back the curtain
and blowing away the mist, giving us a glimpse back in time and forward
through eternity, enabling us to clearly see and appreciate Our Lord in
the Eucharist in all his rich glory-prefigured in the Old Testament and
revealed in the New.
IgnatiusInsight.com: What prompted you to write your book?
Thomas J. Nash: I had long thought of doing an apologetics book
on the biblical basis of the Catholic Church for Emmaus Road Publishing,
which is the publishing house of my employer, Catholics United for the
Faith (CUF). But I learned that someone else had been signed up for a
similar book, and, amidst my disappointment, I prayed about which direction
to proceed. I came to the conclusion that a book on the biblical story
or roots of the Mass would be a good one, because there wasnt really
one that filled this niche in the Catholic marketplace on the popular/scholarly
When I say the biblical roots of the Mass, I refer to the heart of the
Massthe Sacrifice of the Mass-and how that Sacrifice was prefigured
in Old Testament offerings and fulfilled in Christs one Sacrifice
in the New Testament. While many apologetics books made worthwhile, New
Testament-based arguments for the Eucharist in the midst of covering other
doctrinal topics, I didnt see any book that cultivated a biblical
overview of the Sacrifice of the Mass. Different authors affirmed my conclusion.
Because it makes present Christs one Sacrifice of Calvary, the Mass
is the both the source and summit of the Catholic life, as Vatican II
reminds us. The Mass is fundamental in showing us where weve come
from and where were going in salvation history, and it is also provides
us the strength-Jesus Himselffor us to get there and help others
do the same. The Mass is also misunderstood both by many Catholics and
Protestants, with Catholics often vulnerable to biblical arguments against
Given these various reasons, I thought a good biblical exposition of the
Mass was much needed. My goal was to write a book that would be accessible
and engaging to the average layman, yet, in doing so, lead the reader
to better appreciate the profound theological realities that are wrapped
up in the Sacrifice of the Mass. For example, how can Jesus have died
once on Calvary, yet have his Sacrifice re-presented 2,000 years later
by the Church? I had written significantly on the biblical basis of the
Mass as a graduate student and thatand others writingsprovided
a good basis on how to proceed.
IgnatiusInsight.com: What are the biggest misconceptions about the
Mass that Protestants have? That Catholics have?
Nash: There are many Protestant denominations, so you cant
over generalize, but it is fair to say that there are major trends among
Many Protestants have a limited view of what a sacrifice
is. They think that if a victim is involved, then slaughtering the victim
must always take place to have a true sacrifice. Thus, if a victim has
already been slaughtered, the victim cannot be offered anymore, even if
the effects of that offering may continue. Consequently, many Protestant
have a peculiar belief of the "once-for-all" nature of Jesus
(cf. Heb. 7:26-28, 9:28), namely, that His Offering began and ended on
Calvary (cf. Jn. 19:30). They mistakenly believe that Catholics are attempting
to crucify Christ again and again at every Mass, thereby undermining the
biblical belief that His Sacrifice is "once for all." Luther
considered the Mass a "blasphemy," because he believed it called
into question the efficacy of Christs one Sacrifice.
The Catholic view is actually much more profound and biblically based
than its critics contend, as I demonstrate in great detail in my book.
In short, Christs Sacrifice follows and fulfills the "two-phase"
model of the Day of Atonement sacrifices (cf. Lev. 16). On this Day, among
other sacrifices, a bull and a goat were slaughtered. But the sacrifices
of these animals didnt end there. To complete these offerings, the
high priest would take the blood of these animals into the holy of holiesthe
innermost chamber of the Templeand sprinkle it before and on the
Almightys mercy seat, which was perched atop the Ark of the Covenant.
Similarly, Christs Sacrifice did not begin and end with His Sacrifice,
in which Christ suffered, died, and rose from the dead (the earthly phase).
As unique priest and victim, Christ had to ascend to complete His Sacrifice,
presenting His Self-Offering to the Father in the heavenly sanctuary (Heb.
9:3-24). Thus, the image of the lamb standing in heaven in triumph, even
though he bears the marks of being slain (cf. Rev. 5:6). Because heaven
is timeless, Christ Sacrifice culminates in everlasting glory at His Ascension.
The Catholic view makes sense of the biblical assertion that Christ continues
to serve as a priest in heaven and therefore must have something to offer
in heaven (Heb. 8:1-3, cf. 7:23-25). In other words, if Jesus offered
only one Sacrifice, and He continues to offer a sacrifice in heaven, then
"once for all" must also mean that is His Sacrifice is everlasting.
It is this "completed," glorified Sacrifice, culminated in everlasting
glory that Catholics become present to and participate in offering at
every Mass. My book elaborates much more on these profound themes.
Beyond that, Protestants simply do not believe that the Mass is the perfection
and perpetuation of the Jewish Passover sacrifice, one in which Christians
both offer and partake of the Lamb. Many of them labor under the misconception
that the Eucharist, if it were true, would constitute cannibalism. Cannibalism
is the eating of a dead persons body in a way that diminishes that
persons body. Through the miracle of the Eucharist, we partake of
the eternally lifegiving Body, Body, Soul and Divinity of the very
much alive Jesus Christ. As I explain in detail in my book, while Jesus
human nature is by nature limited, it can miraculously partake of his
I think Catholics suffer today not so much from misconceptions as poor
catechesis and lack of reverence. Some dont believe in the Real
Presence, but most do. Yet, those who believe often dont take their
belief to its logical, reverential conclusion: not partaking of the Lamb
of God in a state of serious sin because to do so would grave implications
(cf. 1 Cor. 11:27-30).
I would say the major misconception among Catholics
is that many see the Mass as mainly or exclusively a meal, underemphasizing
or missing its sacrificial aspect. If Catholics en masse realized that
they join the heavenly host in offering the Son to the Father at Mass,
and if they realized the serious implications of partaking of Our Lord
in the Eucharist, I think we would see the beginning of a Catholic revival.
After all, as Vatican II reminds us, the Mass is the source and summit
of the Catholic life, the place from which we get our power and purpose
on earth and also our ultimate, heavenly destination.
However, so long as notorious public figures can receive the Eucharist,
e.g., pro-abortion politicians, I think the solemnity of the Sacrifice
of the Mass and gravity of the receiving Holy Communion will thereby be
catechetically undermined. A general reform in catechesis at all age levels
is also needed, and there is no better place to start than in the homily.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Many Christians arent familiar with typology
and the important role it plays in a Catholic reading of Scripture. How
does an understanding of typology help in appreciating the Old Testament
roots of Catholic theology and liturgy?
Nash: Typology is not a Catholic imposition on Scripture. Its
a legitimate, exegetical exercise, i.e., an authentic, biblically based
way to draw out the full meaning of Scripture, of Gods salvific
plan for us.
Typology helps illustrate the unity of salvation history, showing how
what began in the Garden of Eden culminated in Christs Sacrifice
of Calvary. Typology shows how various Old Testament sacrifices prefigured
and are fulfilled by Christs Sacrifice, including Abels, Abrahams,
Melchizedeks, the Passover and the Day of Atonement offerings. In
other words, typology serves as a biblical thread to help us better understand
and explain Scripture. The dominant type or image regarding the biblical
roots or story of the Mass is the lamb, thus the title of my book: Worthy
is the Lamb. The lamb is not simply a paradigm of biblical sacrifice,
but also a paradigm of Christian discipleship.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Many Catholics, in this country at least, do
not study scripture. Is it possible for a Catholic to fully understand
the liturgy of the Mass without a scriptural background?
Nash: A Catholic can participate in Mass without studying Scripture,
but hell never fully understand the Mass without studying Scripture,
and thus his participation will be stunted to one extent or another. On
the one hand, weve had in history Catholics who were not very educated,
but who had a basic, biblical understanding of the Mass and an accompanying
profound belief in the Eucharistic Lord they loved. Their love and fervent
faith are models for us today, because knowledge of the Masss biblical
roots without genuine love and faith effectively amounts to nothing (cf.
1 Cor. 13:2).
On the other hand, the problem today is that many Catholics are well-educated,
yet studying their faith is not a primary focus of their leisure time
activity. A bishop once told me, "You cant love what you dont
know." Applied to this scenario, Catholics need to know the Lord
better through scriptural study and prayer if they are to love and serve
Him better, and, in turn, have the power to love and serve others better.
The more we study Scripture, the more were going to know how much
our Lord has loved us and our spiritual ancestors through salvation history,
and how profoundly mysterious is the Sacrifice of the Mass, at which we
become present to, offer and partake of our loving Lord. The result of
such study will be Catholics with much greater convictions, better prepared
and more willing to serve the Lord in carrying out His Churchs mission
to the world (cf. Mt. 28:18-20).
IgnatiusInsight.com: In your opinion, what needs to be emphasized
more in homilies and catechesis about the Mass?
Nash: In short, to summarize themes of preceding answers, to emphasize
the biblical roots of the Mass: to show that the Mass is profoundly rooted
in the Bible; to show how the Mass is truly the source and summit of the
Catholic life; to show how profoundly and wondrously Jesus loves us through
the Sacrifice of the Mass.
IgnatiusInsight.com: How do you think the Protestant idea of liturgy
corresponds to Biblical accounts of liturgical celebrations?
Nash: Its kind of like comparing a model airplane to an actual
airplane. Its not the real thing. Again, there are variations in
Protestant belief, with some having an imperfect view of the Real Presence
(Lutherans) and some espousing the Real Presence basically the same way
as Catholics (traditional Episcopalians). However, even with Episcopalians
there is not a valid Eucharist because they do not have validly ordained
priest. In general, with Protestant liturgy you can have Christians who
are sincerely gathered together to worship the Lord, but you dont
have the re-presentation and partaking of our Lords one Sacrifice.
As I note in my book, the common Protestant view of the Lords Supper
sees only the consumption of mere bread and wine and sees the same done
by our Lord and His apostles at the Last Supper. Consequently, the prominent
view of the Protestant Lords Supper has no impact on our salvation
and thereby becomes an anticlimactic fulfillment of the Jewish Passover
IgnatiusInsight.com: When did Catholic liturgy begin, and how has
it changed over the years?
Nash: The liturgy began at the Last Supper. The Last Supper is
the first Mass, in which Christ pre-presented and anticipated His Sacrifice
of Calvary. Mass after Christ lived out His Sacrifice re-present His Sacrifice
(Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], no 1366). In speaking
to Protestants and other non-Catholics, Catholics need to know how to
explain these profound realities, and I think my book will help them greatly
in that cause.
From the earliest days of the Church, we have the basic liturgical template
of the Mass: the liturgy of the Word and the liturgy of the Eucharist
(cf. CCC, nos. 1346-47). Afterward, the Mass changed over time in terms
of the language in which it has been prayed and the prayers added and
developed to help deepen our participation. Yet, while arguments rage
today regarding the Tridentine Mass rite versus the Mass rite of Pope
Paul VI, and whether and how to reform the rite of Paul VI, Catholics
should remember that that the heart of the Massthe liturgy of the
Word and the liturgy of the Eucharist remains and will always remain.
And if we have that basic template, we have whats most important:
our Lord in Word and Sacrament.
Of course, the liturgical laws of the Church should be faithfully followed
to promote the reverent celebration of the Sacrifice of the Mass and,
as part of that effort, to avoid needless distractions for the faithful.
IgnatiusInsight.com: How can Catholics be "welcomed forward"
for better instruction on the Eucharist, as well as a host of other catechetical
Nash: The Sunday homily is crucial in this process, because Sunday
Mass is the weekly celebration of the source and summit of the Christian
life, as noted above. The Sunday homily is an excellent place to talk
about the Eucharist because the Liturgy of the Word immediately precedes
the Liturgy of the Eucharist in the celebration of the Mass.
Once the faithful are better informed and formed regarding the Eucharist
at Mass, they will be much more likely to participate in other non-Mass
parish activities for further catechesis and invite others to do the same.
In addition, they will be more likely to live the faith outside Mass in
their homes and work lives, because they will have more intimately and
fruitfully encountered the Incarnate Word of God. Jesus teaches us that
He is "the way, the truth, and the life" (Jn. 14:6), and the
Eucharist provides us with a blessedly unique opportunity to receive the
life of Jesus so that we can follow His way. The Person of Jesusand
thus the Eucharistis fundamental to Catholic catechesis.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Why is it crucial that Catholics be aware of
the Biblical roots of the Mass?
Nash: First of all, we need to remember that the Bible is the written
Word of God, and as such has power in and of itself. It is living and
active (Heb. 4:12) and therefore simply reading the Bible and proclaiming
it can bring us and others closer to God.
In addition, in reading Gods Word, Catholics will come to appreciate
better how true the Mass is, how the roots of the Mass are deeply planted
in the Old Testament and fulfilled in Christs Sacrifice of Calvary.
The Bible tells the story of how God came to save us, and the biblical
roots of the Mass-the biblical story of the Mass-is central to that story
of salvation history, because the Mass sacramentally re-presents Christs
one Sacrifice whereby man was redeemed and salvation made possible.
If Catholics want to understand Gods great love for us, if they
want to better grasp the truly awe-inspiring nature of the Mass, they
need to know the biblical roots of the Mass. Further, when Catholics understand
better the biblical roots of the Mass, they will be able to give a more
compelling witness to both other Catholics and also Protestant Christians.
A biblical understanding of the Mass is crucial in interacting with Protestants.
In summary, in learning better the biblical roots of the Mass, Catholics
will be drawn into closer communion with Jesus, their Eucharistic Lord.
Consequently, they will be much better equipped to give witness to Jesus
and His Catholic Church in both their words and their daily example.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Talk about the idea of Catholicsand others
as wellgiving their "first fruits" to God and others,
what it means and why its necessary.
Nash: "First fruits" are not required because God actually
needs them or that we are trying to assuage His "ego." Rather,
requiring first fruits is Gods loving way of reminding us that everything
we have and are is ultimately from Him, and that we need to keep focused
on Him if we want to be truly fulfilled, both here on earth and in heaven.
Jesus illustrates this principle in the Gospel of Matthew: "[S]eek
first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be
yours as well" (Mt. 6:33).
A significant way we give God our first fruits is through donations to
the Church. Giving God ten percent of our gross income (a tithe), or whatever
we can afford, helps us become less detached regarding material goods
and more disposed toward relying on God and keeping Him centrally focused
as we plan our lives and individual days.
In addition, the concept of first fruits applies not simply to our treasure
(donations), but our time and talent as well. That is, do we honor God
in the use of our time? Do we fulfill our daily responsibilities according
to our vocation, e.g., that of a husband and father? In short, do we give
our bestour first fruitsto God in all circumstance so that
we can become increasingly conformed to and united with Him? We are reminded
that in giving to God we receive, and receive abundantly (cf. Jn. 10:10),
for who can out give God? Not giving God our first fruits, putting ourselves
first, will only lead to our unhappiness, both here on earth and potentially,
God forbid, in the hereafter. As Jesus teaches us, "For what will
it profit a man, if he gains the world and forfeits his life" (Mt.
26:16; cf. 7:13-14).
IgnatiusInsight.com: In your opinion, what is the overriding need
of Catholics today and what can the Church do to help?
Nash: To encounter Jesus personally within His Catholic Church,
the family of God. If they can come to know better how real Jesus is,
how much He loves them personally, guides them through the teachings of
the Church and is ready to nourish them through prayer and the sacraments,
particularly the Eucharist and the Sacrament of Reconciliation or Confession.
Regarding the latter sacrament, Catholics need to be reminded how they
should not approach the Eucharist unworthily, but rather first seek reconciliation
with God in Confession (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1385).
At the same time, they need to realize Gods great merciful love
for them, how much he desires them to be in right relationship with Him
so that they can fruitfully partake of the Eucharist. The Cross speaks
most eloquently in this regard.
If Catholics realize and experience Gods merciful love, they will
be well on their way to becoming joyful, zealous disciples of Christ in
the manner of St. Francis, who said, "Always preach the Gospel, and
when necessary use words." Apologetics are important, but encountering
the risen Lord, experiencing His grace, is primary and indispensable to
genuine and vibrant discipleship.
The Church can help by assisting the faithful to encounter Jesus more
fruitfully, both through general catechesis at whatever age level and
through the reception of the sacraments. Indeed, we most intimately encounter
Jesus in the Eucharist, for it is in the Blessed Sacrament that Our Lord
provides us eternal life in a unique Self-Gift of Himself to us (cf. Jn.
6:58). Given, as noted above, that the Mass is the source and summit of
the whole Christian life, Sunday Mass should be the fundamental place
that Catholics learn about and grow in love with God and His Church.
IgnatiusInsight.com: What do you hope Worthy Is The Lamb
Nash: I hope, with Gods grace, that many, many faithful Catholics
will be brought even closer to our Eucharistic Lord and His Church, whether
through personal reading, parish Bible study, college or seminary courses,
etc. I really hope a lot of priests and seminarians read it as well as
husbands and wives.
As a result, I hope that they will in turn be more energized to share
the biblical story of the Mass, with the fruit including stronger Catholic
families; stronger parishes and dioceses; many disaffected Catholics being
reconciled to the Church, many Protestants coming into full communion
with the Church, and many non-Christians coming to know our Eucharistic
Lord as members of His Catholic Church. With Gods help, I hope I
can directly impact some Protestants and non-Christians who providentially
come across my book. When it comes to promoting the mission of the Church,
I cant help but think big. After all, with God all things are possible
This interview was originally published on Ignatius Insight in August 2004.
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Thomas J. Nash, a former Senior Information Specialist at Catholics United for the
Faith (CUF), now works for Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN). He is co-author of Catholic for a Reason III: Scripture and
the Mystery of the Mass (Emmaus Road, 2004), and his work has appeared in
such publications as Catholic World Report, This Rock, the National
Catholic Register and Lay Witness. He has worked in both the
secular media (print and broadcast) and the Catholic media, winning/sharing
in several national Catholic journalism awards. A native of Detroit, Nash
holds degrees from the University of Michigan (B.A. in communication), the
University of Missouri (M.A. in journalism) and Franciscan University of
Steubenville (M.A. in theology).