The Biblical Roots of the Mass | An interview with Thomas J. Nash, author of "Worthy Is The Lamb" | Ignatius InsightThomas J. Nash’s 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 Christ’s Ascension, Nash illustrates how the biblical roots of the Mass go much deeper than the Last Supper and Christ’s Passion. Old Testament sacrifices like Abel’s, Abraham’s and the Passover all prefigure and are fulfilled by Christ’s Sacrifice. Indeed, Nash shows how Christ’s 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 Christ’s 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 of Rome Sweet Home, states: "It’s high time Catholics discovered the Old Testament roots of our Church’s 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 that’s what Tom Nash wants you to know."

And Steve Ray, author of Upon This Rock and St. John's Gospel, 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 Scriptures—the 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. 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 wasn’t really one that filled this niche in the Catholic marketplace on the popular/scholarly level.

When I say the biblical roots of the Mass, I refer to the heart of the Mass—the Sacrifice of the Mass-and how that Sacrifice was prefigured in Old Testament offerings and fulfilled in Christ’s 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 didn’t see any book that cultivated a biblical overview of the Sacrifice of the Mass. Different authors affirmed my conclusion.

Because it makes present Christ’s 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 we’ve come from and where we’re going in salvation history, and it is also provides us the strength-Jesus Himself—for 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 the Mass.

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 that—and others’ writings—provided a good basis on how to proceed. What are the biggest misconceptions about the Mass that Protestants have? That Catholics have?

Nash: There are many Protestant denominations, so you can’t over generalize, but it is fair to say that there are major trends among Protestant belief.

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 Christ’s 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, Christ’s 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 didn’t end there. To complete these offerings, the high priest would take the blood of these animals into the holy of holies—the innermost chamber of the Temple—and sprinkle it before and on the Almighty’s mercy seat, which was perched atop the Ark of the Covenant.

Similarly, Christ’s 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 person’s body in a way that diminishes that person’s body. Through the miracle of the Eucharist, we partake of the eternally life—giving 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 divine nature.

I think Catholics suffer today not so much from misconceptions as poor catechesis and lack of reverence. Some don’t believe in the Real Presence, but most do. Yet, those who believe often don’t 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. Many Christians aren’t 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?

Typology is not a Catholic imposition on Scripture. It’s a legitimate, exegetical exercise, i.e., an authentic, biblically based way to draw out the full meaning of Scripture, of God’s salvific plan for us.

Typology helps illustrate the unity of salvation history, showing how what began in the Garden of Eden culminated in Christ’s Sacrifice of Calvary. Typology shows how various Old Testament sacrifices prefigured and are fulfilled by Christ’s Sacrifice, including Abel’s, Abraham’s, Melchizedek’s, 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. 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 he’ll never fully understand the Mass without studying Scripture, and thus his participation will be stunted to one extent or another. On the one hand, we’ve 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 Mass’s 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 can’t love what you don’t 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 we’re 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 Church’s mission to the world (cf. Mt. 28:18-20). 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. How do you think the Protestant idea of liturgy corresponds to Biblical accounts of liturgical celebrations?

Nash: It’s kind of like comparing a model airplane to an actual airplane. It’s 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 don’t have the re-presentation and partaking of our Lord’s one Sacrifice.

As I note in my book, the common Protestant view of the Lord’s 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 Lord’s Supper has no impact on our salvation and thereby becomes an anticlimactic fulfillment of the Jewish Passover communion sacrifice. 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 Mass—the liturgy of the Word and the liturgy of the Eucharist— remains and will always remain. And if we have that basic template, we have what’s 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. How can Catholics be "welcomed forward" for better instruction on the Eucharist, as well as a host of other catechetical matters?

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 Jesus—and thus the Eucharist—is fundamental to Catholic catechesis. 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 God’s 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 Christ’s 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 Christ’s one Sacrifice whereby man was redeemed and salvation made possible.

If Catholics want to understand God’s 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. Talk about the idea of Catholics—and others as well—giving their "first fruits" to God and others, what it means and why it’s necessary.

"First fruits" are not required because God actually needs them or that we are trying to assuage His "ego." Rather, requiring first fruits is God’s 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 best—our first fruits—to 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). 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 God’s 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 God’s 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. What do you hope Worthy Is The Lamb will accomplish?

I hope, with God’s 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 God’s 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 can’t help but think big. After all, with God all things are possible (Mt. 19:26).

This interview was originally published on Ignatius Insight in August 2004.

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Worshipping at the Feet of the Lord: Pope Benedict XVI and the Liturgy | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D.
The Latin Mass: Old Rites and New Rites in Today's World | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D.

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).