“Christ is always present in His Church,” states Sacrosanctum Concilium, Vatican II’s document on the Sacred Liturgy, “especially in her liturgical celebrations. He is present in the sacrifice of the Mass, not only in the person of His minister, … but especially under the Eucharistic species” (SC, 7). So, it only makes sense for Catholics to seek to understand the Mass as deeply as possible. And a thorough examination of the prayers of the Mass shows us that the liturgy is based in and constructed around Sacred Scripture.
Dr. Edward Sri is a professor of theology at the Augustine Institute and author of A Biblical Walk Through the Mass, and host of the accompanying video series. A new edition of the book has been released for the 10th anniversary. Dr. Sri brings his profound understanding of Scripture to bear on his exploration of this central feature of Catholic life. He is the author of several best-selling books, including Love Unveiled: The Catholic Faith Explained (Ignatius Press, 2017), Rethinking Mary in the New Testament: What the Bible Tells Us about the Mother of the Messiah (Ignatius Press, 2018), Who Am I to Judge? Responding to Relativism with Logic and Love (Ignatius Press, 2016), and The Art of Living: The Cardinal Virtues and the Freedom to Love (Ignatius Press, 2021).
Dr. Sri recently spoke with Catholic World Report about the 10th anniversary edition of A Biblical Walk through the Mass, and the importance of understanding the biblical foundations of the liturgy.
Catholic World Report: What prompted you to write the book initially, ten years ago?
Edward Sri: I had been working and researching and teaching about the biblical roots of all the parts of the Mass. There are a lot of a lot of resources out there that explain Eucharistic theology, but not so much the parts of the Mass and the prayers. I’d been teaching it for about a decade, and I wanted to put the book out about it. So I already had a contract for this book project and a video project. Then the bishops came out and said, “We’re going to have a new Mass translation.” And that made it really timely to incorporate the new translation.
The book was published just as the new translation was coming out. For over ten years, I just kept meeting so many Catholics who say, “I know the Mass is important, but I don’t feel like I get a lot out of it. I don’t think I get a lot out of this Mass, and I’m not sure of all that’s going on.” The analogy I use is I tell about my Italian cousin Stefano from Rome. He came to visit my family in Chicago many years ago, and we wanted to give him a great American experience. We took him to downtown Chicago to Soldier Field to watch an NFL football game with the Chicago Bears. And you know, we all stand up and cheer when there’s a good play, and he stands up and cheer is because he thought we must have scored, but it was just a good play. I know it’s bad, but we keep going through the motions. He has no idea what’s going on because his football is what we call soccer.
I think that’s how many Catholics approach the Mass. We know when to stand up, to sit down, to say, “Thanks be to God.” But many Catholics, even the good devout ones, they often tell me they feel like they’re just going through the motions. They know it’s important, but they’re not sure what it’s all about. So that’s what this book originally (and the new edition as well) set out to do, to help unpack the meaning of all the prayers, all the rituals, the opening Sign of the Cross to the closing “Thanks be to God”, everything we’re saying and doing, the liturgy is rooted in Scripture. And the more we know the biblical background of what we’re saying is doing in the liturgy, the more we can give ourselves to Christ and encounter him more profoundly in the Mass.
CWR: What’s new about this 10th anniversary edition? And why do an anniversary edition now?
Sri: The videos and the book have been used by hundreds of thousands of Catholics around the world. The videos were initially just me giving a lecture about the Mass for 25-30 minutes, filmed in a church. I had five or six of these 30-minute talks. People loved it. But we wanted to give it a refresh. So we filmed in a beautiful basilica there in Philadelphia. It’s not just me giving a talk, but walking around the different parts of the cathedral, explaining the different points in the Mass. You see me at the balcony, at the baptistry, by the water font, the altar, and the pulpit. We were also fortunate enough to film a mass, so that as I’m explaining parts of the Mass, there are cutaways to what I’m explaining. You see beautiful cinematography and hear beautiful music, which really helps people enter into the beauty of the Mass.
Then there’s the book itself. I went through the whole book and it has basically everything within the original book. I just added a lot to it. There is extra commentary based on my experience of having taught A Biblical Walk through the Mass for religious sisters and laypeople the last ten years and the insight from their experience with the biblical foundation for the Mass.
So, why now? You know, I think there was a plan to come up with the ten-year anniversary edition. We have been thinking about that for a while. We didn’t know COVID was going to happen, but there is something timely now as people are starting to come back to Masses. I think this could be an excellent resource to help people to really discover the splendor of the liturgy and to draw them back to the parish life after having been away for a while.
Then there’s the Pew study that came out showing over two-thirds of Catholics do not believe in the Eucharist; that is, they believe the Eucharist is just a symbol. That is a crisis of Eucharistic faith and the Eucharist is the very center of our Catholic faith. And yet the average Catholic doesn’t even understand it. My hope for the study is that it can help bring about an outpouring of Eucharistic faith and Eucharistic love. We also thought this would be a great resource to help prepare people for the Eucharistic revival that the bishops are working on.
CWR: Why is it important for Catholics to understand the biblical foundations of the Mass? And is it important even for non-Catholics to understand that?
Sri: Let’s take Catholics first. Catholics show up to Mass and they hear the priest say things like “The Lord be with you.” They see the priest do things like wash his hands right before the offertory. And you can look at those things and wonder, what does this all mean? But if you understand the biblical background of everything, all the prayers and all the rituals, it’s going to make your experience of the liturgy so much more profound.
Let’s look at those two examples. First, “the Lord be with you.” Sometimes Catholics look at that as just an ordinary greeting, like saying good morning—and you say “and with your spirit”, like “hey, back at you, Father.” We should approach the liturgy with more fear and trembling, because those words are used whenever God is calling someone on a daunting mission, like Moses to lead the people out of Egypt, or Joshua to lead the people in the Promised Land, or Mary at the Annunciation. When we hear those words, we should realize God is inviting us to something. We’re going to be stretched like never before. We’re going to have to rely on God like never before, just like those biblical heroes: Gideon, David, Moses, Joshua, Mary.
What is it that we’re being called to? In the liturgy, we’re getting ready to encounter God’s word, to prepare our hearts, to hear him speak to us through his inspired words of Scripture. We can’t simply walk in and just expect to just participate in the Mass. I need to prepare my heart. When the priest says “The Lord be with you”, it’s like a trumpet blast. It’s like the priest saying, “Get ready, prepare your heart. Get ready for this mission of encountering God in the liturgy.” Most of us just think, “Oh yeah, and with your spirit”, you just kind of go through the motions. You don’t realize it.
It’s the same with the washing of hands: that’s what the Old Testament priests would do before they entered the holy sanctuary to encounter God’s presence. And so it’s signaling to us that our little parish, whether it’s in a big city or small country church, is about to become a holy of holies, a sacred temple. The God of the Universe is about to come down upon our altars. And the bread and wine will be changed into the body and blood of Christ. It’s signaling to us and to the priests: Get ready. It’s time to purify not just our hands, but our hearts, our souls to encounter God who’s coming among us like the priests of old prepare to encounter God.
CWR: Is there any benefit to non-Catholic Christians and non-believers understanding the biblical foundations of the Mass?
Sri: I have met many Protestants over the years who told me that they came across my book and it was really helpful for them and their conversion to the Catholic faith. You know, they showed up at Mass and they heard certain biblical terms. But then they got into the book and it showed how everything is in Scripture and they’re blown away. They’re just so in awe that the Scriptures they love and are devoted to so much come shining through in the liturgy.
In the Mass, we’re not just praying words that were made up by the Vatican or some medieval pope. These are the same words that come from God. Just like when we’re dialoguing with God in prayer, we’re lovingly speaking his inspired words back to him as loving words from Scripture.
CWR: Do you remember when you first had that epiphany of discovering that the Mass was so essentially biblical?
Sri: I would mention two moments. First of all, during my college years I had a lot of Protestant friends on my big state university campus asking questions about why Catholics believe this and say that. It was then that I came across some great apologetics clubs that were explaining the real presence of the Eucharist, the sacrifice of the Mass. That’s where I learned about John 6, the Bread of Life Discourse. But that’s just about the theology of the Eucharist. That’s not about the prayers of the Mass.
It wasn’t until I was in graduate school where I took a class from Dr. Scott Hahn. We were studying salvation history, and he’s making connections all the time to our Catholic Faith, including the liturgy. That’s when I had a great interest in wanting to learn more and to study more about the parts of the Mass. And since then it’s just been a great interest of mine to look at all the parts of the prayers of the Mass and seeing all of it in Scripture.
CWR: What do ou hope readers get out of this book, video series, and accompanying study materials?
Sri: I want to make sure people know this is something that can be used in formal settings such as a high school classroom or Bible studies, men’s groups, women’s groups. So there’s that. But also families have used it in their home, wanting to train or teach their children about the liturgy. I hope Catholics come away not just with a deeper knowledge of the connection between the prayer of the Mass and the Scriptures, but that it helps them give their hearts to God more with every prayer and every ritual, every devotion in the liturgy.
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