On the day which preceded the passion and death of our divine Redeemer, when, according to the requirements of the law of Moses, the Paschal lamb was killed and eaten, our Lord sent His apostles Peter and John from the neighbouring village of Bethany, where they were staying, into Jerusalem, directing them to a certain house, where they were to enter, and desire the master of the house, in His name, to shew them a room where He might keep the Passover with His disciples. The master of the house having shewn them a large upper chamber, furnished and prepared, they there made all things ready. As it drew towards evening, Christ came, and together with Him the twelve apostles sit down at table. He speaks to them of His burning desire to keep this Paschal Feast with them; He discourses of His passion and death, now just at hand,—of the fierce trials which awaited them, and of other similar things. After which, our Divine Master, in order to apply an effectual remedy to the spirit of ambition which He saw entering amongst the apostles, arose from supper, and having laid aside His upper garment, girded Himself with a linen cloth, and pouring water into a basin, began, like the humblest of servants, with His own divine hands, to wash the disciples' feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith He was girded, accompanying the act with a sublime instruction on the purity and cleanness of heart which were required, and on the humility which was necessary for those who desire to be His disciples and to have part in His blessed kingdom.
After this, our Lord returns to the table with His disciples, and as they were at supper, He took bread, He blessed, He broke it, and gave it to them, saying " Take, eat; this is My Body." And taking the chalice, He gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, "Drink ye all of this; for this is My Blood of the New Testament. Do this for a commemoration of Me. For as often as ye shall eat this bread and drink this chalice, ye shall shew forth the death of the Lord until He come again."
Afterwards, our Lord Jesus Christ discoursed at length with His beloved disciples of most exalted matters, concerning His heavenly Father, and concerning the Holy Ghost, whom He was about to send down upon His Church. Upon peace, and charity, and prayer; upon the persecutions they must endure from the world; concerning His incarnation and His glory. Lastly, lifting up His eyes to heaven, He prays His Eternal Father for Himself, for His Apostles, and for all the elect, and He ends by singing, together with His disciples, a hymn of thanksgiving.
In this brief account we see clearly three things: 1st, the celebration of this first eucharistic Sacrifice by our divine Redeemer Himself; 2nd, the power and the command given to the apostles to celebrate the very same sacrifice as long as the world shall last; 3rd, the type and model of the manner of its celebration; and on this latter point we may observe in a few words, from what has been said, that in the celebration of the first unbloody sacrifice, the following facts and circumstances may be clearly traced:
1. A large room, and well prepared.
2. A table fittingly adorned with cloths, plates, chalices, candlesticks, and other furniture.
3. Unleavened bread, wine, and water.
4. The Priest for ever after the order of Melchisedech in tunic or under garment, girded with a girdle, with pallium or upper robe.
5. An ablution with water, wherewith the apostles were purified before partaking in the eucharistic Sacrifice and Sacrament.
6. Sacred discourses and instructions.
7. Prayers and sacred hymns.
8. The consecration of the bread into the Body, and of the wine into the Blood of our Redeemer.
9. The distribution and communion of the consecrated bread and wine.
The Apostles themselves began, after the day of Pentecost, to celebrate the eucharistic Sacrifice, as their Redeemer had commanded them, observing with the utmost care and fidelity all that belongs to the essence of the sacred act; and in those things which were merely accessory, either observing the same ceremonies and order, or else varying them according as they were taught by Christ Himself, or His Holy Spirit, which was given for their guidance. Accordingly, in the beginning, the blessed apostles celebrated in any place, provided it was decently adorned for the purpose, and furnished with all things required for the offering the Sacrifice, such as a table, unleavened bread, chalice, and vessels for the wine and water, napkins, lights, books, &c. In like manner, in imitation of our Lord, they made use of prayers, hymns, lessons, and discourses, before and after the Consecration, as well to instruct those who were present, as to excite greater reverence and fervour during the offering of the most Holy Sacrifice. For this purpose, by degrees, were introduced the various ceremonies and rites which the holy Church has made use of in succeeding ages; such as the variety of sacred vestments, the incense, the chant, and the different degrees of sacred ministers assisting.
The use of all those particular forms and rites which make up the sacred liturgy is to be explained and accounted for, moreover, by reference to two other causes. First, that the Christian Church succeeded immediately to the Jewish, wherein, by command of God Himself, from the time of Moses, it had been the custom to make use of great pomp and majestic splendour of external ritual in the public worship of God. And as this was also most conformable to the natural law and the constitution of man, it was fit that the Church of the New Covenant should shew herself superior even to that of the older dispensation, and thus bring out into its full development and perfection even the external part of the divine worship.
In the second place, as there is every reason to believe that very many of the ceremonies, rites, and other circumstances of the sacred liturgy were copied, so to speak, from the pattern shewn on the Mount of revelation to Moses; so that of the New Covenant, the Covenant of love, was exhibited to the Apostle and Evangelist St. John, when, in spirit, he was transported into heaven, and beheld those secret things which he recounts in the book of his Apocalypse; and there we read of the worship paid in the heavenly Jerusalem to the divine Lamb of God, of an altar of incense, of chants and prayers, the various ranks and orders of the Blessed, adorned with palms, and white garments, and sacred vestments, and crowns of gold, and all the splendour of a heavenly ritual.
Lastly, it is most probable that the apostles themselves did not use, at all times and under all circumstances, precisely the same forms in the offering of the divine Sacrifice, but employed one more or less solemn, according as the circumstances of time or place, of tranquillity or persecution in the Church, dictated.
~ And here we might recall the origin of the different liturgies for celebrating the eucharistic Sacrifice which have been in use in the various Churches, whether of the East or of the West, all which, within their own limits, are respected and allowed by the mother and mistress of all Churches, the holy Church of Rome and See Apostolic. But leaving these, as beside our present purpose, we will touch briefly on the liturgy which the Roman Church makes use of, as having more authority, and being of more universal usage.
From the days of the Apostles it was always the case that many Pagans and Jews were accustomed to be present at the functions of religion celebrated in the churches of the Christians; some drawn by curiosity to see what was there done, others by a desire of being instructed and admitted into the new religion. As it was necessary, on the one hand, to receive all, with the greatest charity to teach them to know their God and Redeemer Jesus Christ; so, on the other, it was requisite to exclude persons who were not yet instructed and baptised from being present at the celebration of the more august and profound mysteries of the altar, that they might not expose to derision or profaneness that of which they as yet knew or believed nothing. In order, therefore, to reconcile these two important objects, it was thought right to divide the sacred liturgy into two parts, at the celebration of the first of which all, whether faithful or unbelievers, might be present with propriety and advantage, whilst the second part was reserved for the faithful alone. The first part was called the Mass of the catechumens, or scholars in the faith; the second, the Mass of the faithful.
The sacred liturgy of the Mass of the catechumens consisted of three principal parts, viz. of the Confession of Sins, the Prayers, and the Instructions, which were directed chiefly to prepare the catechumens for receiving holy Baptism, whereby they were to be admitted into the class of the faithful. This first part of the Mass, therefore, was merely the remote preparation for the Sacrifice; and during this the prayers, the psalms, and other parts, sung or recited, were directed to implore the mercy of God on the catechumens and unbelievers, that they might obtain the grace of faith and of holy baptism, and to enlighten and instruct them by lessons taken from the holy Scriptures, and by sacred discourses. The Mass of the catechumens extended as far as the Offertory, at which part of the liturgy they were dismissed, and none remained but the faithful only.
The Mass of the faithful, or the Sacrifice, properly began now, and also consisted of three parts, viz. the Offertory, the Consecration, and the Communion. The Offertory consisted of an offering of bread and wine, and at times of other gifts also, which were carried by the faithful and presented at the altar; of these the sacred ministers took so much as was required for the Sacrifice, and for distributing the holy Eucharist to all those who desired to communicate—the remainder was set apart for the use of the poor. The portion of bread and wine set apart for the Sacrifice was then offered up and presented to God by the celebrating priest; and he, together with the whole people, offered up prayers over the oblation for himself, for the whole body of the clergy, for the civil powers of the state, and for the whole Church militant on earth and in the middle state of purgation. After the Offertory, which was succeeded by a preface, wherein the people were encouraged to offer thanksgivings and praises to God, in union with angels, and archangels, and all the company of heaven, the consecration of the bread and wine followed immediately; and then, once more, in the presence of our Lord under the sacramental veils, prayers, the same in substance as before, in behalf of the whole Church, were again recited. Last of all came the Communion, or dispensing of the body and blood of Christ to all the faithful who desired or were worthy of Communion. After which, and the recitation of certain other prayers called the Post Communion, or prayers after Communion, the deacon dismissed the people with the words, lie, missa est—' Go, you are dismissed,' and thus finished the Mass, or Missa; for so the sacred liturgy came to be called from this ceremony of dismissal performed by the deacon, first at the end of the liturgy of the catechumens, and afterwards at the end of the Mass of the faithful.
In process of time the distinction between the catechumens and the faithful ceased, as well on account of the Church's custom of baptising children in their infancy, as on account of the conversion of whole nations to the faith. The Mass of the catechumens was not, however, discontinued, but was retained in substance as most useful for the faithful themselves, forming a beautiful supplement and addition to the Mass itself, and serving excellently to prepare and dispose the souls of the worshippers for the offering of the mystic sacrifice.
There are three things which principally hinder us from assisting worthily, and from partaking in all the fulness of the inestimable blessing contained in these tremendous mysteries. These defects are, first, sin; secondly, our natural unworthiness and misery; and, thirdly, our ignorance of the things of God. It should, therefore, be our unceasing study to remove these hindrances, and to make this our principal preparation for assisting at the divine Sacrifice. Accordingly, it is to this end that the portion of the sacred liturgy of the Mass preceding the Offertory is directed. For here, in the first place, it is the intention of the Church that the priest, and the whole people together with him, should publicly acknowledge themselves guilty, and confess that they have sinned in the presence of God and of the whole court of heaven, and therefore implore His mercy and pardon. In the next place, she directs them to beseech Almighty God, through the intercession of the blessed Virgin and of all the Saints, that He would vouchsafe His grace to all present in an especial manner (as also to those who are absent, for whom prayer is likewise made); beseeching Him to supply, from the infinite abundance of His grace, all that is wanting through their vileness, misery, and unworthiness. Lastly, by the reading of the Prophecies, the Epistles, and Gospel, and the recitation of the Creed —the records of Divine revelation, she enlightens and instructs her children in the wisdom from above.
Taken from - The Way to Heaven. A Manual of Devotion. By The Very Rev. John Baptist Pagani.