Are Catholics Bible Christians? A Catholic who ponders this question may think, “Well, I know that Protestants call themselves Bible Christians, and Catholics don’t really use that terminology; so I guess I would have to answer ‘No.’” However, Catholics should respond to such a question with an immediate “Yes.”
As Catholics, we are 100 percent Bible Christians—that is to say, the Catholic Church believes that the Bible is the inspired word of God and, as such, according to the Second Vatican Council, the Bible “stands as the support and energy of the Church, the strength of faith for her sons, the food of the soul, the pure and everlasting source of spiritual life” (Dei Verbum 21). Therefore, Catholics are indeed Bible Christians—and there is perhaps no other aspect of the Catholic faith that exemplifies this more than the holy sacrifice of the Mass.
Familiarity with God’s word leads one to conclude that the Catholic Mass is not a foreign experience from the Bible. In fact, its structure, its words and gestures, and even its built-in theology are embedded in the pages of sacred Scripture. An examination of this “Bible blueprint” leads to the discovery that Catholic worship is truly a biblical style of worship.
The introductory rite
The Christian can recognize the biblical nature of Catholic worship in the first prayer of the Mass, the sign of the cross. The language of the prayer comes directly from Matthew 28:19, where Jesus commands his apostles to go out into all nations and baptize them “in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” The gesture, a cross over the body, is implicitly found in the book of Ezekiel when the prophet receives the following instruction: “Go through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark upon the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it” (Ezek. 9:4). The mark given was meant to label those among the faithful remnant of God’s people who abhorred the abominations to the Lord and spare them from God’s wrath and judgment.
The significance for the gesture of the cross is that the word for mark in Hebrew is simply the Hebrew letter, taw, which is shaped like an X or plus sign. The Greek version is the letter tau, which is T-shaped, like the Franciscan cross. So the Catholic practice of making the sign of the cross not only reminds the Christian of the cross of Christ, which won the gift of salvation, but in light of the biblical tradition it also serves to be a visible expression of fidelity to the New Covenant in Jesus Christ and separation from the evil ways of the world.
Another part of the introductory rite that parallels the biblical blueprint is the greeting. The priest says, “The Lord be with you,” and the congregation responds, “And with your spirit.” The first thing to note is the biblical origin of the language. It comes from 2 Timothy 4:22: “The Lord be with your spirit.” Like the sign of the cross, the theological significance of the phrase “the Lord be with you” lies in the Old Testament. Throughout salvation history such language is never used for ordinary people in ordinary circumstances. It always signifies a unique vocation and mission that will impact the whole history of Israel and ensure God’s protection and help in carrying out that mission.
For example, when an angel calls Gideon to defend God’s people from a foreign invasion, the angel says, “The Lord is with you” (Judg. 6:12). The angel Gabriel greets Mary with the same phrase (Luke 1:28). When applied to our liturgical experience, this greeting signifies that the laity has access to the power of God to carry out its unique vocation in the Father’s plan of salvation: to be “witnesses to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8) and to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19). Similarly, when the congregation responds, “And with your spirit,” it acknowledges that the priest too has a unique vocation within the Father’s plan of salvation: to make the cross of Christ present on the altar.
The Confiteor, which is the prayer that begins “I confess to almighty God,” is also rooted in biblical tradition. An examination of the biblical texts in the Old Testament reveals that the act of verbal confession was an essential part of public worship for ancient Israel. When the Israelites renewed their covenant with Yahweh through the priest Ezra after returning to Jerusalem from the Babylonian exile, they “stood and confessed their sins” (Neh. 9:2). Leviticus 5:5 states that the penitent must verbally confess his sins as a part of the ritual for the guilt offering.
A final prayer of the introductory rite that can be seen as constructed from the biblical blueprint is the Gloria. The very first line is a direct quote from the Bible: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will.” These are the same words the angel addresses the shepherds with to announce the birth of the Messiah (see Luke 2:14, Douay Rheims Version). The titles that the prayer ascribes to God are also found in the Sacred Page, such as “almighty” (cf. Ps. 68:14, 91:1) and “heavenly king” (cf. Ps. 98:6, 99:4; Is. 43:15). In reference to Jesus, the language of “only begotten Son” comes from John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten [Greek, monogene] Son” (NAB). The title “Lamb of God” comes from John 1:29; “Holy One” is found in Revelation 3:7 and 16:5; and “the Lord” in 1 Corinthians 8:5 and Philippians 2:11.
The Liturgy of the Word
The next part of the Mass is the Liturgy of the Word, many of whose parts are embedded in Scripture. First of all, the very act of proclaiming the Word of God within the context of liturgy goes back to the book of Exodus. In the liturgical ceremony for the ratification of the Sinaitic covenant Moses “took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people…” (Ex. 24:7). The Israelites then responded in faith by saying, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient” (Ex. 24:7).
This corresponds to the liturgical practice of responding to the biblical readings with the words, “Thanks be to God.” It is a form of the New Israel’s response of faith to the New Covenant. Therefore, the liturgy, as the natural habitat for the proclamation of the God’s word, is an essential element of the blueprint for the worship that Israel, both old and new, must offer to God.
A few of the prayers and gestures surrounding the gospel reading also have biblical precedence. One such prayer is the alleluia (Hebrew, “God be praised”)and finds its roots in the Jewish Hallel Psalms (Ps. 113-118), which are prayed in the Jewish Passover liturgy to give praise to Yahweh for deliverance from Egypt in the Exodus.
The alleluia is also found in John’s heavenly vision of the wedding supper of the Lamb at which the angels praise God for his work of salvation through Jesus and announce the coming of the Lamb for his wedding feast (cf. Rev. 19:1-9). Therefore, the Catholic prayer of alleluia prior to the Gospel reading signals the celebration of a new Passover and a participation in the heavenly marriage feast of the Lamb.
While praying the alleluia, one will notice that the congregation stands for the reading of the Gospel. This calls to mind Nehemiah 8:5, where the whole assembly stands when Ezra, the priest, begins to read from the book of the covenant as they renew the covenant with Yahweh after returning to Jerusalem from exile. Just as the assembly of Israel stood for the reading of the old Law of Moses, Christians stand for the reading of the new Law of Jesus as found in the Gospels.
Another detail worthy of mention is the priest’s private prayer before the altar as he approaches the ambo: “Cleanse my heart and my lips, almighty God, that I may worthily proclaim your Gospel.” This request calls to mind the cleansing of Isaiah’s lips in Isaiah 6:6-7, which takes place prior to his prophetical proclamation of the word of the Lord to Israel. The priest, like Isaiah, requests the cleansing of his lips before proclaiming the word of the Lord to the New Israel, the Church.
The Liturgy of the Eucharist
As the Mass moves into the Liturgy of the Eucharist, one continues to recognize a construct of prayers, gestures, and practices that allude to the Bible. For example, the bread and wine calls to mind the sacrifice of thanksgiving offered by the priest-king Melchizedek in Genesis 14:14-16. It is against this Old Testament backdrop that Jesus, whom the author of Hebrews identifies as a priest according to the order of Melchizedek (Heb. 5:10), offers bread and wine at the Last Supper.
Therefore, the offering of bread and wine in the Catholic Mass signifies that the sacrifice soon to take place is one like Melchizedek, namely a sacrifice of thanksgiving (Greek, eucharistia), and is offered by a priest of the order of Melchizedek, i.e., the priest who acts in persona Christi.
Another Bible passage that may come to mind during the offertory prayers is Daniel 3:39-40 (NAB), where Azariah prays while standing in the midst of the fiery furnace, “But with contrite heart and humble spirit let us be received; As though it were holocausts of rams and bullocks, or thousands of fat lambs, So let our sacrifice be in your presence today as we follow you unreservedly.”
This passage serves as a possible background for the prayer for acceptance of sacrifice, which reads, “With humble spirit and contrite heart may we be accepted by you, O Lord, and may our sacrifice in your sight this day be pleasing to you.”
Along with the prayers of offertory, the priestly act of washing hands models the biblical tradition. According to Leviticus 30:18-21, Moses instructs the Levitical priests to wash their hands in the bronze basin located next to the altar of sacrifice outside the tabernacle before entering to perform their priestly duties. The Catholic priest washes his hands because he is about to enter the heavenly tabernacle that is made present in time and space when he confects the Eucharist.
An additional ritual worthy of highlight is the priestly offering of incense. For any Jew, this calls to mind the altar of incense located in the Holy Place of the wilderness tabernacle and in Solomon’s Temple at which the Levitical priest would minister. Furthermore, St. John describes in the Book of Revelation presbyters, i.e., priests, offering golden bowls of incense in the heavenly sanctuary (cf. Rev. 5:8). Therefore, the offering of incense in the Catholic Mass is one of common practice among the people of God throughout salvation history and signifies that the Catholic faithful mystically participate in the worship of the heavenly Temple.
The next major prayer that contains elements directly derived from the Bible is the Sanctus. The threefold acclamation of God’s holiness—holy, holy, holy—is found in both the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah describes his vision of the heavenly throne room and how within it he sees and hears the angels singing, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts” (Is. 6:3). Similarly, St. John sees the same thing when he is given access to the heavenly throne room of the Lamb. He writes in Revelation 4:8, “And the four living creatures . . . day and night . . . never cease to sing, ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!’” Perhaps this makes sense out of the preface before the prayer of the Sanctus:
“And so, with angels and archangels, with thrones and dominions, and with all the hosts and powers of heaven, we sing the hymn of your glory, as without end we acclaim.”
The Sanctus is thus a sign to the Catholic faithful that they are sacramentally entering into the heavenly sanctuary to join their voices with the heavenly beings.
The words of institution
Next in the lineup are the words of institution, which unfortunately cannot be given a full exegesis due to the limited scope of this article. However, a few points cannot go without mentioning.
First, the words “This is my body . . . this is my blood” find their origin in the Last Supper narratives of the Synoptic Gospels and St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians (see Matt. 26:26-28, Mark 14:22-24, Luke 22:19-20, 1 Cor. 11:24-25).
Secondly, the phrase “the blood of the new and eternal covenant” is a combination of Luke’s account, in which he records Jesus to say “the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20) and Matthew’s version, in which Jesus is recorded saying, “For this is my blood of the covenant” (Matt. 26:28).
It is Matthew’s Gospel that most explicitly makes the connection to the Old Testament tradition. If a Jew heard the words “the blood of the covenant,” he would immediately call to mind the ratification ceremony of the Sinaitic covenant in Exodus 24, where Moses says, “Behold the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words” (Ex. 24:8). Therefore, Jesus’ words at the Last Supper signify that it is the ratification ceremony for the New Covenant. It is this New Covenant ceremony that Catholics mystically share in and are present at in the celebration of the Eucharist.
A final prayer that is necessary to establish as part of the Bible blueprint is the anamnesis of Eucharistic Prayer IV, which reads, in part, “we offer you his body and blood, the sacrifice acceptable to you which brings salvation to the whole world.” This offering of Jesus in sacrifice rings a sound of horror to the Protestant ear, considering that Hebrews 7:27 states, “He [Jesus] has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily; . . . he did this once for all when he offered up himself.”
Is the Catholic Church re-crucifying Jesus and consequently among those that the letter of Hebrews speaks of in 6:6: “they then commit apostasy, since they crucify the Son of God on their own account and hold him up to contempt.” The key to answering this question lies in the Catholic doctrine that the Eucharist makes present the one and same sacrifice of Christ in the here and now behind the signs of bread and wine (cf. CCC 1366-1367). Therefore, the sacrifice of the Mass is not a re-crucifixion of Jesus.
But the question remains: Is this theological construct biblical? The answer is yes! The author of Hebrews describes Jesus as “a minister in the sanctuary and the true tent which is set up not by man but by the Lord” (Heb. 8:2). In other words, Jesus’ priestly ministry continues forever in the heavenly realm (cf. Heb. 7:25). Now, because “every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices” (Heb. 8:3a) “it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer” (Heb. 8:3b).
What does Christ offer to the Father in the heavenly sanctuary as high priest? The offering cannot be anything less than his sacrifice on the cross, since that was his definitive priestly act. Therefore, the Bible blueprint reveals the one and same sacrifice of Christ on the cross being made present in the heavenly sanctuary in an unbloody manner. Such a conclusion is also supported by the fact that St. John describes Jesus appearing in the heavenly sanctuary as a slain lamb (cf. Rev. 5:6).
Thus the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is forever made present before the Father and is not restricted to time and space. Consequently, that same sacrifice can be made substantially present in the here and now in an unbloody manner every time the faithful liturgically remember the sacrifice of Christ in the anamnesis.
So, in conclusion, embedded in the sacred pages of God’s divine word is a blueprint with which God’s holy people, the Church, can construct a form of worship that is truly pleasing to the Lord. The Mass and the Bible are inseparable, and together they orient the Catholic faithful toward the destiny to which all humans are called: heaven.