The word “Mass” and the meaning of “Ite, Missa est.”

In writing about the celebration of the Mass ‘ad orientem’ (with the priest facing the tabernacle or Cross) I have placed a very strong emphasis on the Mass as a sacrifice and not just a sacrifice but a sacrifice of expiation for sin, the renewal or representation of Jesus’ own sacrifice on the Cross.

This is indeed the central truth of the Mass that has been very much neglected over the past 50 years and tends to be obscured especially when Mass is celebrated facing the people. Nevertheless, it is not the only truth about the Mass, there are other aspects as well, especially that of ‘thanksgiving’ which is indeed the meaning of the word ‘eucharist’.

Today, then, I want to give some balance to my previous presentation by starting with the origin of the word “Mass” and moving from there to the Mass as “eucharist” or “thanksgiving”.

In Latin the dismissal at the end of the Mass is “Ite, Missa est.” The English word “Mass” comes from that Latin word, “Missa”. The response to “Ite, Missa est” is “Deo Gratias” or “Thanks be to God”. So already we have a connection between “Mass” and “Eucharist”. Now the difficult question is “for what are we giving thanks at the end of the Mass?”

You see the Latin expression “Ite, Missa est” is very compact and a bit enigmatic. None of our English translations are exact. Literally it would translate as “Go. Is sent.” Or “Go. Has been sent.” Who or what has been sent? The Latin does not actually say. The only clue it gives us is that the subject of “missa est” is feminine gender, which in Latin does not mean that it is a female person, but only that it is a noun or equivalent that uses the feminine form.

The customary answer today would supply “ecclesia” as the subject, giving us, “Go, the church (or assembly) has been sent.” Sort of like, “Class dismissed.” Note, that dis-missed has the same root as “missa”. Of course that would make the “Thanks be to God” seem almost like, “Thanks be to God we are done with that.” Perhaps some people feel that way by the end of Mass, but it is hardly the way we are meant to feel. Rather, the “Thanks be to God” speaks of gratitude in recognition for a great gift received. What is that great gift? Simply that we “the Church” have been sent on a mission?

Let us consider our current English options: “Go forth, the Mass is ended.” So what is the “Mass” that we are giving thanks for having received as a gift? “Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord.” How have we experienced the Gospel as a gift that we are to ‘announce’? “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life.” How I have I experienced the Lord at Mass so as to want to glorify him? Or finally just “Go in peace,” which is just a plain dismissal. In each case there is some gift, whose understanding is presupposed, for which we give thanks. What is that gift?

St. Thomas Aquinas provides us with an answer. He wrote:

“From this the mass derives its name [missa]; because the priest sends [mittit] his prayers up to God through the angel, as the people do through the priest. Or else because Christ is the victim [hostia] sent [missa] to us: accordingly the deacon on festival days ‘dismisses’ the people at the end of the mass, by saying: ‘Ite, missa est,’ that is, the victim [hostia] has been sent [missa est] to God through the angel, so that it may be accepted by God.” (Summa Theoolgiae, IIIa q83, a4, ad9)

The key here is that St. Thomas Aquinas supplies the Latin word “hostia” (feminine gender) meaning “victim” as the missing subject for “missa est”. Note that the word “victim” means “victim” offered in sacrifice, not “victim” of a crime. So now the dismissal can be translated and expanded as meaning: “Go, the victim has been sent to the throne of God and has been accepted.” The victim is Jesus Christ himself, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. The victim is his Body and Blood of Christ. The result of the victim being ‘sent’ to God is then the renewal of the covenant here and now, the forgiveness of sins, the reconciliation of man to God, in a word the result of the sacrifice is salvation and peace. “Thanks be to God.”

The contemporary interpretation, which involves the “sending” of the Church, the “Ecclesia”, to announce the Gospel or to glorify by God by our way of life, presupposes the gift of salvation and reconciliation brought about through the “sending” of the victim to God.

We are not giving thanks just for remembering what Jesus did for us 2,000 years ago, but because what he did has been made actual and effective here and now through the offering of the sacrifice of the Mass.

This is expressed in the prayer over the offerings assigned to the 2nd Sunday of Ordinary Time. “Grant us, O Lord, we pray, that we may participate worthily in these mysteries, for whenever the memorial of this sacrifice is celebrated, the work of our redemption is accomplished. Through Christ our Lord.”

“Ite, missa est.” “It has been accomplished.” (Cf. Jn 19:30) “Thanks be to God.”

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Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.