When did the first Mass take place? The first response we’d give is “At the Last Supper.” This is correct: the first literal Mass involving the sacral signs of bread and wine, transubstantiated for the first time into the Body and Blood of Christ, took place at the Last Supper in Jesus’ thirty-third year of life.
However, there was a Mass that took place even before the Last Supper, three decades before. Jesus was only a baby, forty days old. In obedience to the law of Moses that required the consecration of the first-born son to God, and the presentation of the mother to undergo the ritual purity rite forty days after the birth of a son, Mary and Joseph made the journey to Jerusalem and presented Jesus in the Temple.
Through a Temple priest, possibly Simeon, the infant Jesus was consecrated to God. Not that Jesus needed to; He was already consecrated to God—nothing could advance or add to the supreme consecration of Jesus’ own humanity to His divinity. But in an act of humility, sanctifying and fulfilling the Jewish law of the ‘redeeming of the firstborn’ by so doing, Jesus allowed Himself to be offered to the Father in this way. Why would Jesus offer Himself in this way to the Father through the mediation of His human parents, Mary and Joseph, and the priest?
We need only think of the Cross and the Eucharist. Why did Jesus offer Himself on the Cross to the Father, when He Himself, as God and Man, already perfectly belonged to the Father? And why does Jesus still offer Himself to the Father in the Holy Eucharist, and repeat the single offering of Calvary at every Mass, when there is nothing lacking in the eternal and perfect union of the Incarnate Son with His Father? Before all time, the Son belonged to the Father in an endless offering of love, and once incarnate, every second Jesus’ humanity was perfectly offering itself to the Father in union with His divinity. Why the offering of the Cross and the Eucharist?
Not because of any deficiency or need on the part of God the Father or the Son, but because Jesus wants us to be able to share in His own perfect self-offering to the Father, a self-offering of love personified in the Holy Spirit (just as the Father’s self-offering to the Son is personified in the Holy Spirit). That is, the whole reason behind the offering of Jesus on the Cross, and its perpetuation in the Eucharist, is that it’s an offering made to the Father, for us—for our salvation and growth in sanctity; in other words, for our sake, so that we too in the Holy Spirit can make a perfect offering to God the Father: the Son Himself.
This is what the Holy Mass is: the Church offering to the Father His well-beloved Son.
Why then did Jesus allow Himself, and will from all eternity, to be offered to the Father in accord with the Mosaic ritual of the consecration of the firstborn? Not for His own sake, nor for His Father’s sake per say, but for Mary and Joseph’s sake, so that they could offer to the Father His only Unbegotten Son as their very own Son. Yet what was happening here at the presentation of Jesus was not merely an isolated event in the lives of Jesus, Mary and Joseph—something much greater was happening… the first Holy Mass, or what can be called the Proto-Mass.
In the Holy Family we find the nucleus of the Church. As Pope St. John Paul II writes, while appropriating from Lumen Gentium: the Holy Family was the original “Church in miniature (Ecclesia domestica)”—domestic Church (Redemptoris Custos, 7. vi). This is an affirmation that Mary and Joseph were not partial members of the Church, nor did they attain membership later on when Jesus had grown up and gathered His Apostles. No, the Church was alive and thriving, “in miniature,” in Mary and Joseph joined to the Church’s Head—Jesus. Indeed, in Mary first, followed by Joseph, we find the greatest members of Holy Church. Mary and Joseph’s presentation of Jesus in the Temple is thus the Church’s presentation of Jesus in the Temple—it is not the isolated offering of two Saints, but the offering of the Church Herself. This means that the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple is thus the first time the Church wholly, perfectly and directly offered the Son to the Father.
In other words—the Presentation is the Proto-Mass, an offering made without the accidents of bread and wine, but with the whole Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ. It is the same Mass, the same Church doing the offering, the same One being offered to the One Father. But while Mary and Joseph made the offering of the Proto-Mass in Jesus’ visible flesh, we do so invisibly through the visible signs of bread and wine.
In viewing the Presentation of the Lord as the Proto-Mass, it is beautiful to see the archetypal congregation that surrounds the sacred event. There’s Simeon, an old man, Ana the prophetess, an old woman, Mary and Joseph, two young parents, and the Child Jesus Himself—all generations are represented, a sign of the universal Church. We also see man and woman as joint partners in the divine service, each with their sacred and unique roles.
When we consider that the feast of the Presentation is no mere historical commemoration or celebration about a past biblical event, but the Church’s own offering of Jesus to the Father, through Mary and Joseph, mediated then, by the Levite priest of the Temple, and today by the ministerial priest of the Church, it brings home a sense of our own baptismal priesthood—that fundamental and underlying supernatural power given to all members of the Church to offer the Son to the Father as our very own offering of love (CCC 783-784).
In the interior temple of our souls, and sacramentally in the temple of our Catholic churches, we stand in Mary and Joseph’s shoes as by the power of the Holy Spirit, joined with the priest at the Eucharistic altar, we offer the Child Jesus to the Father, saying, “We love You with Your Son.”
Painting: Fra Bartolomeo, Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Bilddatenbank, Wikimedia Commons / PD-US