The Biblical and Heavenly Roots of the Sacred Liturgy

Catholics are often unaware just how Biblical the Sacred Liturgy is. The design of our traditional churches, the use of candles, incense, golden vessels, the postures of standing and kneeling, the altar, the singing of hymns, priests wearing albs and so forth are all depicted in the Scriptures. Some of these details were features of the ancient Jewish Temple, but most all of these are reiterated in the Book of Revelation which describes the liturgy of heaven.

The liturgy here on earth is modeled after the liturgy in heaven and that is why it is so serious to tamper with it. The Book of  Revelation describes the heavenly liturgy and focuses on a scroll or book  which contains the meaning of life and the answers to all we seek. It also focuses the Lamb of God, standing but with the marks of slaughter upon it. Does this not sound familiar? It is the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

We do well to be aware of the Biblical roots of the Sacred Liturgy not only for our own edification but also as an answer to Protestant Christians who have largely set aside these rituals and, some of whom, criticize our use of them. Many people consider our rituals empty and vain, “smells and bells.” Some consider austere liturgical environments devoid of much ritual to be “purer,” and closer to the worship in “spirit and in truth” that Jesus spoke of in John 4.

To such criticisms we must insist that these rituals, properly understood, are mystical and deeply biblical. Further, they are elements of the heavenly liturgy since almost all of them are mentioned as aspects of the worship or liturgy that takes place in heaven. In this light it is a serious mistake to set them aside or have a dismissive attitude toward them.

With that in mind we ought to consider the Biblical references to the most common elements of Catholic and Orthodox liturgies. I place an ocassional note in Red where it seems appropriate.

 Candles  –

  • Rev 1:12-13 Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands,  and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man. In traditional catholic parishes there are six candles on the high altar and a seventh candle is brought out when the bishop is present.
  • Rev 4:6 Seven flaming torches burned in front of the throne.

Altar –

  • Rev 9:13 The sixth angel sounded his trumpet, and I heard a voice coming from the horns of the golden altar that is before God.
  • Rev 8:3 Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all the saints, on the golden altar before the throne.

Chair –

  • Rev 4:1 and lo, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne! And he who sat there appeared like jasper and carnelian, and round the throne was a rainbow that looked like an emerald….
  • Daniel 7:9  As I looked,  thrones were placed and one that was ancient of days took his seat;… In the sacred liturgy the Chair of the priest is prominent. But, as he takes his seat we are invited not to see Father Jones, but rather the Lord himself presiding in our midst.

Priests (elders) in Albs:

  • Rev 4:4 the elders sat, dressed in white garments…..

Bishop’s Miter, priest biretta –

  • Rev 4:4, 10 With golden crowns on their heads……they cast down their crowns before the throne…. In the Liturgy the Bishop may only wear his miter at prescribed times. But when he goes to the altar he must cast aside his miter. The priest who wears the biretta in the Old Mass is instructed to tip his biretta at the mention of the the Holy Name and to lay it aside entirely when he goes to the altar.  

Focus on a scroll (Book) The Liturgy of the Word

  • Rev 5: 1 And I saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals; and I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I wept much that no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. Then one of the elders said to me, “Weep not; lo, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” In the ancient world books, as we know them now, had not been invented. Texts were written on long scrolls and rolled up.

Incense, Intercessory prayer

  • Rev 8:3 another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer; and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar before the throne; and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints from the hand of the angel before God…..
  • Rev 5:7 and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints;

Hymns  –

  • Rev 5:8 – And they sang a new hymn: Worthy are you O Lord to receive the scroll and break open its seals. For you were slain and with your blood  you purchase for God men of every race and tongue, and those of every nation.
  • Rev 14:1 Then I looked, and lo, on Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with him a hundred and forty-four thousand who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads… and they sing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders. No one could learn that song except the hundred and forty-four thousand who had been redeemed from the earth.
  • Rev 15:3 And they (the multitude no one could count) sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, “Great and wonderful are thy deeds, O Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are thy ways, O King of the ages!  Who shall not fear and glorify thy name, O Lord? For thou alone art holy. All nations shall come and worship thee,  for thy judgments have been revealed.”

Holy Holy Holy

  • Rev 4:8 and day and night they never cease to sing, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty,

Prostration (Kneeling)

  • Rev 4:10 the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives for ever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne.
  • Rev 5:14 and the elders fell down and worshiped  In today’s setting there is seldom room for everyone to lie, prostrate and  flat on the ground. Hence, kneeling developed as a practical solution to the lack of space but amounts to the same demenor of humble adoration.

Lamb of God

  • Rev 5:6 And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders, I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain,

Acclamations –

  • Rev 5:11  Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!”


  • Rev 5:14 And the four living creatures said, “Amen!”.


  • Rev 8:1 When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. (and you thought your priest paused too long after communion?)


  • Rev 12:1 And a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; 2she was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery.

Happy are those called to his “supper”

  • Revelation 19: 6Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty thunderpeals, crying,  “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns.  Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready;… And the angel said£ to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.”

Golden Vessels, vestments  –

  • Rev 1:12 – And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands,
  • Rev 1:13 – and among the lampstands was someone “like a son of man,” dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest
  • Rev 5:8 – the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense
  • Rev 8:3 – Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all the saints, at the golden altar before the throne.
  • Rev 15:16 – The angels were dressed in clean, shining linen and wore golden sashes around their chests.
  • Rev 15:17  seven golden bowls

Stained Glass –

  • Rev 21:10 [The heavenly city] had a great, high wall, with twelve gates,… The foundations of the wall of the city were adorned with every jewel; the first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, 20the fifth onyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst. (The image of stained glass in our Church walls is hinted at here).

Here is but a partial list, drawn only from the Book of Revelation. I invite you to add to it.  You might also read The Lamb’s Supper by Scott Hahn, and The Mass: A Biblical Prayer,by Fr. Peter Stravinskas.

31 Replies to “The Biblical and Heavenly Roots of the Sacred Liturgy”

  1. Very informative. Thank you. Someone posted through New Advent, the Deanna Durbin, Gene Kelly movie Christmas Story from 1944 with a beautiful scene at Mass. I have also watched an old film on youtube with Bishop Sheen commenitng. It was a great learning tool for me.

  2. It’s a beautiful image of a vast congregation singing praise while being led by guitar playing elders! (5:8) lol

    1. Ah, my translation says harp. But there is no doubt that stringed instruments such as the lyre, even tambourines and cymbals were used in ancient Jewish worship (Psalm 150)

  3. I noticed the dress. People looked nice (course it’s a wedding in the clip) and are women are wearing “dinner plate” veils. Thanks for the comparison from Revelations. I knew that the liturgy was based in Jewish ritual but had no idea that there was a correlation to the New Testament either.

  4. LOL at “…and you thought your priest paused too long…”

    I suspect any such attempt at silence would be thwarted by restless children wanting to know WHY Father was just SITTING THERE and wasn’t it time to leave YET.

  5. I actually just finished reading Dr. Michael Barber’s book “Coming Soon”, his commentary on the Book of Revelation where he spends a lot of time showing the link between the the liturgy in heaven and the liturgy on earth. I had previously read “The Lamb’s Supper” by Dr. Scott Hahn which is superb, if not as thorough. For anyone who would like to look at this topic more, I can thoroughly recommend both books 🙂

      1. I am actually taking Biblical Theology classes with Dr. Barber through John Paul the Great Catholic University, and we have learned that there are many instances in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers as well in which the Israelites’ sacrifices are very prefigurative of the Catholic Mass and role of the priests and bishops. It’s very interesting how the continuity of the Old and New is seen even in worship! Dr. Barber also has a blog: .

  6. The video backs up my own experience – every time you light incense in a church some bozo’s gonna cough 😉 Seriously, thanks for this excellent examination of the liturgy. As I read it I thought of a couple of other parallels – the throne could also be the Tabernacle when it is placed on the high altar, and the sanctuary lamp could be the seventh candle. So many layers of meaning. Thanks again.

    1. I’ve explained to my daughter that we hope our prayers rise to God along with the incense. [She complains about the “smoke from the tea-kettle thing.”]

  7. I suppose we could remind folks that the holy Mass is also known as the Will of God (Voluntas) and alternatively as the Work of God (Opus Dei). You all may notice that this is one of the petitions contained within the Family Prayer (Our Father): Kingdom come/Thy Will be done. For both the Temple Jew and the Catholic this is primarily what we are asking God seven times over; bring the heavenly liturgy to earth. God bless. Keep up the good postings.

    Alms. Fasting. Prayer.

  8. There really has been no substitute equal to the ceremonial protocols and spiritual inspiration of the Solemn Latin Mass. I don’t care if you can’t understand Latin, if one is going to church to get some sense of the heavenly divine, real incense and candles along with the reverb of Latin Gregorian chants with full vestments and altar attendants bring the point home. Especially at holy orders, weddings and funerals.

    1. I get the actual Body of Christ at my usual Ordinary Form Mass. And He is far superior to anyone’s preferences regarding ceremonial protocols, etc.

  9. Martin Mosebach thinks the scroll with its seven seals prefigures the altar Missal with its its seven ribbons. When it is opened at the beginning of Mass, the gateway to our glimpse of Heaven is opened before us through the Mass, and when the the Missal is closed at the end of Mass, so is the gateway to that glimpse of Heaven.

  10. Msgr. Pope, a wonderful explanation of how the Mass is entwined with The Book of Revelation.
    Thank you!

    And Bender, you are continuing your complaints from the Fr. L. blog. We will all get to heaven if we follow Jesus, no matter if it’s NO or TLM. But we have a choice now, and that’s a big step in the right direction.

  11. we have a choice now

    My choice is for love. (even if all too often I fail in that regard myself)

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