The Biblical Roots of the Liturgy

Catholics are often unaware just how biblical the Sacred Liturgy is. The design of our traditional churches; the use of candles, incense, and 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 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; 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  that contains the meaning of life and the answers to all we seek. It also focuses on 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. Many people consider our rituals to be empty and vain, “smells and bells.” Some think austere liturgical environments devoid of much ritual are “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 our 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 have added my own occasional note in red.

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 to see not 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’s 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 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, flat on the ground. Kneeling developed as a practical solution to the lack of space, but it amounts to the same demeanor 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!”

Amen! –

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

Silence – 

  •  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” –

  •  Rev 19:6 Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty thunder peals, 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, the 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, except for one quote drawn only from the Book of Revelation. I invite you to add to it.

Here is an awesome video with wonderful quotes:

14 Replies to “The Biblical Roots of the Liturgy”

  1. It would be so helpful if, prior to the start of mass, the priest would just take a few minutes to instruct the congregation on some of these interesting facts of the mass. I thoroughly enjoyed this article and found it so informative!

    1. Kathleen, I’ve heard of priests saying “stop-and-go” Masses, where they will give a brief explanation of what is happening at each juncture of the liturgy. Less than a minute or so, but something to catechize the various aspects/phases of the Mass– the Greeting, the Penitential Act, the Kyrie, the Gloria, the Old Testament reading, etc., all the way to the Concluding Rite, and the Dismissal.

      It’s almost always been cited as a tremendous catechetical, and evangelization, tool.

  2. Dear Mons. Pope, my brother priest,

    Blessed be the Name of Jesus!

    Thank you for helping us see the holy Mass in its biblical roots and in its place in the Book of Revelations. Our Holy Eucharist offered in time is united to the Eternal Sacrifice. This awareness has helped me to celebrate Mass with deeper reverence and wonder. In elevating the Sacred Species of His Body and Blood I tell Him: what my eyes do not see, nor my mind grasp, I embrace (You) with all my heart.

    In Jesus and Mary,
    Fr. Thomas Cahill, MJ

  3. It has been 18 months since I’ve joined the local Ordinariate parish that celebrates the Divine Worship form of the Mass. I left the Ordinary Form because of the need to pray the Mass with others who share a deep respect for the transcendentals—truth, goodness and beauty—a respect that preserves adoration of God which was/is lacking in the Ordinary Form Masses in our diocese. Previous to my jump to the Ordinariate, I found a similar respect for the Sacred Liturgy among those attending the Extraordinary Form hosted by a local parish. Sadly, there the community was defined more by an open hostility toward anything not Latin. It is a community mired in polemics.

    We have many good priests in the diocese who reverently celebrate the Ordinary Form (Missal of Bl. Paul VI), but the Ordinary Form, unless it is celebrated ad orientem with a closer attention to the rubrics than is commonly observed, permits too much of a focus on the priest. Sadly, rather than the beautiful detail Msgr. Pope has presented being accessible or appreciable, those same priests succumb to the inappropriate amount of attention given to them that a versus populum orientation enables. By contrast, in Divine Worship, which is typically ad orientem, the personality of the priest takes a distant backseat to the One the people of God (are supposed to) worship.

  4. Friend, your priesthood, your liturgy, your robes, your gold, your bishopric is nowhere to be found in the the words of our Savior recorded in the gospels, or the Book of Acts, and likely have their roots in imperial worship adhering to Constantine and his successors. How can you not see the golden bowls being bowls of WRATH? How can your intricate traditions which defy the very final warning of Revelation (that those who subtract from the book — likely the whole canon, I might add, as Revelation is the final inspired revelation of Almighty God — will have their names removed from the Book of Life, and those who add to Scripture will receive the curses of the Book of Revelation? No, I am not a Catholic hater. In fact, my classmate and a priest who posted your article I hold as a dear friend. I am a “Bible only” believer well versed in secular and church history, biblical languages, and the Bible itself.

    1. My friend,
      How do you know that the book of Revelation is the final inspired book of the Bible? How do you know any of the books are inspired? The list is not to be found in the Bible. Who decides?— the Church.

      1. Let’s put a finer point on it, Bender…

        What about those Christians who believed for the roughly 20 years before St. Paul wrote his first existing Epistle?

        What about those Christians who believed for the roughly 400 years before the canonical Bible was authentically and universally being referred by (take a deep breath, J.B.) bishops, including the (don’t exhale yet, J.B.) Bishop of Rome in communication to other bishops?

        What about the roughly 1100 years thereafter when Christians wrongfully used those same canonical books until (finally!) Luther and the protesters “corrected” the errors present for over a millennia in the Holy Word of God by removing some of those texts?

        What about those non-canonical “Christian” texts rejected in formation of the canon over the years 100-400 A.D.? You’re no believer in the Gospel of Thomas, are you? (And if not, why not?)

        What about, to take one example, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who translate “Lord” into “Jehovah”– shouldn’t you start referring to God as Jehovah, as the Bible (at least since the 1950 J.H. version) requires? Don’t worry though, J.B., there are lots of other Bible translations and configurations…just find one *you* like.

        Of course, it all comes down to authority, doesn’t it. Who has authority in these matters? Who is it that might speak authoritatively, then, now, and always? Who might, like the stewards of the king’s household, hold the keys? Who might bind these things for us, making them fast and secure?

        Give me a second, it’s on the tip of my tongue…

    2. Hi John,

      I am curious and ask this question sincerely. When in church history did we have the first “Bible only” believer?

    3. One has to wonder about people before the Gospels and Acts and the NT letters were written — including Paul himself, and all the other Apostles. Obviously, whatever they preached and practiced was nowhere to be found in the Bible — because it hadn’t been written yet! Was the early Church pre-NT legitimate, or have their names all been removed from the Book of Life?

    4. John Brown, Msgr Pope points out with copious citations that many elements of Catholic liturgy are found in Scripture. Thus backed into a corner you essentially respond, “But, but, but . . they are not found in the words of Jesus or the Book of Acts.” This is totally hilarious, for given Msgr Pope’s long list of citations, you could hardly have said, “In the Bible, or in the New Testament or in St. Paul.”

      And even at that, your assertion is incorrect given John 6 and the words of Eucharistic institution at the Last Supper. Are the words, “This is my body” (Luke 22:19; Mark 14:22; Matt 26:26; 1 Cor 11:24) not the words of Jesus or not central to Catholic liturgy?

      But here, as a last branch on which you may rely, I will give you this, that Jesus’s words of institution are not found in the Gospel of St. John. Make of this what you can!!!

      Even this branch will fail you for his entire Gospel amounts to an instruction on the Sacraments, the Eucharist not excluded.

      Does not your very premise betray a wholesale rejection of practically the entire Scripture? If you are going to restrict Biblical authority to the words of Jesus and the Book of Acts, what happens to “ALL Scripture is inspired by God” (2 Tim 3:16)?, hmmmm?

      Didn’t you say you were a “Bible only” believer? If you are only going to take the words of Jesus or the Book of Acts as authoritative Scripture, then you have a very small Bible indeed. Nevertheless, I am sure you believe it very fervently, with the exception of John 6, Matthew 16:18, and many other assorted passages which Catholics have believed from the beginning regarding infant baptism, the necessity of final perseverance, a hierarchy including bishops, priests and deacons.

      You say you are well versed in church history, but having read St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Cyprian, St. Augustine and many other Fathers and Doctors of the Church, it is completely amazing that you are still a “Bible only” believer. Yet, if you have not read them, how are you well-versed in Church history?

  5. The priesthood was instituted by our Lord and is certainly found in the NT. But, aside from that, it seems that you are suggesting that something has to be found in the Gospels or the NT to be valid. All these things you mention that are supposedly “not found in the Gospels or the Book of Acts.” Is that the only inspired part of scripture? If you believe in the “Bible alone,” shouldn’t each book be as valid as the others?

    I also must note that the word “trinity” is not found in the Bible. So if you accept that God is one, but revealed in three persons, you just might find yourself believing a doctrine based on a word outside of scripture. Maybe tradition has more of an impact on you than you realize?

  6. I agree with Warren the impression I have of EF mass parishioners is their commonality in despising the OF mass and being vocal about it. Some could conclude they are a fifth column within the church.

  7. True of some no doubt. Not true of all. Our Traditional Latin Mass Community (Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, Natchitoches, Louisiana) is well-integrated into wider parish life, with a higher percentage of our attendees being daily communicants in the Novus Ordo than from any other Sunday Mass community; the same goes for our participation in various parish activities and ministries. In my experience, there is more overt (and covert) hostility FROM OF-ers toward EF-ers than the other way around.

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