Catholic Mass from Pagan rites
Christians believe Jesus is uniquely divine. There is nothing Jewish about this belief, but Pagan beliefs included mortal humans becoming immortal divinities. Christianity flared into flame in Jewish communities well leavened by Paganism, as Christian scholars acknowledge. Richard Reitzenstein, German historian of religions, writes in Hellenistic Mystery-Religions that some parts of Judaism “had dissolved in paganism.” Christianity took off in these communities embedded in the Pagan milieu, where our hero Jesus, who was born, lived, and died a Jew, took on the traits of Pagan gods.
Abundant evidence demonstrates that Christians borrowed Pagan religious practices—their beliefs, sacraments, modes of piety, and liturgical language. The most important factor in the spiritual life of the Greco-Roman world was mystery religions. They created “the climate in which a new Eastern cult such as Christianity could be propagated,” writes Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza.
Mystery religions had gods and goddesses, rituals of initiation (like Baptism), rituals of renewal and penance (like Confession), and sacred meals (like Eucharist). These religions predated Christianity and influenced its beliefs and practices. There is no possibility that the beliefs and practices they shared with Christians originated in Christianity; they existed in Pagan religions prior to Christianity. Pagans helped to shape the Christian religion, more than the reverse.
These Pagan devotional themes abide in the Catholic Mass and other sacraments as well as in Christian meditations on the life of Christ. Both Pagan and Christian devotions engage our emotions. Christian adopted the Greek word “mysterion” for our rites called “mysteries.” Striking parallels developed between the myth of Mithras and the myth of Christ. (I do not refer here to the life of the historical Jesus.)
Mithras was born on the winter solstice and sired by a deity in a Virgin Birth, which was witnessed by shepherds and by Magi who brought gifts. Mithras performed an assortment of miracles—raising the dead, healing the sick, making the blind see and the lame walk, casting out devils (I believe the miracles of Jesus were real and explain in God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky).
With 12 disciples Mithras celebrated a Last Supper, which was commemorated in a sacramental meal called mizd (echoed in the Latin missa and English mass). This was one of seven Mithraic sacraments, models of 7 Christian sacraments. These details are unveiled in Barbara Walker’s The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets.
In addition, Mithraic theology included apocalyptic Last Days with a Judgment. The death of Mithras was mourned on March 22, the Day of Blood, and his resurrection was celebrated on March 25 in a vigil with lights. The likeness of Good Friday and Easter to Mithraic feasts prompted Pagans to accuse Christians of plagiarism, wrote Christian historian Henry Chadwick. The accusation was correct.
The word “mysterion” meant “something secret” or “secret rite” and referred to the rigid secrecy shrouding pagan mysteries from all but initiates. A vestige of this exists in the Christian catechumenate process, which puts converts through a period of learning before they participate in sacraments. Pagan secrecy prevents us from knowing exactly what happened in their ceremonies but, because writers like Plato, Cicero, and Plutarch wrote about the sublime mystical experience of initiates, enough is known to indicate similarities to Christian ceremonies. Pagan participants awoke to transcendence.