Apologize and Don't Be Sorry!

A site dedicated to thinking through the common objections to the Catholic Faith as well as questions of a general religious nature.

Location: Prague, Oklahoma, United States

Just your basic 21st century priest trying to bring the Gospel to everyone who will give it a fair hearing.

Monday, February 07, 2005

The Mass as a Sacrifice

Yet it must not be forgotten that the Eucharistic meal also has a profoundly and primarily sacrificial meaning. In the Eucharist, Christ makes present to us anew the sacrifice offered once and for all on Golgotha.
Pope John Paul II, Mane Nobiscum Domine 15

We can think of the Most Blessed Sacrament as a sacrament of three realities: presence, communion, and sacrifice. Of these three, we welcome the first two modes. Instinctively, we desire intimacy and the knowledge that God has not left us to our own devices. The third mode, the Holy Eucharist as a sacrifice, does not elicit the same reaction. The idea of sacrifice evokes shadowy rituals and the stink of slaughtered animals. However, it is the sacrificial dimension that makes the other two possible.

Israel’s relationship to the God who reveals Himself is bound up with the notion of sacrifice. First, Abraham and the Lord God ratify the covenant between them with a sacrifice of various animals (Gen. 15; cf. Gen. 22:1-18). This encounter influences even the language of how covenants are formed. The word we render in English as "to make" a covenant, in Hebrew has its roots in the word "to cut." Hence the sacred author assumes that where there is a covenant, there is a sacrifice. Further, the sacrifice that binds the covenant suggests that the covenant derives from a gift of one’s self, symbolically linked to the blood which represents life.

Second, Israel’s worship revolved around the Tabernacle, later the Temple, which housed the very presence of God because it was the place where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. At the center of the Israelite calendar was the celebration of the Passover. The Passover recalled the events that led up to the liberation of Israel from Egypt (cf. Ex. 12:1-28, 43-51). The Passover involved the sacrifice of an unblemished lamb. The blood of the lamb marked those who belonged to God and thus would be liberated. It was and is today, for the Jewish people, the renewal of the covenant made at Mount Sinai. As they recalled the events, the memory is not mere nostalgia, but brings these events into the present, thus allowing those who celebrate the opportunity to assent to them, to throw in their lot with those who went before.

So, the key question becomes, did Jesus intend for the Holy Eucharist to be understood as a sacrifice, and if so, what evidence is there for this? Turning to the Gospels, we see two clear indicators that indeed the Lord intended to institute a new sacrifice for a new People of God. One, we can look at the form Jesus uses when He institutes the Holy Eucharist. Notice that Jesus separates the naming and sharing of His Body and Blood. For the Israelite, the message is clear. You separate body from blood when you offer a sacrifice. The body is offered; the blood belongs to God. Therefore, you separate them and use the blood as the sign of the binding force of the Covenant.

Two, we can look to the context for the institution of the Holy Eucharist. Sts. Matthew, Mark, Luke and Paul all agree that Jesus instituted the Holy Eucharist during the Passover meal. A key component of the Passover was the ceremonial meal in which the lamb of sacrifice would be eaten. Given the absolute centrality of this ceremonial meal, one would not expect any deviation from accepted forms. Yet, Christ stops one celebration and inserts a new one. "Take it and eat;...this is my body....Drink all of you from this...this is my blood, the blood of the covenant" (Mt. 26-29; cf. Mk. 14:22-5, Luke 22:19-20; I Cor. 11:23-31). Suddenly, the words of John the Baptist make sense. Jesus is the True Lamb of God, who will take away the sins of the world, through His own bloody sacrifice. His bloody sacrifice fulfills the Old Testament foreshadowing of the Exodus and Passover with a new Passover from Death to Life, our Exodus from Sin. So that His People can remain in contact with this saving reality, Jesus institutes a new unbloody sacrifice, the Holy Mass, which allows every generation to know and to serve the Lord. He dies once for all upon the Cross; with every Mass we attend and assist at, we are brought back to this moment and allowed, like our fathers in Faith, to throw in our lot with the Lord Jesus Christ.

And this is why the sacrifice dimension of the Holy Eucharist is essential. Without it, the aspects of communion and presence are merely symbolic. But given that the Holy Mass re-presents the Sacrifice of Calvary, it is very hard to see the Holy Eucharist as mere symbol. Mysteriously, the same altar, the same priest, the same oblation must be there if the two presentations are one sacrifice. Since Jesus cannot die again and again, having died once for all and now raised from the dead, it must follow that we are truly blessed by the Mass as the Sacrifice of the New Covenant. In it, we stand beside the Cross with St. John and our Lady and the entire chorus of the Church triumphant in Heaven, rejoicing to know from whence our salvation comes.


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