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The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass

April 21, AD 2017 0 Comments

The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass was prefigured in the sacrifices of the Old Testament, which had polyvalent significance. Animal and plant sacrifices were used to atone for sins, offer thanksgiving and worship to God, and seal covenants, entering into communion with the Almighty.1 The Mass, as the true sacrifice of Calvary, is the fulfillment and perfection of all the sacrifices offered before, which could not infinitely merit as Christ did.

Rodolfo Amoedo, “Abel’s Offering” / PD-US

The first pleasing sacrifice recorded in the Old Testament is that of Abel, who was a shepherd.2 He “offered a holocaust of the firstlings of his flock to the Lord his God with true devotion and as a recognition of his subjection to the Divine Majesty,”3 in faith and integrity.4 God, Who “looks at the heart”5 and knows the interior dispositions of men, accepted his offering but rejected Cain’s. Cain, who was already a wicked sinner,6 became envious of his brother Abel and killed him.7 Thus, the first recorded sacrifice was linked with the spilling of innocent blood, the first murder in human history. Similarly, Christ the Good Shepherd humbly,8 faithfully, lovingly, and obediently9 offered Himself as the perfect unblemished Lamb of God and the firstborn of creation,10 the best He could offer to the Father, and was killed unjustly by sinners.

In the Mass, both Abel’s and Cain’s offerings are apparent, symbolizing the taking up of all creation and human history into the Divine Sacrifice which renews the earth, overcomes sin and gives us new, eternal life. Cain’s offering from the fruits of his garden is a prototype of Jewish and Catholic offerings of bread and wine, through which “we offer to God His own creation, (acknowledging) our total dependence on the Creator, (praising) His generosity and the goodness of His gifts.”11 Like Cain’s offering, which was obtained through farming the land with the sweat of his brow,12 ours is procured through the concerted work of human civilization.13 Abel’s worthy offering is discernible in what the offerings of us unworthy sinners, the offerings which cannot merit salvation by themselves, are transformed into—the perfect sacrifice of Christ the Paschal Lamb, Who is both the Divine Gardener and the Good Shepherd of souls.

James Tissot, “Sacrifice of Noah” / PD-US

The second significant sacrifice was that of Noah. His family and representatives of each animal species were saved by the shelter of the Ark he built. After surviving the cataclysmic inundation which washed the world clean of sin, he built an altar upon reaching dry land and offered holocausts to God.14 Holocausts are sacrifices “in which the whole victim was consumed by fire upon God’s altar, and no part was reserved for the use of priest or people.”15 God was pleased with Noah’s offering and made a covenant promising never again to eliminate humanity with a flood, and commanded his family to “increase and multiply, and fill the earth.”16 Similarly, upon Jesus’ resurrection from the dead after immolating Himself to the last drop of His Precious Blood which purifies mankind of sin, He offered Mass as a todah or Jewish thanksgiving sacrifice for His conquest of death as well the deliverance of His people from drowning in sin.17 A todah “begins by recalling some mortal threat and then celebrates man’s divine deliverance from that threat.”18 Before breaking the bread at Emmaus, Jesus explained how the Scriptures pertained to His Passion.19 “Both the todah and the Eucharist present their worship through word and meal. Moreover, the todah, like the Mass, includes an unbloody offering of unleavened bread and wine.”20 Rabbis prophesied that at the coming of the Messiah, all sacrifices would cease except the todah, which would continue eternally.21 At the end of each Mass we are commanded to go forth and spread the Good News, so that all nations may be baptized and the children of God multiplied,22 and saved in the Ark of the Barque of Peter.

God is infinitely pleased with Jesus’ wholehearted sacrifice, which established a New Covenant saving mankind from the eternal effects of sin.23 St Anselm wrote that “Christ could have redeemed us by spilling a single drop of His precious blood. Divine justice could have been appeased, man’s fall and all our subsequent sins—from Cain’s slaughter of Abel to the mass murder of Europe’s Jews—could have been blotted out by the blood Jesus shed… at His circumcision.”24 However, “it may be that Jesus so emptied Himself to show the immensity of His charity, to give us a tantalizing peek at the secret love that fuels the Trinity… Christ would undertake no minimal intervention, no frugal-but-fair exchange of a drop of the God-Man’s blood for the billion petty squalors we pile up every day. Instead, He overwhelms us, explodes our sensibilities, and offers us in the Cross an appalling spectacle that thousands of years of contemplation can never exhaust.”25

Rembrandt, “Sacrifice of Isaac” / PD-US

Thirdly, the sacrifice which Abraham was called upon to make of his only son Isaac is a prototype of the sacrifice of God’s only Son. Abraham is depicted as a faithful servant of God, obeying His call to leave his family and homeland for a foreign country where God promised to make of him a great nation;26 God said: “In thee shall all the kindred of the earth be blessed.”27 Abraham frequently offered animal sacrifices to God, building altars in various places,28 and made a covenant with God in this manner.29 Finally, God tested his fidelity by commanding him to offer his beloved Isaac as a holocaust on Mount Moriah.30 Although Abraham had waited many years for God to fulfill His promise of giving him progeny so this was a very confusing and heartbreaking command, he placed God first and obeyed Him unquestioningly: “And he took the wood for the holocaust, and laid it upon Isaac his son.”31 In so doing, he became an enduring example of utmost fidelity, and God blessed him for his obedience, renewing His promise. Furthermore, Abraham’s words to Isaac, “God will provide Himself a victim for a holocaust, my son,”32 became prophetic of Jesus’ sacrifice.33 Jesus was completely obedient to the Father’s will,34 entering into the family of mankind and establishing a holy people for God through His ministry and death upon the wood of the Cross. “In fact, the site where Jesus died, Calvary, was one of the hillocks on Moriah’s range.”35 In the Mass, the People of God proclaim Christ’s death,36 remembering God’s everlasting fidelity and pledging their faithfulness in return. In the sacrificial meal, “the consumption of what belongs to God, the sitting at the table of God, is the sign of friendship and communion with God.”37

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, “Sacrifice of Melchizedek” / PD-US

Fourthly, the Eucharist (literally, “thanksgiving”) takes after the thanksgiving sacrifice of bread and wine offered by the priest-king Melchizedek of Salem (a toponym meaning “peace”) upon Abraham’s victory in battle.38 Christ the Prince of Peace, King of the Heavenly Jerusalem,39 likewise offers bread and wine as His body and blood, a thanksgiving sacrifice for His triumph over sin and death. The scriptures identify Christ as “a priest forever in the Order of Melchizedek,”40 contrasting His unbloody sacrifice of bread and wine with the animal sacrifices of the Levites, which ended with the destruction of the Temple.41 As St Paul wrote: “If then perfection was by the Levitical priesthood, (for under it the people received the law,) what further need was there that another priest should rise according to the order of Melchizedek, and not be called according to the order of Aaron? … There is indeed a setting aside of the former commandment, because of the weakness and unprofitableness thereof.”42 Unlike the sacrifices of the Levites, “the sacrifice of Melchizedek was a universal priesthood, not the privilege of a particular caste.”43 Christ’s sacrifice as the Paschal Lamb was foreshadowed by the daily Levitical sacrifices of lambs,44 but far surpassed them, wholly accomplishing what they only did in part: atonement for the sins of all mankind. He continues to offer His sacrifice through priests of every nation.

Huybrecht Beuckeleer, “The first Passover feast” / PD-US

Finally, the Passover sacrifice and meal is the prime archetype, the Jewish tradition which Christ transformed into the Eucharistic celebration.45 “Just as God, on the eve of the liberation of the people of Israel from the slavery of Egypt, instituted the Passover as a memorial of His wondrous deeds in the Exodus, so Jesus gave us a memorial to this wondrous event on the eve of the sacrifice of His life. This established a new unbreakable covenant relation between God and man, a relationship of love, friendship, and remission of sin… What the Lord does here… is to engage in prophetic action. In anticipation Christ prefigures what will happen on the Cross, namely, the one and perfect sacrifice where He will offer Himself for the salvation of many.” 46 Moreover, “the apostles have to be involved in this sacrificial meal, since it took place for their sake… They have to consume these gift offerings.”47 The Passover is not a mere memorial of the Exodus, but “the foundation event of the Jewish nation” is “made present and actual in a very real sense in the course of the liturgy.”48 It is “a living memorial, one filled with the reality of that which it commemorates.”49 Likewise, in the Mass, we “recall and relive” Christ’s “‘exodus,’ His passing over from this world to the Father, the foundation events of the New Israel.”50

Christ is the new Passover Lamb, Whose blood saves His people from death. “For that innocent lamb without spot was a figure betokening our Savior Christ, the very innocent Lamb of whom Saint John the Baptist witnessed: ‘Ecce agnus Dei qui tollit peccata mundi’ (Lo, the Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world),51 by whose immolation and sacrifice on the cross, and by His holy body received into ours as that lamb was into theirs, His faithful folk should be delivered out of thralldom of the devil’s dominion.”52 “According to the Gospels, Jesus did not finish the Last Supper. At least, He did not finish it in the Upper Room.”53 He finished it by His death.

Mankind’s sins—original sin and personal sin—separate us from God, rendering us incapable of offering right worship.54 “Burdened by our sins, we cannot approach God and live.”55 God, being an infinite Being and infinitely Good, Holy and Just, is infinitely offended by sin. Only Christ the God-Man was and is able to offer a pure sacrifice which infinitely and eternally atones for the sins of men.56 The sacrifices of the Old Testament could not make infinite satisfaction for sinful humanity; Christ alone is the ultimate scapegoat.57 The Sacrifice of the Mass may be described as a reversal of the Old Testament sacrifices, because “here the sacrifice is no longer brought by mankind to God, as in the Old Testament and in non-Christian religions; it is rather God Himself who ‘offers Himself up’ in the person of His Son to mankind.”58 Christ is both Priest and Victim, offering an eternal sacrifice.

The sacrifice of Christ is continued in the sacrifice of the Mass because it “keeps its memory alive and applies its fruits,”59 enabling the faithful who live after the time of Christ’s earthly ministry to participate in His eternal sacrifice and receive the graces which flow from it.60 In the Mass the historical events of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection are made present to us and “transform our very being much beyond what psychological remembrance is capable of.”61 Furthermore, the Mass is more than the commemoration and re-presentation of the Passion: “In the Eucharistic celebration the whole Pasch of Christ is present, that is, His incarnation, passion, death and His resurrection, glorification and the descent of the Spirit”—the whole “mystery of salvation.”62 Moreover, the Mass is eschatological, a taste of future glory as we share Christ’s life and participate “in the eternal life of the Triune God,”63 the endpoint of salvation. “The Eucharist continues the Incarnation… To say that in the Eucharist the bread and wine remain what they are but acquire a new signification would contradict the logic of the Incarnation. Christ was not simply a prophet who pointed out the way to the Father; He was the way to the Father. He did not just communicate the truth about God, He was the Word of God. The believer comes to the Father, not by the way and the truth that are signified by Christ, but through Christ Himself, Who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.”64 The Mass is a foretaste of Heaven,65 and the highest form of prayer conforming us to Christ, allowing us to participate in His saving work.

The sacrifices of the Old Testament all point toward the Sacrifice of Christ, the cause of mankind’s salvation. In the Mass, the sacrifices of Abel, Abraham and Melchizedek are explicitly mentioned in the Roman Canon,66 and the Passover Lamb is evoked by the Agnus Dei. “If… Holy Scripture tells us that these offerings were a sweet odor before God, the reason was because they were types of the sacrifice of Christ the Lord.”67 The Mass enables all generations of Catholics to participate in the one Sacrifice of Christ, and applies His saving merits to individual souls.

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Also see: Meditations on the Traditional Latin Mass by Saint Francis de Sales

1 “Burnt Offering,” Jewish Encyclopedia, 1906. [http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/3847-burnt-offering] (accessed 9 May 2014).

2 Genesis 4:2,4.

3 Rev. Martinus von Cochem OSF, The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass Explained. BAC Australia Pty Ltd (Sydney, 1996), p. 39.

4 Hebrews 11:4; Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing (Michigan, 1987), p. 455.

5 1 Samuel 16:7.

6 1 John 3:12.

7 Genesis 4:8.

8 Philippians 2:6.

9 Philippians 2:8.

10 Colossians 1:15.

11 Roch Kereszty, “A theological meditation on the liturgy of the Eucharist.” Communio 23 (Fall 1996), p. 537.

12 Genesis 3:19.

13 Kereszty, op. cit., p. 538.

14 Genesis 8:20.

15 Douay-Rheims Catholic Bible Online commentary [http://www.drbo.org/chapter/01008.htm] (accessed 9 May 2014).

16 Genesis 8:21-22, 9:8-17.

17 Shane Kapler, “The Meal at Emmaus – Jesus’ Todah.” Catholic Exchange. 21 April 2014. [http://catholicexchange.com/meal-emmaus-jesuss-todah]. (accessed 21 April 2014).

18 Scott Hahn, The Lamb’s Supper. The Cromwell Press (London, 2007), p. 32.

19 Luke 24:27-31.

20 Hahn, op. cit., p. 33.

21 Ibid., cf. Pesikta Rabbati, I, p. 159.

22 Matthew 28:19.

23 Matthew 26:28.

24 John Zmirak, “No Morphine on the Cross,” Crisis Magazine. 31 March 2010. [http://www.crisismagazine.com/2010/no-morphine-on-the-cross] (accessed 9 May 2014).

25 Ibid.

26 Genesis 12:1-2.

27 Genesis 12:3.

28 Genesis 12:7-8, 13:18.

29 Genesis 15.

30 Genesis 22:1:1-2, cf. C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed: “God has not been trying an experiment on my faith or love in order to find out their quality. He knew it already. It was I who didn’t.”

31 Genesis 22:6.

32 Genesis 22:8.

33 Roy Schoeman. “Notes on the Relationship between Christ and Passover.” Salvation is from the Jews. [http://www.salvationisfromthejews.com/justarticles.html#Passover] (accessed 10 May 2014).

34 John 5:30.

35 Hahn, op. cit., p. 17-18.

36 1 Corinthians 11:26.

37 G.T.H. Liesting, “The Inviting Gesture of Christ’s Action,” in The Sacrament of the Eucharist. Newman Press (1968), op. cit., p. 50.

38 Von Cochem, op. cit., p. 41; Genesis 14:18-20.

39 Hahn, op. cit., p. 17.

40 Hebrews 5:6, 5:10, 6:20, 7:17; cf. Psalms 109:4.

41 Von Cochem, op. cit., p. 41.

42 Hebrews 7:11,18.

43 Jean Danielou SJ, The Bible and the Liturgy. Darton, Longman & Todd (London, 1956), p. 146.

44 Von Cochem, op. cit., p. 41.

45 Raymond Maloney SJ, Our Splendid Eucharist: Reflections on Mass and Sacrament. Veritas (Dublin, 2003), p. 70.

46 Liesting, op. cit., pp. 55-56.

47 Ibid.

48 Maloney, op. cit., pp. 74-75.

49 Ibid.

50 Ibid.

51 John 1:29.

52 Thomas More, Treatise on the Passion, of The Complete Works of St. Thomas More, ed. Garry E. Haupt. Yale University Press (Yale, 1976), Volume 13, p. 62.

53 Brant Pitre, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist. Doubleday (New York 2011), p. 148.

54 Kereszty, op. cit., p. 539.

55 Ibid.

56 Ibid.

57 Von Cochem, op. cit., pp. 127-128.

58 Peter Henrici, “‘Do this in remembrance of Me’: The Sacrifice of Christ and the Sacrifice of the Faithful.” Communio 12 (Summer 1985), p. 148.

59 Liesting, op. cit., p. 52.

60 Nicholas Gihr. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass: Dogmatically, Liturgically and Ascetically Explained. B. Herder Book Co. (London, 1946), p. 175.

61 Kereszty, op. cit., p. 530.

62 Liesting, op. cit., p. 58.

63 Kereszty, op. cit., p. 530.

64 Robert Sokolowski, “The Eucharist and Transubstantiation,” Communio 24 (Winter 1997), p. 875.

65 Hahn, op. cit., p. 9.

66 Von Cochem, op. cit., pp. 41-42.

67 Ibid., p. 124.

About the Author:

Jean Elizabeth Seah is a 28-year-old law and liberal arts graduate. She has had several adventures with Our Lord and Our Lady, including running away to join a convent after law school. The journey is tough and the path ahead is foggy, but she knows that as long as you hold firmly onto Our Lady’s hand, you’ll make it through! She blogs at http://signum-crucis.tumblr.com/ and http://allthingscatholic.tumblr.com/.