This is the second of a two-part article by Monsignor Peter J. Elliott EV on the sacrificial aspects of the Mass. Msgr Elliott is the parish priest of East Malvern in the Melbourne Archdiocese.
The Church teaches that the Mass is the same Sacrifice as the Cross. The Fathers of the Council of Trent taught that "One and the same is the victim, now offered through the ministry of priests, who offered himself on the cross, only the way the offering is made is different". In each Mass, the one all-sufficient Sacrifice of Jesus Christ is offered in an unbloody or sacramental form.
One sacrifice or many?
Aware of this teaching in a superficial way, some non-Catholic Christians imagine that we believe that Jesus "dies again" in each Mass. They say that Catholics believe he is re-crucified by the priest on the altar, so our Mass is a blasphemous repetition of the once-and-for-all sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross. They say that we presume to add something to the finished work of Christ on Calvary.
In fact we agree that there is only one sacrifice, the Cross, but as Christians have always believed since New Testament times, we hold that every celebration of the Eucharist is the great re-presentation or memorial of his one sacrifice. Jesus said "do this in memory of me", or more precisely, "do this as my memorial".
As already indicated, the word "memorial", anamnesis in Greek, is technical. It should be understood, not in a psychological sense of remembering something, but as the Jews understand it, in the vivid biblical sense of a real "re-play" of God's saving acts, a great memorial that makes something present again. Each Mass is not a "remembrance" of the death of Christ but a supernatural re-enactment and re-presentation of his saving work on the cross, as set out in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos 1362-1372.
We may therefore say that, at every Mass, we are once more on the hill of Calvary. We stand with Mary and John, with the courageous women, with Mary Magdalene and the centurion, with the faithful ones, the doubting ones. But, at every Mass, we also gather with them at the empty tomb when the suffering and doubting ceased, for the whole of Christ's Paschal Mystery is contained in the Mass - his life, death and resurrection - hence the words used just after the consecration in each Eucharistic Prayer, when: "We recall ... his passion, his resurrection from the dead, and his ascension into glory."
Later, in the light of his Resurrection, the first Christians understood that this self-immolation of a young Jewish teacher was God's perfect act of divine and human atonement for the sins of the whole world. They would express this in their letters and gospels that come down to us today as the New Testament.
How the Mass is a sacrifice
The Church teaches that the Mass is the same sacrifice as the Cross, but the Church has largely left the explanation of how this happens to the speculation of theologians. There have been various theories as to how the Mass is the sacrifice of Christ.
No one has ever taught that offering bread and wine is the eucharistic sacrifice. That would make the Mass no better than a food offering in the Temple and Christ has abolished such offerings through his one self-offering.
The Preparation of the Gifts or "offertory" is only an offering of raw materials, as it were. It is the moment when the priest repeats the action of Christ who took the bread and wine into his hands. In the eucharistic prayer, or canon, the priest repeats his second act of blessing or giving thanks, and in the Communion, he obeys his command to break the Bread of Life and then to eat and drink Christ's Body and Blood. These four acts, taking, blessing, breaking and giving make up the Eucharistic action.
The destruction theory
One theological attempt to define the moment of Eucharistic sacrifice was the "destruction" school of thought. Some Medieval theologians tried to find part of the Mass that represented the death of a victim. Unfortunately they failed to understand fully the biblical concept of sacrifice. For the Jews, the sacrifice was not the act of killing a victim or its death, rather, it was the offering of the life force, the blood released by slaying. This life force belongs to God and is returned to God. That constituted blood sacrifice in Jewish thought.
Theologians who looked for death, destruction or mutation as sacrifice proposed various moments in the Mass as the Lord's Sacrifice. Some suggested: the "destruction" of the substance of bread and wine through transubstantiation at the consecration, others mingling a fragment of the Host in the Blood of Christ or breaking of the Host, even eating and drinking Christ's Body and Blood. However, none of these moments could be the essential sacrifice because most of them only affect the outward appearances of bread and wine.
The oblation theology
The oblation or offering theologies of Eucharistic sacrifice were more sophisticated. Influenced by the liturgical movement of the 20th Century, theologians, led by M. de la Taille (Mysterium Fidei, Paris 1931), rightly argued that a sacrifice is not destroying a victim, rather a sacrifice involves some intentional act of offering.
The Letter to the Hebrews presents the eternal heavenly oblation consciously made by Christ our High Priest. This celestial process of eternal self-offering is made present on earth in each celebration of the Eucharist. In the Roman Canon, Eucharistic Prayer One, the celebrant prays that "your angel may take this sacrifice to your altar in heaven ...". One theory, mentioned by St Thomas Aquinas, is that the "angel", refers to Christ our Priest.
There is a great truth here. The self-offering of Christ on the Cross, while completed in time, is an eternal "action". His loving self-offering is at the very heart of God, "in" the Holy Trinity. This is proclaimed in the doxology at the end of each eucharistic prayer: Through him, with him, in him, all glory and honour is yours, almighty Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit." As these words are proclaimed or sung, the Son's eternal self-offering is symbolically re-presented. The priest raises the Host on the paten and the chalice, a sign, not of showing (as at the elevations after the consecration), but a symbol of offering sacrifice.
Theologians of great stature favoured the oblation school of thought. However, it ran into historical and logical difficulties once it required that the priest recite specific words of offering, such as "we offer to you ... this holy and perfect sacrifice", and not only the essential words of Christ at the consecration.
One sacrifice made present
The prevalent view today was taught by Pope Paul VI in his magnificent encyclical on the Eucharist, Mysterium Fidei. The double consecration of bread and wine constitutes the offering of the sacrifice because this makes Jesus Christ really present among us as priest and victim. We cannot separate transubstantiation and the Real Presence from the real Sacrifice. His eternal self-offering is made present among us in every Mass. The separate consecration of bread and wine also represents his state of being a victim just as it represents his intentional action as the true Priest of the New Covenant.
This opens another door into the great mystery of the Eucharist. Through transubstantiation, Jesus Christ, God and Man, under the appearances of bread and wine, is offering his great sacrifice for us. At the same time he is providing himself as our food in the sacred banquet of the altar. In the sacrifice-meal our world of matter and time intersects with eternity. Earth and heaven overlap in the Mass.
Surely we must wonder and marvel at that! And the wonder rises from what is really happening. Once we understand something of what is happening at the altar, we should realise that, in every Mass, we encounter the divine here and now. This supernatural event evokes a sense of mystery, because it can never be completely understood. Always it eludes our complete understanding. It remains the "tremendous and fascinating Mystery".
The purpose of the sacrifice
The Sacrifice of the Mass is offered for specific ends or purposes. These all are derived from the redeeming work of Christ on the Cross, the source of all sacramental grace as St Thomas teaches. The Mass, is offered:
1. to give adoration, glory and thanks to God, so the eucharistic sacrifice is the act of perfect worship;
2. to make intercession for all our needs, so it is the act of perfect prayer;
3. to make atonement for the sins of the living and the dead, so it is a sacrifice of propitiation, gaining pardon, peace and reconciliation.
The power of this atoning sacrifice, for the living and the dead, is infinite because the power of the cross is infinite. This is why we have Mass celebrated for special intentions, above all for the dead. Each separate celebration of the Eucharist, as it were, applies, directs and focuses the power of the one Paschal Mystery of Christ's cross and resurrection to a specific purpose. Whether celebrated in solemn splendour in a basilica or in simplicity in a village hut, the Mass has the same infinite power and value and before this mystery, and bringing ourselves into it, we wonder and marvel.
A sense of "wonder" should flow into our lives from these Eucharistic mysteries. Wonder should lead to a sense of our own unique value as created human persons because God entrusts such a sublime mystery into human hands.
However, it is not for us to manipulate his gift, hence the grave abuse involved in playing with the liturgy or deliberately changing what the Church has passed on.
The careful way the Church passes on the sacred celebration of the Eucharist reminds us that this is a gift from God the Holy Trinity. This action is the worship of the Trinity into which we are raised. We do not control it or make it happen - we share in what is happening; God works through us.
Eastern Christians have a deep sense of the way the Eucharistic action carries us, absorbs us, and raises us into heavenly worship here and now.
The Eucharist is sheer gift, so we should be humble before the mystery, yet, at the same time, we should feel our self-worth. We come from fallen stock; we need to be redeemed, but our dignity far outweighs that fall. God's grace is perfecting our nature. That is a Eucharistic understanding of the dignity and value of the human person.
The essential optimism of the Catholic understanding of the person shines through the Sacrifice of the Mass. Jesus says that he does this "for you". His command to "do this" empowers his Church, but he expresses great trust and confidence in our capacity to "do this" well. His trust should encourage each of us to ask how we can value his gift more, how celebrating the divine mysteries of the altar can add meaning and value to our daily lives as Christians.