This is the first of two articles on "The Sacrifice of the Mass" by Msgr Peter J. Elliott. Part two will be published in the March 'AD2000'. Msgr Elliott is Episcopal Vicar for Religious Education in the Melbourne Archdiocese and parish priest of St Mary the Immaculate Conception, East Malvern.
Reluctant to use the word "sacrifice", some prefer to describe the Mass as a "community meal". Nevertheless, the Church teaches that the Mass is primarily a sacrifice. But what does this mean? Meals we understand but, in our culture, sacrifices are another matter.
The celebration of the Eucharist obviously takes the form of a sacred meal. Therefore we may say that the Mass is a sacrifice in the form of a sacred meal. It was instituted by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper, a sacred Jewish Passover meal, based on eating a sacrificed lamb and unleavened bread. When we look closely at the Last Supper we understand why the Mass is primarily a sacrifice.
Last Supper, New Sacrifice
Jesus transformed the Passover meal of the Old Covenant with Israel into the Eucharist of his New Covenant with his new Israel, his Church. Those reclining with Jesus at the supper table may not have fathomed that this was happening, for the Lord "had not yet risen from the dead", but they would have understood basically what he was doing through their Hebrew culture. This is why the words and actions of Christ at the Last Supper reveal the sacrificial action and meaning of the Eucharist.
They heard him say: "This is my body given up for you ... This is my blood shed for you." The words Jesus used speak of sacrifice in terms of victim and priesthood. This language was derived from certain sacrifices daily offered at that time at the Temple of Jerusalem.
Why then do some Christians not understand the Eucharist in sacrificial terms?
Let me offer a partial explanation.
Later generations at the time of the Reformation lacked the Jewish ears of the apostles. They lost the sacrificial meaning of Jesus' words and acts at the Last Supper. Yet the Church had faithfully passed on this essential sacrificial understanding of the Eucharist in sacred tradition, even when the Jewish cultural context had been forgotten.
To the men at the supper table what Jesus did with bread and wine was all about a new sacrifice for a new relationship with God. The eucharistic words and actions of Jesus are recorded in various forms, in 1 Corinthians 11:23-25 and in the Last Supper accounts in the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. In the Roman Rite we use an edited form of these words, derived largely from 1 Corinthians and Luke.
Priest and Victim
The disciples are first commanded to "take and eat" this bread, which is now "my body", and to drink this cup of wine, which is now "my blood". Their Master describes himself as a sacrificial victim. His life force, his blood, is drained from his body, as in Temple sacrifice. His blood is shed, his body is "given up for you". Note that his body and blood are not given "to you" but first offered up or handed over in sacrifice "for you". That is Temple language.
Jesus Christ is making himself a sacrificial victim for others. At the same time, he offers himself freely and intentionally. He takes on the active role of priest as well as the passive role of victim. Then come defining words that reveal the purpose of his sacrifice. "My blood" is "the blood of the new and eternal covenant that will be shed for you and for the many".
Jesus immediately defines his action as a sacrifice of expiation, redemption, of propitiation for sins. His body and blood are offered up "for the remission of sins" of the multitude of humanity. At the same time his sacrifice binds the faithful to a new covenant relationship with God, just as Moses bound the people to the covenant with sacrifices and sprinkled blood in Exodus 24:3-8: "This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you ...".
As devout Jews, the apostles would have had a problem with drinking Christ's blood. As the life force, the blood belonged to God and could not be consumed, and this is still Kosher law. Here we see a radical development beyond the Old Covenant. Jesus took the definitive step into his New Covenant by instituting this sacrament of his New Law. The disciples would learn that eating his body and drinking his blood united them to him. They would be dependent on him, like branches on a vine, and gain supernatural life, grace stronger than death, as explained in his eucharistic discourse in John 6.
His Great Memorial
Finally from Christ's lips comes the divine command - "Do this in memory of me". Again Jewish ears would hear an empowering divine command linked to a new Passover. His last meal with them was a Passover. That was no accident. He timed the supper and his death to coincide with Passover, the memorial action that recalled the liberation of the Jews, led by Moses from slavery in Egypt. But now Jesus gives his disciples the mandate to carry out a new memorial for a much greater liberation.
"Do this in memory of me." Here is the great memorial, anamnesis in Greek, that is, a re-presentation or "replay" in modern English. This is not remembering in the head, "a memory", still less a memorial plaque set on a wall, rather it is a representation or re-enactment that makes the event from the past present among us now, like a replay. At the time of the Reformation this interpretation was also lost, replaced by a European psychological concept, "do this in remembrance of me". The Mass was replaced by the Lord's Supper, a symbolic meal of bread and wine to remember the saving death of Jesus.
The Jews, on the other hand, have a sense of the great memorial when celebrating the Passover. Hence we see why the Church teaches that each Mass literally makes Calvary and Easter present here among us at the altar. The Mass is the great "replay" bringing the Cross into our time and space, applying the power of the Cross as prayer for the living and the dead.
Nor would the Jewish mind have a problem reconciling a meal with a sacrifice. In the Temple there were communion sacrifices when parts of the victim were cooked and shared as holy food by the priest and those offering the gift. Such a sacred banquet joined them to the Holy God of Israel and to one another in covenant unity, in a sacred communion, often sealing an agreement between two parties. Sacrifice establishes communion with God through making something holy, hence the Latin word sacrificium, from sacrum facere, to make holy. It is through the holy sacrament of the Eucharist, or Holy Communion, that we share most fully in the Sacrifice of the Lord.
The Mass is a community sacrifice. The sacrifice-meal establishes communion with God and communion with one another as "one bread, one body", a community made one through the Eucharist. Communion is not just personally receiving the Lord. It is also communal, establishing communion with the whole Church. We celebrate "in union with" our Pope, bishops, priests, our brothers and sisters in the communion of the Catholic Church. This is why "receiving Communion" is reserved for those already "in communion" with one another in the Church.
By his divine command to "do this" Jesus Christ ordained the apostles as priests of his New Covenant. Their new priesthood may be described as a "Melchisedek priesthood", permanent and mystical, symbolised by a royal figure who presented bread and wine before Abraham (cf Genesis 14:18-20). The apostles and their successors share in Christ's one priesthood.
They did not receive Aaronic priesthood based on membership in the tribe of Levi and offering many sacrifices. At the hands of these priests of the New Covenant, the staple food of bread and wine will be changed into Jesus Christ, victim and priest of one perfect sacrifice. His one sacrifice replaces a multitude of imperfect sacrifices. His new sacrifice-meal also replaces the domestic sacrifice-meal of Passover. It can be celebrated in any place, "from the rising of the sun unto it setting", the pure and universal oblation prophesied in Malachi 1:11.
However, in light of how Jesus adapted the Passover and guided by what he taught and did, his first priests had to abandon a merely cultic idea of priesthood. Cultic priests only carry out external ritual acts in a temple. At the Last Supper Jesus revealed his priesthood not merely as rituals or functions but as the service and self-giving of consecrated men, whose lives are meant to be modelled on the mystery that passes through their hands.
When he knelt to wash the feet of fishermen he revealed a ministerial priesthood. So while his command to "do this" was a creative divine word that ordained them, it was also a call to serve. Indeed it was a call to ultimate service, to lay down one's life like the Good Shepherd who "does this" for his flock, Jesus the Bridegroom who lays down his life for his beloved bride, the Church. The Eucharist is the priest's source of spiritual energy to keep on serving. It is the source of his ministry of reconciliation and healing.
How then do the lay faithful offer the sacrifice of the Mass? The Mass is their sacrifice with and through the sacrificing priest. Apart from him they cannot offer the Mass and apart from them his sacrifice cannot be that of the Church. Even when a priest celebrates alone, he is offering the worship of the whole Church, visible on earth, unseen in eternity.
When priests offer the sacrifice for and with the people, the Mass is the offering of the whole Mystical Body of Christ, as taught by Pope Pius XII (Mediator Dei, 80-111) and the Second Vatican Council (Lumen Gentium, 10, 34). The Mass is thus the Sacrifice of the Church.
The people share in the Priesthood of Christ through Baptism. They take their place in the eucharistic community through the indelible character of their Baptism. People and priest are baptised, confirmed, or ordained, precisely to "do this". The three sacraments that carry a permanent effect in us structure the Church as a hierarchy for worship to enable the Church as one "priestly people" to offer the worship of the Trinity here on earth. The sacraments of Christian Initiation and Orders lead up to and into the Eucharistic celebration. Thus the Second Vatican Council described the offering of the Lord's Sacrifice as the "summit and source" of the life of the whole community.
The baptised and the ordained exercise the priesthood of Christ in different ways when they celebrate the Eucharist. Yet we are all called to offer ourselves with Christ in the Mass, to offer our lives for others in the way we live. What applies to the ordained, applies to all who celebrate the liturgy. All are called to loving service, to self-giving love, self-sacrifice.