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Is the Mass Still a Sacrifice?

by Patrick McCloskey, O.F.M.

Nowhere are the tensions within the Catholic Church more obvious than in the ways different Catholics approach the Mass. Forming factions around the Eucharist occurred already in the time of St. Paul (1 Corinthians 11). In some places it is still going on. Today some Catholics stress the Eucharist as a meal; others counter that it is a sacrifice. Still others choose the middle ground (the Eucharist is meant to be both) only to get caught in an ideological cross fire.

For many Catholics, "sacrifice" evokes ideas of a distant God, awe and reverence, mystery, sacred place, the proper intercessor, and the importance of correct ritual. "Meal" seems to emphasize a close God, fellowship with him, an equality among participants in the celebration, and informal ritual.

"The Mass has lost that special feeling," observe some Catholics. "The old sense of mystery has disappeared. They've hidden the tabernacle, turned the altar into a table, dropped the bells at the consecration, and interrupted our quiet preparation for Communion with a handshake of peace. Look how people come dressed for Mass now! Reverence has vanished; it's more like a social hour. Today's Mass doesn't suggest any sense of awe or sharing in an eternal sacrifice."

This Update will try to shed some light on the true meaning of sacrifice, what the Bible says about it and how the Mass today is indeed a sacrifice. Posing "meal" and "sacrifice" as bitter rivals is a mistaken opposition, a drain on badly-needed energies, and is contrary to the scriptural view of sacrifice.

Just What Is Sacrifice?

A good working definition of sacrifice is the offering of a gift back to God as an expression of our desire for union with him. The sacrifice is not a substitute for the person offering it but rather is the real sign of his or her self-offering. Sacrifice, therefore, always involves an inner conversion or renewal.

To show how our thinking about sacrifice has developed in recent times, let's go back to the definition given by the Baltimore Catechism: "The offering of a victim by a priest to God alone, and the destruction of it in some way to acknowledge that he is the Creator and Lord of all things" (Q.926). Such a definition suggests that the most important elements of sacrifice are the proper person offering it and the destruction of the victim to show God's lordship over all things.

Yet John McKenzie (Dictionary of the Bible), John Castelot (Jerome Biblical Commentary) and Robert Daly (The Origins of the Christian Doctrine of Sacrifice) agree that destruction is not the main object of sacrifice. The gift to God alone and union with him is the main object. Genuine sacrifice prompts the person to live in a new way. Thus, strictly speaking, sacrifice is not something God needs; we need to offer sacrifice.

What the Bible Says About Sacrifice

Nowhere does the Bible define sacrifice, but the subject comes up frequently. From Scripture's various statements and prescriptions about sacrifice, we can draw some fairly certain conclusions.

For example, we can say what biblical sacrifice is not. It is not an effort to feed a hungry god. The Book of Daniel (chapter 1 4) tells us how Daniel proved that the Babylonian god Bel did not eat the 40 sheep and the flour and wine left in his temple each day. Footprints in the ashes on the floor proved the priests and their families were eating the food. Psalm 50 has God say, "If I were hungry, I should not tell you, for mine are the world and its fullness" (v. 12). Nor is sacrifice offered to appease or soothe an angry god. These ideas of sacrifice are basically pagan.

Biblical sacrifice acknowledges one God as the giver of every gift. In Israelite religion the offering of wine, grain and animals shows God's lordship over all creation. Offering some gifts back to God gave the people some sense of union with him. Ancient Hebrew sacrifices renewed the covenant (union) made at Mt. Sinai, the covenant which established the Israelites as God's chosen people.

At first the descendants of Abraham offered sacrifices for the benefit of the entire nation. Gradually they began to realize that they should offer sacrifices not only for the sins of the nation but also for the sins of individuals. Such sacrifices showed that the person wanted to reestablish a right relationship with God. Hebrew sacrifices stress the giving (focus on God) and not the giving up (focus on self). Often an animal was killed so that its blood (life itself) could be offered to God. The death of the animal was not emphasized; giving it completely to God was. Offering correct sacrifices was important; the entire Book of Leviticus records laws governing sacrifices.

Some of the Israelites, however, eventually fell into the trap of considering important only the externals of sacrifice—for example, the correct time of month, the proper number and kind of animals, and so on. The inner devotion represented by the sacrifice decreased.

Getting Sacrifice Back on the Right Track

Against these abuses the prophets protested. Hosea quotes God: "What can I do with you, Ephraim? What am I to do with you, Judah? Your piety is like a morning cloud, like the dew that passes early away. For this reason I smote them through the prophets. I slew them by the words of my mouth.

"For it is love that I desire, not sacrifice, and knowledge of God rather than holocausts" (6:4-6). Elsewhere God complains about the ritually correct sacrifices many of his people are offering while still clinging to their sins. "Put away your misdeeds from before my eyes; cease doing evil," God commands (Isaiah 1:16).

In biblical religion genuine sacrifice is linked to God-centered lives of goodness and justice. After spurning the sacrifices of his people, God says in Amos, "But if you would offer me holocausts, then let justice surge like water, and goodness like an unfailing stream" (5:24). The prophet Micah describes a man wondering which sacrifice would please God. God replies, "You have been told, O man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do right and to love goodness and to walk humbly with your God" (6:8).

With this background from the Hebrew Scriptures, we can better understand how Jesus regarded sacrifice.

Jesus and Sacrifice

Jesus repeated the prophets' criticism of sacrifice by quoting Hosea 6:6 ("It is love I desire, not sacrifice") when questioned by the Pharisees about fasting (Matthew 9:13 and 12:7). Father John McKenzie, a noted U.S. biblical scholar, says that Jesus' insistence on the need for genuine interior piety is entirely in harmony with what the prophets taught about sacrifice.

Jesus spoke prophetically when he emphasized the closeness of sacrifice and love of one's neighbor: "If you bring your gift to the altar and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift at the altar, go first to be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift" (Matthew 5:23-24).

Jesus himself was the best of all biblical sacrifices. He lived in loving obedience and service to the Father, even to suffering death for the sake of all sinners. Truly God and truly human, Jesus by his life, death and resurrection offered a sacrifice which was unique and therefore unrepeatable (Hebrews 9:25-28). According to John's Gospel, Jesus in his public life and in his death was like the Passover lamb. Jesus' life (blood) was poured out completely. Jesus' sacrifice, however, was a voluntary one; he freely went to his death.

The writers of the New Testament saw Jesus' entire life as a sacrifice. They used the terms common to sacrifice to describe his life, death and resurrection. Jesus commanded his apostles, "Do this in memory of me." This command referred not only to the Eucharist; it included imitating Jesus by handing over their lives in obedience to the Father and in service to the community. In fact, Jesus gave no detailed ritual for the Eucharist. And for up to 40 years after Jesus' resurrection, the Christians around Jerusalem continued to join in the Temple sacrifices at the same time they were celebrating the Eucharist in their homes. These Christians saw no contradiction in this because whether they celebrated the Eucharist or worshiped in the Temple, the goal of sacrifice was the same in each case: honoring the giver of all gifts and being united with him through inner conversion to his ways.

True Sacrifice: Praise and Conversion

The center of biblical sacrifice for both the Jews and the early Christians was acknowledging the Giver of all and seeking a conversion of heart which leads to a renewal of love and service. Ritual (the pattern of offering sacrifice) may help that conversion, but going through the motions of ritual cannot substitute for a heart renewed. Those offering sacrifice are to allow God's grace to transform their lives. If the sacrifice does not result in changed lives, then those who offered it have put an obstacle in God's way, and so the sacrifice has been incomplete.

In his book already mentioned, Robert Daly writes that the New Testament idea of sacrifice is basically not liturgical or cultic (that is, concerned with the details of how to offer it), but rather ethical (concerned with making one's entire life a gift to God and a service to all his people).

St. Paul, for example, spent more time telling his converts in Corinth what kind of loving attitude should characterize their celebration of the Eucharist than giving them detailed instructions about the ritual to be used. Loving service cannot be faked; ritual can.

Sacrifice is to change our lives—not God's mind. This is awesomely demonstrated in the prayer with which the bishop gives the bread and wine to the newly-ordained priest: "Accept the gifts from the people to be offered to God. Be conscious of what you are doing, be as holy as the actions you perform, and model your life after the mystery of the Lord's cross." The priest is expected to be "as holy as" the action he performs (the sacrifice he offers); he is to model his life after the mystery of the Lord's cross. These commands, of course, apply not only to priests but to all of us.

If the inner disposition of the one offering sacrifice—or arranging for it—does not match the external devotion of the ritual, then the so-called sacrifice actually mocks God. Against just such sacrifices God thunders, "Trample my courts no more! Bring no more worthless offerings" (Isaiah 1:13). A contrite heart (ready for obedience and service) is the kind of gift God considers worthwhile. Now, how is our sacrifice of a contrite heart related to the sacrifice of Jesus?

Relationship of the Mass and the Cross

In grade school many of us heard the Mass described as the "unbloody sacrifice of Calvary" in which Jesus, through the priest, offers himself to the Father under the appearance of bread and wine. The Mass was described as the same as the sacrifice of Calvary because the priest and victim (Jesus) are the same in each. All of this was and is true. Still this explanation left many people with a question: How are the Mass and the sacrifice on the cross related?

Perhaps the best way to describe this connection is to say that in the Mass we re-link ourselves to Calvary. St. Paul told his converts in Corinth, "Every time, then, you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes" (1 Corinthians 11:26). Christ's death and resurrection is the saving event of all time. The Eucharist is not a matter of "repeating" that action but reestablishing our bond with it.

Liturgy teacher Father Lawrence Landini, O.F.M., says, "The ritual sacrifice of the Mass is a sacrament of Jesus' once-and-for-all sacrifice—and that sacrifice alone has power to save us. The action that really avails unto salvation is not precisely our remembering, done again and again; it is not our repeated eating of his body and blood; it is not our repeated offering of ourselves to God; it is not our repeated sacrifice of praise. Rather it is Jesus' sacrifice. In other words, all of these ritual and sacrificial actions point to and contain the once-and-for-all sacrifice of Christ which alone unites us more intimately with God and with one another."

The "Sacrifice" vs. "Meal" Battle

In the 16th century Martin Luther and many other Protestant leaders denied that the Mass is a sacrifice; they stressed the meal aspect exclusively. The Council of Trent reacted by emphasizing what was under attack, namely, that the Mass is a sacrifice. Following the concerns of the Council of Trent, Catholic teaching in recent centuries sought to prove from Scripture that the Mass is a sacrifice. Widely-used catechisms did not focus on the prophets' criticism of Israelite sacrifice; they did not stress the dangers of formalism (going through the ritual motions without genuine inner conversion).

Although we need warnings about the dangers of formalism, ritual is important. For one thing, it enables people to know what is going on and how and when they are to join in. It also encourages greater participation of the people.

People have rituals for all occasions: inaugurating a president, beginning a day in court, graduating from high school, introducing a friend to others. High school and professional sports are full of ritual. Ritual is a way of saying something else; ritual itself is not the message. "The difficulty with ritual," says Ernest Larsen in his book, Holiness, "is never, primarily, in the ritual itself, but rather with the message it is entrusted to express and deepen. Man is the only creature on earth who has the need to ritualize and the only one who can lie through ritual."

Ritual is important for common worship, but it has a relative importance. Obsession with it—was the Mass valid if the priest forgot the Creed?—smothers the meaning of sacrifice and siphons off energy and devotion needed for the change of heart which is to accompany sacrifice.

Sacrifice After Vatican II

Recent Church teaching upholds the Mass as sacrifice. In fact, Vatican II's decree on the liturgy (1963) said: "At the Last Supper, on the night he was betrayed, our Savior instituted the eucharistic sacrifice of his Body and Blood. This he did in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the Cross throughout the ages until he should come again, and so to entrust to his beloved Spouse, the Church, a memorial of his death and resurrection: a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, a paschal banquet in which Christ is consumed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us" (#47).

Pope Paul's 1965 encyclical, The Mystery of Faith, described the Mass as reapplying the power of Calvary "for the forgiveness of those sins which we daily commit" (#27). The 1967 Instruction on the Worship of the Eucharistic Mystery said that the Mass is simultaneously "a sacrifice, a memorial, and a banquet" (#1). "In the Mass, therefore, the sacrifice and the sacred meal belong to the same mystery—so much so that they are linked by the closest bond" (#2). The Mass is the action not only of Christ but also of the Church; Christ and his Church are both priest and victim (#3). The 1969 Instruction on the New Order of the Mass said that the meaning of the Eucharistic Prayer "is that the whole congregation joins Christ in acknowledging the words of God and offering the sacrifice" (#54).

Four eucharistic prayers were authorized in 1969. Three of the four prayers use the word "sacrifice" several times. The second Eucharistic Prayer speaks of sacrifice without using the word: "In memory of his death and resurrection, we offer you, Father, this life-giving bread, this saving cup" (emphasis added). Each prayer emphasizes the connection between the sacrifice and changed lives. For example, the third Prayer asks that all those nourished by Christ's Body and Blood "may be filled with his Holy Spirit, and become one body, one spirit in Christ." The fourth Prayer asks that the Father might "gather all who share this bread and wine into the one body of Christ, a living sacrifice of praise."

Sacrifice vs. Meal?

The Mass is a sacrifice. Here the Church offers a gift to God and prays that all these people may achieve union with him. Both offering a sacrifice and becoming a "living sacrifice of praise" are essential to the biblical meaning of sacrifice.

The Mass is also a meal, food for the journey, a building-up of those who celebrate it, and a challenge to share the Good News about Jesus more widely.

Every Mass is both a sacrifice and a meal, a means of fulfilling both of Jesus' two great commandments. Each Eucharist is a foretaste of the eternal banquet of "the Lamb that was slain" (Revelation 5:12).

Patrick McCloskey, O.F.M., teaches religion at Roger Bacon High School in Cincinnati. He writes for St. Anthony Messenger and is author of St. Anthony of Padua: Wisdom for Today.


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