Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Is the Mass Still a Sacrifice?
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
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
Some of the Israelites, however, eventually fell into
the trap of considering important only the externals of sacrificefor
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
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
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
Sacrifice is to change our livesnot 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 sacrificeor
arranging for itdoes 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
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 sacrificeand 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"
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 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 itwas
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 mysteryso 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
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).