Dear Father, we sometimes hear the expression “the sacrifice of the Mass.” Why do we call the Mass a sacrifice and has it always been considered to be such?
If you asked your Catholic friends what the Mass is, you would probably hear answers like “a gathering of the parish community to pray to God”, a “fraternal meal”, a “reminder of the Last Supper”, etc.
All of these answers contain some kernel of truth but the essence of the Mass is that it is a sacrifice, the sacrifice of Calvary made present on the altar.
Why does the Church call the Mass a sacrifice? Simply because from the time Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, God asked the Israelites, our forebears in the faith, to offer sacrifice throughout the ages as a way of worshipping him.
They were to offer two sacrifices a day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, except on the Sabbath, when it was to be two in the morning and two in the afternoon (cf. Ex 29:38-42).
These sacrifices were a figure, a symbol, of the definitive sacrifice Christ was to offer for our redemption on Mt Calvary. His sacrifice was to be perpetuated in the sacrifice of the Mass, as the sacrifice of the New Testament.
Christ himself instituted the Eucharist in the Last Supper to make present his sacrifice. St Paul relates “that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’
In the same way also the chalice, after supper, saying, ‘This chalice is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me’” (1 Cor 11:23-25).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church comments: “The sacrificial character of the Eucharist is manifested in the very words of institution: ‘This is my body which is given for you’ and ‘This cup which is poured out for you is the New Covenant in my blood’” (Lk 22:19-20; CCC 1365).
In telling the apostles to “do this in remembrance of me”, Our Lord was asking them to continue to celebrate his sacrifice down the ages. St Paul, in the passage we have just read, goes on to comment that in the Eucharist we are proclaiming Our Lord’s sacrifice until the end of time: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the chalice, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26).
Thus, the daily sacrifices of animals in the Old Testament were to be replaced by the one and only sacrifice of Christ, the Lamb of God, on Calvary, made present in the Mass. The Council of Trent expressed it like this: “Sacrifice and priesthood are, by the ordinance of God, joined together in such a way that both have existed in every law.
Whereas, therefore, in the New Testament, the Catholic Church has received, from the institution of Christ, the holy visible Sacrifice of the Eucharist, it must also be confessed that there is, in that Church, a new, visible and external priesthood, into which the old has been translated” (Sess. 23, Chap. 1).
The reality of the Mass as a sacrifice was understood from the beginning of the Church. The Didache, an early Christian document dating probably to the end of the first century, says: “On the Lord’s day, assemble together and break bread and give thanks, first confessing your sins, that your sacrifice may be pure.”
We express the idea of sacrifice in the Eucharistic Prayers of the Mass. In Eucharistic Prayer 1 we read: “we offer you this sacrifice of praise”, and in Eucharistic Prayer 3: “we offer you in thanksgiving this holy and living sacrifice”. We express it too in the acclamations after the Consecration, saying, for example, “We proclaim your Death, O Lord.”
The sacrificial nature of the Mass is seen too in the separate consecrations of the Body and the Blood of Christ. When the body and blood of a person are separate, the person is dead.
The Catechism sums it up, quoting the Council of Trent: “The sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice: ‘The victim is one and the same: the same now offers through the ministry of priests, who then offered himself on the cross; only the manner of offering is different’” (Council of Trent, DS 1740; CCC 1367).
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