Infinite is the one great mystery of Christian faith. The more men ponder over its parts the more bewildering it appears, for the mystery of the Triune God is continually upholding its hidden power. How grandly impressive is Catholic worship! What an awful holocaust is its sacrifice! Far surpassing the power of human concept is the adorable Sacrifice of the Mass, the supreme worship of the Church. Fearful and thrilling is this, the greatest of all sacrifices; God, the victim slain; God, the High-priest daily offering Himself to the Almighty Father in mystic sacrifice, through the hands of His minister, for the soul redeemed through the precious blood-shedding of Calvary; – offering Himself both for the adorer and the scoffer of His sacred humanity, it is not strange that men stand in trembling awe and have fallen prostrate in every age before the God who assumed man’s nature to die the awful death of the cross when veiled in the uplifted Host He is hourly offered in solemn sacrifice from Catholic altars.
– Rev. W.W. Pounch, The Sacrifice of the Mass; 1896
It is a common belief among Catholics that we go to Mass to participate in a communal meal, in which we commemorate the Last Supper, give public witness to our Christian community, and finally, receive Jesus in the Eucharist as an act of unity with each other and with Christ.
While there is nothing wrong, per se, with any of these understandings, they distract from the ultimate purpose of the Mass – the perpetual offering of the perfect victim sacrifice on the Cross to the Heavenly Father in atonement for our sins.
In his famous analysis of the proposed draft of the new Mass in 1969, Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, then prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, laid out his concerns with the intentional changes made to the orientation of the Catholic liturgy.
This Mass [the newly-devised form] is designed by a great many different expressions, all acceptable relatively, all unacceptable if employed, as they are, separately in an absolute sense.
We cite a few: The Action of the People of God; The Lord’s Supper or Mass, the Pascal Banquet; The Common Participation of the Lord’s Table; The Eucharistic Prayer; The Liturgy of the Word and the Eucharistic Liturgy.
As is only too evident, the emphasis is obsessively placed upon the supper and the memorial instead of upon the unbloody renewal of the Sacrifice of Calvary. The formula “The Memorial of the Passion and Resurrection of the Lord”, besides, is inexact, the Mass being the memorial of the Sacrifice alone, in itself redemptive, while the Resurrection is the consequent fruit of it.
Whatever the nature of the Sacrifice, it is absolutely necessary that it be pleasing and acceptable to God. After the Fall no sacrifice can claim to be acceptable in its own right other than the Sacrifice of Christ.
With the obfuscation of the sacrificial aspect of the Mass, what remains is, essentially, an expression of fellowship. We come to break bread with each other. To share a meal. The priest stands at an altar in table form, facing us, as we engage in dialogue prayers which take on an air of dinner conversation. Even the prayers that replaced the Offertory, “Blessed are you Lord God of all creation, through your goodness we have this bread to offer…” are taken from Jewish table prayers, said as grace before meals.
We have created a Mass that too easily forgets what it celebrates: the re-presentation, in an unbloody way, of the same sacrifice of Calvary. In other words, whether we focus on it or not, the reality of Mass is simple: we are truly — not metaphorically — standing at the foot of the Cross on Calvary, in the presence of Our Lord, Jesus Christ, who died once and for all for our salvation. When the priest elevates the host at the consecration, Christ looks out at us — at each of us, there present before Him — from Golgotha.
It is a breathtaking mystery. One that we can never sufficiently contemplate and adore.
In the Jewish priesthood of the old covenant, only the high priest — a descendant of Aaron or Moses — could enter the Holy of Holies once a year on the day of atonement to offer the holocaust as an oblation for sin. God Himself laid out the instructions for the priestly sacrifice, as related in Leviticus 16:
“Then Aaron shall come into the tent of meeting, and shall put off the linen garments which he put on when he went into the holy place, and shall leave them there; and he shall bathe his body in water in a holy place, and put on his garments, and come forth, and offer his burnt offering and the burnt offering of the people, and make atonement for himself and for the people. And the fat of the sin offering he shall burn upon the altar. And he who lets the goat go to Aza′zel shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward he may come into the camp. And the bull for the sin offering and the goat for the sin offering, whose blood was brought in to make atonement in the holy place, shall be carried forth outside the camp; their skin and their flesh and their dung shall be burned with fire. And he who burns them shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward he may come into the camp.
“And it shall be a statute to you for ever that in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict yourselves, and shall do no work, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you; for on this day shall atonement be made for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins you shall be clean before the Lord. It is a sabbath of solemn rest to you, and you shall afflict yourselves; it is a statute for ever. And the priest who is anointed and consecrated as priest in his father’s place shall make atonement, wearing the holy linen garments; he shall make atonement for the sanctuary, and he shall make atonement for the tent of meeting and for the altar, and he shall make atonement for the priests and for all the people of the assembly. And this shall be an everlasting statute for you, that atonement may be made for the people of Israel once in the year because of all their sins.” And Moses did as the Lord commanded him.
Christ became the new High Priest offering the sacrifice, the new Victim who was to be offered as a sacrifice, and it was to Himself (as a a person of the Blessed Trinity) that His own sacrifice was offered. He perfected the atonement for sins in a way that man never could, and then shared this power with man through the institution of the sacramental priesthood.
Now, every priest acts in persona Christi — in the person of Christ — so every priest is the High Priest, Christ, entering into the Holy of Holies. Whereas the day of atonement was formerly offered once a year, Christ’s sacrifice was efficacious once and forever; but because His sacrifice on Calvary is the very same that is made present on every Catholic altar, we have access to this oblation, this sin offering, every single day of the year – except Good Friday, when we remember the horrible sacrifice — and infinite Mercy — of He who is offered.
Because of this profound mystery of redemption, which becomes present at every Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the Church has always taught that there are certain ends of each Mass which should be our focus when we are present. These have expanded from the singular purpose of atonement found in the old covenant to four distinct purposes, each corresponding to the nature of the sacrifice:
Christ Jesus, the Second person of the Holy Trinity, God-become-Man, is physically with us at every Mass. He is real, He is alive, and He stands before us, body, blood, soul and divinity in an unbloody manner, shrouded behind the appearance of bread and wine but substantially present in them. We do not merely commemorate Him. He is with us. We adore His Divine majesty. We fall down in worship before Him. And by joining our hearts and minds with the priest as he offers the Mass, we are participating in the only true gift we can give to God: the adoration of His Son.
Christ’s incarnation, His life, His teachings, His passion and death and resurrection, his establishment of the Church and her sacraments – this series of events is the most important, most essential, most profoundly wonderful and undeserved thing that has ever happened to Mankind. Each of us has been given the chance to participate in the Divine Life of God, to be perfected by grace, and to live forever with Our Creator in Heaven. This opportunity was lost by Adam’s sin; it is gained back through the New Adam, who offers Himself on every Catholic altar. We should stand in awe, overcome with gratitude for what Our Lord has done for us. Each Mass is the perfect opportunity for us to thank Him for what He has done for us.
God is not content to merely offer Himself for us to save us from our sins. He truly loves as our Father, and wishes to give us all that we need. As He is present in a special way at each Mass, we come to him with our many needs, temporal and spiritual, and lay them at the foot of the Cross. We beg Him for the graces necessary to become saints; we pray for those who are in most need of His assistance. When we receive Jesus in the Holy Eucharist, the Heavenly Father looks upon us and sees within us, unified with us, His beloved, divine Son. There is no more powerful, no more profound moment in which to ask God for all that we need. He cannot but look upon us with Love, not just as His creatures, but as those who share such intimacy with Jesus as to have physically united with Him through the nourishment we take from His body and blood.
Christ was the victim who surpassed all victims. No longer does God require burnt offerings, or the sacrificing of animals. The Lamb of God has come and offered His blood, “Shed for you and for many unto the remission of sins.” This, truly, is the “mystery of faith.” We have nothing to lay upon the altar but our sinfulness, nothing to give to God that He hasn’t given to us – except our human weakness. We ask Him to take it, to perfect it, to replace it with His grace and to wash away the stain of our sins with His precious, sanctifying blood. It is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, connected forever to Calvary, which is the singular act of atonement for all mankind. There is no higher prayer, no greater act of worship. We are absolved of our sins through the sacrament of confession, but it is the offering of the Eucharist — of Christ on the Cross — which has obtained the forgiveness we receive.
The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass should cause us to experience reverence and awe. When we are before the altar, we are in the presence of something greater and more wonderful than we can ever fully comprehend. This should inform our manner, our reverence, our mode of dress, and the prayerful silence that we keep in His presence.
If we are able to bear in mind these ends of the Mass, we will find that our experience of liturgy changes drastically. At any time, in any place, Christians can come together to share a meal and talk of our love for God. It is only at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass that we can behold Christ made truly present on the altar, that we can stare across the chasm of time and space to that Good Friday, two millennia ago, and into the infinitely loving eyes of our dying Lord, beaten, scourged, bloodied, and nailed to the cruel instrument of our salvation.