Catholic CornucopiadCheney
The Faith of Our Fathers


The Faith of Our Fathers

XXIII. The Sacrifice of the Mass

Sacrifice is the oblation or offering made to God of some sensible object, with the destruction or change of the object, to denote that God is the Author of life and death. Thus, in the Old Law, before the coming of Christ, when the Hebrew people wished to offer sacrifice to God they took a lamb or some other animal, which they slew and burned the flesh, acknowledging by this act that the Lord was the supreme Master of life and death. The ancients offered to God two kinds of sacrifices, viz., living creatures, such as bulls, lambs and birds; and inanimate objects, such as wheat and barley, and, in general, the first fruits of the earth.

All nations--whether Jews, idolaters or Christians, except Mahometans and modern Protestants--have made sacrifice their principal act of worship. If you go back to the very dawn of creation, you will find the children of Adam offering sacrifices to God. Abel offered to the Lord the firstlings of his flock, and Cain offered of the fruits of the earth.[Gen. iv.]

When Noe and his family are rescued from the deluge which had spread over the face of the earth his first act on issuing from the ark, when the waters disappear, is to offer holocausts to the Lord, in thanksgiving for his preservation.[Gen. viii.] Abraham, the great father of the Jewish race, offered victims to the Almighty at His express command.[Ibid. xv.] We read that Job was accustomed to offer holocausts to the Lord, to propitiate His favor in behalf of his children, and to obtain forgiveness for the sins they might have committed.[Job I.]

When Jehovah delivered to Moses the written law on Mount Sinai He gave His servant the most minute details with regard to all the ceremonies to be observed in the sacrifices which were to be offered to Him. He prescribed the kind of victims to be immolated, the qualifications of the Priests who were to minister at the altar, and the place and manner in which the victims were to be offered. Hence, it was the custom of the Jewish Priests to slay every day two lambs as a sacrifice to God,[Numb. xxviii.] and in doing this they were prefiguring the great sacrifice of the New Law, in which we daily offer up on the altar "the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sins of the world."

In a word, in all the public calamities--whenever they were threatened by their enemies; whenever they were about to engage in war; whenever they were visited by any plague or pestilence--the Jews had recourse to God by solemn sacrifices. Like the Catholic Church of the present day, they had sacrifices not only for the living, but also for the dead; for we read in Sacred Scripture that Judas Machabeus ordered sacrifice to be offered up for the souls of his men who were slain in battle.[II Mac. xii. 43-46.]

We find sacrifices existing not only among the Jews, who worshiped the true God, but also among Pagan and idolatrous nations.

No matter how confused, imperfect or erroneous was their knowledge of the Deity, the Pagan nations retained sufficient vestiges of primitive tradition to admonish them of the obligation of appeasing the anger and invoking the blessings of the Divinity by victims and sacrifices. Plutarch, an ancient writer of the second century, says of these heathen people: "You may find cities without walls, without literature and without the arts and sciences of civilized life; but you will never find a city without Priests and altars, or which has not sacrifices offered to the gods."

The Indians of our own country were accustomed to offer sacrifice to the Great Spirit, as Father Jogues and other pioneer missionaries inform us. But all those ancient sacrifices were only the types and figures of the great Sacrifice of the New Law, from which they derived all their efficacy, just as the Old Law itself was the type of the New Law of grace. Since the ancient sacrifices were but figures and shadows, they were imperfect and insufficient; for "it is impossible," says St. Paul, "that by the blood of oxen and of goats sins should be taken away. Wherefore, when He (Jesus) cometh into the world, He saith: Sacrifice and oblation Thou wouldst not, but a body Thou hast fitted to me. Holocausts for sin did not please Thee. Then said I: Behold, I come."[Heb. x. 4, 7.] As if He should say: The blood of oxen and of goats is not sufficient to appease Thy vengeance, and to cleanse Thy people from their sins; there I come, that I may offer Myself an acceptable sacrifice for the sins of the world.

The Prophet Isaiah declared that the Jewish sacrifices had become displeasing to God and would be abolished. "To what purpose," says the Lord by His prophet, "do you offer Me the multitude of your victims? ... I desire not holocausts of rams, ...and blood of calves and lambs and buck-goats... Offer sacrifice no more in vain."[Isaiah I. 11-23.]

But did God, in rejecting the Jewish oblations, intend to abolish sacrifices altogether? By no means. On the contrary, He clearly predicts, by the mouth of the Prophet Malachias, that the immolations of the Jews would be succeeded by a clean victim, which would be offered up not on a single altar, as was the case in Jerusalem, but in every part of the known world. Listen to the significant words addressed to the Jews by this prophet: "I have no pleasure in you, saith the Lord of hosts, and I will not receive a gift of your hand. For, from the rising of the sun, even to the going down, My name is great among the Gentiles, and in every place there is sacrifice, and there is offered to My name a clean oblation; for My Name is great among the Gentiles, saith the Lord of hosts."[Mal. I. 10, 11.] The prophet here clearly foretells that an acceptable oblation would be offered to God not by Jews, but by Gentiles; not merely in Jerusalem, but in every place from the rising to the setting of the sun. These prophetic words must have been fulfilled. Where shall we find the fulfillment of the prophecy?

We may divide the inhabitants of the world into five different classes of people, professing different forms of religion--Pagans, Jews, Mohammedans, Protestants and Catholics. Among which of these shall we find the clean oblation of which the prophet speaks? Not among the Pagan nations; for the worship false gods, and consequently cannot have any sacrifice pleasing to the Almighty. Not among the Jews; for they have ceased to sacrifice altogether, and the words of the prophet apply not to the Jews, but to the Gentiles. Not among the Mohammedans; for they also reject sacrifices. Not among any of the Protestant sects; for they all distinctly repudiate sacrifices. Therefore, it is only in the Catholic Church that is fulfilled this glorious prophecy; for whithersoever you go, you will find the clean oblation offered on Catholic altars. If you travel from America to Europe, to Oceanica, to Africa, or Asia, you will see our altars erected, and our Priests daily fulfilling the words of the prophets by offering the "clean oblation" of the body and blood of Christ.

This oblation of the New Law is commonly called Mass. The word Mass is derived by some from the Hebrew term Missach (Deut. xvi.), which means a free offering. Others derive it from the word Missa, which the Priest uses when he announces to the congregation that Divine Service is over. It is an expression indelibly marked on our English tongue from the origin of our language, and we find it embodied in such words as Candlemas, Michaelmas, Martin-mas and Christmas.

The sacrifice of the Mass is the consecration of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, and the oblation of this body and blood to God, by the ministry of the Priest, for a perpetual memorial of Christ's sacrifice on the cross. The Sacrifice of the Mass is identical with that of the cross, both having the same victim and High Priest--Jesus Christ.

The only difference consists in the manner of the oblation. Christ was offered up on the cross in a bloody manner, and in the Mass He is offered up in an unbloody manner. On the cross He purchased our ransom, and in the Eucharistic Sacrifice the price of that ransom is applied to our souls. Hence, all the efficacy of the Mass is derived from the sacrifice of Calvary.

It was on the night before He suffered that our Lord Jesus Christ instituted the Sacrifice of the New Law. "Jesus," says St. Paul, "the night in which He was betrayed took bread, and, giving thanks, broke and said: Take ye and eat; this is My body which shall be delivered for you. This do for the commemoration of Me. In like manner also the chalice, after He had supped, saying: This chalice is the new testament in My blood. This do ye, as often as you shall drink, for the commemoration of Me; for as often as ye shall eat this bread, and drink the chalice, ye shall show the death of the Lord until He come."[I Cor. xi. 23-26.]

From these words we learn that the principal motive which our Savior had in view in instituting the Sacrifice of the Altar was to keep us in perpetual remembrance of His sufferings and death. He wished that the scene of Calvary should ever appear in panoramic view before our eyes, and that our heart, memory and intellect should be filled with the thoughts of His Passion. He knew well that this would be the best means of winning our love and exciting sorrow for sin in our soul; therefore, He designed that in every church throughout the world an altar should be erected, to serve as a monument of His mercies to His people, as the children of Israel erected a monument, on crossing the Jordan, to commemorate His mercies to His chosen people. The Mass is truly the memorial service of Christ's Passion.

In compliance with the command of our Lord the adorable Sacrifice of the Altar has been daily renewed in the Church, from the death of our Savior till the present time, and will be perpetuated till time shall be no more.

In the Acts it is said that while Saul and others were ministering (or, as the Greek text expresses if, sacrificing) to the Lord, and fasting, the Holy Spirit said to them: "Set apart for Me Saul and Barnabas." St. Paul, in his Epistle to the Hebrews, frequently alludes to the Sacrifice of the Mass. "We have an altar," he says, "whereof they cannot eat who serve the tabernacle."[Heb. xiii. 10.] The Apostle here plainly declares that the Christian church has its altars as well as the Jewish synagogue. An altar necessarily supposes a sacrifice, without which it has no meaning. The Apostle also observes that the priesthood of the New Law was substituted for that of the Old Law.[Ibid. vii. 12.] Now, the principal office of Priests has always been to offer sacrifice. Priest and sacrifice are as closely identified as judge and court.

St. Paul, after David, calls Jesus "a Priest forever, according to the order of Melchisedech."[Ps. cix. 4; Heb. v. 6.] He is named a Priest because He offers sacrifice; a Priest forever because His sacrifice is perpetual; according to the order of Melchisedech because He offers up consecrated bread and wine, which were prefigured by the bread and wine offered by "Melchisedech, the Priest of the Most High God."[Gen. xiv. 18.]

Tradition, with its hundred tongues, proclaims the perpetual oblation of the Sacrifice of the Mass, from the time of the Apostles to our own days. If we consult the Fathers of the Church, who have stood like faithful sentinels on the watch-towers of Israel, guarding with a jealous eye the deposit of faith, and who have been the faithful witnesses of their own times and the recorders of the past; if we consult the General Councils, at which were assembled the venerable hierarchy of Christendom, they will all tell us, with one voice, that the Sacrifice of the Mass is the center of their religion and the acknowledged institution of Jesus Christ.

Another remarkable evidence in favor of the Divine institution of the Mass is furnished by the Nestorians and Eutychians, who separated from the Catholic Church in the fifth century, and who still exist in Persia and in other parts of the East, as well as by the Greek schismatics, who severed their connection with the Church in the ninth century. All these sects, as well as the numerous others scattered over the East, retain to this day the oblation of the Mass in their daily service. As these Christian communities have had no communication with the Catholic Church since the period of their separation from her, they could not, of course, have borrowed from her the doctrine of the Eucharistic Sacrifice; consequently they must have received it from the same source from which the Church derived it, viz., from the Apostles themselves.

But of all proofs in favor of the Apostolic origin of the Sacrifice of the Mass, the most striking and the most convincing is found in the Liturgies of the Church. The Liturgy is the established Ritual of the Church. It is the collection of the authorized prayers of divine worship. These prayers are fixed and immovable. Among others we have the Liturgy of Jerusalem, ascribed to the Apostle St. James; the Liturgy of Alexandria, attributed to St. Mark the Evangelist, and the Liturgy of Rome, referred to St. Peter. There are various other Liturgies accredited to the Apostles or to their immediate successors. Now I wish to call your attention to this remarkable fact, that all these Liturgies, though compiled by different persons, at different times, in various places, and in divers languages, contain, without exception, in clear and precise language, the prayers to be said at the celebration of Mass; prayers in substance the same as those found in our prayer books at the Canon of the Mass.

We cannot account for this wonderful uniformity except by supposing that the doctrine respecting the Mass was received by the Apostles from the common fountain of Christianity--Jesus Christ Himself.

It was such facts as these that opened the eyes of those eminent English divines who, during the present century, have abandoned heresy and schism and rich preferments and who have embraced the Catholic faith, though, by taking such a step, they had to sacrifice all that was dear to them on earth.

The following passages from St. Paul's Epistle to the Hebrews are sometimes urged as an argument against the sacrifice of the Mass: "Christ, ... neither by the blood of goats, or of calves, but by His own blood, entered once into the Holies, having obtained eternal redemption." "Nor yet that He should offer Himself often, as the High Priest entereth into the Holies every year."[Heb. ix. 25.] Again: "Every Priest standeth, indeed, daily ministering, and often offering the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins, but this Man, offering one sacrifice for sin, forever sitteth at the right hand of God."[Ibid. x. 11, 12.]

St. Paul says that Jesus was offered once. How, then, can we offer Him daily? I answer, that Jesus was offered once in a bloody manner, and it is of this sacrifice that the Apostle speaks. But in the Sacrifice of the Mass He is offered up in an unbloody manner. Though He is daily offered on ten thousand altars, the Sacrifice is the same as that of Calvary, having the same High Priest and victim--Jesus Christ. The object of St. Paul is to contrast the Sacrifice of the New Law, which has only one victim, with the sacrifices of the Old Law, where the victims were many; and to show the insufficiency of the ancient sacrifices and the all-sufficiency of the new dispensation.

But if the sacrifice of the cross is all-sufficient what need then, you will say, is there of a commemorative Sacrifice of the Mass? I would ask a Protestant in return, Why do you pray, and go to church, and why were you baptized, and receive Communion, and the rite of Confirmation? What is the use of all these exercises, if the sacrifice of the cross is all-sufficient? You will tell me that in all these acts you apply to yourself the merits of Christ's Passion. I will tell you, in like manner, that in the Sacrifice of the Mass I apply to myself the merits of the sacrifice of the cross, from which the Mass derives all its efficacy. Christ, indeed, by His death made full atonement for our sins, but He has not released us from the obligation of cooperating with Him by applying His merits to our souls. What better or more efficacious way can we have of participating in His merits than by assisting at the Sacrifice of the Altar, where we vividly recall to mind His sufferings, where Calvary is represented before us, where "we show the death of the Lord until He come," and where we draw abundantly to our souls the fruit of His Passion by drinking of the same blood that was shed on the cross?

In the Old Law there were different kinds of sacrifices offered up for different purposes. There were sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving to God for His benefits, sacrifices of propitiation to implore His forgiveness for the sins of the people, and sacrifices of supplication to ask His blessing and protection. The Sacrifice of the Mass fulfils all these ends. It is a sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving, a sacrifice of propitiation and of supplication; hence that valued book, the "Following of Christ," says: "When a Priest celebrates Mass he honors God, he rejoices the angels, he edifies the church, he helps the living, he obtains rest for the dead, and makes himself a partaker of all that is good." To from an adequate idea of the efficiency of the Divine Sacrifice of the Mass we have only to bear in mind the Victim that is offered--Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God.

First--The Mass is a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. If all human beings in this world, and all living creatures, and all inanimate objects were collected and burned as a holocaust to the Lord, they would not confer as much praise on the Almighty as a single Eucharistic sacrifice. These earthly creatures--how numerous and excellent soever--are finite and imperfect; while the offering made in the Mass is of infinite value, for it is our Lord Jesus, the acceptable Lamb without blemish, the beloved Son in whom the Father is well pleased, and who "is always heard on account of His reverence."

With what awe and grateful love should we assist at this Sacrifice! The angels were present at Calvary. Angels are present also at the Mass. If we cannot assist with the seraphic love and rapt attention of the angelic spirits, let us worship, at least, with the simple devotion of the shepherds of Bethlehem and the unswerving faith of the Magi. Let us offer to our God the golden gift of a heart full of love and the incense of our praise and adoration, repeating often during the holy oblation the words of the Psalmist: "The mercies of the Lord I will sing forever."

Second--The Mass is also a sacrifice of propitiation. Jesus daily pleads our cause in this Divine oblation before our Heavenly Father. "If any man sin," says St. John, "we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the just; and He is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world."[I John ii. 1, 2.] Hence the Priest, whenever he offers up the holy sacrifice, recites this prayer at the offertory: "Receive, O holy Father, almighty, eternal God, this immaculate victim which I, Thy unworthy servant, offer to Thee, my living and true God, for my innumerable sins, offences and negligences, for all here present, and for all the faithful living and dead, that it may avail me and them to life everlasting."

Whenever, therefore, we assist at Mass let us unite with Jesus Christ in imploring the mercy of God for our sins. Let us represent to ourselves the Mass as another Calvary, which it is in reality. Like Mary, let us stand in spirit beneath the cross, and let our souls be pierced with grief for our transgressions. Let us acknowledge that our sins were the cause of that agony and of the shedding of that precious blood. Let us follow in mind and heart that crowd of weeping penitents who accompanied our Savior to Calvary, striking their breasts, and let us say: "Spare, O Lord, spare Thy people." Or let us repeat with the publican this heartfelt prayer: "O God, be merciful to me a sinner." At the death of Jesus the sun was darkened, the earth trembled, the very rocks were rent, as if to show that even inanimate nature sympathized with the sufferings of its God. And should not we tremble for our sins? Should not our hearts, though cold and hard as rocks, be softened at the spectacle of our God suffering for love of us, and in expiation for our offences?

Third--The Sacrifice of the Mass is, in fine, a sacrifice of supplication: "For, if the blood of goats and of oxen, and the ashes of a heifer being sprinkled, sanctify such as are defiled to the cleansing of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who, through the Holy Ghost, offered himself without spot to God, cleanse our conscience from dead works to serve the living God?"[Heb. ix. 13, 14.] If the prayers of Moses and David and the Patriarchs were so powerful in behalf of God's servants, what must be the influence of Jesus' intercession? If the wounds of the Martyrs plead so eloquently for us, how much more eloquent is the blood of Jesus shed daily upon our altars? His blood cries louder for mercy than the blood of Abel cried for vengeance. If God inclines His ear to us miserable sinners, how can He resist the pleadings in our behalf of the "Lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world."

"Let us go, therefore, with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace in seasonable aid."[Heb. iv. 16.]

Previous:XXII. Communion Under One Kind: Our Savior gave communion under both forms of bread and wine to His Apostles at the last Supper.

Next:XXIV. The Use of Religious Ceremonies Dictated By Right Reason--Approved by Almighty God in the Old Law--Sanctioned by Jesus Christ in the New: By religious ceremonies we mean certain expressive signs and actions which the Church has ordained for the worthy celebration of the Divine service.