Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is an idea that has fallen into disfavor in modernity, for various reasons. In Protestant circles, of course, the notion that the Mass could be a sacrifice is often seen as a repudiation or usurpation of the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary, as though it’s an either/or choice. Perhaps the all-time favorite Bible verse among such critics Hebrews 9:25-26:
Nor was it to offer Himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the Holy Place yearly with blood not his own; for then He would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, He has appeared once for all at the end of the age to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.
Such critics allege that the Mass “sacrifices Jesus again and again” whereas Scripture says the sacrifice was offered “once for all”. In reality, however, the Mass does not sacrifice Jesus again and again but is rather a participation in the one and only sacrifice there ever has been, will be, or even could be for the sins of the world: the sacrifice of Christ.
The Church knows perfectly well that Christ is risen and cannot be crucified again. He’s is, after all, in Heaven at the right hand of the Father and no Pope’s arms are long enough to reach him—even if one was dumb enough to think we need to yank Him off his throne and keep crucifying Him over and over again. That why Catholic priests pray (out loud so nobody will miss the point) ““Father, calling to mind the death your Son endured for our salvation, his glorious resurrection and ascension into heaven, and ready to greet him when he comes again, we offer you in thanksgiving this holy and living sacrifice.”
So what’s up with all the sacrificial language applied to the Mass? The Council of Trent tells us:
For it is one and the same victim: he who now makes the offering through the ministry of priests and he who then offered himself on the cross; the only difference is in the manner of the offering. The benefits of this oblation (the bloody one, that is) are received in abundance through this unbloody oblation. By no means, then, does the Sacrifice of the Mass detract from the sacrifice of the cross.
Where did they get that cockamamie unbiblical Dark Age notion from? The apostle Paul, who uses exactly the same language of participation, not repetition or re-sacrifice when he speaks of the Eucharist:
The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? (1 Corinthians 10:16)
Since it is a real participation, it is a real sacrifice, for Christ is our Paschal Sacrifice. But since it is a participation, it is not a repetition. The Christ Who is present on the altar under the appearance of bread and wine is the very same Christ Who died on the cross two thousand years ago. The sacrifice into which we enter is the one and only sacrifice He ever offered on Calvary. And the new life we receive from Him Who is really present in the Eucharist is the Risen Life He brought with Him out of the tomb. The Sacrifice of the Mass no more adds to the Sacrifice of Christ than our prayers add to His Providence.
The odd thing these days is that it is possible to find Catholics who dislike and avoid the fact that the Mass is a sacrifice just as much as Fundamentalists do. However, this is probably small consolation to the anti-Catholic fundamentalists of the world, since such folk are also equally uncomfortable with the idea that the death of Jesus was a sacrifice either. Delores S. Williams, a “womanist” theology professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, sums up the latest trendiness by remarking at a Re-Imagining conference a few years ago, “I don’t think we need a theory of atonement at all.” She went on, “Atonement has to do so much with death,” she said. “I don’t think we need folks hanging on crosses and blood dripping and weird stuff.” She added, “We do not need atonement, we just need to listen to the god within….If Jesus conquered sin, it was in the wilderness and life, not his death (resurrection). The first incarnation of God was not `some dove on the shoulder,’ but in Mary and her body.” Naturally, her remarks were greeted with enthusiastic applause not only from trendy Protestants but also from trendy Catholics, who happily agree that Christianity needs to be “re-imagined” as something which is no longer Christian but instead as something that their itching ears want to hear about.
Catholic teaching, however, does not heed the fundamentalist dissenter or the progressive dissenter on this point. It hails the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on Calvary as the great act of atonement wrought for us by the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world and it enters into that great sacrifice in the Sacrifice of the Mass, which Jesus Himself gave to us so that we might have the forgiveness of sins and life everlasting through His Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, fully present in the Eucharist.