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BY Father Dwight Longenecker
Gibson’s movie Apocalypto is not for the fainthearted or
squeamish. Set among the Mayans in the 16th century, the film portrays their
customs of human sacrifice with unsparing realism. Heads roll, blood spurts,
victims scream as the cruel priests kill thousands in a vain offering to their
Human sacrifice, often accompanied
by cannibalism, was common among parts of virtually every primitive
civilization around the world. Why did people believe that human sacrifice was
necessary? The logic is pretty simple: According to primitive belief systems,
the gods controlled all the factors that led to either peace and prosperity or
death and destruction. To please them, the gods were offered the very best
thing possible: human life.
The ancients believed that the life
of the flesh was in the blood, so to offer the gods life, you had to shed blood
so that the invisible life force could be released.
God revealed the true way of
sacrifice through the religious history of the Jewish race. When Abraham took
his son Isaac up the mountain to be sacrificed, he was only doing what most
primitive people expected they would have to do. God intervened and told him to
offer a goat instead. In the Passover, and continuing through their sacrificial
system in the Temple at Jerusalem, the Jews offered God the blood of animals
rather than the lives of their own children.
This was unsatisfactory. God himself
says in the Old Testament, “Do I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of
The sacrificial system was only a
pointer to the one, full, final sacrifice, in which God gives his own Son in a
bloody immolation for the whole world. Through the Mass, that human sacrifice
to end all human sacrifices is remembered and brought into the present moment
and applied to the needs of each one of us here in our world today.
As the Catechism of the Catholic
Church puts it: “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.’ ‘And since in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the
Mass, the same Christ who offered himself once in a bloody manner on the altar
of the cross is contained and offered in an unbloody manner … this sacrifice is
truly propitiatory’” (No. 1367).
The idea that sacrifice should be
central to Christian worship is a scandal to many modern people. Rightly
horrified by human sacrifice and revolted by the ritual slaughter of animals,
some Catholics wish to turn away from the idea that the Mass is a sacrifice.
They wish to discard the religious
concept of sacrifice because it seems primitive, superstitious and barbaric.
Instead, they promote the idea that the Mass is essentially a fellowship meal.
They bring forward the biblical concept of the solemn meal that sealed a
covenant between two contracting parties, and they see the Mass as a newer form
of the regular, ritual meals that the Jews celebrated.
The covenant ritual meal, they
believe, makes for a better and fuller understanding of the Mass.
Along with this de-emphasis of
sacrifice, they also see the Mass more as a reenactment of the Last Supper than
a window into the crucifixion of Christ. By focusing on the Mass as a ritual,
fellowship meal, they have inadvertently shifted the focus away from the cross
This underlying theological shift of
focus is the real reason why priests suddenly began celebrating Mass facing the
people. From time immemorial, the priest faced the altar, praying in the same
direction as the people. He offered the sacrifice with and for them to the
Father. However, if the Mass is primarily a reenactment of the Last Supper, and
a kind of Jewish, ritual fellowship meal, then it makes perfect sense for the
priest to preside facing the people as a father might preside at the table for
This shift to face the people for
Mass was nowhere prescribed by the fathers of the Second Vatican Council.
There is no direction in the General
Instruction for this innovation. Indeed, the rubrics for the New Order of the
Mass assume that the tradition of the priest praying in the same direction as
the people will continue, because at the point of the prayer, “Pray brethren,
that our sacrifice” and “This is the Lamb of God,” the instruction is for the
priest to “Turn and face the people.”
The theological notion that the Mass
was now primarily a fellowship meal rather than a sacrifice brought about a
revolution not only in where the priest stood to celebrate Mass, but a
revolution in every aspect of Catholic worship. Church buildings became large,
round meeting houses for the family meal. There was no longer an introit hymn
to start Mass, but a “gathering hymn.” Liturgical music voiced emotions about
unity, togetherness, the people of God and fellowship. The purpose of the Mass
shifted to become a mixture of a club meeting, pep rally and family
As a result of these theological and
liturgical innovations, the idea of sacrifice in the Mass has been largely
forgotten. Does it matter? Are the critics right? Is the concept of sacrifice a
primitive, barbaric and superstitious religious custom? Are we better off
without it? Isn’t it nicer for Mass to be all about us and our needs and how we
can make the world a better place?
I think not, and here’s why: First
of all, we should understand what the fully Christian concept of sacrifice
really is. Let’s be clear; we don’t offer an oblation to appease an angry God
or bribe him to make it rain. The primitive pagan human sacrifices and the
animal sacrifices of the Jews were only prophecies and precursors of the one,
full, final sacrifice of Christ. That sacrifice is remembered and brought into
the present moment through the Mass. The sacrifice we offer now is the
sacrifice of praise, and the offering we now make is the offering of ourselves,
our souls and our bodies as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1-2).
The concept of sacrifice must not be
lost, because through the understanding of sacrifice we not only enter into the
mystery of Christ’s death, but we actually enter into the spiritual heart of
God himself. Sacrifice is a total offering of oneself, and this reveals to us
what God is like. God is the one who is totally self-giving. That is his nature
and his purpose. Sacrifice is, therefore, another way to enter into the mystery
of who God is. God cannot help but sacrifice himself for us. That is his
nature, and his nature is love.
St. Thomas Aquinas teaches us that
divine love is the energy force that binds the holy Trinity together, and Dante
saw that Love is the force that “moves the sun and the other stars.” Light,
love, goodness and grace are constantly flowing forth from him. The constant
out-flowing of God’s love and God’s own self is pictured in the blood flowing
from the Savior’s side as the God-Man is sacrificed.
When we shift our understanding of
the Mass from sacrifice to a fellowship meal, we lose the most profound and
mysterious aspect of our Catholic worship. Only when we remember the true
meaning of sacrifice will we remember the true meaning of the Mass, and only as
we remember the true meaning of the Mass will we be able to renew our worship,
renew our Church, and renew the very heart of our spiritual existence.
Dwight Longenecker is chaplain to St. Joseph’s Catholic School in Greenville,