Watching Mel 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 bloodthirsty gods.

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 goats?”

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 of Christ. 

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 family dinner.

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 get-together. 

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.

Father Dwight Longenecker is chaplain to St. Joseph’s Catholic School in Greenville, S.C.