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The Sacrifice of the Mass

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

We know that in Sacred Writing and in the teachings of the Church, the Mass has acquired a variety of synonymous names. It is called the Eucharistic Sacrifice, the Eucharistic Liturgy, or simply, the Liturgy; it is the Eucharistic celebration, the Holy Sacrifice, or the Sacrifice of the Altar.

All of this reflects the richness of mystery revealed to us by Christ when He instituted the Mass on the night before He died. It also indicates that there has been a remarkable development of doctrine regarding the Mass. We know of course that revelation itself has been, as we believe, completed at the end of the Apostolic Age. But there is such a thing as the Church’s growth in understanding the meaning of what has been revealed. Development of doctrine, therefore, means progress in the understanding of the mysteries of the Faith, here of the mystery of the Mass. The modern liturgical movement, which the Second Vatican Council developed to a degree never before known in the history of the Church, is only a reflection and expression of a development of doctrine. The Church now more clearly and deeply understands what the Mass means and desires that this deeper understanding reflect itself in the lives of the faithful.

My plan is to see something of the riches of faith revealed to us in the mystery of the Mass as sacrifice. It is sacrifice not once but many times over, as we should remind ourselves: a sacrifice of propitiation, of petition, of praise, of gratitude, and of love. And all the while, in reflecting on the mystery of the Mass from these different perspectives, we should apply the insights to ourselves.

How is the Mass a Sacrifice?

Before we begin to reflect on each of these different perspectives of the Mass, we might ask ourselves and briefly answer, “How is the Mass a sacrifice?” In general, any sacrifice is the surrender of something precious to the deity in whom the person or people believe. In this sense, sacrifice is perhaps the most common denominator of mans’ religion. All religions have sacrifice insofar as they believe in any transcendent being, or for that matter, beings. They also practice sacrifice whereby they give up or destroy, or do without, or give away something they like that is precious to them, in response to or recognition of the deity in whom they believe.

The sacrifice of the Mass began at the Last Supper and it ended on Calvary. It began at the Last Supper because it was there, surrounded by the Twelve, that the Savior did two things. He first transformed the elements of bread and wine into His own Body and Blood and by separately consecrating each element, signifying the separation of His Body and Blood that would be the expression of His death on the next day. He therefore both transubstantiated bread and wine into Himself and He offered Himself to His heavenly Father.

That first Mass began in the upper chamber in Jerusalem; it finished when Christ died on the Cross. But as we believe, He not only did this Himself but gave to His Apostles, and through them to their successors until the end of time, the power to do the same. They therefore were ordained priests on Holy Thursday night and by the laying on of hands over the centuries, other priests have been ordained.

But now an important qualification before we begin our more particular analytic reflections. Where Christ, from the Last Supper to Calvary sacrificed only Himself in His own physical person, once He died (and because He had anticipated and had given the Apostles the power to do the same) the Mass since Calvary is not only Christ’s sacrifice of Himself, but it is also the sacrifice of ourselves. The Mass now, unlike Calvary, is not only the oblation of Jesus in His own physical person; it is the oblation of Him as Head of the Mystical Body and of us, His members. He is then making the sacrifice in the Mass of Himself and us and is bidding us to join in sentiment by offering ourselves along with Him, once offered and now continuing to offer Himself on our altars.

Consequently the Church bids us say: the Mass is the sacrifice of the Mystical Body, Head and members – the Head first. It is Christ reenacting just what He did on Calvary though now His part of the sacrifice is unbloody, because He can no longer die. Ah, but ours can and should be quite bloody, whether by the shedding of the blood of our bodies if it is God’s will, but certainly by the shedding of the blood of our spirits. So, it is He and we together, offering the Eucharistic Sacrifice.

Having said that as a backdrop, we wish now to reflect not only doctrinally on the Faith, but ascetically insofar as we are to learn from the Faith what we should do about it. The Mass is not merely to be believed, it is to be lived; and we live the Mass insofar as we live lives of sacrifice.

What are the Different Ways in Which the Mass is a Sacrifice?

The questions that we now ask ourselves is, “What are the different ways in which the Mass is a sacrifice?” And because it is our sacrifice, “What are the different ways in which we, along with Christ, are to offer ourselves with Him to the heavenly Father?” We begin by observing the obvious. There is of course only one sacrifice of the Mass, the same today that has been offered ever since Calvary. But, while the sacrifice qua sacrifice in reference to God is only one, it can and does have different purposes from our viewpoint for which it may and should be offered. We used to talk about the different ends of the Mass. Even the word was unfortunate, “ends”. So what’s an end? The end is the edge of something. Yes. But the end, properly speaking, is the purpose. It is the motive, or reason why something is done. There are, we believe, five purposes, each one enveloping the others. We distinguish them in mind. In reality, every Mass is always all five; yet for our purpose of reflection, we should separately meditate on each to see how differently we are to practice sacrifice in union with the sacrifice of the Mass. Given different purposes there will be different volitional responses.

We speak with the Church about the Mass as having different motives for which we unite ourselves (our oblation) with the oblation of the Savior on the altar. These purposes are not the same, differing according to the volitional motive or stimulus that Christ has and that we now have for making the sacrifice.

Before we begin reflecting in more detail, let me say that no one makes any sacrifice without a purpose; hence the importance of strongly convincing ourselves that we have not one, but many purposes for offering sacrifice, always joining our oblation with Christ’s.

The Mass is a Sacrifice of Propitiation for Sin

First, the Mass is a propitiation for sin. On Christ’s side, when He offered Himself on Calvary or now offers Himself in the Mass, the sacrifice as a propitiation for sin cannot be for His own sins. He is sinless but we are sinners. Consequently, while His purpose in offering the Mass is to expiate the sins of mankind, it is not as though the Mass adds to Calvary because mans’ sins have been expiated as to merit; but while they have been expiated in the sense that Christ merited all the graces that mankind needs to be saved, there must continue to be sacrifice. Christ wants it in order to apply these merits – this means especially to dispose sinners to receive the merits which He gained on the cross.

We however, when we offer the Mass as a propitiation for sin, clearly begin with our own sins. We are first of all sinners in having a sinful nature, so we offer the Mass as a sacrifice in order to obtain grace from God to gain more mastery of this sinful nature than we have. The Church has defined that the Mass is the most powerful means we have for reducing concupiscence. It is especially through the Mass that our passions are mastered; that our evil tendencies are controlled; that the risings of our fallen nature are kept in check. Also, when we offer the Mass, we offer it in expiation for our past sins. Haven’t our sins been forgiven? Yes they have, but we know there is such a thing as expiating something that has already been forgiven, by making up the debt that we owe because we have sinned. There is a debt of penalty for sin. Our union of sacrifice with the Mass reduces the punishment that we have deserved for our sins.

Saint Leonard observed that except for the Mass being offered on thousands of altars throughout the world, the world by now would long ago have been destroyed because of its sins.

The Mass is a Sacrifice of Petition

Secondly, the Mass is a sacrifice of petition for our needs. How much we need! Although there are physical needs of which we are painfully conscious, actually they, whether of body or of emotion, are only God’s ways of reminding us of our deeper, spiritual needs. In a word, we need grace – light for the mind, strength for the will. It is not only grace to save our souls but it is especially grace to grow in holiness.

Saint Ignatius put into the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus this statement at the head of the means by which the Society would both survive and do its work for the good of souls: “The most important and powerful means that the Society of Jesus has for obtaining the grace it needs is from the Sacrifice of the Mass.” He led the way when there was a question of getting the Society’s Constitutions approved, as there were serious doubts as to whether they would be approved. He ordered the priests, just a handful, to offer three thousand Masses without asking how long it would take. “I don’t care how long it takes! Three thousand Masses!” Well, they said them. Thanks to those Masses the Order was approved. It is the only Religious Order in the history of the Church that has been approved not only by the Pope but by a Solemn Eucumenical Council, the Council of Trent. And ever since, every priest in the Order is ordered (Saint Ignatius started the pattern) to offer about four Masses a month for the intention of the Father General. Since we have about seventeen-thousand priests, that means seventeen-thousand times fifty Masses offered each year for the Society of Jesus and her multitudinous, desperate needs.

The Mass is the most powerful means we have to obtain the graces we need. It is a sacrifice of praise; in other words, it is a sacrifice of adoration of the Divine Majesty. We adore the Divine Majesty and Christ in His human nature, because Christ was, and is, priest as man. It is the human nature of Christ (Jesus as man) and we as human beings who together offer the Mass, Christ, His, and we ours, in acknowledgment of God’s greatness compared to our nothingness; His Wisdom compared to our plain, crass stupidity; His goodness compared with our wickedness; His holiness compared with our unholiness. God not only desires this, He demands it. He demands adoration. We might say the Mass as a sacrifice of praise is the first commandment of the Decalogue lived out in the Christian world.

You might ask, “Why consider a sacrifice, any sacrifice, and least of all the Eucharistic Sacrifice as an expression of adoration?” Behind the explanation of why, stands something that is so deep and ultimately impenetrable that only God fully understands it. But He wants us to acknowledge His Divine Majesty, His Godhead, by our consciously and deliberately giving up, putting away, destroying, or theologically speaking, immolating something of ourselves which we like; something that we call either ‘us’ or ‘part of us’.

This is the heart of what the Mass is all about. Because we are human and have such a propensity to self-sufficiency, God demands as proof and evidence of our sincere adoration that we give up ourselves; as proof of our contingency, which means our total dependence on Him, that we let go, destroy, put away; or as the ancient Romans did with their precious wine, pour it out; or as the Hebrews did, slay their sheep and oxen, and allow their blood to spill over the altar. It is in this that the essence of sacrifice consists. We somehow immolate ourselves as evidence of our truly acknowledging God’s Allness and our nothingness, and this kind of acknowledgment God requires. The difference (and what a difference!) between other sacrifices as those of the Old Law and this sacrifice, is that it is not only we who are doing this, but God who became man in order that He might make a whole burnt offering, a holocaust of His humanity; and by dying prove He is man. He wants us to join in that acknowledgment of God’s total greatness and our total dependence so that any reluctance on our part to give up of ourselves to God (thank God we are not so conscious when we do it) is a failure in this acknowledgment.

The Mass is a Sacrifice of Gratitude

The Mass is a sacrifice of gratitude. There is such a thing as thanks-thinking, where frankly a lot of people stop. Somebody does them a favor and they feel grateful. Others go further; they also express their gratitude in words and that is better. But better than thanks-thinking or thanks-saying is thanks-giving. In gratitude for all the good things that God has done for us, what will we do? In acknowledgment of all the good things that He has done for us, we will do good things for Him. You might say we can’t give God anything. Yes and no. Truly, we cannot enrich God, otherwise He would not be God. He needs nothing. But saying that is not the same as saying that God does not want anything. He wants us to do good things in order to show our appreciation for the good things He has done for us. How instinctive this is in the human heart! Christmas cards are a notorious example. People keep a check list of the people they have received cards from the previous year so they will be sure to send cards to those who gave them greetings the year before. One of the deepest instincts in human nature is to do good to those who have done good to us. So the Sacrifice of the Mass means that we not only assist at the Mass but that we live it by doing good things for God. Why? Just because God has been so good to us.

The Mass is a Sacrifice of Love

Finally and in a way summarily, the Sacrifice of the Mass is the great sacrifice of love. We know what love means, seeking to please the one we love, giving ourselves to the one we love. In the language of all nations and understood by all peoples is the fact that when the love is genuine, it is shown in sacrifice – so much so that if we claim we love God and do not sacrifice for Him, our love is not genuine. It is here especially that in joining ourselves with Christ in the Mass we give ourselves up: in Christ’s words, we deny ourselves, which is not just mortification of the body or of the palate. It is the total giving up of ourselves to the will of God. We live out the Sacrifice of the Mass as an oblation of love to the extent to which we surrender our wills to the will of God. That is real love; all else is either a derivative from this or it is not love.

One final observation. Each of the aspects of the Mass that we have considered briefly, covering a vast panorama of faith, should be for all of us a distinctive motive for not only attending Mass or just living the Mass, but of growing in holiness through the Mass. There are many ways of doing this. May I just suggest that in every Mass we attend, we reflect even if it is just for a moment on one or more of these perspectives. Some are in the habit of spending a week or even a month on uniting themselves with Christ in the Mass as a sacrifice of gratitude; or as a sacrifice of petition, and they specify the petitions. It is well to be definite, particular, specific in order that both our assistance at the Mass that we attend, and in the almost half-million Masses that are offered throughout the Catholic world each day, might obtain for us what God wants to give us - the fullness of His grace through the principle channel of salvation which is the reenactment of His own sacrifice on Calvary, which is to be relived by us every day.

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

Conference transcription from a retreat that Father Hardon gave to the Handmaids of the Precious Blood

Mother of Sorrows Recordings, Inc.
Handmaids of the Precious Blood
Cor Jesu Monastery
P.O. Box 90
Jemez Springs, NM 87025

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