On the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass
Abraham Willing to Sacrifice Isaac if it is God's Will
The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in Latin and English
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost -
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost - Latin
A month or two ago, while I was
making a sick call, one of our parishioners remarked that she had never
received a careful explanation of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. I was
rather surprised, but thought that just in case there are more like her in
our parish, I ought to say a few words about Holy Mass. Today, we will
discuss the Mass’s Old Testament antecedents, and next week we will deal
with what has developed from the New Testament.
We speak of the Sacrifice of
the Mass, so what is a “sacrifice”? The best definition I could find
reads: “Sacrifice is the offering of food, objects or the lives of
animals to a higher purpose or to God or the gods as an act of propitiation
or worship. While sacrifice often implies ritual killing, the term offering
(Latin oblatio) can be used for bloodless sacrifices of cereal food
or artifacts”(The Wikipedia s.v. “Sacrifice”
In short, it is the giving up
something of value to appease God’s just anger, or to thank and praise Him
for His goodness.
We have to start at the very
beginning. In Genesis we learn that God created Adam and Eve and set them
in a garden where all of their wants would be taken care of, and they would
have God Himself as their close friend. But sin entered the world, in the
form of disobedience to God’s will, and mankind fell from this state known
as “original justice” or “justification.” Having offered insult to One who
is infinite, there was nothing they could do—no sacrifice they could make—to make amends. But God
recognized their plight and immediately promised to send a Great One to
redeem them. To the devil appearing as a serpent He said: “I will put
enmities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed: she shall
crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel.”
In retrospect, we know “the woman” to be the Blessed Virgin Mary, and “her
seed” to be Jesus Christ.
When they sinned, Adam and Eve
perceived themselves to be naked, so, “the Lord God made for Adam and his
wife, garments of skins, and clothed them.”
The great Catholic preacher, Bishop Fulton Sheen used to say that the
animals who gave their skins for this clothing were the first sacrificial
victims for sin, and that the Old Testament would be a “river of blood”
offered in the feeble human attempt to atone for sin.
This “river” continues with the
sacrifice offered by Abel, the son of Adam and Eve, who was murdered by his
jealous brother, whose sacrificial offering was not pleasing to God.
“Abel the Just” is one of just three priests of the Old Testament to be
mentioned in the Canon of the Mass.
When the flood abated, Noe and his
family left the ark, and “built an altar unto the Lord: and taking of all
cattle and fowls that were clean, offered holocausts upon the altar.”
A “holocaust” is a sacrifice given to God through total destruction by fire,
so that nothing remains to be used by priest or people. God was pleased
with this offering, and promised never again to “curse the earth,” as He had
destroyed it in the flood.
We should also note that at this
point in time, God permitted mankind to eat the flesh of the animals—but was
very emphatic in forbidding the drinking of the animals’ blood. Blood, for
the Jew of the Old Testament, became a sacred symbol of life—sometimes to be
completely avoided as “unclean,” and other times to be a means of ritual
purification, when it is sprinkled upon the people.
My personal speculation is that God set blood aside purposefully, so that
the sacrificial blood of Jesus Christ which we receive in Holy Communion
would be of extra special significance.
Later on in Genesis we encounter a
somewhat mysterious priest and king: “Melchisedech the king of Salem,
bringing forth bread and wine, for he was the priest of the most high God”
His sacrifice in bread and wine is obviously a forerunner (a “type”) of the
Eucharistic Sacrifice of Holy Mass. The messianic Psalm 109, has King David
referring to his son, who is also his Lord, as “a priest forever according
to the order of Melchisedech.”
The Messias, whom we know to be Jesus Christ, would be both king and
priest—king by being descended from David—priest by being descended from
God. And the men whom He would leave to perpetuate His Sacrifice on the
Cross, would do so in the offering of bread and wine to become his body and
blood. Melchisedech is another Old Testament priest mentioned in the Canon
of the Mass.
Associated with Melchisedech, and
also mentioned in the Canon, is Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation.
Only in old age was his wife Sara able to bring forth their son Isaac—she
was ninety, Abraham was a hundred!
Imagine the horror he must have felt when, a few years later, God commanded
him to offer that son up in sacrifice!
But where Adam and Eve defied God’s will, Abraham willed nothing else than
God’s will be done. He took the boy to “the land of vision,” which some
identify with Mount Moria, and the mount where the Temple was later built in
Jerusalem. Of course, we know that God’s angel stayed Abraham’s hand and a
ram was offered in place of the boy. In his willingness, Abraham was a
figure of God Himself—willing to offer His only-begotten Son in sacrifice.
We know that Isaac’s son and
grandsons went off to Egypt during a great famine, and that their
descendants—the tribes of Israel—were four hundred years in captivity, until
being led by God to the Promised Land. But first, there would be the
Passover Sacrifice, wherein each Jewish family sacrificed a lamb and painted
its blood on the transom and door posts to ward off the angel sent to kill
all the first-born in Egypt, in order to force the Pharao to let them leave
that country. The lamb would be eaten with unleavened bread, bitter herbs,
and wine—this sacrifice was to be a “perpetual observance” in Israel—and, of
course, the Passover sacrifice would be the basis of the Last Supper, and
the new, unbloody Sacrifice of the Lamb of God in bread and wine.
To date, the priests of Israel were
mostly the heads of families, offering sacrifice on their own behalf. But,
with the Exodus from Egypt, God established an hereditary priesthood in the
sons of Aaron, Moses’ brother. The priesthood, and various functions
associated with the Temple were assigned to the tribe of Levi, the
descendants of one of Isaac’s grandsons. In the desert, and later at the
Temple in Jerusalem, these priests would offer an intricate variety of
sacrifices, animal and cereal, which you can find described in the Old
Testament book of Leviticus. To use Bishop Sheen’s metaphor, this was a
torrential “river of blood.” This Levitical priesthood functioned down
to the time of Christ, and a little bit beyond.
But even before the birth of Christ
there were prophetical announcements that the priesthood of Jerusalem would
not remain. Perhaps 400 years before Christ we hear the Prophet Malachias
lamenting the ingratitude of the people and the sorry state of the
priesthood, predicting that God would one day say: “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
God did not reject His people, but
they rejected Him. This “clean oblation” would be the Holy Sacrifice of the
Mass, and it would be offered among “the nations”—that is to say among all
the other peoples of the world, from the east to the west. At the
crucifixion, the divine Presence of God in the Temple, rejected in the
outrageous murder of the Son of God, tore the veil of the Holy of Holies
from top to bottom and left.
In a few short years the Temple sacrifices ceased, the “river of blood”
dried up, and the Romans destroyed the Temple where God used to dwell.
Judaism became a religion with no sacrifice, and little more than rabbinical
debate about ethical behavior.
But the sacrificial covenant, made
initially with Abraham, continued by those few faithful Jews we know as the
Apostles. They carried that “clean oblation” to the gentiles, from the
“rising of the sun” in the east, “even to its going down” in the west. That
“clean oblation” spoken of by the Prophet is what we know as the Holy
Sacrifice of the Mass, and we will have more to say about it next week.