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Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost - 14 October AD 2012

On the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass

Abraham, willing to sacrifice Isaac his son, as God is willing to sacrifice His
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 - English
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.”[1]  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.”[2]  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.[3]  “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.[4]  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.[5]  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”[6]  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.”[7]  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![8]  Imagine the horror he must have felt when, a few years later, God commanded him to offer that son up in sacrifice![9]  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.[10]

    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 hosts.”[11]

    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.[12]  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.


[10]   For the Passover, see Exodus xii

[12]   Matthew xxvii: 51, etc. 

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