Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass

Time for another update, eh?

So one of the reasons I waited so long to update is because at this point in my story the chronology becomes a little jumbled because… I read the Council of Trent.  This brought up issues of justification, sacraments, apostolic succession, church authority, and….

The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

Which is what I want to talk about today.

A pastor friend of mine had encouraged me to read the Council of Trent in order to find out what the Church said about justification and specifically, the Mass being a sacrifice.  Any good Christian knows that there is only ONE sacrifice that can atone for sins, and that is the sacrifice of Christ on the cross some 2000 years ago.  So the fact that the Catholic Church claims so unambiguously and irrevocably that the Mass is a sacrifice clearly is evidence that the Church is not guided by the Holy Spirit and infallible in the interpretation of Scripture.

Or, it is evidence that the Church really has been given (and has maintained) the full treasury of the faith.

Obviously, I subscribe to the latter point of view.

So what does the Church mean when it talks about the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass?  How can that possibly be consistent with Scripture that claims, in no uncertain terms, that there is one sacrifice for sins?

Well, let’s see what Scripture tells us about this one sacrifice.

Growing up, I was always familiar with the idea of Christ being our Passover Lamb.  I understood the analogy and significance of Christ being our “new Passover meal,” although I did understand this in a metaphorical sense.  Just as the Passover Lamb was slaughtered, and its blood covered the people of Israel so that the angel of the Lord would pass over them and not kill their firstborn, so Jesus was slaughtered as a sacrifice for sins and his blood covers all who believe in him so that through his blood, we are justified before the Father. 

However, I didn’t realize (or didn’t count as significant) the command in Exodus 12, when God institutes the Passover meal, that in order for the sacrifice to be complete the Israelites must “eat the flesh that night….(they) shall let none of it remain until the morning” (Ex. 12:8, 10).  Also, God clearly tells the Israelites that this feast shall be kept as “a statute forever” (Ex. 12:14).

To sum up the “new” parts of the Passover meal that I learned: not only did the blood of the lamb cover the people of Israel, but this was a feast that would be kept forever (by God’s command) and in order for the Passover to be completed, the lamb’s flesh had to be eaten.

So, when Luke tells us in Luke 22:15 that Jesus said to the Twelve, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer,” we understand him to be not replacing the Passover Feast (since God has told us that it will last forever), but participating in it, fulfilling it if you will.  And what does he do?  Does he sacrifice a lamb?

Well, yes and no.

“And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.’”

Hmm.  This is confusing.

So Jesus offers the Passover meal—which somehow is himself (“this is my body, this cup is my blood”).  But why bread and wine, rather than either a) a lamb, or b) himself?  This must be symbolic.  The bread and wine must represent his body and blood, which is being related to the Passover Lamb since the Twelve would have understood the significance of the Passover Lamb as the sacrifice that saved the Israelites from death.

Except, then what’s the point of using bread and wine?  Why don’t we just keep using a lamb, since we already understand that as symbolically pointing to Christ’s sacrifice anyway?

Let’s listen to the answer that the author of the letter to the Hebrews gives us.

“We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” Hebrews 6:19-20

Who the heck is Melchizedek?  Must be pretty important, since he is mentioned 8 times in the book of Hebrews, and in the Psalms too. 

The only time Melchizedek is mentioned in the Old Testament (except in the prophecy of Psalm 110:4) is in Genesis 14:17-24.  He is mentioned as a king of Salem and a priest of “The Most High God,” and his sacrifice as a priest of God is….

Bread and wine.

There are two priesthoods of the Old Testament, the Levitical priesthood that offered animal sacrifices, and this priesthood of Melchizedek, that offered a sacrifice of bread and wine.  We know that Christ fulfills the order of the Levitical priesthood by offering himself as the lamb offering, but Scripture tells us in no uncertain terms that he also fulfills the priesthood of Melchizedek—which is a priesthood offering bread and wine—and that he is a priest after the order of Melchizedek forever

Forgive me for quoting at length from the letter of the Hebrews, but I do believe that Scripture’s explanation of the matter is far more convincing than my own.  J

“Now if perfection was through the Levitical priesthood (for on the basis of it the people received the Law), what further need was there for another priest to arise according to the order of Melchizedek, and not be designated according to the order of Aaron?... For it is attested of (Jesus),
  For, on the one hand, there is a setting aside of a former commandment because of its weakness and uselessness (for the Law made nothing perfect), and on the other hand there is a bringing in of a better hope, through which we draw near to God. And inasmuch as it was not without an oath (for they indeed became priests without an oath, but He with an oath through the One who said to Him,
  so much the more also Jesus has become the guarantee of a better covenant.
   The former priests, on the one hand, existed in greater numbers because they were prevented by death from continuing, but Jesus, on the other hand, because He continues forever, holds His priesthood permanently. Therefore He is able also to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them.” Hebrews  7:11, 17-25

So Scripture tells us that Jesus is a priest forever.  Specifically, a priest after the order of Melchizedek.  What does a priest do?  What makes a priest different from a pastor?

A priest offers sacrifice.

We know that the sacrifice Christ offers to God on our behalf is the sacrifice of himself, his death on the cross.  The letter to the Hebrews, however, tells us that though this sacrifice was a “once for all” sacrifice, somehow Christ is a priest forever, always living to make intercession for us.  And, after the order of Melchizedek, his sacrifice must somehow involve bread and wine.

This post is getting long, so I will explain in my next post how the Last Supper involved not only the institution of the Eucharist, but also the institution of the new priesthood, the priesthood of Christ, which is the condition for the Mass being Christ’s own sacrifice.  Suffice it now to say that Christ explains in John 6:55 that his “flesh” (using the word that specifically recalls the “flesh” of the Passover Lamb) is “true food, and (his) blood is true drink,” and in the same chapter he makes the claim:

 “I am the living bread that comes down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh." John 6:51

Jesus is the bread of life and the Passover Lamb; the Eucharistic Meal, celebrated at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, is not another sacrifice in addition to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, but it is rather the same sacrifice—the fulfillment of the sacrifices offered by Melchizedek and the priests of the Levitical priesthood—brought mysteriously into our lifetime.

We know that Christ, as a priest forever, offers himself—his one sacrifice—continually to God the Father, on our behalf.  The letter to the Hebrews tells us this plainly.  The Mass is the great privilege Christ has granted us, as his people, to celebrate this sacrifice “in remembrance” of Him.

Remembrance: from the Greek word anamnesis, signifying not only calling to mind, but making present.

At the Mass, Christ makes present for us, in the sacrifice of bread and wine, His one sacrifice, after the order of Melchizedek, of himself on the cross.

At the Mass, we do not offer another sacrifice, but we fall before the throne of grace and experience firsthand the sacrifice of Christ on behalf of us all.  That is why we believe that the Eucharist is truly Christ’s body and blood; we believe we are truly eating our Passover Lamb. 

At Mass, we—with confidence—draw near to the throne of grace that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.


  1. Very good post! I love the reminder about Jesus Christ being a Priest FOREVER - reminding us that He constantly and perpetually offers the once-for-all Sacrifice of Himself. And this he does through the priest acting "in persona Christi".

    God bless

  2. This is wonderful -- beautiful exposition.