Thanks to Fr Martin Williams for his fourth article on the mystery of the Mass
During the pandemic we have all needed to make sacrifices, that is, to put it crudely, to do some things we find tiresome or disagreeable and to abstain from things we habitually enjoy doing or feel we need to do.
Lent is another time associated with ‘giving things up’. ‘Sacrifice’, properly speaking, may include some such elements of self-denial, but the fundamental meaning of the word is ‘making holy’. “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy … You shall love your neighbour as yourself. I am the Lord “ (Leviticus 19. 2, 18).
At the Last Supper we hear that Jesus “gave thanks”. We don’t know the precise content of that prayer, but it may well have been a Passover prayer, giving thanks for God’s choice and redemption of his people Israel, especially in his rescue of them from Egypt, of which we hear every year in the Exodus reading at the Easter Vigil.
Jesus may well have included thanksgiving for his own vocation as the Redeemer of the world. After all, he was about to declare the bread of the Passover to be his Body and the cup of wine to be his Blood.
The seventeenth chapter of St John’s Gospel, which records a thanksgiving prayer of Jesus at the Supper, includes the words, “For their sake I sanctify myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.” So to say that Jesus died for the sins of the world, is to say that he consecrated himself for the sake of his brothers and sisters, that they might be made holy.
What is holiness?
So what is ‘holiness’? It is nothing less than communion with the Holy One. “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” As Jesus himself says, “You must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5.48). In Scripture ‘perfection’ and ‘sacrifice’ are closely connected.
The Letter to the Hebrews speaks of God “bringing many sons to glory” by making “the founder of their salvation [i.e. Jesus] perfect through suffering” (Heb. 2.10). If the essence of sin is self-love, then the essence of holiness is sacrificial love – love for God and for our brothers and sisters whatever the cost.
Of human beings, only Jesus has achieved that perfection of sacrificial love, but the wonder of the Cross and of the Eucharist is that he communicates that love to us. Hence we call the Eucharist the ‘Holy Sacrifice’.
The sacrifice of the Mass
In what sense is the Mass a sacrifice? Only insofar as it is the memorial of Christ’s sacrifice. “Christ Jesus is the one who died – more than that, who was raised – who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us” Romans 8.34). “[Jesus] is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7.25).
St John the Divine, in his Revelation or Apocalypse, saw at the throne of God “a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain,” and he heard the heavenly host singing a new song, “… for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God …” (Rev. 5.6,9-10).
Our offering of the sacrifice of the Mass is an entering in to the mystery of Christ’s perpetual offering of himself for the salvation of the world and a sharing in his heavenly intercession.
It is a response in obedience to his command to “Do this in memory of me” – and to love God with our whole being and our neighbour as ourself.