Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Language of Sacrifice

I've been reflecting on this subject over the past few days since the release of the motu proprio. When I was in RCIA, and indeed later, I knew plenty of folks, particularly at my university parish, for whom understanding the mass as a sacrifice and not just a meal was very difficult. The "meal" dimension of the mass was clearly emphasized. It made sense, then, that folks might be scandalized at the suggestion that mass should be celebrated ad orientem, and that the role of the ordained ministers should be distinguished from those who, while they also participate in the one priesthood of Christ, do not do so in the same manner. As many note, this was part of the attempt of some to minimize our differences with other Christians. But clearly that was not wise. Why should we ignore what makes Catholic worship distinct from that of other Christians if our dialog with other Christians is to have any type of meaning? We certainly have nothing to be ashamed of. Our worship is certainly biblical and clearly historical.

We know the mass is so much more than merely a re-enactment of the Last Supper. Indeed, the Last Supper is itself inextricably linked to the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. Christ Himself reveals this to us, when he tells his disciples:
This is my body, which will be given for you... This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which will be shed for you.
Indeed, the elements seem to take on a character that is sacrificial in nature, as in the language that is used here, Christ's body and blood are presented in a state of separation with clear reference to His Body, which will be given, and His Blood, which will be shed.

So why is the action of the priest so distinct? It is because, in that context, the priest acts in persona Christi, in the person of Christ, who is our High Priest, who offers Himself. In this context, Christ is both priest and victim. He is Christ, as the Catechism (1137) teaches, "crucified and risen," the one who "offers and is offered, who gives and is given." And this Christ commands us to do in commemoration of Him, which is another reference to how our observance of His command involves us in that One Sacrifice on the Cross, as St. Paul confirms in his letter to the Corinthians:
For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.
There is certainly evidence that the early Christians understood the sacrificial nature of Christ's command (as well as its connection to the sacrifice of the "first-fruits" of creation, the celebration of the Passover, and the consumption of the Paschal Lamb). Volumes have been written about this. One well-known account comes from 4th century father St. Cyril of Jerusalem, in Lecture 23 of his Catechetical Lectures (Mystagogical Lecture, 5):
7. Then having sanctified ourselves by these spiritual Hymns, we beseech the merciful God to send forth His Holy Spirit upon the gifts lying before Him; that He may make the Bread the Body of Christ, and the Wine the Blood of Christ; for whatsoever the Holy Ghost has touched, is surely sanctified and changed.

8. Then, after the spiritual sacrifice, the bloodless service, is completed, over that sacrifice of propitiation we entreat God for the common peace of the Churches, for the welfare of the world; for kings; for soldiers and allies; for the sick; for the afflicted; and, in a word, for all who stand in need of succour we all pray and offer this sacrifice.

9. Then we commemorate also those who have fallen asleep before us, first Patriarchs, Prophets, Apostles, Martyrs, that at their prayers and intercessions God would receive our petition. Then on behalf also of the Holy Fathers and Bishops who have fallen asleep before us, and in a word of all who in past years have fallen asleep among us, believing that it will be a very great benefit to the souls, for whom the supplication is put up, while that holy and most awful sacrifice is set forth.

... we, when we offer to Him our supplications for those who have fallen asleep, though they be sinners, weave no crown, but offer up Christ sacrificed for our sins, propitiating our merciful God for them as well as for ourselves.
Who, according to Cyril, is offered? It is "Christ sacrificed for our sins." He also remembers those who have "fallen asleep", "believing that [this service] will be a very great benefit to the souls."

About 100 years prior to St. Cyril's lectures, 3rd century father St. Cyprian of Carthage also makes note of the sacrificial overtones in his 62nd epistle (Epistle to Cæcilius) (concerning the usage of real wine):
But if we may not break even the least of the Lord’s commandments, how much rather is it forbidden to infringe such important ones, so great, so pertaining to the very sacrament of our Lord’s passion and our own redemption, or to change it by human tradition into anything else than what was divinely appointed! For if Jesus Christ, our Lord and God, is Himself the chief priest of God the Father, and has first offered Himself a sacrifice to the Father, and has commanded this to be done in commemoration of Himself, certainly that priest truly discharges the office of Christ, who imitates that which Christ did; and he then offers a true and full sacrifice in the Church to God the Father, when he proceeds to offer it according to what he sees Christ Himself to have offered.

... And because we make mention of His passion in all sacrifices (for the Lord’s passion is the sacrifice which we offer), we ought to do nothing else than what He did. For Scripture says, “For as often as ye eat this bread and drink this cup, ye do show forth the Lord’s death till He come.” As often, therefore, as we offer the cup in commemoration of the Lord and of His passion, let us do what it is known the Lord did. And let this conclusion be reached, dearest brother: if from among our predecessors any have either by ignorance or simplicity not observed and kept this which the Lord by His example and teaching has instructed us to do, he may, by the mercy of the Lord, have pardon granted to his simplicity. But we cannot be pardoned who are now admonished and instructed by the Lord to offer the cup of the Lord mingled with wine according to what the Lord offered, and to direct letters to our colleagues also about this, so that the evangelical law and the Lord’s tradition may be everywhere kept, and there be no departure from what Christ both taught and did.
And almost 100 years before that, 2nd century father St. Irenaeus notes the sacrificial nature of Our Lord's command in the Last Supper in Book Four of Against Heresies, particularly chapters 17 and 18:
Again, giving directions to His disciples to offer to God the first-fruits of His own, created things—not as if He stood in need of them, but that they might be themselves neither unfruitful nor ungrateful—He took that created thing, bread, and gave thanks, and said, “This is My body.” And the cup likewise, which is part of that creation to which we belong, He confessed to be His blood, and taught the new oblation of the new covenant; which the Church receiving from the apostles, offers to God throughout all the world...

The oblation of the Church, therefore, which the Lord gave instructions to be offered throughout all the world, is accounted with God a pure sacrifice, and is acceptable to Him...

... our opinion is in accordance with the Eucharist, and the Eucharist in turn establishes our opinion. For we offer to Him His own, announcing consistently the fellowship and union of the flesh and Spirit. For as the bread, which is produced from the earth, when it receives the invocation of God, is no longer common bread, but the Eucharist, consisting of two realities, earthly and heavenly; so also our bodies, when they receive the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, having the hope of the resurrection to eternity.

Now we make offering to Him, not as though He stood in need of it, but rendering thanks for His gift, and thus sanctifying what has been created. For even as God does not need our possessions, so do we need to offer something to God; as Solomon says: “He that hath pity upon the poor, lendeth unto the Lord.” For God, who stands in need of nothing, takes our good works to Himself for this purpose, that He may grant us a recompense of His own good things...
Irenaeus proceeds to connect our sacrifice with the heavenly liturgy recorded in Revelation. Be warned, however, that in what little I have quoted from Irenaeus, I am not doing much justice to the rich teaching he is giving or why he is even discussing the issue. Mike Aquilina, in Ch. 11 of his book The Mass of the Early Christians, elaborates on Irenaeus's commentary a bit more:
Central to Irenaeus's theology is the idea, drawn from St. Paul's Letter to the Romans, of "recapitulation." By taking on human flesh, Jesus Christ recovered what Adam had lost through original sin. Thus, Christ restored and rehabilitated the human race and renewed the whole world. Christians, then, represent a new creation.

In this context, Irenaeus discusses the meaning of the Eucharist. In the world before Christ, God had commanded man to offer a pure sacrifice of the "first-fruits" of the earth. Sinful man, proved unable to offer with a pure heart. So Christ established the Eucharist as "the new oblation of the new covenant." In the Eucharist, Christ himself is the offering (the "first-fruits" of the new creation), and Christ himself is the one who offers.

For Irenaeus, the sacrifice of the Church is the fulfillment of all the sacrifices of ancient Israel. Consistent with the Didache and with St. Justin [Martyr], he invokes the prophecy of Malachi; but he also goes on to recall the sacrifices reaching back to "the beginning," to Abel. In the Eucharist, however, Christ offers himself under the same appearances as the old sacrifices: bread and wine, the first-fruits of the earth...

Furthermore, the Eucharist is the pledge of the resurrection of the body. Finally, for Irenaeus, the Mass is the earthly participation in the liturgy of heaven, which is unveiled in the Book of Revelation. The altar of the Church and the altar of heaven are one.
The traditional mass, what we now refer to as the "extraordinary" form of the Roman Rite, or the Missal of 1962, is indeed very old. Through the centuries, it has absorbed much in the way of accretion, particularly during the Carolingian period, and also various reforms (notably Pope St. Pius V, and later Clement VIII, Urban VIII, St. Pius X, Benedict XV, Pius XII and Blessed John XXIII, as noted in the motu proprio). In its simplest form, it can be said to trace to Pope St. Gregory the Great (late 6th century), who, as I understand, was really the first to standardize the liturgy of the Roman Rite, including the Roman Canon and the lectionary.

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