Why the Mass?
by Theologian Father William G. Most
Since, as the Epistle to the Hebrews says (9:26-28), Jesus offered Himself once for all, and
thereby earned all graces
and forgiveness, why is there any need for
the Mass? And how can it
be considered as a sacrifice, when His one
great sacrifice replaced all others?
First, a few precisions on sacrifice in general. Sometimes speakers loosely
claim that all peoples everywhere have always had sacrifice,
and that what they meant by it was the same
everywhere. This is far from true. Anthropologists would not say that all
people have always had it, though it has been very widespread.
But it is entirely clear that not all peoples have meant the
same thing by their sacrifices.
Thus in the Epic of Gilgamesh from Mesopotamia,
when the Babylonian Noah, Utanapistim, came out of his
ark and offered sacrifice,
the gods, who had cowered on the battlements of the sky in fear of their own flood came
down and "swarmed like flies" around the sacrifice. Reason: They had not had anything to
eat for some time! Sacrifice was
the food of the gods. A very
similar idea is found among the Greeks. Aristophanes in
his comedy, the Birds, represents the birds as threatening the gods: If
they do not do as the birds want, the birds will cut off the flow of
Christ at the Column -
by ANTONELLO da Messina -
from Musée du Louvre, Paris
Far above such debased notions is the concept of sacrifice
we find in Scripture. In Isaiah
29:13 God complains that this people honored
Him with their lips, while
their hearts are far from
Him. That was very
true, the ancient Hebrews really relished participation - external
participation - in their rites of
sacrifice. A people with little chance to see spectacles,
little variety in a dull life, would readily enjoy the external
But their hearts were far from Him, they
were empty. What should have been in their hearts?
The kind of interior dispositions
found in the heart of
Jesus in His
sacrifice, of which Romans
5:19 says: "Just as by the disobedience of
the one man, the many were made sinners, so by the obedience of the one man, the many will be constituted just."
So it was the obedience of the new Adam that gave value to His
sacrifice. Without it,
it would have been a tragedy,
not a sacrifice. One major aspect of His sacrifice
is that it was the making of the New Covenant. In the Sinai Covenant,
God said to the people (Exodus
19:5): "If you really hearken to My voice and keep My
covenant, you will be My special people." That is, you will receive favor, on condition of obedience.
Similarly, the essential condition was His
obedience even to death. The
external sign He
used to express that on Holy Thursday was
the seeming separation of
Body and Blood, as if He
said to the Father: "Father, I know the command You have given Me: I am to die tomorrow. Very
good, I turn Myself over to death, represented by this seeming separation. I accept, I obey." He made that pledge that Holy
Thursday night. On the morrow (Good Friday),
He carried it out. Then the interior obedience was the same, really, it was continuous from Thursday
evening, in fact, from His
first entry into the world, when He said (Hebrews
10:7): "Behold, I come to do Your will O God!"
The outward sign on Good
Friday was the actual separation
of body and blood.
Institution of the Eucharist - by JOOS van Wassenhove -
from Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino
evening He said: "Do this in memory of Me". We were not present when He made His
pledge or when He
carried it out. But He
wanted us to join in His dispositions, in His obedience to the will
of the Father.
Hence He provided that in the Mass. He
would, using the ministry of a priest, employ
the same external sign as on
Holy Thursday. His
interior dispositions would be continuous with those
with which He died,
for death makes permanent
the dispositions with which we leave this world.
Why this? Although His work
is infinite, yet
it is the will of
the Father that we be saved
and made holy if and to the extent that we
are not only members of Christ, but
like Him - and especially like Him in this interior
obedience. This we see in Saint
Paul's syn Christo
we should suffer
In Romans 8:17: "We are heirs together
with Him, provided that we suffer with Him, so we also may be glorified with Him".
We have no merit of our own - no creature by
its own power could establish a claim on God
- but we can get in on the claim He generated (for merit
is a claim to a reward) by being His members
(i.e.members of The Mystical Body),
and like Him. The center to
which we are to bring that obedience is
precisely the double consecration, the same
as He had first used on Holy Thursday.
It would be good for us to take some moments before each Mass
to look back asking: What have I done since the previous Mass
in obeying? If I have done well, I
can join it to His obedience, so that it all
may as it were melt into the offering of the whole Christ, Head
and members. If I have done some things poorly, apologies
are in order. I could look ahead too to the time shortly to come after the Mass. At times I may see something in which I know
what the will of
the Father is for me. Then, do I really mean
to obey? If not, this is no
place for me. But if yes, the past and future obedience
can focus into the one eternal
moment of the double consecration.
Thus the Mass is clearly a sacrifice (an unbloody sacrifice, since Christ can die
but once), not in the sense that there is
need to earn what is already earned by Him,
but the Father wants us to be heirs with Him by being like to Him.
Saint Thomas in Summa I. 19. 5. c. gives a
very helpful theological principle, which we could paraphrase - for his Latin is hardly
transparent - thus: In His love of
good order, God
commonly wills that one thing be in place to serve as the reason why He should give a second
thing - even though all of this does not move Him.
He cannot be moved.
So, all grace and forgiveness
had been earned once for all by Christ. Yet,
to observe good order, "all righteousness" (cf. Matthew 3:9)
in giving it out, this splendid process was devised, in which our union with Him is splendidly effected, so that, as Saint
Augustine said, the Church (City of God
10. 20) "learns to offer itself through Him."
As we saw, a sacrifice should have two elements: "outward
sign", and "interior dispositions". The outward sign
in the Mass is still the same as what He Himself devised on Holy
Thursday. The interior dispositions on His part are the same as that with which He died,
for as we said, death makes permanent
the attitude of soul with which one
leaves this world. The outward sign is
multiplied, as a result of His command:
"Do this in memory of Me". The interior disposition within Him
is identical. To it should be added our disposition in union with Him. So the Mass is a sacrifice,
having both elements, it is the repetition
of the Great Sacrifice, since the external sign and His
interior disposition are still the same.
We learn from the Father's complaint
to the Hebrews that they honored Him
only with their lips, while their hearts were far from Him. We must not be content as they were with mere
externalism, external participation - though
that is good objectively too - but much more importantly, we must join our
hearts to His Heart in the offering of
the Whole Christ.