When I celebrate, I don’t think of it as a sacrifice, and vice versa. Ancient religious sacrifices, however, were both: part obligatory expense (which God requires), part festival (we’re right with God again!). The use of the phrase the “holy sacrifice of the Mass” is rooted in this earlier understanding.
Biblically, Jewish shrine and temple worship could be a messy affair. Because the covenant with God involved blood (circumcision, Abraham’s nocturnal pact in Genesis 15, ritual offerings of animals), the word sacrifice was not misused. But when people gather together, it’s time to party, and the good news at these events far outweighed the bad for participants. Personal and communal sin was expiated: We’re back in the black on God’s books. What better reason to eat, drink, and be merry?
By the time of Jesus, however, late Judaism had already begun to steer away from the idea that ritual sacrifice alone, or even primarily, was what God wanted. Obedience and fidelity could be symbolized by the ritual moment but should not originate or end there. The “sacrifice of praise” was pleasing to God, as were hearts uplifted and whole lives rendered to God’s service.
We might see these developments as a maturing of the spiritual life; actually, they were quite practical for a community that had known migrations, captivity, exile, and oppression. Some generations had no access to the Temple. The best they could do was raise hands, hearts, and voices to God.
The gospels tell us Jesus saw his own looming fate as an act of obedience and giving glory to God. His blood would be poured out for the sins of many, and he was “lifted up” as an offering on the cross. When Saint Paul talks about the Eucharist, he doesn’t hesitate to use sacrificial language familiar to his Jewish audience. By the 3rd century the church fathers regularly promoted the activity of the Mass as a joint sacrifice of Christ and his body, the church.
Later Protestant reformers would reject sacrificial language applied to the Eucharist because it seemed to diminish the unique action of Jesus on the cross. The Roman Catholic Council of Trent in 1562 took pains both to affirm that the Eucharist is the “unbloody” sacrifice of that same Jesus and to clarify that his self-offering is not repeated but “made present” in every Eucharist. What better reason to celebrate?
• A Holy and Living Sacrifice: The Eucharist in Christian Perspective by Ernest Falardeau (Liturgical Press, 1996)
• The Eucharist, Our Sanctification by Raniero Cantalamessa, O.F.M. Cap. (Liturgical Press, 1993)
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