Sacrifice of the Mass?

nothing_in_my_hand_2I wrote a post critiquing Ray Galea’s book on Catholicism. What I didn’t tell you was that Transubstantiation was simply one section in one chapter on the Mass in what is actually quite a small book. Today, I want to do another section of the chapter and (hopefully!) move onto the rest after that. So let’s do this thing!

Galea begins by telling us that “the Mass is not a remembrance, nor even an act of ‘thanksgiving’ (which is what the word ‘Eucharist’ means). It’s a sacrifice.” (p. 44) This is not a very good start because it’s just plain wrong. While the Mass is a sacrifice, it is also a remembrance and a thanksgiving. They are not mutually exclusive. In fact, as we will see the Mass is a sacrifice precisely because it is a remembrance.

How is the Mass a Sacrifice?

Galea’s big question, though, is how can the Mass be a sacrifice when the sacrifice of Christ was completed on the Cross? And it’s an excellent question.

The Catholic Church stresses, and Galea acknowledges this, that “the sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice.” (CCC 1367) The Sacrifice of the Mass is a re-presenting of the one, finished sacrifice of Calvary. There is the same Priest, Christ acting through the human minister, and the same Victim, Christ present in the Eucharist. So contrary to some Protestant polemics, there is no re-sacrificing of Christ. Thankfully Galea doesn’t say this.

But he does add, “It is very hard to see how something can be continually renewed if it was finally and definitively finished in space and time.” (p. 45) At this point, Galea seems to be distinctly unimaginative because he actually answers his own question later in the same paragraph. He writes that, “The work of the atonement is not ongoing. It is done and completed. And it’s benefits are only received by faith, not by participating in a sacramental ritual.”

What Galea is saying is that while Christ’s work of atonement has been completed, it still has to be applied. It has to become present, as it were, to us in the here and now. This is exactly what the Catholic Church means when she says that the Mass is a sacrifice. Why? Because the Mass is a sacrificial memorial of the Cross which perpetuates its memory and applies its fruits. Or as the nasty Council of Trent at the height of the Reformation put it, Christ left 

“to his beloved Spouse the Church a visible sacrifice (as the nature of man demands) by which the bloody sacrifice which he was to accomplish once for all on the cross would be re-presented, its memory perpetuated until the end of the world, and its salutary power be applied to the forgiveness of the sins we daily commit.”

So the real question is not whether the Sacrifice of the Cross is repeated but how it is perpetuated and applied. Galea does not address this at all. He simply quotes a number of bible passages which show that “God sent his Son to make the one, perfect, final sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins… then he “sat down” at God’s right hand. It is a stunning image of a job completed.” (Heb 10:11-18, Jn 19:30, 1 Pe 3:18, Rom 6:10, 1 Jn 2:1-2) Next to them, I’ve just scrawled “Amen!” because seriously, we Catholics are totally on board with that!

Juan de Valdes Leal, The Sacrifice of Isaac, 1659 (Private Collection)

Juan de Valdes Leal, The Sacrifice of Isaac, 1659 (Private Collection)

Why is the Mass a Sacrifice?

What Galea implies, although he does not say as such, is that the Sacrifice of the Mass clouds the issue. He asks, “Why continually renew and re-offer the body of Christ in sacrifice… Does God need a weekly reminder of Christ’s once-for-all death? Or are we the ones who need the reminder?” Well, obviously it’s we who need the memorial, exactly as the Council of Trent said, so I’m really confused why he would say that… is he implying that Catholics think God needs the reminder? Because that would be embarrassing…

Leaving that aside, why does the Church think the Eucharist is a sacrifice? The most important reason is that Scripture and Tradition teach us so.

At the Last Supper, Christ offered the bread and wine, saying “This is my Body” and “This is my Blood.” He instructed the Apostles to “do this in remembrance of me.” (1 Co 11:24, 25; Lk 22:19) It sounds like just remembering, right? But the word remembrance (anamnesis in Greek) doesn’t just mean remember in the way we think about it today. In fact, Lutheran theologian Frank Senn wrote that,

“This Greek word is practically untranslatable in English. ‘Memorial,’ ‘commemoration,’ ‘remembrance’ all suggest a recollection of the past, whereas anamnesis means making present an object or person from the past. Sometimes the term ‘reactualization’ has been used to indicate the force of anamnesis.”  (Source)

It also has specifically sacrificial overtones. All five times the word is used outside of the Institution narratives of the Eucharist in the Bible, it is in a sacrificial context and is variously translated (by the ESV no less) as remembrance, memorial portion or memorial offering. (Heb 10:3, Lev 24:7, Num 10:10, Ps 30:1, Ps 70:1)

St Paul mentions to this when he describes Christians as partaking of the table of the Lord in 1 Corinthians 10:14-22. As far as I can see, the logic of this passage is as follows:

  1. Those who eat the sacrifices are partners in the altar (v. 18)
  2. Pagans offer sacrifices to demons and not to God. (v. 20)
  3. Pagans drink the cup of demons and partake from the table of demons (v. 21)
  4. Thus,  pagans are partners in their altar, offering sacrifices to demons, by this very act of eating and drinking.
  5. Thus Christians, who eat drink the cup of the Lord and partake of His table – in a way that St Paul explicitly compares to the pagan partaking – are also partners in an altar, in this case offering sacrifices to God.

Or you know, we could just let Hebrews 13:10 tell us that, “we have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat.” 

Notice something too about these biblical references to an altar. They are all linked to eating, and not really to sacrificing as such. This makes perfect sense within a Catholic framework because while Christ’s perfect sacrifice has been completed, we still must receive it – or “eat it”. Just as it was vital for the Passover lamb not simply to be sacrificed but eaten, so it is with our “Passover Lamb.” (1 Co 5:7)

Francisco de Zurbaran, Agnus Dei, 1640 (San Diego Museum of Art)

Francisco de Zurbaran, Agnus Dei, 1640 (San Diego Museum of Art)

What did the Early Church think?

Galea thinks that the Catholic Church took what was obviously just a commemorative meal and added some sacrifice to it, just for kicks. He asks, “Why insert human priests back into the equation… Why construct a bizarre doctrine like Transubstantion… Why continually renew and re-offer the body of Christ in sacrifice?” (p. 47) But the history of the Early Church tells quite a different story. There was no “construction.” Rather, from the very beginning there was an awareness of the sacrificial element of the Eucharist tied to its nature as anamnesis.

The Church Fathers certainly treated the Eucharist as a sacrificing offering. St Ignatius of Antioch (c. 110) wrote to the Philadelphians,

“Make certain, therefore, that you all observe one common Eucharist; for there is but one Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, and but one cup of union with his Blood, and one single altar of sacrifice—even as there is also but one bishop, with his clergy and my own fellow servitors, the deacons.” (Letter to the Philadelphians 4).

While St John Chrysostom (c. 387) marveled that,

“When you see the Lord immolated and lying upon the altar, and the priest bent over that sacrifice praying… can you think that you are still among men and on earth? Or are you not lifted up to heaven?” (The Priesthood 3:4:177).

But the earliest extra-biblical reference to the Sacrifice of the Eucharist is from the Didache, a summary of the Apostles’ teachings which dates from the end of the 1st Century or even earlier.

Assemble on the Lord’s Day, and break bread and offer the Eucharist: but first make confession of your faults, so that your sacrifice may be a pure one. Anyone who has a difference with his fellow is not to take part with you until he has been reconciled, so as to avoid any profanation of your sacrifice. For this is the offering of which the Lord has said, “Everywhere and always bring me a sacrifice that is undefiled, for I am a great king, says the Lord, and my name is the wonder of nations” [Mal. 1:11, 14] (Didache 14).

The Didache, along with St Justin Martyr (c. 155) and St Irenaeus of Lyon (c. 190) and a heap of other Church Fathers, tell us that the Eucharist, the true Body and Blood of Christ, was regarded as the sacrificial memorial which fulfilled Malachi’s prophecy that a pure offering will offered to God the Father, by the Gentiles, “in every place”, “from the rising of the sun to its setting”. (Mal 1:11)

Galea makes no mention of this history. Instead, he provides a psychological answer for why the Catholic Church speaks of the Mass as a sacrifice. He says that it comes from “that impulse to find a place for [our] own contribution” in Christ’s work of redemption. (p. 48)

Maybe Galea’s reading of Church History (or lack of rather) is right and this all just an elaborate scheme to make ourselves feel more important. Galea seems to think so. In contradistinction to the Catholic position, he says that “It is profoundly humbling, humiliating even, to stand before the cross of Christ and be forced to admit: “There is nothing I can say, nothing I can do, nothing I can put forward in my own defence. All I have in my hand to offer are my sins. Oh God, please forgive.”

Except that Catholics believe exactly that too! I know that my sense of my own sinfulness and unworthiness is actually deepen by the Mass, as is my joy at Christ’s abundant mercy! I think it’s because I have to concretely acknowledge, in my body and with my time, that I desperately need Jesus. The Council of Trent said that Christ instituted the Eucharist because the nature of sinful man needs it.

It’s one thing to think, yes I need Christ. It’s quite another to come every day (this is still something I’m working on) to the foot of the Cross, confessing “Lord, I am not worthy” and knowing that nothing less than the supernatural reality of Christ’s sacrifice, made present on this altar by His power and His grace, can save me from my sins. I don’t go to Mass because I want to contribute something or I think God needs a hand. I go because I need Him.


7 responses to “Sacrifice of the Mass?

  1. Hi–re this paragraph “In contradistinction to the Catholic position, he says that “It is profoundly humbling, humiliating even, to stand before the cross of Christ and be forced to admit: “There is nothing I can say, nothing I can do, nothing I can put forward in my own defence. All I have in my hand to offer are my sins. Oh God, please forgive.” Why isn’t this Catholic? What am I not understanding?

    • Hi Donna, thanks for commenting! Yes you are right, it is completely and thoroughly Catholic! I meant that Galea thinks this is not Catholic even though it totally is. I’ve now changed the wording to make it a little clearer. Thanks for pointing that out! God bless, Laura

      • Hi Laura-thanks for the explanation and I should also probably read more carefully; i was reading late at night; not always an optimum brain time! You put our faith in such a good light-thank you so much for your blog-I love it!

  2. Laura, I continue to learn so much from your posts. Thank you for a well thought out defense of our beautiful sacraments. I feel I should bookmark this one, I sense I may be needing it soon.


  3. An impressive and well-informed response. I would add on the final point, though, that while a ritually-informed Catholic anthropology certainly does acknowledge human weakness and unworthiness, it also contains some healthy correctives to a too hyper-Augustinian paralysis (at least to the extremes that Luther and Calvin took it) in which human depravity almost seems more powerful than God himself. I would maintain that there is in fact something that we do – not *making* God do anything by our ritual actions, but a whole life of discipleship and servanthood that flows from and is enabled by God meeting us in the sacraments.

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