ROME, 26 SEPT. 2006 (ZENIT)
Answered by Father Edward McNamara,
professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: Where are we commanded to have a sacrifice in our formal worship of
God? Protestants, for the most part, worship with singing, some
collective prayers and long sermons. Where in the Bible does it say that
proper worship contains a sacrifice? Also a review of where in the Bible
the Mass parts come from and why we include them in Mass would be
useful. Again, it will come down to convincing a "sola scriptura"
believer that Scripture says we must do it. Any help would be
J.C., Leavenworth, Kansas
A: A full answer to this question exceeds the possibilities of this
column. There are, however, many worthy resources available online. Web
sites such as Catholic Answers contain, among other elements, Father
Mitch Pacwa's "Is the Mass a Sacrifice?"
The Old Testament contains many divine commands to perform sacrifices.
All of the complex liturgical rituals described in Leviticus, for
example, are ostensibly commanded by God through Moses.
Perhaps the most important sacrifices commanded by God in the Old
Testament were those in which the Almighty sealed a covenant. This
includes the one with Noah after the flood, the pact made with Abraham,
and above all the sacrifice of the paschal lamb in Egypt, a covenant
that was completed 50 days later with another sacrifice at Sinai.
It was this covenant that was renewed each year at the Passover by means
of a sacrificial ritual that was a "memorial" ("zikkaron" in Hebrew). It
was not a mere recalling but rather one that ritually made present and
ratified and renewed the saving events that had occurred so many years
For Catholics, the central divine command to worship, using a sacrifice,
came from the lips of Christ when he told the apostles at the Last
Supper, "Do this as in memory of me."
In doing so, he specifically recalled the Jewish Passover as a memorial
and applied it to himself and his upcoming sacrifice on the cross, with
a totally new and definitive meaning.
In this context Our Lord's words "This is my body, which is given for
you" (Luke 22:19) correspond to those of Exodus 12:27: "[This ritual] is
the sacrifice of the Passover in honor of Yahweh" when he freed Israel
from slavery in Egypt.
The words "For this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for
many for the forgiveness of sins" (Matthew 26:28) echo those of Exodus
24:8 when Moses says: "This ... is the blood of the covenant that Yahweh
has made with you."
We are thus before a unique sacrifice, the memorial sacrament of
Christ's paschal sacrifice. Through it he has brought salvation to all
mankind and sealed a new and eternal covenant in his blood.
Although the apostles probably did not immediately grasp the full
meaning of Christ's gesture in the cenacle, their reflection on his
words and actions and their familiarity with the Passover as a memorial
quickly led them to understand that Our Lord had commanded them to
repeat the ritual that he had established.
They understood that this ritual was the definitive paschal sacrifice
which made present Christ's unique sacrifice on Calvary and in doing so
ratified and renewed the new and eternal covenant.
Therefore, God has commanded us to worship with a sacrifice, his own
All other forms of ritual sacrifice have fallen by the wayside as
Christ's sacrifice has an infinite worth that absorbs all the values and
intentions expressed in the ancient sacrifices.
The Mass is a sacrifice insofar as it is the memorial that ritually
renews and makes present to us, in time, Christ's once-and-for-all
sacrifice on the cross.
The personal prayers and sacrifices of Christians reach their
fulfillment when they are united to Christ's sacrifice through full,
devout and active participation at Mass.
As to where in the Bible the various parts of the Mass are found, the
answer is less clear. In a way it is everywhere and nowhere.
Everywhere, because the entire Mass is animated by Scripture. Almost all
of the prayers and texts have a scriptural background and the entire
rite is developed as a fruit of Christ's command to continue his
Nowhere, in the sense that we will not find explicit commands to say,
"Sing the Sanctus after the preface." Rather, the ritual has developed
over time as a response to the scriptural exhortation to pray, to repeat
the sacrifice, etc.
In this case even a Protestant would have to accept that the details of
his worship (songs, psalms and long sermons, etc.) are found in the
Bible only in very general terms. ZE06092623
* * *
Follow-up: Scriptural Basis of the Mass as Sacrifice
Following our brief treatment of the Mass as sacrifice (Sept. 26) and an
earlier comment regarding the priest's obligation to communicate both
species before distributing Communion (June 13 and 27, 2006), it
appeared necessary to clarify one point.
One priest explained why he first distributed the hosts to a very small
assembly before all take Communion together: "My reason for the priest
not communicating before the others is that we are sharing a meal and it
is impolite for a host to eat [...] before offering food to his guests.
At the Last Supper it does not seem that the Lord after breaking the
bread ate [...] before giving it to the disciples."
Although I do not doubt the sincerity and good faith of this priest's
argument, especially in the light of other points he mentions, I still
cannot agree with him.
While recognizing that the subject merits a more detailed reply than I
am able to give in this venue, I wish to highlight the following points.
It is not quite correct to say that the priest is the host at Mass. The
host is Christ who is also the sacrificial meal that is being offered.
While the priest acts in Christ's person he does so as a minister.
I believe that a closer, albeit still imperfect, analogy of the
celebrant's role is that the priest is at once a guest of honor and
headwaiter. He also is invited to the Lamb's supper even though his
position and role in this are unique and essential.
At the same time, he is charged with serving up the sacrificial meal
exactly as the divine Host has ordained it through the medium of his
Church and not according to the personal tastes and ideas of the
Also, while it is true that the Eucharist is certainly a fraternal meal,
it is so only insofar as it is a ritual sharing in a sacrificial meal.
The convivial or fraternal aspect is one of the fruits of authentic
participation in the sacrifice.
In the same vein, although the Last Supper was certainly a meal it was
primarily a ritual sacrificial meal. From the point of view of the
Jewish Passover ritual, participation in the sacrifice, and not the
fraternal or family meal as such, was the center of attention.
It was in this ritual context that Christ inserted a new ritual by
substituting himself for the paschal lamb thus establishing the new and
From the basic rite established by Our Lord the Church quickly developed
a new sacrificial ritual quite different from that of the Jewish paschal
supper and responding to Christian theology of sacrifice, communion and
Finally, I fail to see how, after almost 2,000 years of constant and
universal practice in all rites of the Church, it has suddenly become
"impolite" for the minister to take Communion before distributing it to
In cases like this, when we might have doubts about a certain practice,
I believe we should humbly allow ourselves to be guided by tradition or
to use Chesterton's term the "democracy of the dead," both those holy
saints and martyrs who developed our rites, as well as myriad Christians
who for centuries have participated in them. ZE06101027