Scriptural Basis of the Mass as Sacrifice

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Scriptural Basis of the Mass as Sacrifice

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 appreciated. — 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 before.

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 unique sacrifice.

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 actions.

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 [10-10-2006]

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 minister.

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 eternal covenant.

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 ministry.

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 the faithful.

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

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
© Innovative Media, Inc.

ZENIT International News Agency
Via della Stazione di Ottavia, 95
00165 Rome, Italy

To subscribe
or email: with SUBSCRIBE in the "subject" field