Why the Mass?

Author: Fr. William Most


Fr. William 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 sacrifices.

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 pomp.

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 (Ex 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 night. On the morrow 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 (Heb. 10:7): "Behold, I come to do your will O God!" The outward sign on Friday was the actual separation of body and blood.

On Thursday 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 St. Paul's syn Christo theme: we should suffer with Him, die with Him, rise with Him, ascend with Him. 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, 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, not in he 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.

St. 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. Yet, to observe good order, "all righteousness" (cf. Mt 3:9) in giving it out, this splendid process was devised, in which our union with Him is splendidly effected, so that, as. St. 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, 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.