WHY THE MASS?
Fr. Willliam 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
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
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
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."
Aa 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.