As we continue to explore and discuss Holy Mass, I encourage you to look back at last week's column providing five reasons, aside from obligation and Divine commandment, we should attend and participate weekly at Sunday Mass. This week, I simply want to provide a broad overview of the nature of Holy Mass. This is especially important considering that some churches have reduced their services to entertainment, to singing, or to hearing a message, and because of that, there may be the temptation among some Catholics to make Holy Mass more entertaining, or more musically oriented (important note: we should have beautiful music at Mass), or reduced to whether the homily is good.
To understand the overall nature of what we are doing at Mass, there are two items to particularly notice. Aside from the tabernacle containing the Blessed Sacrament and a crucifix, the altar is prominent in a Catholic church, and it is the altar we first notice. It is not a regular table, nor is it a table at all. The purpose of an altar is to place a sacrificial offering upon it, and therefore, we don't place just anything on it. The second thing that helps us understand the nature of the Mass is the priest. Regardless of religion, a priest in the most general sense is one who offers sacrifice. The altar and priest go together: the priest offers to God the sacrifice placed upon the altar. This reveals to us that Mass is a sacrifice! I suspect there are parishioners who remember Mass often referred to as the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
If Mass is a sacrifice, what is the sacrificial offering? Here we should note that there is only one saving sacrifice: the sacrifice of the Paschal Victim, Jesus Christ, our High Priest, on the altar of the Cross. When we come to Mass, Calvary is made present to us: we are standing at the foot of the Cross, not as though Jesus is sacrificed again but such that His Passion, Death, and Resurrection is made present to us. In the ancient religion of Israel, a memorial was not simply remembering an event; it brought that event to life, it brought that event to the present moment, and we, as Catholics and disciples of Christ, retain that same idea of memorial. Because of this, the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross is made present to us in an un-bloody manner at Mass; His saving acts are present before us at Mass. It should be stated here that the word “Eucharist” means “thanksgiving.” Holy Mass is a participation in the sacrifice of Christ, and it is also a sacrifice of thanksgiving for what our Lord Jesus Christ has done for us.
How do we participate, then, in this sacrifice of the Mass? St. Paul says in his letter to Colossians, “...in my flesh I complete what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ (1:24).” On the altar, bread and wine is transformed completely and totally into the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ—that is the offering placed on the altar. Lacking in that sacrifice is our participation: we are invited and urged to place our own body, blood, soul, and humanity on the altar. We bring our offerings of our prayers, intentions, our thanksgiving, our praise, our works, our sufferings and lift them up to God. We participate in this sacrifice by bringing our very lives, bringing ourselves to be offered with Christ on the Cross; when we receive the Eucharist, we are assenting that we are willing to lay down our lives for Christ just as He has done for us.
For about 1500 years all Christians gathered on Sunday around a sacrifice, and up until the last sixty years, all Catholics understood Mass to be a sacrifice. Mass is a sacrifice: waking up early on a Sunday, trying to get kids dressed and ready, giving up time on a beautiful day. It is a sacrifice, in which we are transformed to love sacrificially and with even suffering, as Christ has loved us. Attending the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass aids us in living sacrificial lives for God and for others, and therefore, it aids us in loving others. When we look around at our community, country, and world and see selfishness, hatred, and the like, perhaps it is because fewer and fewer are transformed by the power of Holy Mass.
We are saints under construction, laying down our lives as Jesus Christ has done for us. Have a great week!