The Holy Sacrifice

Question: In the old days, the Mass was called the “Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.” Now you never hear that language. Have we dropped that understanding? What is the reason for the change? 

— William D., Fargo, N.D. 

Answer: There has been no essential change in the theology of the Mass from the “old days” until now. There are many names for the Mass, and each one brings out an important dimension of the sacrament. This point is made in the section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church titled, “What Is This Sacrament Called?” (Nos. 1328-1332) — from which I borrow much of what follows. 

The name you mention — the Holy Sacrifice — underlines the truth that the sacrament makes present the self-offering of Christ to the Father. The language of sacrifice is essential to a proper understanding of the Eucharist. Christ’s sacrifice is made present in each celebration of the Mass and is reflected in the hearts and souls of Christians as they live out what they have enacted in worship. 

The most popular name for the sacrament is the Mass (Missa). This derives from the fact that Christians are sent forth (missio) to enact in practical ways the holy reality they have celebrated. 

The most popular theological name for the sacrament is the Eucharist. This derives from the Greek word eucharistein, which refers to the fact that at the heart of the sacrament is the action of giving thanks for God’s great deeds in history — and his renewal of these deeds in every present moment of the Church’s life. 

The sacrament is sometimes called the Lord’s Supper, signifying that the sacrament has its origin and basis in the Last Supper of Jesus and his disciples and the truth that each time we come to the holy table Christ is with us as host and food. 

The Supper of the Lamb is a less familiar name for the Eucharist, but it is important because it states that every celebration of the sacrament is a prefigurement and anticipation of the heavenly wedding feast toward which we look in hope. 

The Breaking of Bread signifies that all who eat the one bread are made one in the body and blood of Christ. The bread of the Eucharist is made from many grains and in the act of communion all are united in Christ in an extraordinary way. 

The Sacred Mysteries is another name for the sacrament. “Mystery” means virtually the same thing as “sacrament” and its use underlines the truth that the Eucharist is the preeminent sacrament. 

The expression the Blessed Sacrament is usually used in relation to devotion to the Eucharist outside Mass, but it is also used of the Mass proper — since all devotions and prayers outside Mass flow from and back to the celebration of the sacrament. 

Holy Communion refers to the truth that in the Mass we commune with Christ — in a special way in the action of eating and drinking at the Lord’s Table, but in the whole of the liturgy as well. 

The Holy and Divine Liturgy, a name used mostly in Eastern Catholic and Orthodox circles, signifies that the Mass is a great act of praise involving all creation and that the worshipful work of the people unites both earth and heaven. 

There are many other names, all of them signifying some important aspect of the sacrament. The sacrament is called the bread of angels, bread from heaven, the medicine of immortality, viaticum (bread for the journey through death). 

Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is a priest and theologian of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Send your questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.