The Holy Mass

Among other things, food and drink are something we have in common with all living creatures. When human beings share their food and drink with others, they differ immensely from animals. In most cultures a meal is a special occasion. For man, eating and drinking are means to socialize with friends and guests, such as a state dinner for heads of state. The time for eating and drinking is also an occasion to celebrate important events. Though not every meal is a festivity, especially when there is not enough food for everyone, there can be no festivity without a meal.

Days are divided according to meals: breakfast, lunch, dinner (or supper). A meal brings togetherness among family, friends and loved ones. Mealtime is a sacred time.

Bread and wine, though different, are complementary. Bread is absorbed into the body. Bread, broken and eaten, becomes a part of us. Wine is poured out and consumed to produce vivacity and glee. Man is nourished and his life is transformed when he eats bread and drinks wine.

In the early years of Christianity, the Eucharist was celebrated with members of the community “in an upper room” (Acts 1:13), in “one place,” or in “a house” (Acts 2:1,2). They also had a fellowship (koinonia) through sharing of a common meal. They “ate together with glad and sincere hearts” (Acts 2:46). The Eucharist is not merely an individual breaking of bread, but has a communal element as typified by the Christians eating together after the Eucharistic liturgy. To correct the Corinthians’ abuse of that fellowship, St. Paul wrote, “For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk” (1 Cor 11:20-21).

Christ personally unites himself with each one of us, according to Benedict XVI (General Audience, Dec. 10, 2008). He is also united with the brothers and sisters who are next to us. The bread is not only for me but it is also for the others. Christ is with all of us. “Christ and my neighbor are inseparable in the Eucharist. And thus we are all one bread and one body. A Eucharist without solidarity with others is a Eucharist abused.”

Sacrificial Dimension

“But how do they come to be our sacrament if it was not by sacrifice? Did not the vegetables have to be pulled up by their roots from the earth, submitted to the law of death, then pass through the ordeal of fire, before they could become the sacrament of physical life or have communion with the body?” (Fulton J. Sheen, That Tremendous Love, Harper Row. 1967).

The Eucharist is a sacramental sacrifice, because it re-presents (brings to the present) the sacrifice of the cross. As a sacrament, it effects what it signifies (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 344). The Catechism also affirms that the Eucharist as a sacrifice is characterized by the very words of the consecration of bread and wine.

In the Beginning

Through centuries, Holy Mass underwent conceptual, ritual and theological changes from its institution on Holy Thursday to the years of atonement — sacrifice controversy and Protestant Reformation. Through the decrees of the Second Vatican Council, the modern and postmodern eras are going back to the Lord Jesus’ intention on Holy Thursday.

Christianity has believed ever since that Holy Thursday that the Last Supper was connected with Pesach, the Passover meal, but the former differs in essence from the latter. Pesach ritualizes the sacrifice of a lamb and symbolizes the Hebrews’ deliverance from bondage in Egypt, while the Last Supper celebrates what Jesus instituted on Holy Thursday: His body as food and His blood as drink given (mandatum, related to Maundy Thursday) as the new Sacrificial Lamb: The Holy Eucharist. Since its institution, the Eucharist has been considered a sacrificial meal.

Though the Synoptic Gospels present the Last Supper as a sacrificial meal (Mk 14:17-31), other sources theorize that the Last Supper is not a meal. The reasons vary. The Last Supper, according to John’s account has not yet started and thus it is not a meal. Pope Benedict XVI said that the Jewish authorities who led Jesus before Pilate’s court avoided entering the praetorium, “so that they might not be defiled, but might eat the Passover” (Jn 18:28). The Synoptic Gospels and Johannine chronologies agree that the Last Supper took place on Thursday and Jesus’ death on Friday, on Preparation Day, the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Mk 15:22-32, esp. 25; Jn 19:17-37) (Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, Part Two: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection, p. 108. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011).

In his book A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (cited in Justin Soutar, “Was Jesus Crucified on Passover?,” John P. Meier says that Jesus celebrated His own personal version of a Passover meal as the Sacrificial Lamb on the eve of His passion and death. Benedict XVI seems to agree with this and clarifies this stand by saying, “Even though the meal that Jesus shared with the Twelve was not a Passover meal according to the ritual prescriptions of Judaism, nevertheless, in retrospect, the inner connection of the whole event with Jesus’ death and Resurrection stood out clearly. It was Jesus’ Passover. And in this sense He both did and did not celebrate the Passover: the old rituals could not be carried out — when their time came, Jesus had already died. But He had given himself, and thus He had truly celebrated the Passover with them” (Jesus of Nazareth, Part Two: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection). Besides, the proximate celebration of the Last Supper on Holy Thursday with the event of Good Friday’s Calvary bolsters the fact that the Last Supper is a sacrificial meal.

Ritual, Theological and Conceptual Changes

If, from the time of its institution, the Last Supper has been considered a sacrificial meal, why and when did the sacrificial element predominate? How did it happen that, before the Second Vatican Council, Holy Mass was viewed primarily as a sacrifice? This overemphasis on its sacrificial aspect influenced how the Holy Eucharist had been viewed and adored also by many Catholics in the past and by a few still today.

First of all, the shift from original understanding of the Last Supper as a sacrificial meal happened with the advent of different views on atonement and sacrifice of Christ. Atonement is rooted in the Jewish celebration of Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). The ritual celebration requires the presider to offer a sacrifice of atonement for the forgiveness of sins (Lv 16). That concept has been adapted and “Christianized” by applying it to Jesus’ death on the cross. The difference is that, in the Christianized version, Jesus, the “Presiding Priest,” did not offer an animal sacrifice but His very own life as atonement for the sins of mankind. It had been taught that Christ became man, suffered and died to ransom mankind from the clutch of the devil, to atone for its sins, to please or placate an angry God and to pay off the devil for the debts (sins) mankind has incurred.

The theology of sacrifice to atone for sins did not develop overnight. After the death of Jesus, the early Christians searched for the meaning of suffering, especially vis-à-vis the death of Christ. They found an ally through the Hebrew Scriptures where sacrifice or holocaust is offered to atone for sins.

Throughout Christian history, the Church had reflected on and conveyed different theological teachings, resulting in various views and practices, some quite different from the authors’ original interpretations, and farther from Scripture and the teachings of Jesus.

For instance, some of the early Church Fathers had taken the figure of atonement too literally and presented it differently from its original interpretation. No matter if the figures are useful and helpful, when taken too far and literally, the figures or symbols ceased to represent the reality. In such a case, the figures became the reality, and the reality was replaced by the figures. For example, when a captive or slave is ransomed, the price is naturally paid to the conqueror who holds the captive hostage. When Christ’s bloody sacrifice and death on the cross were interpreted literally, they were considered the original true price paid to ransom mankind from the devil’s bondage (Augustine, Sermon, cxxx, Part 2, Bk. 8, chaps.7, 10, 14, p.260).

The Apostolic Fathers and the apologist Justin Martyr merely repeat the biblical doctrine of the sacrificial death of Christ. In the third century, Irenæus was the first of the early Fathers to consider the sacrifice of the Cross from the standpoint of a “vicarious satisfaction.” In the fourth century, St. Augustine spoke of satisfaction for sin in legal terms. In the 12th century, St. Anselm developed St. Augustine’s theological ideas that reflected the medieval culture of his day. In Anselm’s view, sin is an infinite offense against God that demands proportionate atonement. Humanity needed atonement, but no human could pay this infinite debt. Only God could do so adequately. Jesus atoned for man’s inadequacy by His suffering and death. Later centuries emphasized blood and pain as the satisfaction that placated God’s anger (Kenneth R. Overberg, S.J., “The Mystery of Suffering: How Should I Respond?” Catholic Update, July 2002).

Almost all atonement theories, (Sts. Irenaeus and Augustine’s Ransom–Christus Victor theory, St. Anselm’s satisfaction theory, and Protestantism’s penal substitution theory) except the early Church Fathers’ moral influence theory, teach either the death of Christ as a punishment and sacrifice for the sins of mankind or a payment and ransom paid to the devil. It is true that the death of Christ is the result of His obedience to the Father. He obeyed His Father to die. And He did not die, because He obeyed His Father. He obeyed His Father because of His immense love for Him. The consequence of His obedient love is death. This love is the prime reason why He became man, and it was revealed in His obedience to His Father’s will and His resulting death. The primacy of the Incarnation, therefore, or God’s diffusion of His life and love in a sublime way, sui generis in creation, is foremost the reason for Christ assuming humanity, not a damage control for what original sin did.

Later on, the stress on the sacrificial nature of the Mass, and the growing non-participatory role of the laity in the Eucharistic celebration contributed to the idea that the consecration alone was the high point of the Mass. All other parts of the Mass, such as the Liturgy of the Word, became secondary. Emphasis was not on receiving Jesus in communion but on seeing and adoring the Eucharistic Lord. Since most laity felt unworthy in receiving Communion, a small round host replaced the loaf of bread (“History of the Eucharist,” DisciplesNow.com).

The ritualistic attitude toward the Eucharist is partly due also to a misunderstanding of the theology of ex opere operato (from the work worked) and ex opere operantis (from the work of the one working). According to Peter of Poitiers (c. 1130-1215), “The act of Baptism is not identical with Baptism because it is an opus operans (ex opere operantis, italics added) while Baptism is an opus operatum (ex opere operato, italics added).” The terms were officially used by the Council of Trent (1545-1563). The Council was convened to correct some of the abuses that had crept into the Church, mainly in opposition to the Protestants’ subjectivism (ex opere operantis). It also defended some Catholic beliefs attacked by the Reformers. The Council’s Decree on the Sacraments, Session XIII (1547), canon B, states, “If anyone says that grace is not conferred ex opere operato through the sacraments of the new law. . .let that one be anathema.” Thus, the objective character (ex opere operato) of the sacraments as means of grace was stressed.

However, Trent’s intention is to stress both the subjective (ex opere operantis/opus operans) and objective (ex opere operato/opus operatum), yet in any controversy, there is a reversal of role: one element that is deemphasized before it gets prominence later on, and the other that used to be emphasized more in the past becomes less stressed or neglected in the present. Trent asserts the term opus operatum (ex opere operato), which signifies that the valid and efficient use of the sign instituted by Christ produces the grace irrespectively of the merits of either minister or recipient (ex opere operantis/opus operans), though the intention of conferring the sacrament is required in the minister and the intention of receiving in the recipient (ex opere operantis). The Council stated that the sacraments “confer grace on those who do not place an obstacle thereunto,” yet it also highlighted the ritualistic aspect (opus operatum) and lessened unintentionally the participants’ role or opus operans. Wrong or mistaken understanding of these theological terms leads to a one-sided consideration of the Holy Mass and the Eucharist.

As a result, the meal element of Holy Mass slowly faded into the background, and the Eucharist came to be seen as a sacrifice only. The theology of the period stressed Christ’s divinity, the upward movement, and augmented the sacrificial element of the Mass.

In Church administration, the hierarchical model was in vogue as opposed to the cyclical model where the leaders, though at the center, are on equal footing with others. The former, where the laity is at the bottom of the ladder, runs the risk of authoritarianism, clericalism and “Father-knows-best” attitude. St. John Chrysostom wrote, “You have tasted the Blood of the Lord, yet you do not recognize your brother.” The saint was critical of vertical spirituality or a mere ritual celebration of the Eucharist without any effect on the believers’ quality of life.

Back to the Beginning

The Memorial Element, the Cross, a Synthesis of Meal and Sacrificial Dimensions: In Stay with Us, Lord, Pope John Paul II wrote,

it is important that no dimension of this sacrament should be neglected. We are constantly tempted to reduce the Eucharist to our own dimensions, while in reality it is we who must open ourselves up to the dimensions of the Mystery. The Eucharist is too great a gift to tolerate ambiguity and depreciation.

In “Is the Eucharist a Sacrifice or a Meal?” on the blog Vox Nova, Feb. 25, 2011, Brett Salkeld writes, “The vertical relationship is a support for the horizontal. Take away the upright beam of the cross and the crossbeam fails, collapsing to the earth and splintering on the rock of human pride.” But, at the same time, a cross is not a cross without its horizontal beam. The two poles are equally needed. At the same time, the cross is, says Richard Rohr, “the coincidence of opposites. . .geometrically, a collision of two opposing lines” (Richard Rohr, Soul Brothers, p. 67, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, N.Y.).

The colliding and opposing lines of the cross are united and harmonized at its very center from where the centripetal power of the love of the Man crucified emanates. In Jesus all barriers between sinners and saints, male and female are removed. Love conquers all! (1 Cor 13). There can never be a Cross without Christ nor Christ without His Cross. They are both essentially needed for eternal salvation and well-balanced spirituality.

The memorial dimension of the Holy Mass harmonizes the vertical (from God to man, and vice versa: sacrificial) and horizontal (from man to man: meal) dimensions of the cross. The memorial dimension unites equally the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. In following what the Lord commanded us to do in His name, we proclaim His words and participate in the breaking of bread. The continuation and representation of the Last Supper and bloody sacrifice of Calvary happen unbloodily whenever and wherever Holy Mass is celebrated. The Eucharist brings to life again and again the Paschal Mystery. The saving power of that mystery — death and resurrection — changes our weakness into strength, forgives our failings and sins, heals our woundedness and transforms us into a “high heaven” where we can partially taste eternal life.

The Judeo–Christian concept of time is linear, beginning with the act of creation by God until the Parousia, the end of the world. The linear concept of time brings to the present the reality that took place in the past. For Kenyans, memory is a window into the past. This mentality may sound strange to Westerners, whose concept of memorial is to remember what happened in the past and leave it there undisturbed.

The memorial dimension not only unites the meal and sacrificial dimensions, it merges past, present and future into one. Through the memorial dimension, the temporal man experiences the “timeless” divinity, beyond time and not in time. Everything stands still in deep and profound union with The Eucharist. St. Jean Marie Baptiste Vianney said, “There are those who lose themselves in prayer, like fish in water, because they are absorbed in God. There is no division in their hearts. How I love those noble souls!”

The Holy Mass is both sacrifice and meal par excellence to give us not physical sustenance, but eternal life. It is a special meal because it is a sacrifice. It is not an ordinary sacrifice because it is a special meal. In general, all meals are sacrificial, but not all sacrifices are meals.

MSGR. FERNANDO G. GUTIERREZ retired as Supervisory Chaplain (2001-2010) from the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Prisons. He earned a Master’s and a Doctorate in Ministry at The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., and he has published five books. (Adapted from Msgr. Gutierrez’ book, The Eucharist: Broken and Crushed, Claretians Publications, Quezon City, Philippines, 2013. Used with permission.)