The Mass as an Actual Sacrifice in Catholic Tradition
Thomas Crean FAITH Magazine September-October 2009
Fr Thomas Crean O.P. brings out an aspect of traditional Catholic doctrine concerning the sacrifice of the Mass, that seems to have been prominently neglected in recent times. In response the Editor of Faith suggests some lines for orthodox theological development — a theme, we think, close to the heart of Pope Benedict's vision. Fr Crean's latest book Letters to a Non-Believerh about to be published by Family Publications.
I want to consider a way of talking about the Mass which has become quite common in recent years and which isn't exactly wrong, but which when presented as a definition of the Mass seems at least to involve a false emphasis, and which often seems to carry with it ideas about the Mass which I do think are mistaken.
I am talking about describing or defining the Mass as the renewal or re-presentation or re-actualization of the Paschal Mystery. While I don't say that such phrases can't be justified, I do think they need a lot of qualification which they don't always receive, and that without such qualifications, they are misleading. And there's no doubt that 'the Paschal Mystery' is a phrase which is very popular in modern accounts of the Mass, or indeed of the liturgy in general. For example, the Italian Nuovo Dizionario di Liturgia, published in 1988, speaking of the post-Vatican II liturgical reform, states that: 'the Paschal mystery has become the foundation of, and the key to, the meaning of the entire Christian liturgy'. Notice, there, the words, 'has become the foundation'; theimplication is that it wasn't before, that this is something new. That may already give us pause: how can something become the foundation for the liturgy if it wasn't before? Or if we're meant to understand, not 'has become in reality' but rather 'always was in reality, but now has become so also in our understanding', that raises the obvious question, did the Church then previously have a deficient understanding of the liturgy and of the Mass? That would also be a problematic position for a Catholic theologian to adopt. Clearly we need to look at this phrase 'paschal mystery' rather closely, and see if it is simply a new and concise way of expressing what the Church has always held about the Mass, or if it is indeed expressing a new conception of the Mass, and if so, whether this newconception can be justified.
Now, as a matter of fact, when people talk about the Mass as the renewal or the re-presentation of the Paschal Mystery, they don't really seem to have the whole Paschal Mystery in mind. The phrase 'Paschal Mystery' presumably means everything involved in our Lord's passing over from this world and entering into his glory: his death, the descent of his soul to Limbo, his preaching to the spirits who were in prison, the freeing of the just souls, the Resurrection, the Ascension and perhaps also the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. But when people today talk about the Mass as the re-presentation or renewal of the Paschal Mystery, they don't normally seem to be thinking of all these things. I've never heard anyone claim that the Mass is a renewal of Christ's descent into Limbo, forexample. What people normally seem to mean when they talk of the Mass as a re-presentation or re-actualization of the Paschal mystery is that it is a re-presentation or re-actualization of Christ's death and resurrection. But this leaves me feeling somewhat uneasy, as I don't think it corresponds exactly to traditional explanations of the Mass.
Let's consider some traditional descriptions, beginning with perhaps the most authoritative of all such, that given by the Fathers of the Council of Trent, in the 22nd Session:
We may want to notice why it's not incoherent to say both that the Mass represents the Sacrifice of the Cross and also that it's not a bare commemoration. The Mass is itself literally a sacrifice, therefore propitiatory; but it's not literally the same event as the sacrifice of the Cross, since our Lord does not die again at Mass. So the Mass is a literal visible sacrifice, which represents and 'applies the merits' of the literal, once-for-all sacrifice of the Cross.
My second quotation is from Leo Xlll's encyclical letter, Caritatis Studium. This letter was written to the Bishops of Scotland in 1898, to mark the 20th anniversary of the re-establishment of the hierarchy in that country. Towards the end of the encyclical, Pope Leo mentions the losses suffered by the Scottish people as a result of the Reformation. He writes:
My next quotation is from Pope Pius Xll's encyclical Mediator Dei, published in 1943. In section 74, he explains how the Mass, in St Paul's phrase, 'shows forth' the death of Christ until he comes. The Pope writes:
This point, about the twofold consecration, is explained with great clarity in my last quotation, which comes from the Simple Prayer Book, as published in 1957. The section entitled 'Short Instruction on Holy Mass' contains the following passage:
If it were, it would not be an 'unbloody' or clean oblation. Nor would it be a visible sacrifice, since we don't actually see the past events of Calvary during the holy Mass.
Do contemporary descriptions of the Mass deny any of this? No, not usually: but many such descriptions, some with a 'semi-official' status, often don't quite 'hit the same note', and, to my mind, seem somewhat unclear about what they do mean. What happens, in these modern descriptions, seems to be two things: first, as much emphasis is put on the Resurrection as on the Cross, or in other words the Mass is defined by reference to 'the Paschal Mystery'; and secondly, there is a playing-down, or obscuring, of the doctrine that the Mass itself is a true and proper sacrifice. Let me give some examples of these two tendencies, by a series of more modern quotations.
My first modern quotation is again from the Simple Prayer Book, not this time from the 1957 but from the 2005 edition. On pp106-7 there is a section called "The Mass simply explained". Unlike their predecessors in 1957, the authors do not here call the Mass itself a sacrifice, nor do they say that it brings to our souls the fruits of the sacrifice of the Cross. Nor do they say that it shows forth our Lord's death by means of the twofold consecration. I'd suggest that we have here some regrettable omissions in comparison to the pre-Vatican // Simple Prayer Book.
Instead, the authors say this: "The Church calls to mind the passion, death and resurrection of Christ, which are made present in the Eucharist". One problem with this formulation is that it could suggest that the Mass is what it is because the Church calls something to mind. But this is not true: the Mass is a reality because a validly ordained priest speaks the words of consecration over valid matter, not because of the anamnesis or calling-to-mind, which only occurs after the consecration. But I should like in particular to examine the claim that Christ's death and resurrection are made present in the Eucharist; that this is what the Mass is. I'd suggest that there are two problems with this. First, is it traditional to say even that the Mass 'makes Christ's death present?' Onthe Cross, our Lord's body and blood were separated physically, here they are separated sacramentally: which is sometimes called his 'mystical immolation'. So we must certainly say that the Mass perpetuates his sacrifice sacramentally. But this is not the same as saying that the Mass makes our Lord's death present. Christ really offers a sacrifice at Mass, but he does not really die again. Secondly, this phrase of the modern Simple Prayer Book gives the same prominence to our Lord's death and resurrection of Christ in its description of the Mass. But my earlier quotations spoke of the Mass as a memorial of our Lord's death, not of his resurrection; and St Paul himself says that we show forth his death until he comes, and not that we show forth his death andresurrection. For both these reasons, to define the Mass as the making-present of Christ's death and resurrection seems to be a novelty.
Now, we have to be careful here. I don't want to deny that there may be some sense in which we are present to the resurrection of Christ during the Mass. After all, all the mysteries of Christ's life are present to Him as God in his eternity and his eternal knowledge. So presumably, wherever he is present, we can talk about a presence of the mysteries of his life. Then again, we certainly commemorate the resurrection (and the ascension) in the Canon just after the consecration. And also at least since the time of Amalarius of Metz, in the 9th Century, the commingling of the particle of the host into the chalice just before the priest's communion has been taken to symbolise Christ's resurrection on the third day. But none of this, in my opinion, justifies us in giving equalemphasis to our Lord's death and resurrection in our account of the holy Mass. For his death is not simply commemorated in words: it is represented by the very act which makes the Mass what it is, namely, the twofold consecration. The transubstantiation of the bread and wine have as their term, respectively, our Lord's body and his blood, and so we can speak of a sacramental separation of this body and blood: and therefore of a real sacrifice, and a representation of his death. But the Mass does not involve a sacramental re-uniting of our Lord's body and blood: in the commingling of the particle of the host with the chalice, it is only the sacred species which are re-united, not the body and blood themselves. So it seems to me a mistake to put the Cross and Resurrectionon the same level in one's explanation of the Mass, or, in other words, to define the Mass by means of the paschal mystery.
Now the putting of the Cross and Resurrection on a par in explaining the Mass is not just an isolated slip in the modern Simple Prayer Book. We find the same thing in a catechism entitled simply The Eucharist, produced by the Irish Dominicans in 2004, with a nihil obstat from the Archdiocese of Dublin. This catechism is excellent in many respects, but it also has some things which I think would have had the Fathers of Trent, not tearing their robes, but at least scratching their heads. Question 70 of this catechism asks, "what does the Eucharistic memorial make present?" The answer given is "The Eucharistic memorial makes present the complete paschal mystery, the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus, so that we may now become part of this mystery." Then asif fearing not to have been sufficiently clear, five questions later the author asks, "Does the Mass make present Christ's resurrection?" The answer is "The Eucharist makes present not only the sacrifice of Christ, but the resurrection which crowned his sacrifice. It is the risen Christ, who, in the Eucharist, is the living Bread." The implication is that in whatever sense the Mass is Christ's sacrifice, it is in the same sense his resurrection. But this is not true. The Mass is literally Christ's sacrifice; it is not literally his resurrection.
My next quotation comes from a CTS pamphlet published in 2004 by the current Bishop of East Anglia, Michael Evans, called Is Jesus really present in the Eucharist? On pp. 9-10, we find a discussion of a key concept in this new way of talking about the Mass: the concept of memorial. Bishop
[...] Jesus took the ritual of the Passover Meal, and brought its deepest meaning to its fulfilment... This new Passover Meal is a personal memorial. The heart of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is made present and effective for us here and now.
Now, salva reverentia, I don't find this explanation of the special, 'religious' meaning of memorial very clear. Bishop Evans says first that a memorial involves much more than just remembering something. For the Jews, he explains, a memorial means first of all evoking the past - but surely that is what the word always means? A war memorial, for example, evokes a past sacrifice. He adds that it means making the past fruitful. Now we can see in ordinary life what this could mean: for example, as I remember a kindness shown me by someone in the past, I may be moved to do a kind deed myself. That could be described as the past becoming fruitful.
But how does one go from that to saying, as he says at the end of the quotation, that by the memorial which is the Mass, the "life, death and resurrection" of our Lord are all made present? Does he mean just present to our memories, and so moving us to imitate Christ? Surely not, that would be pure Protestantism: it would also contradict the insistence that at least in a Jewish or Catholic context, a memorial is something much more real than simply a recalling or a remembering. But what is it more? How on this account is the Mass itself a true and proper sacrifice, and not simply us remembering the past, along with the real presence of our Lord beneath the eucharistic species, and the actual graces which God gives to us as we remember?
The Council of Trent, Leo XIII, Pius XII and others do give us a real idea of the relation between the Cross and the holy Mass, even if they don't settle all possible theological questions: the Mass represents the Cross by the sacrificial consecration; it is therefore the memorial of the Cross, and it also applies its fruits. But what is meant by saying that the Mass makes past events present because at Mass we make a memorial of these events, but that this being-present of the past events is far more than just our remembering them? To me, all this conveys no definite idea. Bishop Evans' words also lead to a problem that I've already mentioned: if, as he seems to be saying, at Mass God uses our remembering to cause the Mass to be whatever it is, that would seem to imply that a Mass whereno one is thinking about the death and resurrection of Christ would be invalid.
The Irish Dominican catechism also wants to put an explanatory weight on the term 'memorial' which it seems to me it is unable to bear. In question 69, the authors ask 'Where did the Christian notion of "memory" come from?', and they answer, 'It came from the Old Testament, and from the Passover in particular. A "memorial" did not simply recall a past act of God, but made that saving act real, actual and life-giving in the present celebration.' To this, I think we're entitled to respond, 'what, literally?' When the people of Israel kept the Passover in Jerusalem, did the parting of the Red Sea and the drowning of Pharaoh's horsemen literally exist in their celebration, and not simply in their memories? Surely what really happened was that as they obediently remembered the past and lookedforward to the future God gave them actual graces in view of the future Redemption, a redemption prefigured by the crossing of the Red Sea. In any case, whatever may have happened at the old Passover feasts, to suggest that the Mass is what it is because we are remembering something is surely to put the cart before the horse: the Mass is what it is, namely a sacrifice; and therefore it makes us recall the same sacrifice, offered on the Cross.
But notice also what happens when memorial becomes the dominant concept in trying to understand the Mass. Obviously, if we are assembling first and foremost to remember our Lord, we shan't want to think exclusively of his death; we'll want to think of his life and resurrection as well. So Bishop Evans does indeed put all these three things on a par, and makes them equally part of his description of the Mass: at Mass, he says, the heart of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is made present... for us here and now. And to me, again, that sounds rather different from saying that the Mass is a clean oblation, which represents the sacrifice of the Cross, and brings to us its fruits.
There's something more. Not only is there a departure here from the traditional explanation of the Mass in favour of a description of the Mass as a making-present of the death and resurrection of Christ, if not his whole life, there also seems to be a glossing over of the importance of the twofold consecration. To recall: after the consecration, our Lord's body is present under the species of bread because of the conversion; his blood is present under the appearance of bread not because of the conversion, but by concomitance, because in heaven his blood is really united to his body. Likewise, the precious blood is present under the species of wine by reason of the conversion, but his body is present there only by concomitance. This is the teaching of the Council of Trent, Session XIII,cap. 3. But Bishop Evans's account does not seem to leave room for this sacramental separation since he writes on p. 12, "We are not sure whether Jesus would have said, 'This is my body', or 'This is my flesh', but both words really mean the whole bodily-existing human being, the whole person, rather than just one element of him." But if there was, then, no sacramental separation of our Lord's body and blood at the Last Supper, there presumably would be none at the
Mass either; but then, would the words of consecration still be sacrificial words? What seems to be lost in all this is the fact that the Mass itself, while wholly relative to the Sacrifice of the Cross, drawing its power and significance from the Cross, is still a true and proper sacrifice here and now. The Mass here and now is a visible sacrifice, and not simply the arena or occasion at which past events become present in a very obscure way.
To sum up. I have three concerns about many modern descriptions of the Mass which emphasise the notion of the Paschal Mystery. The first is that, contrary to tradition, they appear to give equal importance to the Cross and the Resurrection. The second is that they seem to render unclear the sense in which the Mass itself is a true and visible sacrifice, the offering of which is, under the new covenant, the supreme act of the virtue of religion. And thirdly, the statement, often found in these descriptions of the Mass, that a memorial of past events causes the events to be actually present and is not simply our remembering them is to me completely opaque.
And if I were asked, finally, why this new way of speaking has become dominant, I should suggest that it may correspond to an unease with the whole idea of sacrifice, and with the accompanying notions of the debt of sin, propitiation, expiation and satisfaction. These uncomfortable realities will clearly be less in evidence when the Mass is talked of as a renewal of the resurrection, and when we speak of the Mass as somehow the fruit of our remembering, and not as corresponding to our need to offer a real sacrifice here and now for our sins. But the eclipsing of notions which are a part of the deposit of faith must surely have a deleterious effect on the spiritual lives of the faithful. I should suggest, then, that the traditional language, the language of the Council of Trent, of LeoXIII and of Mediator Dei, needs to become normative once again as we catechise our people about the testament of Jesus Christ, the holy Mass.
A Response: Possible Theological Development
Fr Crean helpfully brings out some important aspects of Catholic doctrine concerning the Mass. It is surely true that the use of the phrase "paschal mystery" can become somewhat vague and woolly when speaking of the Mass and at times seems to reduce it to no more than the abiding effects of the death and resurrection of the Lord in the most general way.
Clearly the Church intends to teach us something more specific than that about the Mass as sacrifice. We would think that Fr. Crean provides a solid basis upon which we should consider some theological development concerning the eternal sacrifice of the glorified Jesus in the Mass. We would place the emphasis upon the fact, not of course denied by Fr Crean, that the presence of the Lamb that was slain for our sins is inseparable from his risen and glorified presence before the Father in heaven.
Memorial does mean more than mere remembering. As Fr Crean alludes to, even among the Jews of the Old Testament, the Passover was not just a recalling of the Exodus, but the continuing reality of spiritual and corporate liberation by which God was redeeming his people in the present. It also presaged and contained the promise of the final and plenary liberation from slavery to sin and death that was yet to come with the advent of the Messiah. There was a sense in which past salvific events had key dimensions which extend across history.
In a far greater way, the total work of redemption that is offered to the Father that was consummated on Calvary includes the ministry of the Lord through time in his Church to each one of us and is completed in the eternal ministry of the glorified Lord in heaven. As the fathers taught and the liturgies of the Eastern churches show very clearly, the Eucharist is simultaneously a memorial of the cross, the living presence of the crucified and risen Lord, and also an earthly participation in the eschatological or heavenly sacrifice of Christ who pleads before the Father for those who were chosen in Him before the foundation of the world. It is simply one and the same Christ who is offered on Calvary, in the Mass and in heaven. This is why the Mass commands the presence and adoration of theangels and saints around every earthly altar as much as they do around the heavenly one. "What we have come to is the mountain of the living God where the angels are gathered for the feast". (Hebrews 12:18f).
It helps to understand that sacrifice does not primarily consist in pain and death but the total submission and self-giving which is accepted by God as submission to his grace, and with that then brings the grace to his creatures of deeper union and communion with his own Godhead. Christ is always our Sacrifice in this sense in any order of providence, but since the disaster of sin his sacrifice is enacted through suffering and death which he accepts in perfect charity for each one of us. He still gives Himself to bring us into union with the Trinitarian life, but now offers apology and compensation for our degradation and the existential blasphemy of our fallen condition by his own human holiness and obedience unto death for our wounded nature and the Father's wounded glory.
The Cross and the Mass are not two sacrifices but one and the same reality. They are different events in time. Indeed each and every Mass is a new event in time. But the death of the Lord on the Cross is not the sacrifice of salvation as an isolated or standalone event, independently of the Mass. It is universally salvific precisely because the Lord had given himself into the hands of his Church to be offered as a sacrifice throughout time and space. In short rather than try to somehow extrapolate the Cross into the Mass, it is better to say that the Eucharist went to the Cross.
The specific events of the crucifixion are once and once only, never to be repeated, the essential, human high point of God's sacrificial self-gift to us (cf: the ancient hymn in
Phillipians 2). But the victim who so offered himself in obedience and love in the face of physical destruction had instituted the means by which he, who has so become "humbler yet", could be offered as propitiation for sinners as yet unborn. So the effects of the Cross are applied to the lives of succeeding generations precisely through the prior institution of the Eucharist. It is a single sacrificial reality/ offering encompassed within multiple events.
Christ's Body: Distinction and Unity
So the Mass does "show forth the state of victim" but as the Mass happens this side of the resurrection and ascension the separation of the body and blood of the Lord is sacramentally symbolic. To focus upon the separate consecrations is indeed to focus upon an aspect which sacramentally shows forth the Lamb whose blood was shed and who is given for all as Victim. Indeed, as with all sacramental signs, it is this showing forth with enacts the sacrifice. Furthermore this is through a priviledged intimacy of encounter with Christ's body under the appearance of bread and Christ's blood under the appearance of wine. But we would want to emphasise that there is an actual "separation" only at the level at which the parts of a thing are separate, not at the holistic level of Christ's risen body.To say that the Lord's blood is present in the consecrated host and his body in the consecrated chalice "only by concomittance" does emphasise a real physical aspect of the Mass, by which the sacrifice is made present for us. But in terms of emphasising the one, holistic person of the glorified Christ, this is a real physical, non-separated presence, brought about, moreover, by the consecration.
It is simply one and the same Christ who is offered on Calvary, in the Mass and in heaven.
If I say to someone "I give you my hand" it is an act of my hand which is both literal and symbolic as an act of loving union (in this case the significance will vary according to the context). Through the joining of hands what I am really doing is giving my whole self body and soul. And the rest of my body is literally, physically present too, because it is joined to my hand by the concomittance of my physical nature. I give my whole self inseparably by natural concomittance. The focus of significance and symbolism in the action is my hand as the means of self giving, but this does not mean that the rest of me is any less present. The actual points of physical contact are parts of the skin of the hand. In an analogous way, we know that the whole Christ is given and receivedunder either Eucharistic species. But this does not mean that separated species are without sacrificial and sacramental meaning.
We are right to remind ourselves that the Mass is truly and specifically a sacrifice, The One Great Sacrifice indeed -the same that was offered on Calvary by the suffering Lord; the same that is offered in heaven by the glorious Lord. This same sacrifice is the reality of every Mass offered for the living and the dead, which can then be applied to the specific and local intentions and needs of the faithful from the East to West and from the rising of the sun to its setting until the final consummation of all things.