The Sacrifice of the Mass and Spiritual Formation Today

Editorial FAITH Magazine May-June 2007

Lent is approaching its conclusion as this editorial is being written. One present-day fad that is frequently heard, both from clergy and from laity, is the suggestion that it would be better not to fast or give anything up for Lent. Instead, we should do something positive. The implication of this is that fasting and self-denial are negative things and are to be viewed in a less favourable light to doing positive things such as praying more or giving to charity. This view is shallow.

At the heart of true fasting is an active and dynamic love of God. We can all too easily be over-dependent on material things. None of them are bad in themselves but they can become too much the focus of our desires. Fasting is a way of making manifest a preference for loving God. It confirms that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God. It is a way of relating to God that shows that we depend on Him above all and love Him above all things and are willing to give more of ourselves in love, rather than just fulfil our own needs and desires. True fasting thus flows into prayer and charity. It is something positive.

A similar fad appears when thinking about the notion of sacrifice. It too is seen as a more negative concept. For many it means depriving yourself of something; for some it evokes the ritual slaying of some animal or even of a human being. It appears to be a primitive notion. Furthermore, there is a kind of embarrassment in talking about sacrifice in catechesis, not only because it is seen as something negative in itself but also because it can conjure up what is often seen as the Protestant view of the angry God who seeks blood to be appeased and is only fully appeased when Jesus dies on the cross, shedding His blood in our stead. The cross as sacrifice is thus often glossed over in teaching in reaction to this image of God; and so it finds little place in basic teaching about theEucharist.


The Sacrifice of Christ

The notion of sacrifice is one of the essential keys to Christian doctrine and to Christian living. If it is merely seen as primitive or negative, if it is neglected in catechesis, then the effects are incalculable. Just as the belittling of fasting has contributed to a distorted and flabby spirituality, so also the neglect of sacrifice produces a much emasculated Christianity. We can see this in those celebrations of the Eucharist where the emphasis ends up being too much on what we the people do rather than on what Christ is doing for us. The Eucharist is seen as our meal, that time when we can show that we are God’s family through our sharing. There is no primacy of grace in such a view. There is little room for Christ except as a kind of memory or as someone spirituallyclose. The life of faith becomes Pelagian since it depends on our activity rather than being something that essentially depends on and springs from what Christ has done for us.

The New Testament is replete with explanations and references to what Christ has done for us. In the midst of the jealous rivalry of the apostles, He reveals to them that He has come “not to be served but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). John the Baptist, in a clear reference to the Passover sacrifice, points to Christ as “the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). (Later in this issue Peter Burrows helpfully brings out how it is only the Eucharistic Sacrifice which fulfils this scriptural emphasis.)

John the Divine will go on to write that Jesus is “the sacrifice to expiate our sins, and not only ours, but also those of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). Peter echoes the same doctrine when he says in his first letter, “You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:18-19). The whole of the letter to the Hebrews is a meditation on Christ’s sacrificial Priesthood – “He entered once for all into the Sanctuary, taking not the blood of goats and calves but His own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:12). Finally, Paul’s corpus too is replete with references to Christ’s sacrificial mission:salvation is obtained through Christ “who died for us so that whether we wake or sleep we might live with Him” (1 Thessalonians 5:10). “Christ loved the Church and sacrificed Himself for her to make her holy” (Ephesians 5:25-26).

Developing our Understanding of Christ’s Sacrifice

All of this highlights the poverty of those programmes of catechesis which neglect the sacrifice of Christ. On the other hand, at first sight, the quotations may serve to strengthen that view of sacrifice as an appeasement by blood. This understanding seems to be the primary focus of the talk ‘Why did Jesus die?‘ within the international Evangelical Alpha course. Such a view is a disservice since a deeper reading brings out something more wonderful.

When St Paul, in the passage quoted above from his letter to the Ephesians, talks about Christ’s sacrifice, it is to describe the Lord’s marriage relationship with the Church. He then encourages husbands and wives to imitate this love between Christ and the Church since it is the original mystery of which all other marriages are a participation. The full meaning of this sacrifice or giving up of Himself totally is that Christ “nourishes and cherishes” the Church, having purified her “in cleansing water with a form of words” (cf. Ephesians 5:21-33). Here then the sacrifice of Christ is more than just an appeasement – it is an act of love that makes the Church holy, that purifies and nourishes and cherishes. The sacrifice is more than just an act of blood: it is a total giving of Himself,from the heart outwards, which will in a sinful world, involve a giving unto death.

Elsewhere St Paul reveals this more complete understanding of sacrifice when he writes, “I appeal to you therefore, my brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1). Pope Benedict XVI, in the recently published Sacramentum Caritatis, comments that this passage reveals how the Eucharist makes our whole life an act of spiritual worship to God. Having quoted St Augustine he adds:

“In these words the new worship appears as a total selfoffering made in communion with the whole Church. The Apostle’s insistence on the offering of our bodies emphasizes the concrete human reality of a worship which is anything but disincarnate. The Bishop of Hippo goes on to say that ‘this is the sacrifice of Christians: that we, though many, are one body in Christ. The Church celebrates this mystery in the sacrament of the altar, as the faithful know, and there she shows them clearly that in what is offered, she herself is offered.’ Catholic doctrine, in fact, affirms that the Eucharist, as the sacrifice of Christ, is also the sacrifice of the Church, and thus of all the faithful. This insistence on sacrifice – a ‘making sacred’ – expresses all the existential depth impliedin the transformation of our human reality as taken up by Christ (cf. Phil 3:12).” (para. 70)

Here then sacrifice refers to more than just a shedding of blood. In its fullest meaning it involves a full hearted offering of the self. Furthermore, the action of sacrifice has an intention, a goal. Its purpose is to make sacred – something indicated by the very word itself. This purpose is summed up by St Augustine in his Civitate Dei when he goes to the heart of the meaning of the idea of sacrifice. He says that it is every work which is ordered to our communion with God (10, 5, 6). This is why the offering of Melchisedek was seen as a true sacrifice, even though no animal was killed. Such sacrifices brought those who offered them or who were present into a relationship of grace and love with God.


The Passion: Restoration of Control and Direction

Christ’s own sacrifice at His Passion reveals this meaning as well. It is the wholehearted giving of Himself, a living prayer, by which He loves us to the end, making apology for the family of Man which so hardheartedly rejects Him: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). His loving forgiveness is more than just an attitude of the heart. Like the word of God it accomplishes what it intends to do. It overcomes the division between us and God created by sin, by every sin, and it begins the work of healing the damage of sin – a damage that extends through every sinful human life and that even affects the creation around us. Sin seeks to disrupt true communion with God and the communion of humanity. The offering of Christ in perfect love in the midstof the rejection of God bridges and heals that gap: His perfect love more than makes up for our lack of love. He then becomes in the fullness of His Person, in His Divinity and His humanity, our point of contact with God. The only way back to God is through Christ. Communion with Christ is a basic need of Man.

This communion is more than just something spiritual. It is true that sin arises from the spirit, from the heart, but it is expressed physically as well. The doctrine of Original Sin is a recognition that the damage wreaked upon human nature which we all inherit involves a weakening and wounding of our whole nature, body and soul. That first sin produced a previously unknown result in living matter, indeed in all matter. For this was the first time matter was wrenched from that properly ordered relationship with God which characterized the universe in its fundamental control and direction. No longer was there to be an overall relating to the Mind or Logos through which all things were made. Sin made the spiritual creature break away from communion with God and urge its wholeself, body and soul, into a pattern of rebellion against the great Law by which all things are meant to be ordered and directed to their end.

Thus, though this breach in the overall communion of the cosmos finds its source in the will of man, it is realized spiritually and physically. For this reason the healing of the damage must involve the body as well as the soul. In His whole life, death and resurrection Christ reveals that He alone can do this work. Only His humanity is the measure and the medicine of ours. Only He can bridge the gap and love with a total love that cleanses and heals, a love that He has communicated physically and with the shedding of His blood. Real contact with Him then, in body and soul, is essential if this work of Christ is to reach into our inner depths and free us from the bonds and disease of sin. In our bodies and souls we cannot do the work ourselves – we are caught up in the situationof sin and so our actions are flawed with the basic pride and selfishness that sin spawns. This existential situation handicaps us from the beginning. What was originally intended was that through Christ (Cf. Ephesians 1, 4) our souls and bodies would form a unity of communion with God: they would each be a kind of means by which communion with God would be effected and lived out. Given the disaster of sin a new means is needed, a new relationship which will heal and restore and help us grow into that communion with God the more we diminish in our attachment to sin and overcome its effects. That new means and relationship is Jesus Himself, the Logos who ‘dwelt among’ sinful men. He brings it about through the total offering of Himself, to the Father, body, soul and divinity – Hissacrifice.

Our Sanctification

Communion with the Christ of sacrifice is the means by which we can begin to participate in the great work of redemption and transformation of our nature. It is an ongoing work since each human being needs to be brought into on-going contact with Christ. Christ’s sacrifice is not just something in the past. This offering of Himself finds its culmination in the great drama of Easter but it is something that remains forever as part of Him. This is shown by the presence of His wounds in His risen body. There is no action of Christ that did not involve His whole self. His Passion is more than just a physical act left behind in the recesses of history. As an offering of love, it involved all that He is, His whole Person. It is more than just something He did – it is part andparcel of who He is. It is this offering of Himself in perfect love that He carries with Him into the Sanctuary of the Father’s presence for all eternity. The author of the letter to the Hebrews reveals the eternal nature of this one sacrifice of Christ – a work begun in time and carried as integral to the identity of the Incarnate Word forever: “Jesus is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” (Heb 7:25).

Through such a vision the full meaning and majesty of the Eucharist can be gradually revealed to us.

The Mass is the consecrated time when Christ comes to us, in all His physical reality, so that we can, both in body and soul, enter into the dynamism of His offering. Here we can offer our lives, our intentions, our whole humanity so that the work of reconstructing full communion with God can begin and can move forward – always aware that this is a work that will only be fully accomplished when God is all in all at the end. The Mass puts us into life-giving contact with Christ and so with His work of sacrifice – a sacrifice consummated in time and carried forward into eternity, the great work by which we experience redemption in the here and now. Any reduction of the Eucharist to merely a shared meal robs us of the full contact with the redemption that we need to be in any way fullyalive. It is true that baptism accomplishes the beginning of our redemption. But its sacramental power is rooted in the sacrifice of Christ and so in the Eucharist. Furthermore, the Eucharist is what completes the process of full Christian initiation into the Church and is the power house that continues the work of salvation for the rest of our lives.

In this space twenty years ago Fr Holloway wrote concerning a paper given by the then Cardinal Ratzinger on “The Ecclesiology of Vatican II”:

“One notices with interest that Ratzinger, quoting De Lubac, is now urging the concept of the Church as Sacrament of Christ working in the world, as an antidote to the errors foisted upon the otherwise lovely, and true image of the Church as “People of God”… this concept of the Church as The Sacrament of Christ, living and working in the world … can only be urged and valued however because the Altar of the Eucharist, the central focus of the Church’s Liturgy is also the Body and Blood of her doctrine. The Eucharist is Christ in Person, living and working, God and Man. The meaning of the Incarnation of God will become even more deeply understood as part of the development of doctrine from now on, and into the next century.” (March/April, 1986)

Pope Benedict has offered some developments in understanding the full nature of Christ’s sacrifice. We have used some insights from Holloway to enhance this. Later in this issue Pére Jobert makes his own interesting attempt and Christopher Zealley retrieves some crucial Thomistic insights. Without a retrieval and a renewal of the Catholic understanding of sacrifice we cannot hope, in the modern world, to foster our people’s spiritual life in an integral manner.

True Participation and False Adaptations


This understanding of the Mass highlights therefore that it is an action of Christ above all – indeed, it is His work par excellence. Too many abuses in the Liturgy appear to put an emphasis on the Eucharist as fundamentally a work of the community, of those actually gathered at a particular celebration. Many examples can be given. In numerous Youth Masses the fashion has developed for the altar to be bare from the beginning until the presentation of gifts. At this point it is dressed with altar cloths, candles and flowers. Quite apart from misunderstanding the role of the altar and implying that it only begins to be used in the second half of the Mass, this practice reinforces the idea that the Mass is the result of our activity – that there is nothing given priorto what we do. It is imagined that doing such actions make us more involved than we otherwise would have been. It appears more Pelagian than Christian. For the Christian, Christ has the primacy in all things. The fuller understanding of the Eucharist as Christ’s own sacrifice shows us that our own involvement must be from the heart outwards. It is Christ who draws us through Himself to the Father. What truly involves us is not dressing altars up or dancing or any other ministry. It is the offering of ourselves, of our lives, of our bodies and our souls, “as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Romans 12:1). In doing this the Church makes Christ’s sacrifice for her her sacrifice for Him, a participation in the original marital ‘mystery’ of Ephesions 5 referred to above.

The many abuses in the celebration of the Eucharist diminish the revelation of its true meaning. The priest and also those who help prepare the Liturgy should have a sacrificial attitude towards the Mass. This means that, first of all, we must let the Mass speak for itself, allow it to be celebrated as the Church intends – in this sense allow it to be given completely and in no way distorted or reduced so that this giving is incomplete. The abuses of the Liturgy are by their very nature counter-sacrificial. Christopher Zealley brings out the crucial importance of liturgical symbolism for enacting the one sacrifice of Christ in his article in this issue.

Secondly, we need to be humble before the Liturgy. Among clergy there is a variety of opinions about the present Rite of the Mass, about how it should be celebrated, about what is possible, about its advantages and its shortcomings. However, to start changing things according to our own opinions, no matter how apparently justified, is to set up our will and our mind against that of the Church. It is to offend the nature of the Liturgy as the action that effects and reveals the Communion of the Church. To impose our own tastes simply masks the Liturgy. The priest and the organizers of the Liturgy have to be self-sacrificial: they need to allow the Church’s Liturgy (not “my” Liturgy, or “our” Liturgy, or the “Liturgy” of a single group) to speak for itself. This means putting aside ourtastes and opinions and giving ourselves generously to celebrating the Mass (indeed all the sacraments, especially Confession, the subject of widespread abuses in our own countries) as given to us by the universal Church.

Marriage and Celibacy

This deeper understanding of sacrifice has further ramifications in other areas of our lives. For instance it is the only way to help couples live out their vocation to marriage. At the heart of their relationship there should be a generous giving of themselves to each other, fully and without reservation, in body and soul. Through this they can share in the mutual sacrificial love of Christ and the Church. At a practical level it is only by giving generously and also, because of sin, denying ourselves that any relationship can flourish. It is selfishness that brings great strain to many marriages. Overcoming this is not easy. Only a self-sacrificial view of life can help – where we put the other person first. If this is done mutually then the marriage can flourish.Sacrifice then is a positive thing within marriage as well. Indeed, if all that has been said so far is taken into account, then at its heart marriage can be understood most completely as sacrifice: the giving of oneself completely to another, holding nothing back. From this perspective it can be seen how artificial contraception wounds the true meaning of marriage. Not only does it seek to frustrate the true meaning of the marital act as orientated towards procreation; it involves withholding fertility deliberately and so not giving oneself completely. It strikes at the heart of marriage and at the very notion of sacrifice. No wonder Pope Paul VI’s predictions of marital breakdown and societal problems arising from contraception have sadly been fulfilled.

For priests the beautiful Catholic vision of sacrifice will provide positive reasons for living celibacy fruitfully. Celibacy, like sacrifice, is more than just a denial of self. We can go further and say that in its deepest sense celibacy is not a denial of the self but its fulfillment in love. The celibacy of the priesthood is about a particular form of loving. The priest is asked to love the Church, to care for the people to whom he is sent, with the same love of the Good Shepherd who laid down His life for the sheep (cf. John 10:11). He is called to incarnate in his life the total giving of self that Christ makes for the Church. Christ makes the Church His bride – for this reason He did not marry since not only was He to give Himself to and for all rather than to one other singleperson, but also because this relationship would be the Exemplar of all marriages – the original “form” of marriage. The priest is called to be Christ the Shepherd to his people. It is through this Headship that Christ becomes the Bridegroom of the Church as Paul indicates in the Ephesians 5 passage. If the priest is to be shepherd he must also be bridegroom as well, living this sacrifice in his life. It means not marrying a single person but marrying the whole Church, giving himself completely to and for all rather than giving his whole heart to a wife. It is this insight that has helped the Church to see that celibacy is much more in keeping with the heart of priesthood.

The Movement for Married Clergy believes that advocates for clerical celibacy base their views on notions of cultic purity and an idea that the love of God is more readily accessible in the celibate life. But our view is completely different and is rooted in this more comprehensive and dynamic concept of Christ’s own sacrifice. It maintains the essential goodness of the marital life and of sexual loving within that context and at the same time reveals why celibacy for the priesthood is more in keeping with the essential identity of the priest as one who shares in the Priesthood of Christ, a Priesthood of Sacrifice, expressed also in the titles of Shepherd and Bridegroom.


The Church’s doctrine of sacrifice in its fullest sense is neglected in our preaching and catechesis at our peril. It is foundational for the Church. It can be understood and therefore taught only if appreciated in all its positive beauty as more than just a ritual or some form of self denial. Only this fuller vision can do justice to the ramifications of the reality of sacrifice in the Christian life. Christ’s sacrifice is the Revelation of the complete love of God; it is the Exemplar for daily Christian living no matter what vocation we may have; it is the instrument through which our lives are healed and restored to God; it is the modus operandi for life in the Church – for the life of the Church.

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