By Jose Ma J Fernandez
The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass has been with us Roman Catholics for the better part of two millennia, from when our Lord instituted it during the Last Supper up to this very day. The ceremony that the Lord performed that evening was in anticipation of the bloody sacrifice He was to undergo in reparation for Man’s offense against God and to open Heaven once again to the elect. The offering of the bread and wine that Our Lord did on Holy Thursday lives on to this day in the Holy Mass, faithful to the original formula taught by Him to His Apostles.
The word Sacrifice is derived from two Latin words, sacrum (sacred) and facere (to make). In this context, it essentially means “to make something sacred” or to consecrate and offer something to God. By this action, the object in question is set aside or reserved for this special action.
When God created Man, He had great plans for this favorite of His creation. He endowed Man with special preternatural gifts that elevated Man above his nature, allowing for impassibility a form of immortality (Man as created, did not have to die or suffer pain and illness), a high degree of intelligence through the gift of knowledge, integrity – that allowed for complete harmony between man’s superior and inferior faculties and being, and so forth. Our first parents had ordered appetites and senses, and were not subject to the failings of the humans of today. Most important, the first couple was infused with Sanctifying Grace, a condition that brought them close to the Divine, and allowed them to communicate with God, although not face-to-face. They were innocent and blameless.
Thus, it was so painful when our first parents went against the one admonition to them – not to partake of the fruit of the Tree of Life. Curious and egged on by the Serpent, Adam and Eve sought to “be like gods” as Satan tempted them.
In Gen 2:17, the warning of the Lord is clear: Thou mayest eat thy fill of all the trees in the garden except the tree which brings knowledge of good and evil. If ever thou eatest of this, thy doom is DEATH (caps by author).
The warning clearly establishes the condition of Man as a creature, a created being subject to the command of the Creator. Man was created and given gifts above his nature, but was obviously meant to keep to the wishes of the Lord, or else he was to lose these gifts and more. God gave Man a special gift -- that of Free Will, and his test was to see if he would use this Will by choosing to follow the Lord. The Angels were subjected themselves to a test, and fully one-third failed the test and immediately became devils because of their full knowledge and intelligence. Our first parents, on the other hand, fell too and lost their supernatural and preternatural gifts. Having lost sanctifying grace and now tainted with Original Sin, Adam and Eve could only pass on this defect to their progeny, and this is why each person is born bereft of sanctifying grace and is subject to the pains and sorrows that a mortal body is subject to, and the ignominy of death.
With the loss of sanctifying grace, Man lost that direct link between earth and heaven that would have allowed the whole human race, without having to die or experience separation of soul from body, enter heaven and enjoy the beatific vision for all eternity. What a big loss indeed!
Clearly, God had been offended and had to be appeased somehow. Thus was the concept and practice of offering sacrifice began. The first recorded sacrifices made to God were those of Cain and Abel, and we are told that Cain’s sacrifice was rejected whereas the one of Abel found favor with God.
Theologians have debated the reasons behind what transpired, and the consequent rage and jealousy of Cain that caused him to kill his brother in the first murder in human history. First, it is said that Cain may have not given the best of his produce as an offering to God. Or, the offering may not have been made with the proper spirit and disposition – something that even today’s theologians believe is what the Lord prefers, if we take stock of the Christ’s many pronouncements on what he expects from us mortals. (The rich offering of the Pharisee versus the poor widow’s mite come to mind.)
Abel not only made an acceptable offering, but his blood being spilled has also made him a type of the Christ who was to willingly give his own life and allow his blood to be spilled for the salvation of the human race.
Salvation history is replete with examples of sacrifice made to God. Noah immediately built an altar and offered up a choice selection of the best of his flocks that multiplied in the ark during their journey. Abraham willingly obeyed the Lord’s request to sacrifice Isaac his son, only to be stayed by an angel and offer up a ram instead. In this case, God made it clear that He did not need a human blood sacrifice.
Later on, when Abraham went up to the King of Salem – one who was of great age and was both king and high priest – and offered tithes, the king-high priest, known to us as Melchisedech, offered up bread and wine to God. This particular story is of great interest to those who choose to study the origins of the Mass. One must take note of the nature of the offering: Bread and Wine, which immediately become a type of the bread and wine that we offer up today at Holy Mass. Salem is said to be the present location of Jerusalem, which is where the great drama of the Christ’s life on earth finally comes to its ultimate end. Another book suggests that this great king who was also high priest was none other than Abraham’s great ancestor Sem, the progenitor of the Semitic race, who, like the people of that age, lived to a very, very ripe old age in their hundreds of years. As both King and High Priest, this holy person Melchisedech also is considered a type of Christ, who as the God-Man, could count on being directly descended from the great King David (as prophesied) and from the daughters of Aaron the High Priest through St. Anne, the mother of Mary, Mother of the Lord.
The story of man throughout history is full of examples of sacrifices offered by Man to God – even by pagans of different stripes although their reasons and methods may not have been generally acceptable. But if we look at the more acceptable examples of sacrifice such as those made by Noah, Abraham, and other ancient fathers, they seem to have common threads that distinguish them. Among these are the following:
•There is a visible gift. This gift must be offered up to God, and to this end, it must be immolated and made a victim, although the one offering the sacrifice need not be the one performing the immolation.
•The oblation or offering must be done by one authorized to do so, in this case, a priest or similar person.
•The purpose of the sacrifice must be religious or spiritual in nature – and not profane – and be made to give glory to God and perform reparation for sin.
•The sacrifice must be pleasing to and accepted by God.
In some instructional texts, we learn that the objective of Prayer is a four-fold one: Adoration, Thanksgiving, Reparation, and Expiation. These are the same reasons why a sacrifice is offered up to God. It is clear, therefore, that sacrifice can be offered up only to God, and it is the highest form of worship that can be given to Him.
In the Old Law that governed the Jews before the coming of Christ, both bloody and un-bloody sacrifices were offered up to God. The bloody sacrifices were usually of unblemished animals that were the best of the flock, and which were immolated at the altar in the Temple in Jerusalem. But un-bloody offerings were also made of fruits and things like bread, wine, and other important and significant items.
The Jews placed particular importance on the sacrifice of the Paschal Lamb, the symbol of the Jews’ Passover and deliverance from slavery in Egypt, and the annual sacrifice of atonement that became symbols of the great sacrifice that Our Lord was to make in Calvary.
The Paschal Lamb especially figured prominently in Jewish life and practice. In fact, to this day, the celebration of the Passover is probably among the more important of the Jewish festival days, the others being the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, and Hannukah, or the Festival of Lights.
In the celebration of Passover, an unblemished lamb would be offered up to God, slain and eaten as detailed in the Book of Exodus, in remembrance of the deliverance of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt and their subsequent journey into the Promised Land.
In the Feast of Atonement, the high priest would select one of the goats offered up for sacrifice and, placing his hands on the head of said goat, would offer up and confess the sins of the people of Israel, and pray that these would alight upon the head of the hapless goat. This goat would then be led out into the desert as a symbol of having the sins of Israel driven out of the sight of God. Thus has come about the expression of the scapegoat. Afterwards, the high priest would then offer up an unblemished heifer for his own sins and a goat for the sins of the Jewish people. The blood of the sacrificial victims would then be sprinkled on the Ark and the Holy of Holies.
These sacrifices and offerings under the Old Law would ultimately be replaced with a more perfect sacrifice and a perfect victim under the New Law that was to be instituted by the Christ. In fact, this event was prophesied by Daniel in his famous “seventy weeks of years” when he stated that the sacrifice under the Old Law would cease. And He shall confirm the covenant with many in one week, and in the half of the week the victim and the sacrifice shall fail. (Daniel 9:27)
The prophet Malachi also wrote about the Lord’s finding all offerings unacceptable, but prophesying of a time when “…from the rising of the sun until its setting a perfect offering will be made in my name…” The time of the New Sacrifice with its Perfect Offering, Perfect Offeror, and Perfect Victim was thus foretold, and this was to be found in the Sacrifice of the Lord in Calvary, repeated each and every single day all over the world at every hour through the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. This prophecy is also repeated every time Eucharistic Prayer #3 is read at Holy Mass.
There is an interesting book that is published by TAN Books entitled “How Christ Celebrated the First Mass” by Fr James Meagher. But it is not only a description of a single seminal event, but also reveals the roots and antecedents of the Mass, especially as found in Jewish liturgy over the years of their evolution as the special People of God. The book is too voluminous, but the student of Scripture and the evolution of the Holy Mass should probably get a copy. One can see how the vestments, gestures, prayers… practically the whole of our present liturgy, draw from the Jewish liturgy as practiced in the Temple.
Even renowned author Scott Hahn, whose conversion to Catholicism has seen him become one of the most staunch defenders of the Catholic Faith, speaks of the first time he sort of peeped in during a Mass service. He was astounded at how the bible came to life during the Mass, and understood for the first time the intimations of the Adoration and Worship of God as written in the Book of Revelation.
The Mass, therefore, is not a Catholic construct, but draws its roots from the practice of offering and sacrifice that Man had been making to God since the beginning of time. It is a sad commentary, therefore, to find our separated brethren who have stripped the liturgy of its essence, leaving only the reading and preaching of the bible. It is precisely the richness of the liturgy – the songs, the prayers, the incense, the vestments, the gestures – that reminds one of being in the august presence of the King of Kings, and of the perfect offering that is to be made at the Consecration.
The first ever Mass was celebrated by Jesus Christ in the Cenacle on the first Holy Thursday. This was in anticipation of His ultimate sacrifice on Calvary the following day. It is no coincidence that Christ’s sacrifice fell on the day of the Jewish Passover – now known as Good Friday to us Catholics – because the Passover was a type and forerunner of the true Sacrifice, one that would deliver the whole human race from the evil chains perpetuated by that first Original Sin. This action also opened up Heaven to the patriarchs and good people who had been awaiting the promised Messiah for millennia.
On Holy Thursday, Jesus laid out the formula for Consecration in the breaking, offering, and eating of the Bread and the drinking of the Wine. He told his Apostles and Disciples to do so also, and this formula has remained with us for the past two millennia, for as long as the Church and Mass have existed. As a matter of fact, a knowledgeable theologian told this author that any part of the Mass could be changed or deleted, except for the Canon of the Mass that contains the formula of Consecration.
After the period of persecution, when the Emperor Constantine made Catholicism the religion of Rome, the liturgy and rites flourished and became more elaborate. But the existence of two polar centers, the Church in the East (Constantinople) and the Church in the West with Rome at its center, became a recipe for the many different ways we find Holy Mass celebrated today. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass did not magically appear overnight as a done-deal formula. It evolved from that first Passover Meal on Holy Thursday into the Eucharistic Banquet that Our Lord Himself celebrated. Later on, realizing the need to separate the meal from the rite of the Eucharist, mainly due to abuses committed during such meal celebrations, the rite took on a more prayerful aspect.
The Didache and Justin Martyr write of the fact that the structure of the Mass was pretty much in place during the early centuries.
During the many centuries of upheavals and changes that occurred within the Catholic Church, there emerged four distinct liturgies – the Roman/ Latin family of Rites and Churches, Eastern Rites and Churches, Byzantine family of Rites, and the Alexandrian family of liturgical Rites – with each one containing further subdivisions based on either Rites or distinct Churches. All in all, almost three-dozen different Rites are celebrated all over the world under the aegis of the Catholic Church.
The study of the evolution of the Mass is an interesting one and a single article like this would not do its richness justice.
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