Vol. XIX, No. 7
The Mass: Sacrifice and Real Presence
by Joanna Bogle
Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist is the central reality in every Catholic church where the Eucharist is reserved in the Tabernacle. It is this that makes us genuflect as we enter the church, that keeps our voices down (or should!), that gives cause for a glowing candle alongside and gleaming gold and silver for the tabernacle and vessels. The Eucharist is real: it is the living Word of the Scriptures: “This is my Body …” (Lk 22:19)
The Sacrifice of the Mass is an offering of a “spotless victim” united with and fulfilling “the sacrifice of Abraham, our father in faith, and the offering of your high priest Melchizedek.”1
The Greek word logos is much richer than our word “word.” It connotes much more something that is living and existing and conveying reality. Our word “logic” comes from this root.
God’s Word is creative: in Genesis it calls things into being. God is omnipotent: He creates by speaking. When He says that something is, it is. In the Trinitarian Godhead, Christ, the living Word, uses words to give us Himself, His very flesh.
In the beginning, God created all things using words: “And God said ‘Let there be light’ and there was light…” (Gen 1:3). And, as the Gospel of John tells us: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…” (Jn 1:1). And this Word, the Second Person of the Trinity, became flesh and came to live among us.
When “the hour came” (Lk 22:14), at the Last Supper, Jesus, the living Word, took bread and wine, and spoke the words that — in accordance with His command to us — have been repeated again and again down all the Christian centuries. Each time, we are once again at that Last Supper, and, each time it is as though it is the first time and the only time.
When we describe someone being honorable and trustworthy, we speak of him “keeping his word.” The Eucharist is the great reality of God literally “keeping His Word.”
The creation of all things did not happen silently: God spoke, and things came into existence. The Incarnation did not happen silently — an angel spoke words to Mary, and she responded. Mass does not happen silently: a priest uses words, and we hear them and respond, and thus God comes to dwell among us, on the altars of our churches.
But the “Word” is also Christ. As Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI) wrote: “The ‘Word’ to which Christian worship refers is first of all not a text, but a living reality: a God who is self-communicating meaning, and who communicates Himself by becoming a human being. This incarnation is the sacred tent. The focal point of all worship which looks at the glory of God and gives Him honor.”2
Christ is truly present in the Eucharist. It is also the fulfillment of the Passover, and it is a sacrifice. The Second Vatican Council makes this clear: “At the Last Supper, on the night He was betrayed, our Savior instituted the Eucharistic Sacrifice of His Body and Blood. He did this in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the Cross throughout the centuries.”3 The Catechism repeats this teaching and adds much detail: “Because it is the memorial of Christ’s Passover, the Eucharist is also a sacrifice. The sacrificial character of the Eucharist is manifested in the very words of institution…. In the Eucharist Christ gives us the very body which He gave up for us on the cross, the very blood which He ‘poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.’”4 (emphasis original)
Benedict XVI notes that Christ’s words spoken over the Chalice “are of extraordinary theological depth.”5 They refer back to the Old Testament: the sealing of the Covenant (Ex 24:8), the promise of the New Covenant (Jer 31:31), and the Suffering Servant (Is 53:12). In the account in Exodus, the people promise obedience after the sealing of the Covenant: but they then immediately break this promise and start worshipping the golden calf when Moses is up on the mountain.
And the whole story of God’s relationship with His people is one of disobedience on their part down the years that follow. Then comes the hope of the “New Covenant,” fulfilled in Christ’s perfect obedience: “now located in the very root of human nature … the obedience of the Son, who made Himself a servant and took all human disobedience upon Himself in His obedience even unto death, suffered it right to the end, and conquered it.”6
Christ clearly expected frequent liturgical celebrations of the Eucharist: “Do this…” (Mt 26:17-30). The Church Fathers believed the Mass was a sacrifice. Saint Ambrose (4th century) wrote that the priest must “offer sacrifice for the people.”7 The prayers of the Mass establish that the Mass is a sacrifice, Eucharistic Prayer I referring to Melchizedek of old and his “holy sacrifice, a spotless victim.”8
The Council of Trent stated “In this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass, the same Christ who offered Himself once in a bloody manner on the Cross is contained and offered in an unbloody manner.”9 In English, this rather odd expression “unbloody” caused a number of problems in Catholic/Protestant debates and arguments over the years. The nature of the Mass was of course a central issue at the Reformation, with Luther arguing that to suggest that the Mass and Calvary were one and the same sacrifice was blasphemous.
The Council of Trent sought to resolve the matter in clear language. However, as any headline writer knows, to use a word and then put a negative in front of it actually invariably makes people think of the word in its original meaning. Thus: “No divorce for Prince William” simply makes one link Prince William with divorce, regardless of that word “No.” So “unbloody,” which is in any case an awkward word and not one in common use, makes us think of blood. The arguments about the Eucharist caused divisions among Christians for more than four centuries — and these divisions persist today.
Mark Vickers notes: “To support their interpretation Protestants tend to fall back on Hebrews, Chapter 10, in which the author writes that Jesus ‘has offered one single sacrifice for sins.’ Any suggestion that a different sacrifice is required — that of the Mass, offered over and over again — is blasphemy, they would say. But so would we. There aren’t lots of sacrifices. The Cross and the Mass are one and the same sacrifice, simply offered in a different manner. The same person offers the same sacrifice. By virtue of his ordination the priest offers the same sacrifice, in persona Christi, in the person of Christ. The Mass isn’t the work of man, but the work of God.”10
As Pope John Paul wrote in Dominicae Cenae (1980): “Only He — only Christ —was able and is always able to be the true and effective ‘expiation for our sins and … for the sins of the whole world.’ Only His sacrifice — and no one else’s — was able and is able to have a ‘propitiatory power’ before God, the Trinity, and the transcendent holiness.”11
The real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is linked to the reality of the sacrifice. Both have been under attack over recent decades, with some theologians urging that the Mass be seen essentially as a meal — and as a community gathering at which the emphasis should be on neighborly friendship and mutual care and service.
The real presence of Christ in the Mass, hidden under the appearances of bread and wine, is intrinsically linked with the Mass as a sacrifice, and all of this is bound up with the Trinity, as the Son offers Himself to the Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Saints and mystics have glimpsed something of this. Edward Leigh writes of Saint Ignatius: “After saying Mass he was so overcome with tears at the thought of the Trinity, and so profuse were his tears on occasions, that he feared he might go blind… He even had a vision, while saying Mass, of God the Father Himself, appearing to him like the sun … Sometimes, after Mass, he would sit enraptured for two hours, his face alight.”12
The Mass is prefigured in the Old Testament, in the actions of Melchizedek who offered bread and wine, and also in the sacrifice of animal made by the Chosen People to God. A sacrifice had to be of a perfect lamb, not an inferior animal. It had to be unblemished: only the best could be offered to God.
Christ as the “Lamb of God” is the ultimate and most perfect sacrifice: on the Cross, He offered Himself in the fullness of love to the Father. The Mass is one with that sacrifice on Calvary. It does not and cannot repeat it, but it is in unity with it — time and eternity meet here, and all time is one time, when the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are united at the Cross, at Calvary, and at the Catholic church in the suburb where I live or at St. Peter’s in Rome or at London’s Westminster Cathedral where I love to go, or anywhere on earth where the Mass is celebrated by a Catholic priest in union with the successor of Saint Peter in Rome.
As Father Edward Holloway puts it: “On the cross the body of Christ was broken: on the altar it is not torn. In any event it is the body of the resurrection now. On the cross He bled to death: on the altar the blood is shown but not spilled. It remains the same: one sacrifice of Himself: offered in that ‘clean oblation’ that Malachi saw in prophecy (Mal 1:11). It is still the one same thing — Jesus the priest and the sacrifice: ever living, ever offered, and ever offering Himself.”13
The Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is essentially dependent on the Mass being a sacrifice. It is one and the same sacrifice of Calvary. It is not a “magic moment” when the priest is able to, as it were, “produce” Christ on the altar. Rather, Christ’s presence is ultimately bound up with the great reality of what was achieved on Calvary and what is therefore present for us, through the Church, all through time until He comes again.
Scott Hahn — tracing the development of his own understanding of the Eucharist from his first attendance at Mass as a Calvinist spectator through to his full participation as a Catholic in communion with the Church — emphasizes that the Book of Revelation (Apocalypse) is essentially a description of a great High Mass, the ultimate Liturgy in Heaven, the nuptial feast of the Lamb: “The Lamb is Jesus. The Lamb is also a ‘son of man,’ robed as a high priest (1:13); the Lamb is a sacrificial victim; the Lamb is God.”14
Christ as the Lamb takes us back to the Last Supper and to Calvary but also beyond — to the sacrifices of the Old Covenant, the offering to God of an unblemished animal. The Mass is the fulfillment of all the ancient sacrifices, all the desires of God’s people to offer Him praise and supplication and to give Him glory.
The Mass is intimately connected to Calvary, and thus to the whole mystery of the Incarnation, the mystery of God’s love: “For God so loved the world…” (Jn 3:16). The Sacrifice of Calvary was a sacrifice of Love. Hans Urs von Balthasar writes that Christ’s humanity in the Incarnation is “eucharistically determined, inasmuch as it is the bodily gift of God to the world.”15
If we reject the notion of the Mass as a sacrifice, we may in the end find that we are troubled by the very notion of the Incarnation too. If we grasp the understanding of the sacrificial nature of the Mass, and of Calvary, we will recognize Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist. All these are bound up together. “The whole New Testament … depicts the whole self-giving of Jesus to His own and to the world (“for you and for many”) as the incarnation of the divine Word and fulfillment of the divine promise, the final deed of the God who, out of love for the world He created and in fidelity to the covenant He had entered into with it, gives what is most precious to Him.”16
3 Vatican II, Sacrosanctum Concilium (1963) n. 47.
Joanna Bogle writes from London. She is a well-known author and journalist who writes and lectures on issues of the Catholic faith and appears frequently on the radio. She is a contributing editor of Voices, our “sister” publication (wf-f.org/bd-jbogle.html).