How Old Testament Sacrifices Prefigure Catholic Liturgy
A priest friend now in his 70s observed recently that when he was growing up, Catholics regularly referred to their worship as “the holy sacrifice of the Mass.” Now we just call it “Mass.”
This seemingly small point about the way we talk indicates an issue of deeper significance. At least in America, we Catholics no longer have much feel for the fact that the Mass is, at its heart, a sacrifice. It is not only a gift we receive from God, our own communion in the body and blood of Christ. It is that, of course.
But the Mass is also, and quite fundamentally, our offering to God of what we have received. The Mass is our offering to the Father of the most precious possible gift, the body and blood of his own Son. In just that sense the Mass is our supreme sacrifice, the sacrifice of Christians. If it is first of all God’s gift to us, it is also our gift to God.
Best Kept Secret
We might suppose that the sacrificial nature of the Mass has receded from the consciousness of Catholics because the Roman Canon, the first Eucharistic Prayer, is seldom used. However much we may regret the relative rarity with which priests turn to the Canon, it seems unlikely that this is among the causes for the loss of a sense of sacrifice.
Prior to the liturgical changes introduced by Vatican II, the Canon was, after all, said sub secreto, in a voice audible only to the priest himself. We can easily get a sense of what this was like for generations of Catholics by participating in Mass according to the Extraordinary Form. If Catholics like my priest friend grew up with a more vivid awareness of the Eucharist as sacrifice than most of us now have, they must have brought it to the Mass, rather than learning it from the Mass.
It seems likely, then, that contemporary Catholics no longer think of the Mass as a sacrifice because they have never been taught—or better, invited—to do so. The problem is at root catechetical rather than liturgical.
At the same time, one way to address this catechetical deficit would be precisely to use the Roman Canon much more often in the celebration of Mass. The celebrant now says the Eucharistic Prayer in full voice, with the aim that it be heard and understood by all. The language of sacrifice saturates the Canon, and a close reading of the content and logic of the Canon’s sacrificial utterances—far more than I can undertake here—would yield an exceedingly rich theology of the Eucharistic sacrifice, more than enough to give Catholics a profound sense of “the holy sacrifice of the Mass.”
To be sure, the Third Eucharistic Prayer is also deeply sacrificial, and the Second unmistakably, if briefly, so. But the Canon gives us the clearest and broadest view of the Church’s ancient faith in the sacrificial nature of the Mass.
The Roman Canon is, of course, a prayer, or more exactly a sequence of prayers. We can find instruction on the sacrificial character of the Mass by attending to any one of these prayers. Consider the following, which comes after the consecration, the mystery of faith, and the explicit recollection of the Lord’s passion, resurrection, and ascension. The prayers of the Canon have traditionally been known by the Latin phrase with which each begins; this is the prayer “Supra quae propitio”:
Be pleased to look upon these offerings
with a serene and kindly countenance,
and to accept them,
as once you were pleased to accept
the gifts of your servant Abel the just,
the sacrifice of Abraham, our father in faith,
and the offering of your high priest Melchizedek,
a holy sacrifice, a spotless victim.
If we are paying attention we will be struck, and perhaps puzzled, by the recollection here of three figures from the Old Testament, all from the book of Genesis. Following the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, Abel was the first person to offer God an acceptable sacrifice, and was murdered by his older brother Cain, whose sacrifice was unacceptable to God (Genesis 4).
Abraham was willing to sacrifice his own son Isaac, the child of the promise, in obedience to God, though his hand was stayed and an animal provided by God was offered up in Isaac’s stead (Genesis 22). Between these two figures from the Genesis narrative, but last in the Canon’s prayer, comes Melchizedek, “priest of God Most High,” who “brought out bread and wine” for an offering, blessed Abraham, and received from Abraham a tenth of all he had (Genesis 14).
In the midst of the Church’s holiest act, with the body and blood of the living Christ present before us on his altar, we call to mind these three figures from the Old Testament who lived long before Christ came. Reflecting on why the Church does this in the middle of the Eucharistic Prayer, as she has done for many centuries, will help us understand why what we do in the Mass is without doubt an offered sacrifice. More than that, invoking these three names will help us understand just what we are doing when we offer this sacrifice, and also what our own role (as priest and people) is in this sacrifice.
An Acceptable Offering
Before we get to Abel, Abraham, and Melchizedek, we need to notice how the Supra quae propitio begins. Like most of the prayers that make up the Canon, it is personally addressed to God the Father, through Christ his Son and in memory of the Son, that is, by having his Son firmly in mind. The whole Canon, after all, begins, “To you, therefore, most merciful Father, we make humble prayer and petition through Jesus Christ our Lord.” So when the Canon addresses its prayer to “the Lord,” or, as here, simply to “you,” the Father is clearly the person of the triune Lord who is being addressed.
In this prayer the priest and the faithful ask the Father to accept our sacrifice. We plead with him, really. “Be pleased to look upon these offerings with a serene and kindly countenance, and to accept them.” That we would pray to the Father in this way does not merely suggest, but clearly presupposes, that he might not accept our offering. He might reject it.
We may find this possibility hard to understand, or even to entertain. How could the Father not accept the gifts offered by his creatures? Yet just to make us aware of this possibility, it seems, the Canon bids us to think of Abel when we go about making our offering to God in the Mass, and implores God to remember him, the first just man. That God can reject as well as accept our offerings is clearly the point of the story of Cain and Abel, of the first sacrifices offered by human creatures to God. “The Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard” (Genesis 4:4-5).
Once we seriously consider that God might not only accept our offering, but reject it, we urgently want to know how we can be confident, when we participate in the Mass, that he will in fact accept the sacrifice we make. The Canon’s references to Abel, Abraham, and Melchizedek, all of whom made sacrifices acceptable to God, are meant to help us on just this score.
Time and Time Again
From the earliest times Christians have understood the figures and events of the Old Testament to point beyond themselves to Christ, and to us, his Church. This is already clear in the New Testament itself. Paul, for example, instructs the Corinthians that when the Israelites wandering in the desert “drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them,” in truth “the Rock was Christ” (I Corinthians 10:4).
The Paschal Mystery, the once-for-all event of Jesus’ passion, resurrection, and ascension, contains within it the whole reality of our salvation. As a single beam of light contains all the colors of the spectrum, so the Paschal Mystery contains “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3). A prism spreads out the colors contained in a beam of light so that we can see them more clearly and distinguish them from one another.
In much the same way the Old Testament prepares beforehand for the Paschal Mystery. By way of anticipation it presents in discrete figures and episodes that which is concentrated in the person of Christ and his Paschal Mystery. So it is with the sacrifices of Abel, Abraham, and Melchizedek.
Ready and Abel
“The Lord had regard for Abel and his offering” (Genesis 4:4). The text of Genesis does not tell us why God accepted Abel’s offering and rejected Cain’s. It does point out, however, that what each offered was different. Cain offered “the fruit of the ground,” while Abel “brought the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions” (Genesis 4:3-4).
What Abel offered was, it seems, valuable to God in a way that what Cain offered was not. Abel offered what was the richest and best that could be offered. In just this way Abel’s offering anticipates, prefigures, the offering at the heart of the Paschal Mystery.
In the Upper Room Jesus offers to the Father his own body and blood, the human body and blood of the Father’s own eternal Son. What he offers is more valuable, dearer to God, than anything else God’s creatures could possibly offer him. Abel’s offering points to this, by drawing attention to what Abel gave to God, the good he offered. It helps us see clearly one element of the “fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2) Jesus makes in the Upper Room and consummates on the cross.
For the Love of God
The sacrifice of Abraham (or “the binding of Isaac,” as it is known in Jewish tradition) Christians and Jews both see as one of the decisive episodes in the Bible. In Christian eyes it is a multi-layered figure or type of Jesus Christ and his redemptive sacrifice. Not by accident is Genesis 22 one of the readings required by the Church for the Easter Vigil.
At one level the sacrifice of Abraham has much in common with Abel and his offering. Abraham is prepared to sacrifice to God what is most dear to him, his son Isaac. At this level Isaac himself, like the first-born of the flock offered by Abel, points us to Christ, to his body and blood offered in the Upper Room and on the cross.
At another level—and this is especially important for understanding the sacrifice of the Mass—Abraham too points us in his own way to Christ. Abraham offered to God what was most precious to him, his own son, out of obedience to God and love for God. He thereby helps us to see clearly another element of the sacrifice of Christ: the way Jesus offers his sacrifice.
Jesus not only offers what is most valuable—himself—but he offers it out of supreme love for his Father, out of loving obedience to the one who sent him. “By suffering out of love and obedience,” St. Thomas Aquinas observes, Christ offered to God more than was necessary to overcome all the sin and evil of humanity, above all “because of the greatness of the love with which he suffered,” the love of perfect charity for the Father and for us sinners (ST III, 48, 2).
Finally, the offering of Melchizedek, the third Old Testament figure mentioned in our prayer from the Canon, points to Christ in yet further ways. Melchizedek was a priest, that is, one appointed by “God Most High” to make acceptable offerings to him. As the Letter to the Hebrews emphasizes, the mysterious figure of Melchizedek, “without father or mother or genealogy” (Hebrews 7:3), points to Jesus Christ, the eternal high priest who is alone able to make the final and decisive offering for sin. Jesus makes his once-for-all offering, so Christians have long believed, as the promised “priest forever after the order of Melchizedek” (Psalm 110:4), the great high priest for all humanity.
Melchizedek, moreover, brought a particular sort of gift for offering to God most high in a way that would bless Abraham: bread and wine. This helps us see clearly the way Jesus Christ, our great high priest, will offer his body and blood to the Father in perfect charity for our salvation. He will make his offering sacramentally, that is, by way of signs. He does not, of course, offer bread and wine instead of his body and blood. He offers his body and blood in truth, by means of just these signs, and on the cross gives completely what he has offered.
Composition and Theme
The offerings of Abel, Abraham, and Melchizedek present to us discrete elements of an acceptable sacrifice. In Abel’s case we have what is offered, in Abraham’s the way it is offered, and in the case of Melchizedek both who makes the offering and the signs under which it is offered. All of these come together and reach their highest pitch of perfection in the Paschal Mystery, the one sacrifice of Jesus Christ. As the sacrifices of Abel, Abraham, and Melchizedek were acceptable to God, each in its own way, so much the more is the sacrifice of Christ acceptable to God, truly “the perfect evening sacrifice.” So the Canon of the Mass encourages us to think.
What then of the question with which we began: how is the Mass itself a sacrifice, offered by us to God? Jesus offers a sacrifice, to be sure. He concentrates in his one act of self-giving all the figures and anticipations of the Old Testament, and so offers to his Father once and for all the supremely acceptable sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins. What, though, of us, the humble gathering of priest and people present for Mass? Where is our sacrifice, acceptable to God?
Front and Center
In his own unmistakable words at the center of each Mass, Jesus answers our question. “Do this in memory of me.” We are to do, each time we gather for the Eucharist, exactly what he has done. And what he has done, in the Upper Room and on the cross, is offer sacrifice to the Father, the perfect evening sacrifice, the sacrifice that takes away the sins of the world.
In the Upper Room, under the sacramental signs of bread and wine, Jesus gives up his body to the Father for us and for our salvation, and offers his blood to the Father for the forgiveness of our sins. By what he does at the Last Supper, he offers to the Father his imminent passion and cross as a sacrifice, the once for all sacrifice variously foreshadowed by Abel, Abraham, and Melchizedek.
Christ offers himself, in the words of our prayer from the Canon, as “a holy sacrifice, a spotless victim.” And he commands us to do just this. We are to offer what he offered: his own body and blood, “a holy sacrifice, a spotless victim.” When we, priest and people, simply do what he told us to do, we offer the perfect evening sacrifice, acceptable to the Father. How could it be otherwise? For we offer the very sacrifice of Christ himself.
Notice, though. Our prayer from the Canon invoking Abel, Abraham, and Melchizedek takes place after the priest has consecrated the gifts of bread and wine, making them in truth sacramental signs of Christ’s body given up for us and his blood poured out for us. The “holy sacrifice,” the “spotless victim,” is already present on the altar. Why then should we continue to plead so earnestly to the Father that he accept our sacrifice?
One Holy Sacrifice
We plead with the Father to accept the body and blood of his own Son from our altar because we are not mere spectators of the sacrifice that takes place here. What we offer is the most precious gift we creatures can bring before God: the gift of his own Son. But the Church now joins herself to this offering. The lives of her faithful, the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, “their praise, sufferings, prayer, and work, are united with those of Christ and with his total offering…. Christ’s sacrifice present on the altar makes it possible for all generations of Christians to be united with his offering” (1368). We rightly hope that God will accept this gift from his Church when we offer it as his Son has commanded.
At the same time each of us is summoned to join actively in this offering, the priest in one way, the people in another way, no less earnest. Jesus has given into our own poor hands, the hands of his people, the precious gift of his body and blood that we may join him in offering that gift to the Father. To heed his command, “Do this,” is not simply to be an observer, but a willing participant, in the sacrifice that takes place here.
For this reason we ask with all our heart that the Father accept our offering. As with Abel and Abraham, God will look not only upon the gift we offer (we have none better to give), but on the love, gratitude, and obedience with which we give it. This too we ask the Father to accept—not only the gift we give, but the love, poor though it may be, with which we give it.
The Church calls us to a “lively participation” in the Mass. We learn from Abel, Abraham, and Melchizedek what this lively participation is: not only receiving but giving, sharing with love and devotion in the Church’s offering to God of the supreme sacrifice the creature can give.
Bruce Marshall is Lehman Professor of Christian Doctrine in the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, TX. For the 2018-19 academic year he is serving as Rev. Robert. J. Randall Distinguished Professor in Christian Culture at Providence College, Providence, RI. He is the author of Trinity and Truth (2000) and Christology in Conflict (1987), and is presently at work on a book on the Trinity, faith, and reason in Aquinas and contemporary Catholic theology. He is a past president of the Academy of Catholic Theology.