How To Communicate the Sacrificial Character of the Mass

Neil’s question sets us on the path we could be exploring to attempt a response. My friends know that I have serious doubts about the “hermeneutic of subtraction,” or the sense that we can trim away pieces of our Catholicism or Christianity to encounter more vividly some core belief. Emphasize sacrifice by subtracting the meal. Emphasize the clergy by subtracting the laity. (Or vice versa.) Emphasize the humanity by subtracting the divinity. (Or vice versa.) In two words: lazy humbug.

Meals themselves come in a wide range of experiences. We have fast food, romantic dinner dates, family meals at table or tv, lunch counters, breakfast on the run, holiday celebrations, and microwave dinners in lonely apartments. We also consume food in context of parties, sporting events, theatre productions, community socials, weddings, funerals, and the like.

Likewise, the Christian experiences sacrifice not only as a spectator for a cleric, but also in how we imitate Christ to loved ones, neighbors, and strangers. Jesus charged his disciples to imitate what he did at the Last Supper. If he didn’t mean a liturgical washing of feet, he certainly intended his model to be followed in life:

So when he had washed their feet (and) put his garments back on and reclined at table again, he said to them, “Do you realize what I have done for you? You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do. (John 13:12-15)

As a pastoral liturgist, not a theologian, I would look to the parish celebration of Mass for practical ways in which the sacrificial character of the Mass may be communicated, explored, and hopefully, lived out.

The Institution Narrative (or consecration) makes clear the context of Christ’s sacrifice. Holy Thursday and Good Friday are part of the same Paschal Mystery. Christian tradition has always linked the two, be it in the text of the anaphora or in the liturgical year, at Holy Week.

The very words of the Eucharistic Prayers speak of sacrifice. Does the priest pray them? Do his rubrical gestures reinforce what he is saying and praying? Does he remain a leader of a praying community rather than just a performer reenacting the Last Supper? How does one communicate “sacrifice?” I would suggest that personal example is paramount. Is the parish’s or community’s liturgical presider a constant example of Christ, and by extension, his example of sacrifice?

The author of the letter to the Hebrews can also give us important insights as to the meaning of the New Covenant, the new Sacrifice instituted by Christ. Hebrews can be very dense, and I confess it’s not a biblical book with which I’m deeply familiar. I would leave the New Testament scholars to plumb the depths of that work. But I would say that a study of priesthood and sacrifice in Hebrews in light of the contemporary celebration of the Eucharist would be a very fruitful exercise. Liturgists have long looked to John 6 or the Last Supper narratives, or the snippets in 1 Corinthians for prime inspiration. I suggest we could be going a little deeper into the Word of God. And if theologians can’t or won’t do it, perhaps it needs to be done on the parish level, or even here on Catholic Sensibility.

As the baptized, we are grafted into the family of God. We are part of the priesthood of Christ. How do we offer sacrifices, both at the liturgy, and in the living of our Christian lives? Seeking to imitate Christ is the very core of our apprenticeship for the Reign of God. Do we see setting aside our will and serving spouse, family, co-workers, friends, and even strangers as an essential part of the Christian life? If so, we have captured a sense of sacrifice that will only be enriched and enhanced by the Eucharist.

When we live as a Christian in a posture of sacrifice, we will make the connection when we break open the Word at Mass. We will make connections not only with the story of Jesus, but also with the Biblical and saintly figures of our Judeo-Christian tradition.

Loss of a sense of sacrifice in the Catholic liturgy? I don’t buy it. The liturgy is intended as a means to an end, a tool for the focus of our collective praise of God and our sanctification in Christ. But perhaps we could say that we have not paid total attention when we are told at every Mass to “go forth to love and serve the Lord.”

It was not just to coin a catchy phrase that the bishops of Vatican II wrote–over and over again–that the liturgy is both source and summit of the Christian life. The sense of sacrifice must be deepened in both worship and life, otherwise neither has much hope for growth and depth.

What would any of you readers have to say?

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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3 Responses to How To Communicate the Sacrificial Character of the Mass

  1. Diana says:

    In earlier comments from Neil’s post, Pes said that there is no meal without sacrifice. True.

    Equally true, there is no sacrifice without meal.

    In a 2002 keynote to the FDLC, Ed Foley, OFMCap., spoke about the distinction between Eucharist and Communion. (I write about his keynote here.) His points would support the further statement that there is no sacrifice without the sharing of the cup. Liturgical scholarship agrees that the cup, in Jewish symbology, is a major key in understanding “sacrifice,” that is, covenant. The shedding of blood was not an end in itself but was the means of creating covenant. We see this in Scripture and in the liturgy.

    All the baptized (including the priest celebrating the Mass) are part of Christ’s covenant / sacrifice. The offering of the gifts of God and the work of human hands, the sacrifice of prayer and praise, and the eating and drinking in Communion are all priestly actions of the People of God.

    Describing the necessary connection between the sacrifice in liturgy to that in life, Pope John Paul II said in his apostolic letter, Mane nobiscum, Domine: “We cannot delude ourselves: by our mutual love and, in particular, by our concern for those in need we will be recognized as true followers of Christ. This will be the criterion by which the authenticity of our Eucharistic celebrations is judged.” (28)

    No sacrifice; no meal. No meal; no sacrifice.

  2. Tony says:

    I have serious doubts about the “hermeneutic of subtraction,” or the sense that we can trim away pieces of our Catholicism or Christianity to encounter more vividly some core belief.

    We have to be certain that what we are failing to trim is actually, authentically Catholicism. Anything that is not Catholicism should not only be trimmed, it should be slashed off with a chainsaw.

  3. Todd says:

    So much for Aristotle. Will someone inform the good doctor Thomas of this development?

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