A Cycle – Feast of Corpus Christi 20
Even Catholics who don’t know much about their faith have some vague awareness that they’re supposed to go to Mass on Sunday. Ask them to describe the Mass, though, and they might tell you that it involves an introduction, a conclusion, and a collection! The Mass (also called the Eucharist or the Divine Liturgy) has two main parts, the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. But rather than analyze its parts, I’d like to examine the Mass as a whole in terms of its three principal aspects. Now and always, the Mass involves a sacrifice, the presence of Christ, and a meal.
It’s important to know what the Church means by the “sacrifice” of the Mass. The term is easily misunderstood and has caused much strife among Christians.
First of all, Church teaching reiterates what Scripture states very clearly: there is no other sacrifice except the one offered by Jesus on Calvary. Hebrews 10:12 says that Christ “offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins.” That sacrifice cannot be repeated. The Mass, therefore, is not a repetition; it is a re-presentation of that sacrifice.
Because Christ was a unique human being, the sacrifice He offered on the cross once and for all is a unique act. He was a human being, so it was an act that took place in history and is therefore a past even remembered today. Yet Jesus is God, who exists outside of time: past and future and is always present to us. This means that His death and resurrection are eternal acts that during the mass is made present to us by the power of the Spirit.
This is exactly what happens in the Eucharist. The power of Calvary — the sacrifice that takes away sins, heals, and transforms — becomes present and available to us. It can be applied to our need at the moment.
But that’s not all. The cross is incomplete without the Resurrection. You cannot understand what happened on Good Friday apart from what happened two days later on Easter Sunday. This means that the Resurrection, too, is made present to us every time the Eucharist is celebrated. When we go to Mass, we are present at the foot of the cross, watching the Savior give His life for us. We are also outside the open tomb with the risen Jesus and the women who greeted Him on that resurrection morning. “This is for you. I give My life to you,” Jesus is saying. “Receive My forgiveness and transforming power.”
Jesus offered himself as a sacrifice to bring us salvation and give us His Spirit. Pentecost is the fruit of the sacrifice of the Cross and the victory of the Resurrection. Thus, the Church teaches that every Mass is a new Pentecost, a new opportunity to receive the Spirit afresh (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 739).
To sum up, the Mass is Christ’s sacrifice made present again. It is not intended to refresh our memory it is intended to change us.
In a very real way, the Eucharist is our sacrifice too. The New Testament calls us “priests,” and priests are those who offer sacrifice. “Like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pt 2:5). If there is only one sacrifice, then somehow our priesthood associates us with Christ’s act of self-offering to the Father.
The Mass is also our sacrifice in that we join our own offerings to Christ’s. First, we offer a sacrifice of praise and thanks. “Eucharist means first of all ‘thanksgiving,’” says the Catechism (par. 1360). We thank the Lord for His sacrifice, which is for us and our salvation. In the Eucharistic Prayer, a long prayer of thanks to the Father uttered toward the middle of every Mass, the celebrant speaks for us all. He thanks God for the creation of the world and for its goodness; he prays in thanksgiving for salvation history, for the whole human race is offered salvation through Jesus’ coming, death, and Resurrection.
During the Eucharistic Prayer, I always silently add in thanks for my personal blessings. I think of the natural blessings of home and work, of food on the table and the health of my family. I also thank God for my own salvation history, especially for plucking me out of danger I was heading into as a teenager — a journey that led many of my friends into drug and alcohol abuse. I thank God for bringing me together with a woman who loves Him and loves me, and for having kept us faithful to Him and each other for many years. I thank Him for our own family’s salvation history.
If you haven’t already established the habit of adding your personal expressions of gratitude to the priest’s Eucharistic Prayer, try it next time you’re at Mass. It’s a very appropriate mode of participating in that part of the Eucharist.
But our Eucharistic sacrifice involves more than offering thanks for what God has done. It means offering ourselves in response to His self-gift. Note what Paul says in his letter to the Romans: “I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1).
In a way, this is what the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament symbolized. Animals were very precious to the Israelite’s, and only the best were considered worthy for offering to God. These unblemished, perfect, animals represented — even substituted for — the life of the person who offered them. Sacrificing them was a sign of the worshiper’s complete gift of self to the Lord.
This brings us to the collection at Mass! Believe it or not, the collection is important. Whether we put in the widow’s mite or have the means to give much more, our financial contribution represents the gift of ourselves. As it’s brought forward at the presentation of the gifts, along with the bread and wine, our financial contribution serves as a sign of our self-offering.
It has to be said that many of us don’t give much of ourselves in the Eucharist. As a result, we do not receive much back. The solution is to stop participating as you would a theater presentation and get in touch with Christ and offer yourself up in the Eucharistic sacrifice.
Offering thanks to the Lord and giving our whole selves to the Father together with Christ is what the Eucharistic sacrifice is about. Obviously, we are weak, and our sacrifice is imperfect. Nevertheless, during the preparation of the gifts, we should be putting everything important to us on the altar. This includes our precious treasures of time, ambitions, desires, relationships, work accomplishments, family matters, trials, and temptations.
These are our contributions, but the sacrifice is still Christ’s. How could it be otherwise since we have been redeemed by the sacrifice of Jesus and not by our acts of piety.