One thing that is common to human cultures and societies throughout history, right up until very recently, is a profound awareness of the divine, as well as the allying of that experience with an apprehension of moral truth that has been codified and preserved in different religious traditions. In the ancient world, the vast majority of these religions involved a sacrificial element. The common premise throughout these many different cultures, times and places, seems to have been that in offering something to the gods*, the people would be expressing thanksgiving for what they have received from the heavens in the first place (e.g.; fruits of the field, the first-born of the flock).
In a perfect world, this would of course be effortless, as we would have an intuitive sense of gratitude for our existence and all the blessings we receive. However, in the sinful, fallen world we actually live in, this sense of thankfulness is marred by the self-interest and pride that nags at the core of all of us. This introduces a further element into the sacrificial act – it expresses the fact that this turning to the gods in thanks is costly and painful to us (hence the prevalence of animal sacrifices, in which the shedding of blood conveys the cost of our self-offering). Furthermore, the offering of a bloody sacrifice reveals something else about our condition – namely that we are not at one with the divine; that we have fallen from full communion with the gods and require an at-one-ment to re-establish relationship.
This concept of atonement between man and God was given its most concrete and vivid expression in the Temple sacrifices at Jerusalem. The Jews brought together the idea of the costliness of reconciliation with the divine and its expression in bloody sacrifice, with the knowledge that there is only one God, who is infinitely holy and to whom all sin is an aberration. Before this holy God, they knew that the people needed a representative, a priest, to offer sacrifice on behalf of the whole people, so that the blood spilled upon the altar may become an expression of their offering of their very selves, for ‘the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it for you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement, by reason of the life’ (Leviticus 17:11).
There can be no question here that God needs our sacrifices – Psalm 50 makes this very clear – but we certainly need to offer them to Him. In the daily round of Temple sacrifices, and most significantly at Yom Kippur, the Jews were expressing their need to reconcile themselves with God, and the costliness of such an action. Having said that though, there is still a sense in which sin does require restitution, and the human instinct to make recompense for transgression is a correct one. The Epistle to the Hebrews does not deny the fact that the Temple sacrifices were efficacious in some way, that in fact they obtained a sanctification for ‘the purification of the flesh’ (9:13); but the point is made that any sanctification gained therein was a.) only temporary, and b.) didn’t go to the heart of the matter.
In Christ’s sacrificial self-offering of obedience and love on the Cross though, all the intimations of previous ages – both Jewish and pagan – were fulfilled and surpassed. Hebrews also emphasises that ‘without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins’ (9:22) and that by virtue of the death of Jesus ‘in a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified’ (10:14). Two questions can be raised here: why the need for blood; and if Christ’s death on the cross was a single offering sufficient for our salvation, what are we to make of the Sacrifice of the Mass?
The answer to the first question lies, I think, in the passage in Hebrews 9 where the ratification of the Mosaic covenant is described. Here it is said that ‘where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established’ (9:16), and that ‘even the first covenant was not ratified without blood’ (v.18). There is a little bit of word play here, in that the Greek word used for covenant and will is the same, and so it is suggested that just as somebody’s will only comes into effect when they are dead, so could the New Covenant only be established after Jesus’ death. The connection with blood here only makes sense then if in the Old Covenant, the blood of the animals was in some sense an expression not only of the offering of mankind, but also God’s offering of Himself. I.e.; in the Jewish sacrifices, the blood spilled actually prefigured God’s outpouring of His own life on Calvary – there could be no forgiveness of sins without His blood.
With respect to the Mass, things are a little more straightforward, though no less mysterious! Despite the finality of Christ’s sacrifice for our sins on the Cross, we still need to have the benefits of this act of atonement applied to us in our daily lives. So in the Mass, the one sacrifice of Christ is re-presented to the Father, that we may unite our own intentions to Jesus’ act and make concrete the mystical participation we have in Christ’s Body by virtue of our baptism. As is said in 1 Corinthians: ‘The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread’ (10:16-17). Through baptism we are incorporated into Jesus’ Body, the Church, and the bread which becomes His Body in the Mass is the same – there is only one body. Thus in the re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice in the Mass we affirm our mystical participation in His Body, and have the benefits attained on Calvary applied to us personally. As there is one body, there is also one sacrifice, but through the Mass we become part of it.
Hence the need, as I have written about in another post, for a sacramental priesthood – a group of people who have received a mark on their souls that sets them out for the offering up of this sacrifice. This requires a sacramental identification with Christ Himself, so that the words of consecration are as spoken by Jesus, and the bread really becomes His Body. As an aside, I have never quite been able to get my head around the Anglican rite of ordination on this front – within Anglicanism there are those who consider themselves sacramental priests, and who consider their Eucharist to be sacrificial, and there are those that consider themselves ministers, who reject the idea of any substantial change in the elements, or of any sacrificial aspect therein. Yet they are both ordained with the same words and the same intentions. Which one is it? This is a question I have not yet received an answer to.
At any rate, the issue of the Sacrifice of the Mass (for evidence of its historical pedigree see here), like many other things in Catholicism that seem difficult, is cleared up as soon as it is recognised that the Church really is the Body of Christ – not just symbolically, or metaphorically, but an actual manifestation and prolongation of His saving action throughout space and time. Either Christianity is an incarnational religion or it isn’t – if so, there is nothing more natural in the world that Jesus would continue to convey His grace through material means, whether this be bread and wine in the Mass, the ears and vocal chords of a priest in Confession, or the hands of a lay person doing volunteer work with the poor. Incorporated into His Body, we are all, in some mystical sense, a part of Christ, and His work is done through us.
This way of seeing the Church also makes sense of the practice of praying to saints – we ask fellow Christians to pray for us all the time, and people who have died are no less part of Christ than we who still live, so why not ask them? Furthermore, whilst our relationship with Jesus here and now is imperfect, those who are in heaven have reached a state of full sanctification, which is another way of saying that their participation in Christ is complete and without the obstacle of sin. So their prayers will be perfectly aligned with the will of Jesus, who ‘holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever’ (Hebrews 7:24). Thank God for the Church, through which all the fullness of His grace is mediated, and thank God for His sacrifice, by virtue of which we may ‘with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need’ (4:16).
* I am deliberately using polytheistic expression here because of the times I am discussing, and the wide variety of traditions across the ages.