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THE HOLY SACRIFICE OF THE MASS
In this month of April, which is dedicated to the most Holy Eucharist, we will consider the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The late Fr. Malachi Martin once told a story from his childhood. He was asked by a Protestant neighbor what he was being taught in catechism class about the Mass. When the young Malachi Martin explained what he was being taught, the woman, who later converted to the Catholic Church, replied: “if I believed that, I would crawl to the Church on my knees”. What did the young boy say to the woman that caused such a reaction? Let us consider what the Mass is.
The Holy Mass is the sacrifice of the New Covenant. It is the “once for all” sacrifice of Jesus Christ, transcending time and space, and made present and renewed upon our altars. The Mass is the same sacrifice of Jesus Christ, made to the Father on behalf of sinners. We will examine how this mystery takes place; why it was instituted by our Lord; the four-fold intention of the Mass; and how we are to participate if we are to reap the greatest fruit.
During the Mass, at the moment of consecration, the bread and wine are miraculously transformed into the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ. After the consecration takes place, the very person of Jesus Christ is truly and substantially present upon the altar, but hidden under the appearance of bread and wine. This miracle, which takes place at every Mass, is the mysterium fide – the mystery of faith - of our holy religion.
Transubstantiation is the term used by the Church to describe the transformation of mere bread and wine into the body and blood, soul and divinity, of our Lord. To understand the transformation, the Church employs the metaphysical terms of substance and accidents. We will briefly discuss these terms in order to understand the presence of our Lord in the most Holy Eucharist. In metaphysical terms, the substance of a thing is what it is of itself – its nature, while the accidents are the qualities that are perceived by the senses. So, for example, the substance of bread is bread, while the accidents of bread would be the taste, smell, and feel of the bread. The substance of wine is wine, while the accidents are the color, taste and the consistency of wine. When transubstantiation occurs, the substance of bread is transformed into the living substance – the literal person, body, blood, soul, and divinity - of Jesus Christ, with only the accidents of bread and wine remaining. The bread becomes the physical body of Christ and the wine his literal blood, but through natural concomitance, the whole Christ is present under each form. In short, after the words of consecration are spoken , what appears to be bread is no longer bread, but the body of Jesus Christ; and what appears to be wine is no longer wine, but the literal and physical blood of Christ, with only the appearances (accidents) of bread and wine remaining.
St. Cyril of Jerusalem wrote the following in the year 350 AD: “As a life giving sacrament, we possess the sacred Flesh of Christ and his Precious Blood under the appearance of bread and wine. What appears to be bread is not bread, but Christ’s Body, and what appears to be wine is not wine, but Christ’s Blood” (Catechetical Lectures 22:9, 350 AD).
By the two-fold and separate consecration of the body and blood of Christ, his sacrificial death is made present and renewed. It is not another sacrifice of Jesus, but the same sacrifice made present and offered to God on behalf of sinners. God willed that it be possible for all Christians to be present at the sacrifice of His son. The means by which this is accomplished is at the Holy Mass. The late Fulton J. Sheen, one of the greatest preachers of the 20th century, once said that if Mary had closed her eyes at Calvary it would have been no different than if she were present at Mass; and if we close our eyes at Mass, it is no different than our being present at Calvary. “In the Mass we are once more at Calvary, rubbing shoulders with Mary Magdalen and John” (Bishop Fulton J. Sheen).
The difference between the sacrifice that took place on Calvary, and the sacrifice that takes place upon our altar is this: 1.) At Calvary, the purpose of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ was to redeem mankind and to merit for us, while at the Mass, the purpose is to offer himself for our sins, and to apply His merits to us; and 2.) at Calvary, the sacrifice took place in a bloody manner, visible for all to see; while at Mass the sacrifice takes place in an un-bloody manner, under the appearance of bread and wine, and can only be “seen” by those who possess supernatural faith.
The Bible tells us Jesus is a Priest according to the order of Melchesidech (Heb 6:20). Why is this so? In Genesis, we read that Melchesidech was a King and High Priest who offered to God a pure sacrifice of bread and wine (Gen 14:18). At Mass, our Lord, who is the King of Kings and High Priest of the New Covenant, is offered in sacrifice to God in like manner –namely, under the appearance of bread and wine.
In the Old Testament we read the Prophecy of Malachias, which says: “from the rising of the sun even until its going down thereof, My name is great among the Gentiles, and in every place there is offered to My name a pure sacrifice” (Mal 1:11). This prophecy of a pure sacrifice offered to God by the Gentiles is the Holy Mass, as the Fathers of the Church recognized.