News Archive

Monday 24 October 2011

Sacrifice

The eighth sermon in the series of the Mass, preached by Fr Daniel Seward on Sunday 23rd October:

"The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?."

In the sixteenth century, one of the most controversial debates between Catholics and Protestants was that of sacrifice: is the Mass a sacrifice? Still today you might meet people who say that this idea has no warrant in the scriptures. But sacrifice is essential if we are to understand what we are doing here, and the scriptures themselves show this clearly. Today I shall use just two passages from the New Testament to show this.

If you were a Gentile Christian living in Corinth in the fifties of the first century, you had a problem: in a Greek or Roman city, the normal suppliers of produce to the meat market were pagan temples. The meat that had been offered there to idols was sold in the market and then eaten at home. There was no overt connection between pagan worship and the eating of meat, but the consciences of some Christians were disturbed. Were they themselves guilty of idolatry by co-operating with this trade in sacrificial meat? Were they therefore obliged to be vegetarians, since there was not any other source of meat available to them? St Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, dispenses good, sound, practical advice. It is not permitted for Christians to eat meat in the context of a pagan ceremony, but if they have bought meat from the market that may have been offered to idols, they can eat it in good conscience, only they should be careful that in doing so that they did not give the impression that they condoned pagan sacrifice and so lead their weaker brethren astray. What is significant for us is that when Paul goes on to talk about the Eucharist, he explicitly compares it with a pagan sacrifice. The result of taking a meal in which the sacrificial victims of an idolatrous sacrifice were being eaten was to participate in this sacrifice and so become 'partners', that is friends or associates of demons. Whereas, in the Christian Eucharist, we share in the Body and Blood of Christ which has been offered to God in sacrifice, the sacrifice of the Cross. When we take part in the Eucharist, we are expressing our status as partners, friends, associates of God by participating in the sacrifice of Christ. So Paul says,

"The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? ... Consider the people of Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices partners in the altar? What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons."

In this sacrifice Christ Himself is the priest – represented in the Mass by His earthly minister, and He is the pure victim.

The Passover meal, at which Our Lord celebrated the first Mass, was not an historical re-enactment, but a celebration of God’s saving and liberating action now. At the Passover meal, the Jews don't say, "Tonight we remember when our ancestors were set free", but "Tonight we are set free from slavery in Egypt". The one who takes part in the Passover meal becomes a participant in the Exodus from Egypt. What was it caused the angel of death to pass over the Israelites? It was the blood of a lamb, smeared in the form of a Cross upon their doorposts. During the Passover meal there are four cups of wine to be drunk, representing the four promises that God made to Israel at the first Passover: "I will bring you out...I will deliver you...I will redeem you...then I will take you for my people." The third cup is drunk at the end of the meal when grace is said and relates to the promise to redeem Israel. It is followed by the 'hallel', the praise of God, and then by the fourth cup, called the cup of completion. It was at the third cup, at the end of the meal that our Lord gave His Precious Blood to the disciples. The third cup – the cup of blessing – represents the blood of the lamb that the Israelites smeared on their doorposts. Their covenant with God that He would pass over them was sealed by this blood. In the Gospels we read:

"In the same way, He took a cup after supper, and said, "This cup is the new covenant in My blood. Whenever you drink it, do this as a memorial of Me.""

Clearly, our Lord is linking this cup of His blood with the sacrifice of the lamb at Passover. It is certain then, that He means this meal, the Eucharist, to be a sacrifice in an analogous way to the Passover. In St Matthew's Gospel we read:

"Drink of it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I shall not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom. And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives."

After the third cup should come the drinking of the fourth cup – the cup of completion. It relates to the last of the four promises – "I will take you for my people." But this fourth cup is not drunk by Jesus and His disciples. In fact He quite explicitly says that He will not drink wine again until He does so in his Father's kingdom. The Passover meal is deliberately left incomplete. Why is this? It is because it is only the death of Jesus on the Cross the next day that consummates the action of the Last Supper. Our Lord relates the two of them by saying that His blood is to be poured out for the remission of sins. In the Garden of Gethsemane He prays, "My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as Thou wilt." The cup is the fourth cup of completion which the Son will drink on the Cross. In St John’s Gospel, our Lord cries out from the Cross, "I thirst!" and then is given vinegar on a hyssop stick. When He has drunk this He says, "It is finished!" – or consummated or completed. This is the fourth cup of completion, drunk upon the Cross.

"Do this in remembrance of Me" This word 'remembrance' or 'memorial' or simply 'memory' can be confusing when we use it in English, because we use these words simply to mean recalling something in the past. If I remember something, it is usually something that no longer exists, but the Passover meal made the events of the Exodus present there and then to the participants – "Tonight God frees us from slavery." So when the Lord says, "Do this as a memorial of Me", He means that whenever we eat this bread and drink this cup, we are proclaiming His death – we are making His death present to us. A covenant is not simply a contract between two people – it is a sacred blood bond between two people involving the exchange of life – "I am yours and you are mine". This is why a covenant has to be sealed with blood, to show the reality of this commitment. Participation in the new Covenant of the Eucharist means then that Christ gives Himself to us, and we must give ourselves to Him. The Eucharist is a Sacrament of total self-giving – Our Lord does not give Himself to us in any measure, or only partly. He holds nothing back, because He gives Himself. It is because Christ unites Himself totally with us, that we are enabled to unite ourselves with Him – to follow Him through the veil to the holy of holies.

The new English translation of the Missal re-emphasizes such words as sacrifice, oblation and offering to remind us of the importance of this scriptural concept of sacrifice. This is also why the Church is rediscovering her ancient practice of the priest and people facing together towards the altar, to show that the Mass is not a simple meal around the kitchen table but a sacrificial offering to the Father of the one sacrifice made by Christ on Calvary. It is offered for our good, to the praise and glory of His name and for the good of all His holy Church – for the living and the dead. From this follows the sacrifice that we make of our time to assist worthily at the Mass, from this follows the sacrifice of our lives in the Lord's service, to which the Mass invites us.