Wednesday 27 September 2023

The law of praying (9): Sharing in the heavenly altar

We are looking at a section from the Canon of the Mass each week, to learn what the ‘law of praying’ has to teach us about what we believe. You can find the previous posts in this series in our reflections archive.

In humble prayer we ask you, almighty God:
command that these gifts be borne
by the hands of your holy Angel
to your altar on high
in the sight of your divine majesty,
so that all of us, who through this participation at the altar
receive the most holy Body and Blood of your Son,
may be filled with every grace and heavenly blessing.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

There is an idea present throughout the scriptures that our earthly realities reflect in some way the heavenly realities. Especially when it comes to the worship of God, what we do down here somehow shares in the more perfect, the more effective, the more real version of the same thing taking place in heaven.

This is very similar to the philosophy of Plato, who taught that the ‘ideal’ version of all things existed in a heavenly realm, and that earthly things participated in these ideal forms. The Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria thought the Greek Plato got so much right, the only explanation must have been that he had secretly read the Old Testament and stolen all his ideas from Moses!

In the Old Testament, the liturgy of the tabernacle and then of the Temple is based on the heavenly liturgy. In the book of Exodus (24:10), Moses is taken up the mountain and sees God. And he’s told to copy a heavenly model of the sanctuary that he’s shown (Ex. 25:40, 26:30, 27:8). The Jerusalem Temple is, as we read in the book of Wisdom, ‘a copy of the holy tent that [God] prepared from the beginning’ (Wis. 9:8). And this is further elaborated in Hebrews, where we learn that the earthly sanctuaries ‘serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly sanctuary; for when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, “See that you make everything according to the pattern which was shown to you on the mountain.”’ (Heb. 8:5)

The worship of the Old Testament was meant to be an implementation of a heavenly blueprint. But because it was only an imitation in an earthly sanctuary, that worship could never be perfect. In order to be perfect, we want to share in the actual worship of heaven. In the Letter to the Hebrews, we read:

But when Christ came as a high priest of the good things to come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation), he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. (Hebrews 9:11–12)

That greater and more perfect tent not made by human hands is God’s Temple of heaven itself. When Christ ascended into heaven, he entered the heavenly sanctuary to function as a priest. Again in that same letter,

Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. (Hebrews 9:24)

Christ’s sacrifice was perfect — not only in terms of what was offered and who offered it, but also because of where it was offered, in an eternal, heavenly temple. St Paul makes it clear that because Christ’s sacrifice is perfect, it actually works. Because Christ completes his offering in heaven, in an eternal sanctuary, the effects of that sacrifice continue throughout all time. Christ’s death doesn’t just redeem those who were around at the time of the Crucifixion, but Christ is now seated at the right hand of the Father, living for ever to intercede for us, and we get a glimpse of that when the Mass is offered. That eternal sacrifice that Christ offers on a heavenly altar is brought down to our earthly altar. We get a glimpse of heaven and the heavenly liturgy, veiled under the forms of bread and wine. We are reminded that Christ is offering himself for us, and we get an opportunity to join our prayers to that offering.

This is also reassuring. No matter how hard we try to make our earthly worship the best it can be (and nothing but our best should be good enough for God) it will always fall short of perfection. The effectiveness of the Mass is not down to how much we concentrate on our prayers, on how well the priest pronounces the words, or the building or the music that accompanies the sacrifice. The one who offers the sacrifice is Christ himself — in heaven. We know his offering is perfect, and therefore ours is too. Every Mass, celebrated in any rite or language, by a good priest or a bad priest, with a congregation or without one, offered publicly in a beautiful cathedral or secretly in a prison camp, all of these are the same, united to that one perfect sacrifice that Christ himself offers for us in heaven.