Fr. Henry Brinkmeyer
The Blessed Eucharist is not only a Memorial and a Sacrament, it is also a Sacrifice, and in instituting it as such, our Lord gave another proof of His love for man. What is a sacrifice? Instead of offering you the definition commonly given by theologians, let me rather describe it.
Man must acknowledge that God has absolute dominion over all things, that He can give and take life as He in His adorable wisdom sees fit. Moreover, as a sinner, man must acknowledge his iniquities and show himself willing to submit to any punishment the divine justice may inflict. How do we make this solemn, public recognition of our dependence and sinfulness? By means of sacrifice.
We commonly take things which are adapted to represent or sustain the life of man, and offer them in a public manner to our Maker with a real or equivalent destruction. The things which are offered and destroyed are generally precious, and bear some relation to the life of man, for we wish thereby to express our willingness to consecrate our lives to the service of our Maker, nay, surrender them as an atonement for our guilt. Thus, in the Old Law, living creatures such as kine, lambs and birds were offered, or inanimate objects such as wine, wheat and barley, and, in general, the first fruits of the earth. For instance, they slew a lamb, sprinkled its blood over the altar and the people, and burned its flesh.
Among all nations of antiquity, owing to some vestiges of primitive traditions, there were similar oblations, even among idolatrous people, where virgins and babes were sacrificed. At all times the object offered was destroyed, or at least changed, to show that God is Master of life and death, and to acknowledge that He is the Supreme Sovereign of all things, and that we are absolutely dependent upon Him; in other words, to confess and profess that, as He made all creatures out of nothing, so He has power and right to destroy them, and that we ought to be ready at all times to be treated by Him in whatsoever manner He pleases. Every sacrifice is, therefore, a public recognition of God's dominion over us, and of our total dependence upon Him.
Whenever a sensible object is thus offered and destroyed by a priest in his own name and in the name of his people, it is as much as to acknowledge before the whole world that God is our Master, that He can do with us as He wills, that we are in His hands, as clay in the hands of the potter. And this is the very essence of religion, for all religion, true and false, public and private, interior and exterior, has for object the giving to God the honor due Him the recognition of His absolute sovereignty and dominion. A religion which has no Sacrifice as its chief and central act falls short of a perfect religion and cannot be a divine religion, for it would have in it no act which is distinctively divine; its worship could not strictly be called divine worship. Prayer, thanksgiving, praise, homage, all enter into the object of religion, but these can be offered to a creature. A divine religion ought to embrace an act which can be offered to God alone. Such an act is Sacrifice. Therefore Sacrifice belongs necessarily and essentially to every true religion; there can be no divine public worship without it.
We have, then, need of a Sacrifice. Our divine Lord knew this. For, though His bloody Sacrifice on Mount Calvary was all-sufficient to wash away the sins of the world, and was a full and ample satisfaction for every injury done to God, yet we are bound to pray and deny ourselves, we are bound to receive the sacraments, in order that the merits of our Saviour's death may be applied to our souls and that the graces which He acquired may be bestowed according to our wants and dispositions. Though Jesus suffered and died for us, we cannot be saved unless, by good works, prayers and the sacraments, we apply the fruits of His sufferings and death to our souls.
In like manner, though the Sacrifice of the Cross is the source and the only source of all grace, yet a continual Sacrifice is necessary that the merits of the first Sacrifice may be applied to our souls, and that, to the end of time, we may have a means of approaching God, and of publicly offering Him our supreme homage and adoration. Our Lord, with infinite goodness, made provision for our needs: He instituted the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
Now, let us consider how the Mass is a real Sacrifice; by so doing we shall realize more and more the ineffable love of the Sacred Heart for man, and we shall find that words have no power to express our wonder at the goodness and mercy of that ever adorable Heart.
According to the sacred traditions of every country and every race, a sacrifice was considered the more perfect the more fully it embraced the following conditions:
- if the victim was real and external;
- if the victim was innocent and mild;
- if the victim was destroyed or changed;
- if the victim was offered by a properly appointed priest;
- if some shared in the oblation by partaking of what was sacrificed.
Our Lord, in instituting a Sacrifice, would certainly institute a perfect Sacrifice. The Sacrifice of the Mass can be shown to embrace all these five conditions.
First, is the Victim in the Mass something real and external? Yes, it is our Lord Himself, not only as God, but as man. He is there as truly, as really, as substantially as He was on Mount Calvary. Beneath the thin appearances of bread is the body that hung on the cross, beneath the ruddy flash of seeming wine is the blood that trickled from His wounded side. Many saints have beheld Him in the Host as a smiling babe. Though we have not the privilege of seeing Him thus with our eyes of flesh, we do behold Him with the eyes of Faith: we know He is there.
Secondly, is the Victim of our altar innocent? Oh! He is innocence itself. He never knew sin: He is holy, spotless, undefiled. He is the Son in whom the Father is well pleased. Mary was innocent, but innocent by redemption. Jesus alone is innocent by nature: and He is our sin-offering, He is the Victim of sin. "He was wounded for our iniquities," says Isaias, "He was bruised for our sins: the chastisement of our peace was upon Him, and by His bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray, everyone hath turned aside into his own way: and the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all." And is the Victim of our altar mild? He is mildness and sweetness itself. "Learn of Me, because I am meek and humble of heart." He is the Lamb of God! The priest takes Him in his hand and lays Him on the right, and He remains there. He lays Him on the left and He remains there. He places Him on the tongue of the saint or of the sacrilegious communicant, and like a lamb led to slaughter the Victim opens not His mouth. Behold the Lamb of God!
Thirdly, is the Victim destroyed or changed in the Mass? Yes. He is mystically destroyed by the separate consecration of bread and wine: for the form of bread represents the body, the form of wine represents the blood, and the bread and the wine, being separately consecrated and lying separately on the altar, represent the real separation of Christ's blood from His body: the consecration is, therefore, a mystical destruction of the Victim. The Victim is also really changed, because His body and blood are changed into food, not merely into ordinary food, but changed still more, i.e., from a material food into a spiritual food for the soul. This sacramental state of existence borders on annihilation. In the Incarnation, He clothed Himself with the garment of man's mortal flesh. In His sacrifice on the cross, that garment of His flesh was rent from head to foot. In His sacrifice on the altar, that Body is wrapped in the swaddling clothes of the sacred species; it lies helpless and speechless like a child, nay more, it is as if dead, and the species are, as it were, its shroud; still further, it exists and lives, and yet appears to have not even a corporal existence. What an emptying! What an annihilation of self!
Fourthly, who is the priest in the sacrifice of the Mass? On Calvary, Christ was the priest and the victim. In the Mass also, Christ is the priest and the victim. He is the priest, for it is in His name, and by His power, and because of His institution, that the ministers of the Catholic Church can change bread and wine into His adorable flesh and blood. The priest at the altar does not say, 'This is the body of Christ, This is the blood of Christ,' but: "This is My body," and "This is My blood." Christ is the priest forever.
Fifthly, that which is offered and sacrificed should be participated in and partly, at least, consumed by the priest or the people. In the Old Law, even when the victim, called the holocaust, was completely burned, a cake was offered with the holocaust, in order that man might eat and thus communicate in the sacrifice. You know there is such a participation and communion in every Mass. If the people do not communicate, at least the priest does. He always consumes the flesh and the blood of the adorable Victim before him.
Is not all this wonderful? Is not every one of these five conditions an inexplicable mystery of love? Is it surprising that, through the prophet in the Old Law, God glories in this new, clean oblation? How little we reflect upon this sublime truth! With what awe and love and gratitude should we assist at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass! A certain writer says beautifully, and with his words I shall conclude:
The angels were present at Calvary. Angels also are present at the Mass. If we cannot assist with the seraphic love and rapt attention of the angelic spirits, let us worship at least with the simple devotion of the shepherds of Bethlehem, and the unswerving faith of the Magi.
Let us offer to our God the gift of a heart full of love for Him, full of sorrow for our sins, and full of the incense of adoration, praise and thanksgiving for mercies flowing from that Heart Divine, which having loved its own, loved them unto the end.