Fr. Raphael M. Moss, O.P.
The concluding thought of the last conference was one which cannot be too clearly impressed upon our minds. It was summed up in the beautiful words of St. Thomas, and it reminded us once again that Jesus Christ, true God and true Man, is the author and source of all our grace; and since, in His loving goodness, He has vouchsafed to remain on our altars under the veils of the Blessed Sacrament, it is to this same most Holy Sacrament that He would have us look for all the grace and help of which we stand so much in need. Every poor tabernacle, therefore, is the prison-house of this divine Victim, whose death on the cross blotted out the handwriting that was against us, and gave us back our heavenly inheritance; and from that same lowly hiding-place He sustains us in the wearisome struggle of life, and encourages us to win a place in His everlasting home.
The Blessed Sacrament is, therefore, the means by which our Blessed Lord carries on the work He came on earth to accomplish: the sanctification and salvation of our souls. And that we might the more easily realize His most gracious design, He gave us this great pledge of His love on the last day of His mortal life. For although He was about to withdraw His visible presence from the world, it seemed as though He could not leave us altogether; and so He veiled His Godhead and Humanity beneath the sacramental species, that we might know and feel the consolation of His presence. Moreover, as St. Thomas so very justly says, when friends are on the eve of being parted, the near prospect of separation seems to give a new and mightier power to their mutual love, and the last words of farewell are treasured up with the most affectionate reverence; and our Lord appealed to this most natural human feeling when He gave to His apostles this token of His love in their last hour of sorrowful farewell. But there was another reason - the most important of all. He was about to lay down His life in atonement for the sins of all the ages, past, present and to come; and since it is only "through faith in His Blood" that salvation is offered to all, it was fitting that in all ages men should offer to their Creator some representation of this lifegiving atonement.
Before His coming into this world, there were the various sacrifices of the Old Law, which were in every way, as we shall see, most perfect types of His great sacrifice; and so on the eve of their fulfillment, He looked forward to the ages yet to come, and provided them with a sacrifice which should be at once the memorial and renewal of His own. In other words, the real presence of Jesus Christ on our altars is something more than a sacrament, or an outward sign of the mysterious working of divine grace; it is a sacrifice as well, and it is this truth that St. Paul asserts so briefly and yet so forcibly when he declares that we also "have an altar" - that is to say, our churches are not merely places of prayer and devotion, they are not merely the successors of the synagogues, in which we may hear the reading of the sacred Scriptures; but they are to us what the Temple of Jerusalem was to the Jews; they are places of sacrifice, and in them there is an altar, before which stands a consecrated priest, and on which, day by day, the blood of a victim is offered up to God. In the Temple of Jerusalem, the victim offered up was a poor trembling animal; on our altars the sacrifice appears to be of bread and wine, but, says St. Paul:
The chalice of benediction, which we bless, is it not the communion of the Blood of Christ? And the bread which we break, is it not the partaking of the Body of the Lord?
This is the great truth we have now to consider.
The doctors of the Church, and spiritual writers at various times, have suggested different derivations for the word "religion," each conveying a more or less correct idea of its meaning, but St. Thomas reminds us that, whichever we may prefer, the virtue of religion necessarily implies the subordination of man to God. We manifest this subordination by the various acts of worship and honor, which we offer to God as the first beginning and last end of all things. Some of these acts are altogether interior, such as the raising up of the mind and heart to God in prayer; whilst others demand an exterior manifestation. It is not simply for God's sake that His creatures shew Him honor and due reverence. Every such act implies a real blessing, the enjoyment of which is altogether our own. God is infinitely perfect in Himself, and therefore self-sufficing in every way, and creatures cannot add to His essential happiness. But by giving to the Creator that honor, praise and worship which is His due, the creature places itself and its whole being in subjection to Him, and in this submission ever finds its own true happiness and perfection.
Now we have it on the authority of the apostle that it is by the visible, sensible things of this material creation that the unseen things of God are brought home to the soul of man, for the work of his understanding depends on them to a very great extent, and, hence, man necessarily employs various outward and visible signs to stir up in his soul those interior acts which form the essence of religion, the first and most important of which we have already touched upon when we treated of prayer. It is not that God has any need of them, for He can read the heart; the necessity is altogether on the side of man, and is the outcome of that nature which leads him to manifest his thoughts by out ward signs; since, as we have pointed out, it is by means of outward signs and objects that he receives his knowledge. Hence St. Thomas concludes that the duty of offering sacrifice to God is laid upon us by the law of nature, or the dictates of our own reason, since it is that same power of understanding which prompts us to make use of exterior things, and offer them to God as a token of submission and obedience, and an acknowledgment of His universal dominion. For when man realizes the power of the Almighty Creator, and is filled with the sense of his own littleness and absolute dependence, the desire to express these feelings of reverence is a natural consequence, and impels him to have recourse to sacrifice. It is the highest act of worship of which the soul of a man is capable, and one which can be given to God alone; for it implies the total oblation of oneself, body and soul, to that infinite Being whom we thereby acknowledge to be our Creator and Master; it confesses Him to be the only Lord of life and death, the Supreme Ruler of all things.
The very earliest records of our race show us man engaged in this most solemn act of worship, for we read in Holy Scripture how Cain offered to God the fruits of the earth, and Abel the firstlings of the flock. The first act of those who were saved from the Deluge was to offer sacrifices to the Lord, and the history of the Patriarchs is full of similar pictures.
Then came the Law. It was promulgated amidst all the pomp and majesty of Sinai, in order to impress its importance upon a stiff-necked people, and, clear and distinct as is every part of it, the divine legislation with regard to sacrifice seems to stand out above all the rest in minuteness of detail. There were to be sacrifices for sin, sacrifices of thanksgiving, sacrifices of supplication, and they were not merely types and shadows and empty figures and ceremonies. They were ordained by the infinite wisdom of God to fulfill a double purpose. Sacrifice is, as we have said, a most solemn act of worship, and these multitudinous sacrifices of the Old Law were intended, first of all, to keep alive in the hearts of the chosen people the worship of the one true God. They were a public and official recognition of the great truth, that the whole earth and the fullness thereof belonged to God, and existed but for His glory, since He it was who had given life and being to all things. When he had gathered together all that was necessary for the building of the temple, David said:
Thine are the riches, and Thine is the glory, Thou hast dominion over all [...] all things are Thine, and we have but given Thee what we received of Thy hand.
But what follows from this? In all these acts of sacrifice, men were but offering God's gifts back to Him, and they were His lesser gifts, the lesser tokens of His goodness, never therefore really worthy of His acceptance. A more perfect gift was to come.
God so loved the world as to give His only-begotten Son; that whoso believeth in Him may not perish, but may have everlasting life.
Hence the best and most perfect of all sacrifices was that which was accomplished when the only-begotten Son of God offered Himself to His Father "as an odor of sweetness," and therefore the second purpose of the stately ceremonial of the Old Law was to shadow forth and prefigure this supreme and most complete sacrifice, in which it found its own fulfillment.
And how clear was the shadowing forth! How complete the fulfillment! We read of the solemn feasts of expiation, when a poor innocent animal was brought before the high-priest, that he might lay his hands upon its head, and humbly confess all the iniquities of the people, and then how it was driven forth into the wilderness to die, the innocent victim of others sins, and we are vividly reminded of One who took upon Himself the sins of the whole world, and atoned for them by His death, suffering "without the gate."
Or, again, there was the sacrifice of the paschal lamb, so marvelously eloquent and significant. It was to be a lamb without spot or blemish, offered up by the whole people; its innocent blood was to be sprinkled on the doors to ward off the vengeance of the destroying angel, and its flesh was to be eaten with unleavened bread. Who could consider this most touching rite in the after-light of the Gospel, and not see in it with St. Thomas the most perfect type of that divine Savior, the "Lamb of God," who died for us on the Cross and abides with us in the most Holy Sacrament?
The sacrifice of Jesus Christ is, therefore, at once the explanation and consummation of all other sacrifices. He came into this world to save and redeem a fallen race, and He accomplished this by the sacrifice of Himself on the cross of Calvary. It was a mighty work, and one which He alone could do, for being both God and man, He was able to make an infinite atonement for an infinite offence, and merit for man an infinite reward. This is the necessary consequence of the Incarnation. Because He was God, every act that He performed was the act of a divine Person, and was therefore infinitely meritorious; and because He was man He was able to die for us. The motive of the Incarnation, therefore, was our redemption, and at that most solemn moment when "the word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us," He entered upon His office as the "one great Mediator," at once the great High Priest of the world and its Victim. St. Augustine says:
How great is Thy love for us, tender Father, seeing that Thou hast not spared Thine only Son, but hast delivered Him up for us poor sinners [...] for us to Thee, both Victor and Victim, and therefore Victor because the Victim; for us to Thee, Priest and Sacrifice, and therefore Priest because the Sacrifice; making us of servants sons, by being born of Thee and serving us.
We do not think enough about this glorious office of our Savior, and our faith needs something of the proud loyalty of St. Paul when he speaks of "our great High Priest Jesus, the Son of God." For what is a priest but a mediator between God and man, inasmuch as by his office he is obliged to be their teacher, their mouth piece, and, in a sense, their victim? "For the lips of the priest shall keep knowledge, and they shall seek the law at his mouth," and he, in return, must speak to God for them, and "offer gifts and sacrifices for sins," and all this is pre-eminently the work of Jesus Christ.
But He was more than our priest. He was, as St. Augustine so beautifully puts it in the passage we have just quoted, Sacerdos et Sacrificium, et ideo Sacerdos quia Sacrificium. Try to realize what our Blessed Lord has done for us by His Incarnation. He was "delivered up for our sins," and so obtained their forgiveness; He obtains for us the grace we need, being "made for all that obey Him, the cause of eternal salvation," and lastly, it is only through His Blood that we can win eternal glory. But it is precisely because of our great need of these three favors that we have recourse to sacrifice, and that we see God in the Old Law ordaining sin-offerings and peace-offerings and holocausts, and therefore, concludes the Angelic Doctor, our Lord and Savior was not only our great High Priest, but likewise our Victim and Sacrifice in every sense of the word. And He is our Priest and Victim forever. It is true that He can no longer suffer and die as He suffered and died on Calvary, for "death shall no more have dominion over Him." But besides the act of sacrifice in itself, we have to consider in the work of a priest - the consummation of the sacrifice, which consists in the attainment of its fruits by those for whom it is offered, and in this sense our Lord's priesthood is eternal. St. Paul says:
Because He continueth for ever, He hath an everlasting priesthood, whereby He is also able to save for ever them that come to God by Him, always living to make intercession for us.
What a wonderful thought is this, and what happiness it ought to bring to us who have the grace of faith! The death of Jesus Christ on Calvary was the central point of all creation. Around it revolved the eternal designs of God, as well as the faith and hope and love of all the hearts of men; and the ages that had gone before, as well as those that still lay hidden in the unknown future, were blessed and sanctified and consecrated in that most solemn moment when God heard the loud cry of His incarnate Son, and saw Him, Priest and Victim, die upon the altar of the cross, crimsoned with His Blood.
He was wounded for our iniquities and bruised for our sins. [...] By His bruises we are healed [...] and the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all.
By the sacrifice of this divine Victim, the most ample atonement was made to God, and abundant grace was purchased for the cleansing of all sinful souls; and, therefore, all the sacrifices that had been the types of this were now fulfilled, and all necessity for future sacrifice was entirely abolished. But see the goodness of our loving God! When justice and mercy were satisfied, love yet demanded more, and "because of the exceeding love wherewith He loved us," He determined that His great sacrifice should endure until the end of time, not as a mere commemoration or as an empty ceremony, but in all its august and dread reality. Listen to the authoritative words of the Council of Trent:
Because of the imperfection of the Levitical priesthood [...] it was fitting, in accordance with the designs of the Father of mercies, that another Priest should arise who should be able to sanctify and make perfect all the elect, our Lord Jesus Christ Himself. And although He, our Lord and our God, would win our eternal redemption by the oblation of Himself to His Father in death, on the altar of the cross, yet by death, His priesthood was by no means to come to an end. Hence, at the Last Supper, on the night of His betrayal, He arranged to leave to His beloved spouse the Church, a visible sacrifice, such as our human nature requires, which should represent the sacrifice of suffering accomplished once for all on the cross, and be, at the same time, a perpetual memorial of Himself, and a means of applying His saving graces to our daily offences. Declaring Himself, therefore, a priest for ever according to the order of Melchisedech, He offered up His own Body and Blood to God the Father, under the appearances of bread arid wine, and then gave It under the same symbols, as food to His apostles, whom He then and there constituted priests of the New Testament. Moreover, by the words, Hoc facite in meam commemorationem, He commanded them and their successors in the priesthood to offer It up in like manner, as the Catholic Church has always believed and taught. This is that clean oblation which God Himself, by the mouth of the prophet Malachy, foretold should be offered up in every place, and which can in no wise be polluted by any wickedness on the part of those who offer it. This, in fine, is the sacrifice which was prefigured by all preceding sacrifices, since it contains all the good things signified by them, and is at once their completion and perfection.
In these words we have summed up, clearly, distinctly, and authoritatively, the teaching of the Catholic Church with regard to that special sacrifice of the New Testament which we call the Mass. We believe it to be the self-same sacrifice as that of Calvary, perpetuated and continued, the self-same Victim, the self-same priest, only the altar and manner of the sacrifice being changed.
There is the self-same Victim; for, as the holy Council says, it is the Body and Blood of the Incarnate God, under the appearances of bread and wine, so that, although the manner of the sacrifice is changed and there is no pain, no suffering, no agony of death, no violent shedding of blood, there are nevertheless all the constituents of a true sacrifice. A sacrifice consists in the oblation of any sensible thing, which undergoes some change by being given to God and consecrated to Him, by a duly appointed minister, and the essence of the Eucharistic sacrifice lies in that mysterious change by which Jesus Christ becomes present under the sacramental veils, and offers Himself to God, His heavenly Father.
It is the equivalent of His death on the cross, for He becomes present on the altar as a helpless Victim, in a state which is a sort of death, and this change is sufficient for a true sacrifice. When His Mother Mary and the weeping apostles adored His lifeless Body swathed in the wrappings of the grave, He was not more helpless or more passive than when He lies on the corporal, hidden under the white veils of the sacred host. Moreover, just as His precious Blood was drained from His most holy Body on the altar of the cross, so on our altars the Body and Blood are mystically separated by that twofold consecration which is necessary to complete the sacrifice.
|Adoration of the Mystic Lamb|
Jan van Eyck (1390-1441)
But if the victim is the same, so also is the priest. When our Lord Himself offered this mystical sacrifice for the first time, the very words which He used called attention to the act of sacrifice: "This is My Body which is given for you; this is the Chalice, the New Testament in My Blood which is shed for you;" and then by a further exercise of His almighty power He bestowed upon His apostles a share in the character and attributes of His priesthood, and commanded them to offer the same sacrifice in remembrance of Him. They shared His power, therefore, in the sense of being its administrators and His instruments; and so, at the solemn moment of the most holy Eucharistic sacrifice, the individual priest who stands at the altar seems to disappear, and for the moment He clothes Himself with the awful personality of the Son of God. "This is MY Body," he says; "This is the chalice of MY Blood." The words are the words of Jesus Christ, the act is the act of Jesus Christ, the power which effects the miracle is the power of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate God. What a privilege, then, is ours to possess in our midst such a manifestation of God's power and wisdom and love, such an inexhaustible fountain of richest graces. By means of the holy Mass we can offer to God a perfect worship, and pay our debts to Him, to the very last farthing, infinite though they may be. We owe Him a debt of praise and adoration.
Think of the ages that passed over the world before the Incarnation, the long centuries during which the earth had never once been able to give to its Creator an act of worship worthy of Him. For the Law was laid upon it from the beginning, "Praise the Lord according to the multitude of His greatness," and His greatness is infinite in every way. The angels had veiled their faces in adoration; patriarchs and prophets and holy kings had wept and prayed and multiplied their sacrifices, and God stooped to accept them, simply because their very insufficiency had drawn from the bosom of the Godhead that cry of the eternal Word, Ecce venio - Behold, I come - a promise to be fulfilled on Calvary, and then to go on re-echoing until the end of time on every Catholic altar.
We remember our manifold sins and their appalling consequences, and we realize that we owe to God a debt of satisfaction which far exceeds ten thousand talents, and which we can never hope to pay if abandoned to ourselves. But He who so patiently bowed His thorn-crowned head in death on the cross, by the unspeakable dignity of the Godhead which was one with Him, by the extent and intensity of the sufferings through which He passed, no less than by the exceeding love with which He welcomed them and endured them, offered to God an atonement infinitely surpassing the debts of a thousand sinful worlds. And that same sacrifice of propitiation is daily placed at our disposal in the holy Mass, for there we are once again face to face with Jesus, the Mediator of the New Testament, and "the sprinkling of blood which speaketh better than that of Abel." He pleads for us, and intercedes for us, and obtains for us not only the forgiveness of our sins, but likewise the many graces and helps of which we stand so much in need.
What, then, must be our thanksgiving? When we think of all God's gifts to us gifts in the order of nature, our life, our health, our strength, our friends, our homes, our many joys, past, present and to come gifts in the order of grace, our faith and its priceless consequences, we are forced to ask with the royal prophet: Quid retribuam - "What shall I give back to the Lord for all he hath given to me?" And then hearken to the inspired answer: Calicem salutaris accipiam - "I will take the chalice of salvation, and I will call upon the name of the Lord." At the best, we can but lift to heaven sin-stained heads and sin-stained hearts, we can but give to God the remnants of our spoiled and wasted lives; but when the priest in the Mass offers up in our name the chalice of salvation, he offers to God the praise and thanksgiving of Him, by Whom God has given to us all these good things, and through Whom and in Whom likewise, He receives all honor and glory.
Through Christ our Lord, by whom, Lord, Thou dost ever create, sanctify, quicken, bless and give us all these good things. Through Him and with Him and in Him, is to Thee, God the Father Almighty in the unity of the Holy Ghost, all honor and glory.
For when the awful mystery is accomplished, and Jesus is transfigured before us, though so very differently from that transfiguration on the mountain top in the days of His mortal life, yet faith is quick to see His glory, veiled beneath the whiteness of His sacramental garments, and hears from out the cloud the voice of the eternal Father:
This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.
What, then, should be our devotion to the Holy Mass? What should be the place in our thoughts and in our lives given to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament? It was at the foot of the altar that St. Thomas found the secret of all holiness and purity and intellectual greatness, for holiness of soul and cleanness of heart and true knowledge go hand in hand, and God is the giver of these as of all other good gifts. But He only gives them to those who seek Him and prefer Him before all His gifts. "Well hast thou written of Me, Thomas," said the voice of Jesus to the great Angelical; "well hast thou written of Me! What shall be thy reward?" "Lord," replied the saint, "naught, save Thyself!"
May God bestow on us something of this spirit.