The Holy Mass Part IV: Signifying Christ’s Eternal Sacrifice

This Sunday’s reflection is the fourth in a series of meditations on the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, with specific references to the Ancient Rite of the Mass, the Usus Antiquior. There are many books in circulation that illustrate the theological and spiritual cohesion of the Ancient Rite of the Mass. It is the Rite that sustained and nourished the spiritual life of countless saints and which gave birth to Christian culture. It is my hope that these meditations may help us to appreciate and to understand that the ultimate purpose of the sacred liturgy is to form our souls in the beauty of holiness; so that we in our time, like those who have gone before us may be ‘the aroma of Christ to God…a fragrance from life to life’ (2 Cor. 2:15-16) for God’s greater glory and the salvation of souls.         

For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world (Jn. 6:33).

As we listen to Our Lord’s Eucharistic discourse, He Himself teaches us about the Eucharist, the Sacrament prefigured not only in the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fish but also in the life and worship of the Jewish people, specifically in the worship given to God in the Temple in Jerusalem. In our meditations on the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, last Sunday we considered the function of the Offertory and specifically the Offertory prayers as a preparation for the Eucharistic Prayer or Canon of the Mass. This is the priestly prayer which brings about the re-presentation of Our Lord’s Passion and Death on the Cross. It is called the Canon – which means rule, because it is the unchangeable heart of the Mass. In the Extraordinary Form of the Mass this is literally true because the Roman Canon, as it is also sometimes called, is the only Eucharistic prayer. Before we do so, let us be mindful that the sacred liturgy in all its varied aspects but most especially in the reception of God’s Incarnate Word in the Holy Eucharist is truly nourishment for our human nature: our mind, our heart and soul. Hence Our Lord’s declaration: I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty (Jn. 6: 35).

The Canon is recited by the priest alone, who acts in persona Christi, that is, in the person of Christ, because he will speak the words of Our Lord Himself at the Consecration of the offerings. Especially at the Altar the priest is Our Lord’s sacerdotal or priestly icon. The priest has to be the self-sacrificing image of Christ the High Priest. In the Extraordinary Form of the Mass this is especially evident in the orientation of the priest at the Altar. He offers the sacrifice facing God or coram Deo. Although it has become customary to have the priest facing the people in the Ordinary Form of the Mass, the rubrics or instructions in the Missal promulgated after the Second Vatican Council are such that they presuppose that the priest is offering Mass facing God. It is not a question of the priest turning his back on the people but of the priest in a sense, disappearing into the Holy Sacrifice when he faces ad orientem, to use another ancient expression; and so he offers the sacrifice with his face invisible to the people. Jesus alone is the centre, the one Sun whose light illumines all the worshippers, including the priest. In this sense, the ancient liturgy places at once all the emphasis and none of it upon the priest; he is the most visible and the most invisible, central and at the same time peripheral (Peter Kwasniewski, Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis, p. 75). In the Tridentine Mass the Priest prays the Canon or Eucharistic Prayer with a reverent whisper. Like Our Lord Himself, the priest is on mount Calvary and he re-presents the Sacrifice that has redeemed the world. This is why diverse authors have spoken of the priesthood as the most sublime, the most arduous, the most demanding of all vocations – [and] that is how it should be; in fact, it cannot be otherwise (Peter Kwasniewski, Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis, p. 75).

During the Canon it is especially evident that the faithful do not simply attend Mass but assist at Mass, because it is crucial that you add your faith and devotion to the priestly prayer. Indeed, this pattern is at work in the life of any given parish as the faithful are united with and assist the work of the parish priest or priests. Our loving adoration of God becomes love towards our neighbour, in this order and pattern. This charity extends beyond time and place. The Canon contains a remembrance of both the living and of the deceased. The pause that is observed by the priest at this point enables him to remember the specific person or intention of the Mass; and it enables you also to pray for your own loved ones. The Council of Trent says of our personal intentions as we assist at Holy Mass that …no other work can be performed by the faithful so holy and divine as this tremendous Mystery. This is why it is no exaggeration to say that the Mass is everything!

Especially during the Canon, the rubrics, that is to say the directions given for the action of the sacred ministers, are very specific. The manner in which the priest holds his hands over the offerings, the signs of the Cross and so forth; some of the gestures have their origin in the Jewish liturgical practices of the blood sacrifices of the Old Law. During the Offertory the bread and wine which will become Our Lord’s Most Precious Body and Blood are lifted up in a gesture of offering. According to Jewish tradition, all ceremonial offerings were lifted up – that is, they were first raised up and offered to God, then lowered and ‘waved’ to the north, south, east and west, making a cross. This was true of all offerings, from the sacrificial animals offered in the Temple to the bread and wine Jesus shared with His disciples during the Last Supper (Lisa Bergman, Treasure and Tradition, The Ultimate guide to the Latin Mass, p. 34). In the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, the priest is instructed to perform this very action and the offerings are blessed with the Sign of the Cross, as well as other sacred actions that reflect the awesome Mystery of the Mass.

The Mass is truly the most beautiful thing this side of Heaven; and in its celebration the Church is united through prayer and good works. This union includes both the pope and the local bishop and this is why both are named during the Canon. During Holy Mass, all of us are united in the worship of the living God in Christ, the Eternal High Priest whose saving Sacrifice has redeemed the world. Our devout participation at the Sacrifice of the Cross enables us to make intercession for world’s salvation. St. Alphonsus Liguori whose feast is kept on this date, observed that the Mass is the best and most beautiful thing in the Church…That is why the devil has always sought to deprive the world of the Mass, through the action of heretics, making them precursors of the Antichrist. The deprivation of the Mass during this last year has been a sober reminder that we are engaged in a spiritual struggle that is by no means over; and that we must do all that we can to fortify ourselves for the challenges and struggles that await us as we endeavour above all to remain faithful to the Gospel and to continue to worship God in spirit and in truth.

Despite efforts to restrict access to Sacraments on account of the pandemic and more recently, legislation enacted to restrict access to the Ancient Rite of the Mass, there is a notable interest in the traditional liturgy, especially among young Catholics. The spirit of sacrifice that pervades the Traditional liturgy is perhaps its most attractive attribute spiritually speaking, because it speaks to the essence of Christian life. This may in part explain the appeal of the Traditional liturgy to so many young people and young families who recognise that only the spirit of sacrifice can make our lives meaningful and purposeful. The hedonism of so much that is characteristic of modern culture is exhausting; and the tranquility of order that the Traditional liturgy communicates fulfills the deepest yearnings of the soul that yearns for the living waters that flow from the Sacred Heart of our Saviour. Fortified and nourished by this Sacrifice, we go out from our communities of faith into a broken world – a world in need of the full power and majesty of Our Lord’s redemptive sacrifice. The Bread of Life that we receive at every Mass is not the bread of sinners, not ordinary bread but the fruit of Our Lord’s Redemptive Sacrifice. Nothing can replace our physical presence at the Altar when this Sacrifice is re-presented here and now for our salvation. What we reverently receive in a spirit of adoration and profound humility is the bread of God … which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world (Jn. 6:33). May we never cease to hunger for this Bread.