The Holy Eucharist

 

Parish Priest: Fr Martin Kelly

Email: martin.kelly@dioceseofleeds.org.uk

St Mary's RC Church,
Gibbet Street,
Halifax,
West Yorkshire,
HX1 5DH

Tel: 01422 352141

St Alban's RC Church,
Huddersfield Road,
Halifax,
West Yorkshire,
HX3 0AZ

Tel: 01422 352141

The Eucharist as Sacrifice

Amongst all the different highlights of Holy Week every year, the Mass of Maundy Thursday evening is one that inevitably stands out. It is one of the most moving celebrations of the year. There is always a real sense that whether we are in a tiny chapel or a great cathedral, in spirit we are, as a church, gathering in the upper room of Jerusalem to do again what the Lord once did. The correspondence seems so exact – “The day before he suffered, that is to-day” the priest says. And, of course, the last supper was, in fact, the first Mass.

Now, we have been to Mass many times, and constant repetition has made us immensely familiar with what the central action of the Mass is. But at the same time as we have become familiar with it, we have lost almost completely a vivid sense of the strangeness of what we do. I want to remind you just for a moment of how bewildering Our Lord’s actions at the last supper must have seemed at the time to the apostles. Forgive me for repeating what we all know:

While they were at supper Our Lord took bread, said the blessing, broke it and gave it to his disciples saying,  “Take this all of you and eat it, this is my Body.”
In the same way he took the cup of wine and giving it to his disciples he said, “Take this all of you and drink it, this is the cup of my blood.”

It is obvious, when you reflect, how confusing these words must have been. For a man to ask you to eat his body and drink his blood is macabre in itself. But also there is an enormous tension between what we are being told and what we can see with our eyes. “This – a piece of bread – is my body” appears to be nonsense – literally it makes no sense. “This – a cup of wine – is my blood” is just as strange. But, perfectly naturally, we pull in elements of our religious instruction to make sense of it. It is, try as we might, hard to recover the sense of utter confusion which the apostles must have experienced on that first Maundy Thursday.

Why is it that we cannot recover it? Because between Maundy Thursday in the year 33 AD and August 2012 something has happened which forever changes our perception. That thing which has happened is not just hundreds of thousands of Masses repeated and repeated until we got used to the idea. No – that thing is Good Friday.

Imagine if the words of the last supper had, in fact, been spoken on Good Friday. What had appeared nonsense on Maundy Thursday would have made perfect sense. If Jesus stripped and nailed to the cross and raised high above the crowd had shouted “This is my body” there would have been no confusion. If Jesus bleeding from the countless wounds, great and small of his passion had said “This is my blood” anyone would understand. In fact Our Lord’s words at the last supper can only make sense to us when we have seen Good Friday. That is why the Apostles on Maundy Thursday could not have understood them and why Christian people ever since always have. At every Mass celebrated in the history of the church since Good Friday the image of the body and blood of Jesus has been in the minds and hearts of Christian people, just as above their altars the same image was before their eyes in the crucifix. At every Mass the miracle has taken place of bread and wine being transformed for us into the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ. At every Mass his sacrifice is made present for us again.

The last supper was, of course, the first Mass. But despite what I said to you earlier about how moving the evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper is to us, I want to suggest to you that it is a mistake to think of the Mass as a re-enactment of the last supper, as we are often tempted to do. In fact, the last supper and the Masses we celebrate to-day are both the re-enactment and re-presentation of another event, the passion and death of Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary. The first Mass on Maundy Thursday was looking forward to Good Friday, our Masses to-day look back to Good Friday – neither has any meaning at all without Good Friday.

I don’t know whether any of you saw Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ”. A lot of people who did have commented to me on the violence of the scourging etc… but I haven’t heard anybody mention one thing which I thought was beautifully done in that film and that was that at the moment of crucifixion shots of the cross being dropped into place and the nails piercing Our Lord’s hands were interspersed with flashbacks to the Last Supper – the “This is my body,” “This is my blood.” That seems to me a marvellously graphic illustration of what we’re thinking about. The Eucharist is first, last and always a sacrifice, the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.

It occurs to me that if we are going to understand all this fully, we need to be clear about the importance of the idea of sacrifice in general. It is no accident that sacrifice has formed a part of the religious life of all humanity from the earliest history. The idea of sacrifice is central to most religion and it is central to ours. I hope you will forgive me if I seem to digress a little to speak about it.

I think it is possible to say that the starting point of all religion is the sin of humanity. As Catholics we believe in original sin and a human race which is fallen from grace, imperfect, in some way separated from the way God intended us to be and therefore in some way separated from God himself. What is religion? At its most basic it is the effort of the man who is aware of that gulf between himself and God to mend the breach. Our prayers are an attempt to reach out to God across the gap which our sinfulness has created. Our good deeds are an attempt to be pleasing to him and so on. ..

The most ancient and venerable of all these manifestations of religion is sacrifice, where man attempts to offer something to God to make up for the offence he has committed. You know, of course, that in ancient times this very much meant animal sacrifice. The pagan religions of the ancient world were almost all religions of blood sacrifice. The Jewish religion in the time of Our Lord was a religion of blood sacrifice. Bulls, doves, goats, lambs were sacrificed in enormous numbers. The temple of Jerusalem was not to the synagogues as a cathedral is to a parish church – not at all – it was essentially different, a place for the offering of sacrifice.

The Jews took this business of sacrifice very seriously. They selected the best animals of their flocks, they had inspectors at the temple to make sure each victim was as perfect as possible. They knew that God couldn’t be palmed off with some poor old scabby, scrofulous, three-legged specimen. But even so the realisation gradually grew, and we find it very much in evidence in the prophets, that however perfect the victim, however great the quantity of victims, it is all in vain. God doesn’t drink the blood of lambs, and the sacrificial offerings of a sinful humanity are therefore useless.

There is no victim worth offering in fact, until you come to the person of Jesus Christ, God and Man, the Lamb of God, the acceptable sacrifice.
In Jesus Christ, you see, what has happened is that God has provided humanity with the perfect victim, his own Son.
As Man, Jesus is capable of offering himself on behalf of the human race.
As God’s Son he is in turn a victim more than worthy of being accepted.
The death of Jesus on the cross, therefore is the sacrifice which at long last takes away the sins of the world – the great moment of our salvation.

And you have these wonderful incidents of the passion of Jesus, which underline for us the sacrificial nature of his death. He dies at the festival where the Passover lambs of the old religion are being slaughtered. He is the Passover lamb of the new religion. When he dies the veil of the temple which had so often been sprinkled with the blood of victims by the priests of the old religion is torn in two from top to bottom, the same veil which once marked the physical division between the God who lived in the Holy of Holies of the temple and the world of humanity. The division is over, we are redeemed, heaven is opened to us, and so on, all the ways we can think of to describe the marvel of our salvation.

And, having finished that little digression, when does all of this become real for us? In the Holy Mass which is the self same sacrifice as that of calvary.  In the Holy Mass:

  • The human race, in the person of the priest, who represents Jesus Christ, offers up eternally, this worthy sacrifice to God.
  • And in the same instant that humanity sends its offering up to God, God sends down His most wonderful gift to humanity- the real presence of His Son in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar.
  • When we receive Holy Communion, Jesus becomes part of us and we become part of him. The gap caused by sin is banished. The oneness between God and humanity which is the point of his sacrifice becomes real in me – or at least as real as it can be this side of heaven.

You can see why, in the old saying, “it is the Mass that matters”. In terms of our religion the Mass has it all – it is the sacrifice of our salvation. A generation which has forgotten speaks about going to church instead of going to Mass. It has lost sight of something tremendously important, of something which goes to the heart of the Catholic religion.

It is interesting to note that a great deal of the present Holy Father’s liturgical writings deal with precisely this question. It is possible to emphasise the meal form of the Mass to such an extent that the essential sacrificial meaning is clouded or obscured. Many well-meaning people have done so in the past. Many impoverished understandings of the Holy Eucharist spring precisely from such trends.

Masses where everyone sits around a table serving as an altar, Chapels turned into a sort of dining room etc… are surely mistakes. It is particularly important that we get this right at the present time when circumstances mean that many parishes are for a greater or lesser time without a priest, and people very frequently come to think of communion services as reasonable substitutes for the Mass itself. The Mass is not a communion service. The meal is the outward form of the Mass, but the Mass is incomprehensible as a meal, its meaning is sacrifice and we must never forget it.