Project Canterbury

The Priests’ Convention

Philadelphia, April 29-30, 1924

From The American Church Monthly, June, 1924, Vol. XV, No. 4.

Edited by Selden Peabody Delany, D.D.

Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Diocese of New York, 2012

The Holy Sacrifice

THERE are comparatively few parishes left in our American Church, except in certain sections of the South, which do not have a Celebration of the Holy Communion at least every Sunday. Saints' days are similarly observed with a regularity which must astonish our immediate spiritual ancestors. Church organizations which formerly were content with Morning Prayer now take it for granted that their deliberations will begin with a Celebration. Special groups mark their meetings with a corporate Communion. On every side there is to be seen such a greater appreciation of the Blessed Sacrament as rejoices the hearts of Catholics, and gives them encouragement that the Church will reclaim her full heritage of Eucharistic faith and practice.

Whether this frequency of Celebrations carries with it a developed belief in the Real Presence and the Eucharistic Sacrifice is a question. Often it seems as if it does not, but those who encourage it are playing with the fire of God. Sooner or later the hearts and minds of those who are thus brought frequently into our Lord's Presence will be touched with the divine flame. They will experience the reality of the Presence and begin to grasp the significance of the Sacrifice. If there are those who wish to limit people's sacramental conceptions to a subjective commemoration of our Lord's death, they must resist the tendency to frequent Celebrations. They must keep the Blessed Sacrament away from the people, allowing them only infrequent approach, and so minimizing the divine impact. If our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament is given a chance, He can do His own converting of honest souls, and awaken faith with an efficacy never to be reached by preaching. In those who accept Him, He can inflame implicit faith into a joyous adherence to the worship and teaching of the Catholic Church.

The trend of things seems fairly settled. It is most unlikely that there will be a reversion to the old custom of very infrequent Celebrations. On the contrary, we have recently been told by one whose orthodoxy is less accurate than his observation [288/289] that "during the last fifty years, through the whole Church, the interest has travelled from the service and the sermon to the altar. A very large section of Churchmen frankly accept the name Sacramentarian. A considerable section hesitates at the term but would be afraid to decline it, and in any case acknowledge it by their actual practice. The whole movement of the Church is toward that resting place." We cannot reasonably follow the author of these lines in his further exhortation to avoid dogmatic teaching in regard to the sacraments. Their use without knowledge as to their purpose and content can lead only to superstition in practice and error in regard to the person of Jesus Christ. There is the greatest need of clear teaching. The fact that "the interest has traveled from the service (by which we suppose Morning Prayer is meant) and the sermon to the altar" creates a great responsibility upon those who know what the altar means. The lifting up of our Blessed Lord at the altars of the Church, without regard to the degree of faith which dictates it, or the extent of ceremonial with which it is presented, is putting people into contact with Him: out of that experience will come faith in the Real Presence and the Eucharistic Sacrifice. It is our part to be at hand with teaching which will make that faith secure, and fortify minds and wills against the uncertainties of emotions and the distractions of current misbeliefs.

The present purpose, then, is to study how best to present the significance of the familiar service of Holy Communion as the Christian Sacrifice in whose offering the faithful share. It would seem that such a study demands primarily three considerations: first, the presence of Christ in the Sacrament: second, the true meaning of sacrifice: third, the union of human souls with Christ.

I. The consideration of the presence of Christ comes first, because the sacrifice depends upon what there is in the Sacrament. If there is nothing but bread and wine, materially offered, there is no universal applicability in such an offering, nor any actual connection with Christ's redemptive work. There is no possibility of any true sacrifice. But the Catholic Faith holds that there is in the Sacrament the real presence of the Body and Blood of Christ, and that because of this presence, there is a sacrifice.

[290] By virtue of divine power exercised in the Consecration, the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ. This means that His sacred humanity is actually present under such conditions as accord with the present state of His incarnate life. The perfect humanity which was indwelt by God the Son has passed through the conditions of earthly life, has died on the Cross and risen again to the conditions of an ascended, glorified and spiritual life. As these conditions are on a plane which transcends human experience, our conceptions of them are inevitably inadequate, and our language still more so. But we may say that categories of time and space do not hinder Christ's divine operations, and it is consistent with His unimaginable freedom that while eternally present in heaven, this risen and glorified Christ should be locally present on the altars of His Church.

This presence of His sacred humanity is real in the sense that it is the true presence of the essential being of Christ. Where He is at all, there He must be in all that He is,—body, soul, divinity,—Whole Christ. The presence is spiritual, not in the pantheistic sense in which anything intangible is called spiritual, but in the sense that it is the corporal presence of a Body existing under conditions unlimited by the ascertained laws of matter. Furthermore, this presence is not something hovering about, associated in a more or less vague way with the elements of bread and wine. It is a presence of Christ's Body in the elements; so that after Consecration every particle of bread and every drop of wine is to receive the most scrupulous care and reverence as being His Body and Blood. Christ present in the elements under their form of bread and wine is to be adored. This miracle of God's mercy does not depend upon the faith or spiritual perception of the human beings who may be present. The deity of Christ in the days of Galilee and Jerusalem did not depend upon recognition either by disciples or enemies; it was an eternal fact quite independent of human appreciation. So Christ's presence in the Sacrament is an independent fact, neither produced by full devotion nor banished by unbelief; it stands as the result of divine activity, unconditioned by the mental states of created human beings.

We assert then, according to the Catholic Faith, that in the [290/291] Sacrament of the altar, we have Jesus Christ, risen and glorified, present in the fullness of His person, in the perfection of His incarnate life.

II. The consideration of the true meaning of sacrifice leads us to realize that sacrifice is primarily the dedication of their life to Almighty God by His creatures. It was performed by the use of suitable symbols, and invested with formal ritual, so that it became an action expressing interior homage and self-surrender, cultivating the filial fellowship possible between the divine Father and his obedient children. Such relations between God and man were joyous and happy. Access to God was not restrained by defect in man; he was fulfilling his purpose in proportion to his natural and supernatural endowments. Then came sin, causing the loss of supernatural endowment, disordering his natural gifts, erecting a barrier in the approach to God. Man still owed God the homage of his life, but the relations between them were so complicated by sin that such homage could no longer be paid by the simplicity of the original offerings. A new element was needed to express the sense of guilt and shame, and to placate God because of sin. The only thing which could even inadequately supply this need was the actual slaying of life; life as a sacrifice must be offered through death. So vast were the complications caused by sin, so constant was the need of propitiation that the original idea of sacrifice as the offering of life became almost submerged in the idea of sacrifice as the offering of death. In the sacrificial system of the Old Covenant, the offerings which expressed life were so inconspicuous that they must have seemed incidental to worshippers, while the outstanding thing was the death of the victim. Surely this was the mind of God. It was His purpose to teach men that the penalty of sin could be expiated only through death, and since man did not have the power over his own life, he must symbolize it in the death of an appointed victim. Man must offer sacrifice, under the conditions and in the terms which would keep constantly before him the fact that his bounden homage of life is not fit to offer without a cleansing he is incapable of procuring. Yet the primary principle remains: that sacrifice is the offering of life.

Here was a problem past human solving; how to offer a life which would be an adequate act of homage, and at the same time [291/292] an adequate dealing with sin. God solved it, because "He loved us and sent His only begotten Son to be the propitiation for our sins." The Incarnation provided the life. "It was a meeting of full Godhead and complete Manhood in one indivisible Self, and therefore it constituted Jesus Christ a true Mediator, who makes God accessible in our plane, and who at the same time affords an acceptable standing for man before God. God-incarnate is the longed-for Daysman, who can lay His hands on both, and can satisfy both God and man." Our Lord Jesus Christ as God possesses the essence of eternal being, and is the manifestation of all divine attributes. He is "the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature: - - - - all things were created by Him and for Him, and He is before all things, and by Him all things consist." From Him flows the vast stream of human existence, and to Him it must return. In Him "the entire sum of being fulfills one continuous purpose, answering to the divine will." So He makes the proclamation, "I am the Life." The Incarnate Word offers the perfect homage of divine life to His Father. Our Lord Jesus Christ as man exhibited life in its fullest human aspect, "by which each individual is enabled to satisfy its own law of progress and to minister to the whole of which it a part." In this manifestation of His humanity was found life as it should be, without flaw, completely fulfilling the purpose of God. Without reservation, He could say of His human nature, "I am the Life." The offering of such a life would be a perfect sacrifice. He so expressed it. "My meat is to do the will of Him that sent Me, and to finish His work." The homage owed to God was perfectly paid by this sinless life. Yet our Lord's sinlessness did not dispense Him from making His sacrifice after the manner of His brethren. He had taken upon Him their nature, and that meant the penalty of death. He had gathered into Himself all human life, broken, incomplete, rebellious, sinful: and He had to take that life through death that it might be cleansed and given back to men for their offering to God. In no other way could the sacrifice be offered. Because His personality was divine, He could dispose of His human life as He would. He said of it, "I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again." He did lay it down, and that death was the redemption of the world. It was the Atonement [292/293] between God and Man, which removed the barrier erected by sin. Christ died to deliver man from the slavery of sin. He shed His blood that it might become the basis of a new covenant in which the remission of sins holds first place, and is followed by the bestowal of supernatural grace. He made "the full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world." So the extent of this way of offering sacrifice makes it seem as if it were the whole of sacrifice.

Yet our Lord did not dissociate His death from His life. In the three-fold predictions of His passion to His disciples, He ended each with the announcement of His resurrection. In numerous other sayings, He indicated the same thing. Especially we may quote the saying, "Therefore doth My Father love Me, because I lay down My life that I might take it again," where He bases divine acceptance for His human work on the recovery of the life laid down. Always there was the conception of a continuous life, which must pass through death to be carried in triumph to the glory which He had with the Father before the world was. The resurrection and its consequences were the completion of the sacrifice. By His resurrection He overcame death, and established in His human nature a new source of purified life which was to be communicated to those in union with Him. By His ascension, He took His human nature into the permanent conditions of heavenly life, making it universally accessible, and beginning the endless presentation of the completed sacrifice to His Father. This is made clearer when considered as the fulfillment of the Old Covenant sacrifices. In some of these, the characteristic action was not the slaying of the victim, but the lifting up of the slain victim before God. So Christ in His resurrection and ascension lifts up Himself, "the Lamb as it had been slain," before God. In the sin-offering of the Day of Atonement, the characteristic action was the entering of the high-priest into the Holy of Holies with the blood of the victim,—the blood always meaning the life. This sacrifice, as the great national purification, was the particular antitype of world redemption. So Christ completes His sacrifice by entering "into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us." The great High-Priest, the Sacred Victim, He "ever liveth to make intercession," [293/294] offering in His glorified human nature the homage due His Father through a perfect and complete sacrifice. The sacrifice is not complete in the sense of having an end and ceasing, but complete in the sense of providing forever all that is needed in the way of sacrifice. What our Lord began on earth, He continues in heaven. His life, taken through death, is the eternal sacrifice. Where He is, there is the offering of the sacred humanity which by the Incarnation gathered up the human race, and by the Atonement redeemed it. Jesus Christ, "the same yesterday, and today and forever," is the perfect sacrifice.

III. In these thoughts, we have not been able to exclude our third consideration, namely, the idea of man's union with Christ. Our Lord's mediatorial work cannot be considered apart from it. Yet we need to emphasize it somewhat by itself. We must keep in mind that our Lord is the Pattern Man; that His humanity is general, not individual. His Divine Ego transcends the isolating limitations of human individuals. "Because in Christ God wears our nature He become a real Head of our race, a proper representative of those whose nature He has assumed." What He was and did in the Incarnation is not something apart from any individual, but something in which each being shares by virtue of the mere fact that he is human. His Atonement was an objective accomplishment, available for every man because of the mutual sharing of humanity. It does not depend upon acceptance for its validity, although it depends upon individual acceptance for its application. For those who accept the Atonement, the idea of union with Christ's life gains at once advanced significance, because we are brought by the sacrament of Baptism into the mystical Body of Christ, which is His Church. Christians in a new and unique sense are in union with Christ, because they are incorporated into a divine organism permeated with the life and vital energy of Christ Himself. It is theoretically possible and it ought to be morally possible for every Christian to say with S. Paul, "The life which I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God, Who loved me and gave Himself for me." We share in the Incarnation by being born. We share in the benefits of the Incarnation by being born again. For us as sinners, the greatest of these benefits is forgiveness of sins through the Atonement, and the possibility, because we are in [294/295] Christ, of acceptance before God through His merits and mediation. It is no mere figure of speech with S. Paul, when he makes the phrase "in Christ" one of his most characteristic expressions. Apart from Christ we are nothing. As His members, "through Him, we have access by one Spirit unto the Father." The idea of union with Christ is fundamental to every conception of Catholic theology, and to the proper development of Catholic life and worship.

IV. The gist of the three considerations which have been amplified is this: first, that Jesus Christ is present after the bread and wine have been consecrated: second, that Jesus Christ is the perfect sacrifice: third, that baptized Christians share in the life of Jesus Christ. What are we to gather from them? Surely that the action through which Jesus Christ comes and remains under sacramental veils is a proper sacrifice, because it establishes an identity of Person with the one perfect sacrifice offered by our Lord on earth, presented and pleaded in heaven. So keen has always been the Church's realization of the consequences of this action that it has been enshrined in a rich accompaniment, of teaching, prayer and praise,—all of which, by Catholic consent, we have learned to call the Mass. Since the purpose of the whole action is to effect the presence of the divine Victim Who is to be offered to God and fed upon by the soul, it is natural to single out this great purpose and name the action from it. To speak of the Holy Sacrifice, or the Sacrifice of the Mass, is to give proper consideration to the heaven-ward aspect of the action, to pay attention to purpose and cause, rather than to personal benefit.

The identity of the Holy Sacrifice of the Altar with the Sacrifice of the Cross and the heavenly Sacrifice is not one of mere similarity. As far as conditions are concerned, there is dissimilarity. Instead of Calvary and a blood-stained cross for our Lord's throne, there is a quiet altar. Instead of the unutterable glories of the right hand of God, there are the imperfections of a temple made with hands. Instead of the visible suffering Christ, at Whose feet His mother could weep, or the glorious risen Christ revealed to S. Stephen, there is the invisible Christ veiled under the form of bread and wine. The identity rises above the question of sense perceptions, and centers in the Person concerned. [295/296] The same Lord Jesus Christ Who is in heaven, is on the altar in His risen and glorified Human Nature. And it is the same Person, Who in His human nature died on the Cross. Because it is the same Person in each instance, it is the same sacrifice.

Perhaps we might describe the identity as one of fusion. Nothing could be more dangerous than illustrations in dealing with divine realities, but with all due allowance for possible misapplications and misleading deductions, let us imagine a vast equilateral triangle. One point of the base is Calvary; the other point of the base is the earthly altar. This gives us the impressions of the two aspects of the sacrifice which have their places in time. The sides of the triangle extend into heaven, so that its apex is the heavenly presentation and pleading of the sacrifice. Now imagine that from the apex a power operates which shortens the sides and base of the triangle at an equal speed. Ultimately, the points of the base and the apex will coalesce, and become one point. So did our Lord take up into heaven the sacrifice of the Cross: so do Calvary and the Altar meet: and so does He take up into heaven the Sacrifice of the Altar. We are to remember that our earthly sacrifice does not bring heaven down to us, but takes us up into heaven. (This is expressed in the symbolic language of the Canon of the Western Church,—language early formulated, and appearing in the Canon since about the year 400; "Humbly we beseech Thee, Almighty God, command these (i. e. the Holy gifts) to be borne by the hands of Thy angel to Thy Altar on high in the presence of Thy divine majesty.") This is what we mean by an identity of fusion. The sacrifice of the Mass is the presentation of the same offering as the sacrifice of Calvary and the sacrifice in heaven. The identity is further emphasized by realizing that not only does the Incarnate Son of God provide Himself as the Victim but also that He is the Priest. At the sacrifice of the Cross, the Priest was Jesus Christ. The Priest at the right hand of God is our Lord Jesus Christ. The Priest at the earthly altar is our Lord Jesus Christ. He condescends to use human hands and a human voice, but that human priest has no power of his own; he is only an ordained instrument for the great High-Priest to use. It is our Lord Jesus Christ who really consecrates the bread and wine, and who really offers the Sacrifice.

V. [297] Trying to realize thus to the full the aspect of divine action in the Holy Sacrifice, it is still necessary to consider our part in it as priests or laymen who are members of Christ's mystical Body, and the way in which it makes it possible for us to fulfill our spiritual obligations. We too owe God the homage of our lives, but those lives are stained with sin and not fit to offer. There is not for us now even an animal sacrifice by which we might symbolize our plight. Yet sacrifice must be made by each of us, and because we are in union with Christ, sharing in His divine life, we can offer His sacrifice as our own. It is through Him that we can make an acceptable oblation to God. In the Catholic religion, this is not left a vague idea, but is made a practical reality in the Holy Sacrifice so that we as Priests are allowed to stand at the altar and perform the action which has such momentous consequences, and as laymen we can assist at the Holy Sacrifice. When a priest says that he is going to say Mass, he means that in union with Christ he is going to plead locally the eternal sacrifice, offering it as an intercession for such specific intentions as may be proposed, and as the dedication of his own life to God. He is rightly more taken up with his priestly office than with his own homage, but nevertheless it is his personal sacrifice as well. When the layman says he is going to assist at Mass,—which is a wiser phrase than the shorter one, to hear Mass,—he means that he is going to claim his share in the eternal sacrifice, offering his own life as his due oblation to Almighty God through his union with Christ, making his intercessions through the same divine channel. Whatever the person, priest or layman, there is always the need to remember the disturbing element of sin. One of the joys of the Holy Sacrifice is that it puts us in the right relation to the Cross. "In it we exhibit before God the living Body and Blood of Christ in a manner that bears unmistakable witness to His having died for us, although now alive forevermore. That is, we offer His Body and Blood under mutually separate sacramental species." Our unhappy condition of repeated sin demands that we shall constantly identify ourselves with the Atonement; we must be always pleading the sacrificial death. The method by which we effect this identification is by offering to God in Christ's appointed way the memorial of His death, which was the all-sufficient sacrifice for sin. [297/298] Our constant offerings of the Holy Sacrifice are not repetitions of Christ's sacrifice, but the renewals of our representation of it before God. And this is not a representation of something apart from us, but of something which touches the vital stream of our very existence, because we are members of Him who pleads the Sacrifice.

Again, the Holy Sacrifice puts us in the right relation to the heavenly oblation, "Wherein the Cross lives on." Whatever is now done on earth for the salvation of souls and the bringing of them into eternal life depends upon the heavenly priesthood of Christ. That is the unfailing operation of His glorified human nature, which is the source of the undefiled life imparted to us through the sacraments. It is as if we might say, that we look to the Cross for forgiveness and to heaven for newness of life. Christ's sacrifice lives on in the heavenly temple, and He represents it on our behalf. It is there that we have access to the Father through Him. When we offer the Holy Sacrifice on earth, we are caught up to that heavenly temple by virtue of our union with Christ. In Him the offering of our own life is made acceptable; real sacrifice becomes possible for us and our homage to God is paid.

This union of the individual soul with Christ does not result in isolation, as if each soul were carrying on a private transaction with God. It is necessary to emphasize this, because it seems as if it were often forgotten, both by priests and laymen. We are not only members of Christ; we are members one of another. We are all one in the mystical body of Christ, which is His Church. A priest is a priest in and for the Body of Christ, not for himself. His first concern is to execute his office for the benefit of the members of Christ, not for his own benefit. When he offers the Holy Sacrifice, he does it as the corporate act of the whole Body of the Church. It is not the few people gathered about the altar, but the whole Church which offers itself to God at every Mass. So the principle which underlies a daily Mass is that the Church should daily assert its existence as Christ's Body, and display as its chief function the pleading of Christ's Sacrifice. The same thing holds in the matter of making the Mass the chief service of Sunday. Religion grows selfish and stale when the most numerous gathering of Christians for [298/299] worship is not for sacrifice; it becomes individualistic and critical, instead of corporate and humble. There is an important deduction to be made from the corporate function of the Mass. This is, that the people have their share in it and should take their part. In every Liturgy there are constant summons to the attention and response of the worshippers; these should be heeded and used as the means of identifying the individual's sacrifice with the action of the Church. It has never been intended that the Mass should be a private concern of the priest, with the people merely there. People should pay attention, and make responses. It is not suitable that they should occupy themselves with their own private devotions during the course of the Mass, and only interrupt them for a moment when the bell rings. Such habits are a corruption, and are not to be imitated. It is noteworthy that in the part of the Church where such habits are very common, the best minds are trying to correct them. On the other hand, the priest should not shut out the people from the corporate offering by treating it as if it were only his own affair. Oratory is not needed in saying the Mass, but there should at least be the intention of being audible. A dragged Mass may be distracting, but haste is not a virtue. The individual worshipper is under obligation to offer sacrifice and he can do it only by sharing in the Mass. He should be helped, not hindered, in fulfilling his obligation.

VI. In all this consideration, the aspect of the Sacrifice which is Communion has been purposely omitted, not from the desire to minimize its importance, but because it is reserved for another paper. The effort has been to present the Sacrifice of the Mass as the earthly and local emergence of the one perfect sacrifice of our Blessed Lord, made by Him on behalf of His brethren, through which alone human life is sanctified and made acceptable to Almighty God, through which alone all prayer and intercession prevail, and which is heaven itself, although in mercy to us veiled, lest we should be blinded by beholding the King in His beauty before we have grown into the "holiness without which no man shall see the Lord."

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