A good friend of mine recently brought to my attention several passages from the Letter to the Hebrews concerning the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross and how it superseded the many eternally useless sacrifices of the Jewish people in the Old Covenant. Drawing the very biblical conclusion that “[Jesus did not] offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters each year into the sanctuary with blood that is not his own; if that were so, he would have had to suffer repeatedly from the foundation of the world. But now once for all he has appeared at the end of the ages to take away sin by his sacrifice” (Hebrews 9:25-26), my friend in warm, Christian charity sought to point out the possibility of grave error in Catholic teaching in regards to the daily offering of the Sacrifice of the Mass. Indeed, Catholics hold that the Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life” (Lumen Gentium, Second Vatican Council) and since the Eucharist can only be confected by a validly ordained priest or bishop through the Sacrifice of the Mass, it would seem that these central beliefs could be misleading, if not simply false.
True, the Letter to the Hebrews speaks often of Jesus’ single, perfect, unrepeatable sacrifice in atonement for our sins, but this in no way means that the Sacrifice of the Mass is somehow an additional sacrifice which attempts to do something Christ failed to do in His singe, perfect, unrepeatable sacrifice on the cross. To draw a parallel between the Mass and the empty sacrifices of the Jewish people is to misunderstand the Mass altogether. Hebrews also tells us that Jesus entered into heaven where He even now stands before His Father on our behalf (“For Christ did not enter into a sanctuary made by hands, a copy of the true one, but heaven itself, that he might now appear before God on our behalf,” Hebrews 9:24). The Book of Revelation adds to this by further describing Jesus in heaven as “slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8). Thus John was pointing out the eternal aspect of His sacrifice. Even now Jesus is before God “standing as if slain” (Revelation 5:6) and the eternity of His sacrifice is thus applicable for future believers as well as those dating back to the foundations of the world. Because Jesus is both God and Man, His sacrifice occurred “once and for all” in time and space but it is timeless and ongoing in regards to eternity. Indeed, if the merits of Jesus’ sacrifice were only applicable “once for all” then no one outside of His lifetime could benefit from it.
But what does that have to do with the Sacrifice of the Mass? Sure, the grace Jesus merited by His death on the cross is accessible to us because of His eternal presentation of His sacrifice to the Father, but doesn’t His being in the timeless, purely spiritual realm of Heaven clearly differentiate itself from a very physical, repeated sacrifice by Catholics on Earth? No on many counts.
Obviously we can all agree that new blood sacrifices on our part are simply meaningless in regards to making atonement for the eternal consequences of sin and, as the Bible clearly teaches, it is by Jesus’ sacrifice that we may have hope of salvation. Catholics believe this as much as Protestants. So what then is the connection between the Sacrifice of the Mass and the Sacrifice of Christ on the cross – for there must be some connection if Catholics have such strong beliefs about both! The Catechism of the Catholic Church said it clearly in paragraph 1367: “The sacrifice of Christ [on the cross] and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice.” In His wisdom, God decided to allow us to participate in Jesus’ “once for all” sacrifice by making it accessible in the Mass. The Mass in no way competes with or replaces the one sacrifice of Jesus but rather makes it present for us today on the Catholic altars throughout the world. Jesus promised to be with us always – and He keeps His promise in a particular way through the Eucharist. The Eucharist is given to us to help us become holy. Remember, you are what you eat and to become the holy, body of Christ we Catholics partake of the body of Christ!
Of course, both the Eucharist and the Mass are mysteries of the Faith and can in no way be fully explained in human words – but the sacrificial character of the Eucharist is a Biblical and historical FACT. Paul, for example, in his First Letter to the Corinthians implicitly acknowledges this in the following passage:
“The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because the loaf of bread is one, we, though many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf. Look at Israel according to the flesh; are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar? So what am I saying? That meat sacrificed to idols is anything? Or that an idol is anything? No, I mean that what they sacrifice, (they sacrifice) to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to become participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and also the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and of the table of demons” (1 Corinthians 10:16-21).
Paul is thus comparing the sacrifices of the pagans and the Jews to the Christian sacrifice of the body and blood of Jesus in the Eucharistic sacrifice, for to speak both of the “table of the Lord” and the “table of demons” and also of the “cup of the Lord” and the “cup of demons” is to speak of both using sacrificial language. What’s more, Paul is pointing out that Christian unity is fostered by the Eucharist! No wonder Jesus said as much at the Last Supper (where he instituted the Eucharist) when he spoke of the need for Christians to remain one – and to make that happen, He gave us the Eucharist!
The Letter to the Hebrews also refers to an Old Testament allusion to the Eucharistic sacrifice in that the letter describes Jesus as the “high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” But who was Melchizedek and what was his priestly sacrifice? Melchizedek blessed Abraham, the father of the great monotheistic religions, and offered God a sacrifice of bread and wine! Thus Melchizedek prefigured both the blessing Jesus would bring all humanity through His sacrifice of Himself in one sacrifice of the cross and the Mass.
But the concept of the Eucharist and the Mass as a Christian sacrifice is also a historical fact. Check out the following quotes from Christians in the 1st-2nd centuries:
"Assemble on the Lord’s day [Sunday], and break bread and offer the Eucharist; but first make confession of your faults, so that your sacrifice may be a pure one. Anyone who has a difference with his fellow is not to take part with you until he has been reconciled, so as to avoid any profanation of your sacrifice. For this is the offering of which the Lord has said, ‘Everywhere and always bring me a sacrifice that is undefiled, for I am a great king, says the Lord, and my name is the wonder of nations’ [Mal. 1:11, 14]" (Didache, 70 AD).
"Our sin will not be small if we eject from the episcopate those who blamelessly and holily have offered its sacrifices.” (St. Clement’s Letter to the Corinthians, 96 AD).
"Make certain, therefore, that you all observe one common Eucharist; for there is but one Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, and but one cup of union with his Blood, and one single altar of sacrifice—even as there is also but one bishop, with his clergy and my own fellow servitors, the deacons. This will ensure that all your doings are in full accord with the will of God" (St. Ignatius of Antioch’s Letter to the Philadelphians, 107 AD).
"He took from among creation that which is bread, and gave thanks, saying, ‘This is my body.’ The cup likewise, which is from among the creation to which we belong, he confessed to be his blood. He taught the new sacrifice of the new covenant, of which Malachi, one of the twelve [minor] prophets, had signified beforehand: ‘You do not do my will, says the Lord Almighty, and I will not accept a sacrifice at your hands. For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name is glorified among the Gentiles, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure sacrifice; for great is my name among the Gentiles, says the Lord Almighty’ [Mal. 1:10–11]. By these words he makes it plain that the former people will cease to make offerings to God; but that in every place sacrifice will be offered to him, and indeed, a pure one, for his name is glorified among the Gentiles" (St. Irenaeus of Lyon’s Against Heresies, 189 AD).
We must also remember that the incarnation is a permanent act on God’s part. To assume heaven is a purely spiritual realm denies the reality of the incarnation, for Jesus still has His human body now and will have it forever. In a real way, Heaven and Earth are in contact at “God’s end” through the bodily presence of Jesus (and Mary, as Catholics believe) in Heaven. Furthermore, Catholics would argue that the reverse is true of Earth by Jesus’ bodily presence in the Eucharist throughout the tabernacles of the world. In a special way, at Mass Heaven and Earth touch as Jesus becomes present with us on the altar and then enters into our bodies through Holy Communion. If that’s not having “a personal relationship with Jesus” then I don’t know what is. Indeed, when looked at from this perspective it is quite easy to understand why Catholics believe the Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian faith” just as Vatican II taught!