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Is the Mass a Sacrifice?

by Brant Pitre April 06, 2022 0 Comments

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Let’s go back to the question about the Mass. This passage was another point of controversy in the 16th century with the Protestant reformers, especially with Martin Luther. A lot of times Catholics today, when they talk about the Protestant Reformation or they talk about the debates of the Reformation, will frequently focus on the debate over the Real Presence — over transubstantiation, for example.

There were different theories of the Real Presence at the time of the Reformation. Was He just spiritually present in the bread and wine, for example, Calvin might have argued? Or was there consubstantiation, like Luther argued, where bread and wine exist alongside the Body and Blood of Christ? That’s wrong. And then, is it transubstantiation, like the Council of Trent taught? Which teaches that there’s no more bread and wine, there’s no more substance to the bread and wine after the consecration — all that remains is the appearance, but that all that is present on the altar is Jesus Christ, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity.

So a lot of times our debates today kind of rage around that or focus on that. But in the time of the Reformation, if you read the reformers themselves, you’ll notice that one of the things they were actually most opposed to was not the idea of Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist. That is a major issue, but it was the issue of whether or not the Mass should be described as a sacrifice. Is the Mass a sacrifice?

If you read Martin Luther on this, he uses some of his most violent rhetoric to oppose and critique the idea of the Mass as a sacrifice. So listen to this quote; this is from Martin Luther. He wrote a tractate called The Abomination of the Secret Mass. He was always very bombastic in his titles and his language. Listen to how he describes the Catholic belief that the Mass is a sacrifice. He says this:

Martin Luther (16th Century): The priest offers up once again Jesus Christ, who offered himself only once (Heb 9:25-26)...

And he quotes here Hebrews 9:25-26. That’s our passage for today.

  just as he died only once and cannot die again or be offered up again (Rom 6:9-10)… Yet they [Catholic priests] go ahead and every day offer him up more than a hundred thousand times throughout the world. They thereby deny, both with their deeds and in their hearts, that Christ has washed sin away and has died and risen again. This is such an abomination…

Meaning the idea that the Mass is a sacrifice.

This is such an abomination that I don’t believe it could be sufficiently punished on earth if it rained pure fire from heaven. The blasphemy is so great that it must simply wait for eternal hell fire.

That’s from Martin Luther, on The Abomination of the Secret Mass. So what Luther is saying here is that the idea that the Mass is a sacrifice is so blasphemous that even if it rained down fire from Heaven upon all the Catholic priests on every altar in the world, it wouldn’t be a sufficient punishment for the blasphemy. It’s just going to have to wait for them all to be eternally damned.

Yeah. Tell me how you really feel, Marty. This is really strong rhetoric. Why is he so opposed to the idea of the Mass as a sacrifice? Well, it’s in the way he interprets the reading for today, Hebrews 9:25-26.

See, Luther thinks that when we refer to Mass as a sacrifice, we’re saying that the sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary wasn’t enough, that it wasn’t sufficient. That it wasn’t enough to deal with human sin, so we have to kill Jesus, we have to sacrifice Him over and over and over again, every time the Mass is offered in order to take away sins.

So for him, it’s a denial of the efficacy of Calvary to say that the Mass is a sacrifice. In the wake of Luther’s rejection of the Mass as a sacrifice, the Council of Trent responded with its decree on the Mass and on the Eucharist. And in particular, it has a section called the Doctrine and Canons on the Sacrifice of the Mass. And listen to how Trent responded to Luther’s claim. It said this, this is 16th century Council of Trent:

In the divine sacrifice that is celebrated in the Mass, the same Christ who offered himself once in a bloody manner [cf. Heb 9:14, 27f.] on the altar of the Cross is contained and is offered in an unbloody manner.

And then again, the Catechism of the Catholic Church builds on Trent in 1992 and develops it a little bit further and says this:

The sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice: “The victim is one and the same: the same now offers through the ministry of priests, who then offered himself on the cross; only the manner of offering is different.” “And since in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass, the same Christ who offered himself once in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross is contained and offered in an unbloody manner … this sacrifice is truly propitiatory.”

That’s Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1367, citing the Council of Trent. The error of Luther’s argument, that to call the Mass a sacrifice as blasphemy, is that he assumes that the Mass and Calvary are two different sacrifices. That there was this one sacrifice on Calvary and that the Mass is another sacrifice that somehow has to add to the sacrifice at Calvary.

But what Trent and the Catechism of the Catholic Church respond to that error by saying is, no, you misunderstand it. There’s only one sacrifice, and that’s the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. But, that one sacrifice of Christ on Calvary is made present in a different mode in the unbloody sacrifice of the Mass. So Calvary is a bloody sacrifice, and the Mass is an unbloody sacrifice. But the sacrifice of the Eucharist and the sacrifice of the cross are one single sacrifice.

Now you might think … maybe you’re thinking, “Well, okay, that sounds good, but why? Why are they one single sacrifice? How can you know?” By reading Hebrews 9 in context, because the context of Hebrews 9:26, that Jesus:

… has appeared once for all at the end of the age to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.

And the context of Hebrews chapter 7 where it says that He offers Himself “once for all” in Hebrews 7:27. The context is His identity as a Melchizedekian high priest who goes into the heavenly sanctuary to offer Himself in the temple not made with hands, in eternity, once and for all time.

In other words, the reason Luther couldn’t see how the Mass could be a sacrifice is because he focused on Calvary and forgot about the ascension. He — this is so important. If you try to understand the Paschal Mystery, and you think it just has to do with Jesus’ death, and you forget about his resurrection and ascension, you’re going to miss the boat. Because what the ascension does — the mystery of the ascension does — is it reveals how Jesus takes the earthly sacrifice of Calvary into eternity. And once you understand that He takes that earthly sacrifice into eternity, you can understand how now, from Heaven, He can be made present — His Body, Blood, His soul, and His divinity — on every altar throughout the world every day until the end of the ages, until the end of time.

And unfortunately, to this day, people forget about the ascension. We focus a lot on the death of Good Friday. We focus a lot even on the resurrection on Easter Sunday. But we can forget that one of the central mysteries of the Christian faith is the mystery of the ascension. Because as Hebrews 9 reveals to us, in that mystery of the ascension, Jesus fulfills the Jewish feast of Yom Kippur. And Jesus inaugurates the new Day of Atonement that takes place not in time but in eternity, by offering Himself to the Father on behalf of humanity once and for all time.

And it’s that heavenly eternal self-offering that’s going to be made present every time the sacrifice of the Mass is offered on every altar throughout the world until the end of the ages.

Brant Pitre
Brant Pitre


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