Religion is based on sacrifice. The problem that religion faces is that even the greatest sacrifice offered by a finite person cannot hope to bring one into the presence of the infinite God.
Any religion that originates with a human being then is a futile gesture. It will never get us from where we are to where we yearn to be – abiding in the arms of the all-loving, all-holy God.
With the Jewish people, God took a step toward humanity. He established a covenant with a people and gave them his law. However, again and again, people broke the law.
On the annual Day of Atonement, the people tried to make up for their sins. But nothing they could possibly do would be a proper recompense. Every sin was an infinite offence; every act of atonement was flawed and finite.
The gap between God and humanity was bridged in the only way it could be – God became human and offered himself back to God on behalf of sinful humanity. God accepted the God-man's gift of himself, an acceptance seen in Christ's resurrection and ascension into eternal life.
This is what is called the paschal mystery. By dying, Christ destroyed the death of sin; by rising, he restored eternal life. Christ redeemed humanity – he liberated us from the slavery to sin and he gave glory to God.
How does this affect us? Is not the paschal mystery an act by one man, Jesus Christ, at one moment in history? What does it have to do with you and me?
It would not affect us at all if Christ were not God and if there were not some way for us to participate or share in his sacrifice. However, Jesus Christ is the Son of God, fully divine, and his paschal offering both penetrates and transcends history. It endures.
As far back as Cain and Abel, people were offering religious sacrifice.
Moreover, Christ left a lasting memorial of that paschal mystery, the effective re-enactment of his passion, resurrection and ascension that we call the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. By taking part in the Eucharist, we share in Christ's sacrifice and in God's gift of eternal life.
It is a good thing when one attends Mass and receives Holy Communion. We can receive manifold graces through the reception of Christ's Body and Blood if we are properly disposed.
However, the core action of the Eucharist is the action of Christ the Priest in transforming the bread and wine into his Body and Blood at the Consecration.
The ordained priest who celebrates the Mass acts in the person of Christ in consecrating the humble elements of bread and wine. However, every Christian has been baptized into Christ's priesthood. We are priestly people and, in a very real sense, this effective re-enactment of the paschal mystery is an act in which the entire assembly participates.
Moreover, the Consecration should not be isolated from the rest of the Mass. The celebration of the Eucharist is a cosmic drama, a drama in which the Consecration is the climax, but one in which every part is essential.
The proclamation of the Word of God, for example, is another crucial point in the liturgy. Vatican II's Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation states, "The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures as she venerated the Body of the Lord" (n. 21), a statement which makes the Liturgy of the Word of equal dignity with the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
Every liturgical celebration, says the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, is "an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ." Because of this, every liturgy "is a sacred action surpassing all others" (n. 7).
Through the paschal mystery, the celebration of the Eucharist overcomes the problem of religion. Because the Son of God offered himself on our behalf and then left the liturgy as an effective re-enactment of his offering, those who have been baptized into Christ can share in his sacrifice and share in eternal life by participating in the Mass.
Our sacrifice is now effective because it is, in the first place, God's sacrifice.
Last week's article drew attention to the fact that many people see the goal of the Constitution on the Liturgy as encouraging the faithful's full, conscious and active participation in the liturgy. The article noted that what the constitution actually stated was that it was encouraging "that full, conscious and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy" (n. 14, emphasis added).
This means that in order to understand the type of participation needed, one must first understand the nature of the liturgy. This week's article helped clarify the nature of the liturgy. Two weeks from now, we will look at the nature of our participation in the liturgy in more detail.