Prior to the Second Vatican Council, Catholics would speak comfortably about the "Holy Sacrifice of the Mass." The church placed heavy emphasis on the sacrificial aspect of the Eucharist, perhaps because it was the aspect which was most uniquely Catholic.
When Protestants celebrated the Lord's Supper, they tended to think of this celebration as a meal. Our approach was to emphasize the "Catholic" aspect -- the unbloody re-presentation of Christ's sacrifice on Calvary.
Vatican II did a lot to broaden our understanding. It taught us to think ecumenically -- not to emphasize our differences with Protestants to the exclusion of what we share in common. And it promoted the multi-dimensional approach to the Eucharist which is reflected in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
However, when the rubber met the road, our "new" approach to the Eucharist sometimes meant that the communal meal aspect of the Eucharist was now emphasized to the exclusion of the sacrificial dimension. Instead of a true broadening of our understanding, we sometimes merely ended up with the pendulum swinging from one side to another.
A further consequence is that this shift has led to an erosion of our understanding of what it means for a Mass to be a sacrifice. Our secular understanding of "sacrifice" is quite negative. Sacrifice is equated with self-denial. However, Christ's sacrifice on Calvary was a positive act, an act of totally giving himself to the Father so that sins might be forgiven.
Jesus wasn't the first one to offer sacrifice. Throughout the Old Testament, the Levitical priests offered sacrifices to atone for the sins of the people. When one offers a gift to God, one can no longer use what has been given. Otherwise, it is not a gift. So when the Jewish people offered a sheep to God, for instance, they had to kill it, to take it out of human usage. But the essential act of sacrifice is not the killing, but the giving.
However, sacrifices such as these could never atone for our sins. Any sin is an infinite offence against God. The offering of a sheep or a goat to God is a finite offering which does not even begin to eradicate sin. It is a sign of faith in God's forgiveness, but no grace flows from this purely human act.
Christ, however, made of himself the perfect sacrifice. He offered himself to the Father for the forgiveness of sins. Christ's sacrifice worked because he was both human and divine. In himself, he was perfectly holy. But he was also fully human -- his self-offering was a fitting gift for the sins of humanity. As well, because Christ is an eternal person, his self-offering unites humanity through all ages with God.
No other sacrifice is needed. What is needed is the application of that one sacrifice to each of us.
The Mass has sometimes been criticized as an Old Testament type of sacrifice, as a sacrifice which assumes Christ needs to be offered again and again in atonement. It is maintained that every time we celebrate the Mass we are trying to make a new sacrifice of Christ, as though the sacrifice on Calvary had no lasting effect.
But that is not what the Mass is about. There is only one sacrifice, the sacrifice of Calvary. During the Mass, that one sacrifice is made present for us today. It is applied to our sins. We are taken back to Calvary to be really present at Christ's one saving act.
In 1965, Pope Paul VI wrote an encyclical to challenge errors which were developing in some Catholics' understanding of the Eucharist. In that encyclical, he made the above point clearly: In the Mass, "the sacrifice of the cross, which was offered once on Calvary, is remarkably re-enacted and constantly recalled, and its saving power exerted for the forgiveness of those sins which we daily commit" (Mystery of Faith).
This saving power is applied to us through our participation in the Mass, particularly in the Eucharistic Prayer. Our reception of Communion is also a source of grace, but it is through our participation in the sacrificial dimension of the Mass that our sins are forgiven and our lives are elevated to the supernatural level. Because the Mass is a taking-part in Christ's one sacrifice, it is the normal means for us to obtain forgiveness of venial sins.
Further, the sacrificial dimension of the Mass throws light on the nature of the man who presides at the celebration. More than a presider, he is a priest. He is ordained to stand in the place of Christ whose sacrifice was the supreme priestly act.
The notion of the Mass as a sacrifice is central to Vatican II's teaching on the liturgy and to the revision of the Mass which followed the council. The church's teaching on the Mass is tidily summed up in this Preface to the Eucharistic Prayer which we use during the Easter season:
"We praise you with greater joy than ever in this Easter season, when Christ became our paschal sacrifice. As he offered his body on the cross, his perfect sacrifice fulfilled all others. As he gave himself into your hands for our salvation, he showed himself to be the priest, the altar and the lamb of sacrifice. . . ."
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