05Jun Sacrifice means self-giving

Recent posts to the ACP site suggest strongly that there is a deep need for a clear understanding of the Church’s teaching that the Mass is an actual sacrifice and not simply a memorial of some kind, as Martin Luther argued. In setting out to meet this need this short work, published in 2005, has three compelling virtues.

First, it confirms what many reform-minded Catholics have come to suspect: that the whole notion of Eucharistic ‘sacrifice’ needs careful historical ‘unpicking’. We really do need to discern both the continuities and discontinuities of the Mass ritual as we have received it with religious sacrifice as it was understood in the ancient, and especially the ancient Jewish, world. Secondly, the author frankly recognises the potential for a ‘let’s not go there’ modern reaction to the very notion of ritual sacrifice. Thirdly, the book presents an understanding of sacrifice, and a model for liturgical development, that suggests we really should ‘go there’ – to find an understanding that not only removes all misgiving but promises the full joyful participation of all present in our central liturgy.

The book’s central argument is that liturgical developments in the second millennium led to a ‘one act’ understanding of the Mass as sacrifice – centred on the Consecration and the presiding priest. Where previously the people had often made, brought and offered the gifts of bread and wine in procession, the offertory now declined with the preference for unleavened bread and the more frequent celebration of private masses. What came to matter more and more was only what the priest did and the transubstantiating miracle that he performed. To some extent matters have improved with the liturgical reforms that followed Vatican II, but Michael McGuckian argues compellingly that we still need to recover from the earliest church a ‘three-stage’ understanding of sacrifice – consisting of Offertory, Consecration and Sacred Meal.

My own interest in this analysis arises from what I can only describe as a ‘strong hunch’ that the whole experience of Mass over a lifetime has invited me personally into an experience of self-giving that I now associate with the self-gift of Jesus. The penitential rite, the scripture readings and the homily have all played their part in this – by inviting my own personal response. However, what should I be doing at the offertory if as usual I am simply sitting watching a procession bearing gifts? Suspecting that maybe here again something deep is being asked of me I am delighted to find in Fr McGuckian’s book this quotation from Dom Gregory Dix:

 “Irenaeus applied to the liturgical offertory the words of our Lord about the widow’s mite—’That poor widow the Church casts in all her life (Lk 21:4) into the treasury of God’. Thus he stated epigrammatically the essential meaning of this part of the rite. Each communicant from the bishop to the newly confirmed gave himself under the forms of bread and wine to God, as God gives Himself to them under the same forms. In the united oblations of all her members the Body of Christ, the Church, gave herself to become the Body of Christ, the sacrament, in order that receiving again the symbol of herself now transformed and hallowed, she might be truly that which by nature she is, the Body of Christ, and each of her members members of Christ. In this self-giving the order of laity no less than that of the deacons or the high-priestly celebrant had its own indispensable function in the vital act of the Body. The layman brought the sacrifice of himself, of which he is the priest. The deacon, the “servant” of the whole body, “presented” all together in the Person of Christ, as Ignatius reminds us. The high-priest, the bishop “offered” all together, for he alone can speak for the whole Body. In Christ, as His Body, the Church is “accepted” by God “in the Beloved.” Its sacrifice of itself is taken up into His sacrifice of Himself.”        (D. G. Dix, ‘The Shape of the Liturgy’, p. 117)

What is central to the notion of Christian ‘sacrifice’ therefore is not ‘killing’ but ‘self-giving’ – and these ‘gifts’, joyfully given by all – and Abba as well – provide the context of the joyful life-giving meal that all then share. And that meal is always a prefiguring, sacramental sign and promise of the heavenly banquet that awaits the whole communion of saints.

What puzzles me, however, is why I should have had to wait till aged seventy to hear this explicitly. If the Mass as ‘sacrifice’ is not being unpicked this way in the seminaries, why is that – and why do we still lack common opportunities to discuss all of these issues with our clergy? Why do so few priests ‘twig’ what every lay person really needs to know from an early age – that his / her own priesthood offers sacrifice at the Mass? I have never before heard that said.

Enough already. I should read this short book again, to make sure I’ve gotten my whole head around it. I strongly recommend anyone even slightly bothered or bewildered by the whole idea of Eucharistic sacrifice to take a look.


3 Responses

  1. Joe O'Leary

    Augustine said a sacrifice is what unites us to God in a loving community. The Mass is a sacrifice of thanksgiving, a celebration of who we are before God, not an attempt to propitiate God or anything like that (any propitiation to be done was done once for all on Calvary and we now rejoice in the fruits of that). The Council of Trent insisted that the Mass was a sacrifice but was unable to offer a definition of sacrifice.

  2. Wanderer

    “Why do so few priests ‘twig’ what every lay person really needs to know from an early age – that his / her own priesthood offers sacrifice at the Mass? I have never before heard that said.”

    As Sergei the Meerkat might suggest,

    “Seem pels…… Paa wwurrrrr.”

    Need far fewer ‘twigs’ and a helluva lot more lowly ‘branches’ rooted in the True Vine.

  3. Martin Murray

    Thanks Sean. This is helpful. Only thing I would add (in as far as I can express it), is that I would always make ‘unity’ the primary characteristic of the Eucharist. The great sacrament that expresses unity and creates unity. Self-sacrifice or disinterest at the sevice of unity. Unity with each other and oneness in God. Any talk of sacrifice should be heard in this context.