The reception of Holy Communion is only one part of the mystery of the Blessed Eucharist. In the Blessed Eucharist, the Canon Law tells us, under the species of bread and wine, Christ the Lord Himself is contained, is offered, and is received. This offering of Christ is the sacrifice which we call the Mass, and the reception of Holy Communion is really a partaking of the fruits of the Mass and of all that for which it stands. The Mass is the central act of the Catholic Church. Everything else is centered on it. “It is the Mass that matters.” To get some idea of the extraordinary importance of the Mass, we must first consider the notion of sacrifice.
Of all the moral virtues the most excellent is that of religion, the virtue which leads us to give God the supreme honor due to Him as our first beginning and our last end. We owe Him our existence; without His conservation, we could not continue to exist; without His cooperation we could not perform a single action; without Him we can never find happiness. We are completely dependent upon Him, and we owe it to Him and to ourselves to acknowledge that dependence. Obviously, any worthy expression of such a homage must come from a heart which truly adores God. If the internal acknowledgment is wanting, the external expression is a lie. Our dependence on God is so complete that no mere prayer or praise can suffice for its expression. Words are not enough; actions are necessary. Even in ordinary life men use gestures and give presents to add meaning to their words, and the worship of God calls for some kindred method of giving external and forceful testimony to our interior worship. The supreme act of this worship is ritual sacrifice.
Sacrifice is made by offering to God some perceptible thing which is disposed of in such a way as to signify our recognition of God’s supreme dominion over us and of our complete dependence upon Him. It is also offered to thank God for His benefits, to obtain His help and protection, and—where there is question of sin—to make reparation for the offence given to Him by sin. The person performing the offering must be an accredited minister recognized by God for this office. In the Old Law God laid down the rules for sacrifice, and the offering was generally something which could signify life—a living animal, or food, or drink, for example. As a rule, this offering was either slain or destroyed in such a way as to signify our recognition of God’s supreme rights over our life and being. There is no need here to enter into details of this destruction, about which there is at the moment some discussion.
The important thing was that a sacrifice was an accepted way of saying something. To the external sacrifice there must correspond an interior sacrifice, by which one offers oneself to God, and of which the external sacrifice is a sign. David put that interior disposition into words: “All things are thine: and we have given thee what we have received of thy hand” (1 Chr 29:14). Amongst the Jews the external offering had two purposes. One was to keep them from idolatry, and the other was to foreshadow the mystery of the Redemption by Christ. Of themselves, these Jewish sacrifices had no real value except insofar as God was willing to accept them. They were imperfect and were but a shadow of the perfect sacrifice in the New Law. As expressions of the dependence of a finite creature upon an infinite Creator, they were inadequate enough; but when the creature had added to his former obligations that of making reparation for sin, their insufficiency becomes even more marked. For sin, though the act of a finite creature, takes on a certain infinity from the infinity of the Creator offended, and nothing man can do alone can repair that injury adequately.
The perfect sacrifice of the New Law gives full homage to God and makes full reparation for man’s sins; it was the supreme act for which Christ came upon earth. Even in His Mother’s womb, at the very first moment of His human existence, His first act was to dedicate Himself to that end. St. Paul tells us of it:
Wherefore when he cometh into the world, he saith: “Sacrifice and oblation thou wouldst not: but a body thou hast fitted to me: holocausts for sin did not please thee. Then said I, behold I come; in the head of the book it is written of me: that I should do thy will, o God. . . .” In which will, we are sanctified by the oblation of the body of Jesus Christ once. (Heb 10:5–10)
We have previously noticed our Lord’s earnest concentration on His Passion. “I have a baptism wherewith I am to be baptized; and how am I straightened until it be accomplished?” (Lk 12:50). He regarded it as the crowning work of His life. The story of His Passion and Death needs no telling here. We know how He was betrayed and how while tortured with the anguish of the unrequited love that burned in His Heart for men, and oppressed by their sins, He was arrested and dragged before the different tribunals. Then He was scourged—far beyond the measure of the Roman Law—crowned with thorns, and tortured in Pilate’s prison. Condemned to death. He was given His cross to carry to Calvary. There He was nailed to the cross and died after three hours of indescribable agony of body, which was nothing in comparison with the anguish of His Heart and Soul.
His acceptance of His Death made it a sacrifice in which He was at once the victim and the priest. By that one sacrifice He merited our salvation; He offered God a satisfaction greater than that needed for all the sins of the world in all its history; He reconciled us to God; He redeemed us from the slavery of sin and our subjection to the devil, and He opened for us the gates of heaven. By it He merited for His own human nature the highest glory and the kingship of all the universe. For once, God received perfect worship from the inhabitants of this earth—perfect interior worship and perfect exterior worship. A perfect sacrifice was offered to Him. The victim was His own son, whom He had given for the redemption of the world, and in whom He was “well pleased.” Truly, could Christ as our high priest say to the Father in the words of David: “We have given thee what we have received of thy hand,” for Christ Himself was God’s greatest gift to the world.
All the worship we owe God was given to Him in that one sacrifice; all the satisfaction we owe God was given to Him there also. All that we need from God, was merited for us there; and all the thanks we should give God are given there. Nothing remains but to make that sacrifice our own. And it is in making that possible, that our Lord’s loving ingenuity is most wonderfully employed.
The night before He died, when one of His chosen friends was betraying Him for thirty pieces of silver, He instituted the Blessed Eucharist as a sacramental memorial of His Passion and Death:
Taking bread, he gave thanks, and broke; and gave to them, saying: “This is my body which is given for you. Do this for a commemoration of me.” In like manner the chalice also . . . saying: “This is the chalice, the new testament in my blood, which shall be shed for you” (Lk 12:19). And St. Paul adds: “For as often as you shall eat this bread, and drink the chalice you shall show the death of the Lord, until he come.” (1 Cor 11:26)
The Council of Trent teaches that our Lord did this:
That He might leave to His own beloved spouse, the Church, a visible sacrifice, such as the nature of man requires, whereby that bloody sacrifice, to be accomplished once on the cross, might be represented and the memory thereof remain even unto the end of the world, and by which its saving power might be applied to the remission of those sins which we daily commit. . . . And forasmuch in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass, the same Christ who once offered Himself in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross, is contained and immolated in an unbloody manner, the Holy Synod teaches that this sacrifice [of the Mass] is truly propitiatory, and that by means thereof this is effected that we obtain mercy and find grace in seasonable aid if we draw near to God contrite and penitent, with a sincere heart and an upright faith, with fear and reverence. For the Lord, appeased by the oblation thereof (of the Mass), granting grace and the gift of penitence, forgives even heinous crimes and sins. For the Victim is one and the same, and the one who now offers by the ministry of the priests is the very same one who then offered Himself on the cross, the manner alone of the offering being different. The fruits of that oblation—namely, that bloody one—are received most plentifully by this unbloody one.
That is the Church’s teaching on this extraordinary masterpiece of God’s love. In the sacramental system, He has devised a plan by which both Himself and His Passion and Death are ever really present for the members of His Church. It is, of course, a tremendous mystery, a mystery of faith. But to help us to appreciate what is happening, let us consider the relation between Christ as man and the host.
Our Lord lived and died in Palestine centuries ago, and still He is really, truly, and substantially present in every place and at every time bread is consecrated. Under its appearance, He receives a new sacramental location in time and space. The word sacramental does not take away from the reality; it merely indicates that it is a unique presence—a real one, but manifested and effected by a sacramental sign.
We can apply the same idea to the sacrifice of Calvary and the sacrifice of the Mass. The sacrifice of Calvary took place once at Jerusalem, centuries ago. Yet every time a priest consecrates the bread and the wine at Mass, his action gives the sacrifice of Calvary a new “location” in time and space, here and now at this altar; it is there really, but sacramentally, that is, in a sign. The sign seems to be the fact that the words of consecration, as far as their direct signification is concerned, bring about the apparent separation between the Body of Christ and His Blood, for the words only directly produce what they signify: “This (the bread) is My Body”; “This (the chalice) is the chalice of My Blood.” The priest at Mass speaks those words in the person of Christ, and it is by the power of Christ that they produce their effect.
Every time then we assist at Mass we are as near to our Lord’s sacrifice as we are to His Body and Blood. The exact way in which this is accomplished is a matter of discussion and need not concern us here. All that does concern us is that at Mass we have the sacrifice of Calvary really but sacramentally before us. The Eucharistic Sacrifice of the Mass contains, and shows that it contains, all the spiritual realities of the Cross. St. Thomas puts it this way:
We do not say that Christ is daily crucified and killed [in the Mass], because both the acts of the Jews and the punishment of Christ are transitory. Yet those things which carry with them Christ’s relation to God the Father are said to be done daily [in the Mass]: these are, to offer, to sacrifice, and the like. On that account the victim is perpetual, and was offered once by Christ in this manner that it might be daily offered by His members.
The things which carry with them Christ’s relation to God the Father surely include supreme worship and superabundant satisfaction for sin, supreme love and supreme obedience, in fact the whole interior and exterior sacrifice of Christ—everything we would give to God—and all these things are renewed daily in the Mass, and are ours for the taking!
That is the important thing about the Mass. It is a handing over to us of what Christ has done in our name—a sacramental renewal of His sacrifice so that its fruits may be applied to us—and we may make it our own for worship and reparation to God. It is, in fact, the vital circulation of the Mystical Body by which the Head shares with His members the work which is His greatest achievement and their first duty. To state the facts in their most authoritative form, let us quote our Holy Father, Pius XII:
In the Eucharistic Sacrifice . . . the sacred ministers represent not only our Savior but also the whole Mystical Body and each of its members: in that sacrifice the faithful are associated in common prayer and supplication: and, through the hands of the priest whose voice alone renders the Immaculate Lamb present on the altar, they themselves offer to the eternal Father this most pleasing victim of praise and propitiation for the needs of the whole Church. And as the divine Redeemer, when He was dying on the Cross, offered Himself as the Head of the whole human race to the Eternal Father, so in this “clean oblation” [the Mass] He offers to the Heavenly Father not only Himself as Head of the Church, but in Himself also His mystical members, for He encloses them all—even the weak and frail among them—most lovingly in His Heart.
These are the official pronouncements of the Church; they contain a wealth of doctrine which would need more than one book for its exposition and a lifetime of enlightened meditation for its full apprehension. Perhaps the best thing to do here is to tabulate the main points, as briefly as possible.
(1) On Calvary, our Lord offered Himself in sacrifice to God.
(2) This sacrifice gave God full and perfect worship.
(3) It was a complete satisfaction for our sins.
(4) It merited every grace that we might need.
(5) Our Lord instituted the sacramental and sensible rite of the Mass,
(6) In which He offered Himself to God the Father,
(7) And ordered His apostles and priests to repeat the same offering;
(8) That the salvific power of the sacrifice of the Cross might be applied to our needs.
(9) In the Mass the victim is the same Christ.
(10) And the offerer is also the same Christ, who once offered Himself on Calvary;
(11) Who now offers by the ministry of His priests.
(12) The Mass, therefore, is truly propitiatory,
(13) And, if we are rightly disposed, can be a source of grace and timely aid for us.
(14) The Mass appeases God, and obtains the forgiveness of even the most enormous sins.
(15) The fruits of the cross are received most plentifully through the Mass.
(16) In the Mass the minister represents not only Christ,
(17) But also the whole Mystical Body and each one of us, its members.
(18) Through the priest we offer to God, Christ the victim,
(19) In praise and propitiation for the needs of the whole Church.
(20) As on the cross, Christ offered Himself as the Head of the whole human race,
(21) So in the Mass He offers Himself not only as Head of the Church.
(22) But in Himself He encloses each of us His members.
(23) For He encloses us all—even the weakest of us—
(24) Most lovingly in His Heart.
BEHOLD THIS TREMENDOUS LOVER!
In the Mass, then, each of us can say: Christ is offering Himself as a perfect sacrifice to God; I, too, am offering Him; He is offering me in Himself; am I also offering myself with Him?
To try to make things a little clearer, let us consider the question again. Our Lord’s whole life was one long act of adoration and complete submission to God’s will. His “interior” sacrifice was continual from the first moment of His life. At His death, He offered the sacrifice of the cross as the exterior sacrifice expressing this interior sacrifice. In this case the victim was of value—of infinite value—in the eyes of God and was a complete satisfaction for the sins of all time. Before His death our Lord had instituted the sacrament of the Eucharist by which the Mass would be a sacramental renewal, re-presentation, re-offering, of this same one sacrifice which He once offered on the cross just as the host would be the sacramental renewal of His presence on earth. In this sacramental sacrifice of the Mass, we have all the “things that carry with them Christ’s relation to the Father”: His exterior sacrifice, His interior sacrifice, His supreme worship, His supreme obedience, His supreme love, His superabundant satisfaction for our sins.
By our assistance at Mass we can make that sacrifice our own. It has an intrinsic value, because it is the same sacrifice as that of Calvary and, therefore, as a propitiation for our sins, it need have no limits. But it is also an external sacrificial sign and expression of worship and submission to God—to which something should correspond on our part by way of an “interior sacrifice.” Here is the practical crux of the whole matter. Normally, our interior dispositions determine what our external expression of them shall be. Here the external expression is given to us and we have to make our interior dispositions correspond to it. The external sacrifice on Calvary was the perfect expression of that interior sacrifice that was our Lord’s whole life of submission to the will of God. That external sacrifice is given to us in the Mass, and we have to make our life one similar interior sacrifice, if the Mass is to have that full and perfect meaning for us and from us to God, which it should have. There is the plan of the whole Christian life—to live up to what we say in the action of the Mass.
The vocation becomes more urgent when we realize the full signification of our reception of Holy Communion. The Mass does not exist to give us Holy Communion; on the contrary, Holy Communion exists to make us participators in the Mass. Let us hear St. Thomas:
Whoever offers a sacrifice ought to become a partaker in it, because the external sacrifice which is offered is a sign of the interior sacrifice by which one offers oneself to God. Hence by the fact that he partakes in the sacrifice the offerer shows that he really shares in the interior sacrifice.
The context makes it clear that the participation mentioned refers to receiving Holy Communion. But the context also refers to the priest, and it might be objected that we are applying the quotation too widely. Granting the special reference to priests, the general principle still holds good. To communicate is to identify oneself with the sacrifice. St. Paul himself writes: “Are not they that eat of the sacrifices, partakers of the altar?” (1 Cor 10:18). And St. Thomas merely applies this principle to the particular and—be it granted—special case of the priest. But does not St. Peter exhort all to be a “holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God by Jesus Christ”? Does he not insist, in his first epistle to the church of which he was the pope and head: “You are a chosen generation, a kingly priesthood” (1 Pt 2:5, 9)? This application of the designation “priesthood” to the laity must, of course, be understood properly. They are not priests in anything like the strict sense of the term. But the Church teaches that in the three sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and holy orders, a certain “character” is indelibly impressed upon the soul of the recipient. Theologians tell us that this character marks us off and empowers us for divine worship. And St. Thomas speaks of the “character” as “a certain participation in the priesthood of Christ.” As a result of this “character” every baptized person can receive the other sacraments and has an official status in all the divine worship performed by the Church, but especially in the sacrifice of the Mass. As the Holy Father tells us, each of us offers, and each of us is offered, in the Mass. One could deduce many duties and privileges of the Catholic from this “character,” but space is not available here. Let us be content to note that Christ so loves us as to be determined to share even His priesthood with us. We are a “kingly priesthood” and—be it never forgotten—“noblesse oblige!”
In support of this participation of all in the priesthood, let us quote the late Holy Father Pius XI:
Though the ample redemption of Christ more than abundantly satisfied for all our offences, nevertheless, by reason of that marvelous disposition of divine wisdom by which we may complete those “things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ in our own flesh, for His body, which is the Church” (Col 1:24), we are able, in fact, we should, add to the acts of praise and satisfaction which “Christ in the name of sinners has presented to God,” our own acts of praise and satisfaction. However, we must always remember that the expiatory value of our acts depends solely on the bloody sacrifice of Christ, which is renewed with interruption on our altars in an unbloody manner. . . . For this reason we must join together, in the august sacrifice of the Blessed Eucharist, the act of immolation made by the priest, with that of the faithful, so that they, too, may offer themselves up as “a living sacrifice, holy, and pleasing unto God!” (Rom 12:1). Therefore, St. Cyprian dared to affirm that “the sacrifice of our Lord is not complete as far as our sanctification is concerned unless our offerings and sacrifices correspond to His Passion.” . . . The apostle admonished us that . . . the “life of Jesus be made manifest in our bodies” (2 Cor 4:10), and, having become partakers in His holy and eternal priesthood, we should offer up “gifts and sacrifices for sins” (Heb 5:1). For not only those, who have been appointed by Jesus Christ, the High Priest, as the ministers of such sacrifices to offer to God “a clean oblation in every place from the rising of the sun even to the going down,” are partakers in the mysteries of this priesthood and in the duty of offering sacrifices and satisfaction to God, but also those Christians called, and rightly so, by the Prince of the Apostles “a chosen generation, a kingly priesthood” (1 Pt 2:9) who are to offer “sacrifices for sin” not only for themselves but for all mankind, and this in much the same way as every priest and “high priest taken from among men is ordained for men in the things that appertain to God” (Heb 5:1).
The treasures of the Mass are so inexhaustible that it is difficult to leave the subject. But it should be obvious that the Mass is the meeting place of Jesus and ourselves par excellence. And it is clear that one cannot determine any limit to the fruitful effects of even one Mass. As St. Thomas sums up the whole question:
The sacrament [the Blessed Eucharist] is both a sacrifice and a sacrament. It is a sacrifice inasmuch as it is offered to God; it is a sacrament in so far as it is received by men. It has the effects of sacrifice to him who offers it or in those for whom it is offered.  The effect which the Passion of Christ produced for the world, this sacrament produces in man.  It is nothing else than the sacrifice which Christ himself offered [and in one lapidary formula:] The Blessed Eucharist is the perfect sacrament of the Passion.
There should be no need then to labor the advantages and the need of frequent attendance at Mass for anyone who would live a Christian life. Daily Mass, where practicable, should be the normal program. It is not always possible; it may have to be omitted because of household or other duties which are God’s will—and private devotions must always yield to duties imposed by God’s will; yet it should not therefore be forgotten. The share in Christ’s priesthood which belongs indelibly to every Catholic by baptism, makes each of us a sharer in every Mass that is said in the world, and remembering this, we can always avail of that constant chain of Masses which never ceases on the earth.
What then should be our dispositions when we assist at Mass? They are no different from the dispositions that are fundamental in the life of every Christian, in every member of the Mystical Body of Christ: faith, hope, charity, humility, and submission to the will of God. Nothing less is sufficient in a Christian; nothing more is required in a saint. If we are conscious of a deficiency in our dispositions as Christians, let us appreciate the dispositions of the Saint of Saints, the all-holy victim, of whom we are members. The Mass is a complete reparation and supplement for all our shortcomings. It is also a sacramental sacrifice, which says something to God for us; in making it our own, we must mean what we say, that is, we must mean what it says. To quote Pius XI:
In the degree to which our oblation and sacrifice will the more perfectly correspond to the sacrifice of our Lord, that is to say, to the extent that we have immolated love of self and our passions and crucified our flesh in that mystical crucifixion of which the apostle writes, so much the more plentiful fruit of propitiation and of expiation will we gain for ourselves and for others.
Let us repeat it again. Christ lived a life of complete and humble abandonment to the will of His Father. His whole life was one of interior sacrifice of Himself to God. He gave ritual expression to this interior sacrifice by the external sacrifice of the cross. He has given us this external sacrifice by the Mass and in the Mass, for our very own, to express our interior sacrifice to God. This interior sacrifice of ours must then be like His: a sincere, humble, and complete abandonment to the will of our Father in heaven, not only at the moment of the Mass—but in every moment of our lives. Love is only repaid by love. Jesus gives Himself to us completely in the Blessed Eucharist. In the Mass, we ought to give ourselves completely to Him.