A congratulations card or a recovery card or a condolence card arrives in the mail from a Catholic friend and the greeting begins, “The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass will be offered for…” Yes, the holy sacrifice of the Mass, words so integral to our Catholic faith and yet words so seldom considered even among devout church-goers. Sacrifice is as ancient as history. Early mankind, hoping to win the favor of the gods, would take something valuable — fresh fruits, new crops, a first-born animal, even, sadly, an infant child — and destroy that useful creature as a sign that the gods were truly more useful, more beneficial, more worthy than any earthly entity. The happily prevented slaughter of Isaac by Abraham was perhaps a last vestige of infant sacrifice in the Near East, so common throughout ancient societies. All of the items sacrificed — fruits, crops, animals, infants — were all considered important by the ancients. Fruits, crops and animals were certainly necessary to sustain life. And infants were necessary to sustain the family — to work in the fields upon maturity and to care for aging parents in later years. So sacrifice always meant –—and still means — destroying something good as a tribute to something better.
The ancient Jews on their trek through the wilderness with Moses and then later at the temple in Jerusalem conducted a massive enterprise of fruit, grain and animal sacrifices under the same principle of sacrificing something good as a tribute to something better. The Jews like all ancient peoples worked hard in their fields and pastures to maintain a livelihood. To take the first fruits of their earnest labor and offer them to God the Father was a great act of faith. There was no guarantee that there would be more fruit or that the flocks and herds would be abundant. So sacrifice meant taking a chance on God, resting human hopes on Divine promises. Ritual sacrifice was essentially an act of faith.
As a good Jew Jesus respected the traditions of his elders but he know that he had a greater ritual in store for those Christians who would believe in his message. “Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died; this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die,” quotes St. John in this coming Sunday’s Gospel. This promised bread is today made available through the Catholic Mass, a true sacrifice making present again on the Church’s altars the obedient offering of Jesus’ life through the renewed surrender of his Sacred Body and Precious Blood as on Calvary. The Mass is a daily tribute to God the Father whom Jesus acknowledged as the Supreme Good, a greater good than life itself. Jesus ranked the Father’s Will superior to Jesus’ own human will here on earth. Jesus’ human life was a valuable tool. He could have continued preaching the Good News of salvation throughout the world. He could have cured the sick, expelled demons, and raised the dead. But no, Jesus willingly sacrificed his life, his abilities, and his mission as a tribute to something higher, or rather Someone higher, God the Father.
The willing death of Jesus Christ was his supreme act of worship, his supreme act of obedience, his supreme tribute to his Father. The sacrifices of ancient mankind, the sacrifices of the Jewish nation, and the personal sacrifice of Jesus Christ’s own life were all ritual proclamations of the excellence of God. The fruits of the earth might be valuable but a heavenly bounty was supremely valuable. And now, through the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, generations of Christian believers can unite themselves to Christ’s sublime sacrifice of His Body and Blood, making his sacrifice their own. The Mass allows believers to recline at the Last Supper, to stand at Calvary, and to break bread at the Emmaus inn by renewing day after day, throughout all time, the perfect sacrifice of Jesus’ Body and Blood on behalf of the human race.
To be sincere, believers must back up their sacramental participation in the sacrifice of Christ’s Body and Blood by the sacrifice of their own lives in service to God and neighbor. Christians who eat Christ’s sacrificed Body and drink Christ’s sacrificed Blood must proclaim Christ’s death daily by their Christian life of faithful living and generous giving. What the Mass re-enacts through sacrament, sign and symbol, the Christian community must live out through prayerful devotion and practical charity. “So be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and handed himself over for us as a sacrificial offering to God for a fragrant aroma.” St. Paul is insisting here that just as surely as Christ handed himself over as a sacrifice so every believer must equally hand him or herself over as a sacrifice through fidelity to God and to his Church and through kindness, generosity and charity toward the neighbor.