Every Mass is indeed a saving sacrifice

Father John A. Kiley

Jesus instructs his followers very clearly in this coming Sunday’s Gospel account from St. John’s celebrated chapter six that ‘…the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” The Church over the centuries has rightly acknowledged that while the Eucharist is indeed the flesh of Christ, the consecrated sacrament still rightly appears to be very much a piece of bread both to the devout believer as well as to the casual observer. Recognizing the Eucharist’s familiar features of bread, and wine as well, while at the same time professing belief in the Real Presence of Christ, is vitally important for a complete appreciation of the Eucharist’s true meaning. The Eucharist is not simply the isolated host presented for the faithful’s adoration. The Eucharist is equally a meal, a banquet, a feast, at which the faithful gather around the table of the Lord to celebrate and be nourished by Christ’s saving action on Calvary.
The familiar items used in the celebration of Mass, when thoughtfully observed, overwhelmingly reinforce the notion of the Mass as a meal, a sacred meal, which certainly renews the sacrifice of Christ but at the same time unites the congregation into one believing community. First of all, the altar itself should be recognized as a table, not unlike a table at home around which a family gathers. The table is draped with an appropriate cloth, adding a bit of dignity and solemnity to this believing family meal. In the center of the altar is placed a corporal, a square piece of linen, similar to a place mat, on which the Church’s liturgical implements will rest. A veil matching the liturgical season’s color covers the sacred implements used at Mass and is removed by a deacon or server. In the days before screened windows, protection from bugs was vital! The faithful will notice a stiff white square article called a pall covering a paten which is actually a plate with an altar bread on it, resting on a chalice or cup, with a white cloth lying on it. What could be more basic to any meal than a plate and a cup, one for eating, one for drinking? The pall is used to protect the chalice from bugs or, in large old cathedrals, bird droppings. The white cloth, or purificator, is literally a dish cloth, used to keep sacred vessels neat and clean. There might also be a ciborium on the altar containing altar breads to be consecrated for a large congregation. The word ciborium comes from the Latin cibus, meaning food, in this case, bread – so it is a literal bread box! Clearly a meal is being set up on Catholic altars around the world: bread and wine, food and drink, plate and cup, even a place mat, a dish cloth and a protective lid!
Once the sacred vessels, paten and chalice, and their symbolic contents, bread and wine, are presented and prepared then the real action of the Mass begins. Commonly called the consecration, the saving death of Jesus Christ on Calvary is made sacramentally present once again on Catholic altars as, through the words of the priest, the bread becomes Christ’s Body and the wine becomes Christ’s Blood. At this solemn moment in the Mass it is vital to observe that the Body of Christ rests on the paten and the Blood of Christ is present in the chalice. This separation of the consecrated Bread from the consecrated Wine is deliberate. The separation recalls that moment of Christ’s death on the Cross when his side was pierced with a lance and blood and water poured out. Christ is present at every Mass as at the moment of his death, as at that moment when on the Cross he atoned for mankind’s sin and restored the human race to God’s good favor. “When we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim your Death, O Lord, until you come again.”
The visual awareness of Christ’s Body and Blood present on our Catholic altars separate as at the moment of his death is overwhelmingly re-assuring and powerfully instructive, announcing that every Mass is indeed a sacrifice, not a new sacrifice every day, but a presenting again of the original saving sacrifice two thousand years ago that atoned for sin and gained entry into heaven. How happy it is that the basic elements of a family meal — table, table cloth, plate, cup, bread, wine, dish cloth and lid, all plainly visible to the faithful — are used to implement this daily renewal of salvation history’s singular event, drawing all together into one believing family.
The Church’s liturgy in its perennial wisdom is only too happy to acknowledge that Christ, of course, did not remain dead but rose triumphant on Easter day. The careful worshipper will notice that just before Holy Communion the celebrant drops a small piece of the consecrated host into the consecrated wine. This gesture could easily be understood as a subtle recognition that Jesus’ Body and Blood did not remain separate as in death but were happily reunited on a glorious Sunday morning near Jerusalem and now share equal glory in the eternal Kingdom of Heaven.


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