To understand the Mass, we must first understand what a sacrifice is. It is the offering of a victim by a priest to God alone, and the destruction of it in some way to acknowledge that He is the Creator and Lord of all things. The word sacrifice means “something made sacred.” It is a gift that a priest offers to God as a sign that those offering belong entirely to Him. The gift is destroyed to show God that the people offering the sacrifice wish to belong to Him alone and that they want to make up for the wrong they have done Him. Therefore, sacrifice expresses obedience and atonement.
A sacrifice requires an altar, a visible gift or victim, and a priest. It must be offered to God alone and must be an outward sacrificial offering — by which it is consecrated to God — as well as an inward offering of the heart — to acknowledge that God is the Creator and Lord of all.
A group of persons may pray by sign, offering a gift to God in token of their inward dispositions. They do this through someone elected or appointed to act in their name — that is, through a priest. When the priest makes the offering in the name of the people, he puts the visible gift on the altar with a certain ceremony or holy action. In this way, the gift passes at once from the ownership of the people into the possession of God and thereby becomes sacred or consecrated. In other words, it is offered as a sacrifice to the Lord.
A sacrifice is more than public prayer; it is a public action, the greatest act of public worship. By it we acknowledge that God is the Creator and Lord of all and that we depend entirely upon Him.
The outward offering of the gift signifies the inward offering or consecration of our life to God. From the earliest times, men have offered God two kinds of gifts. They were either unbloody gifts, such as corn, oil, bread, or the firstfruits of the fields; or bloody gifts, such as sheep, lambs, calves, or heifers. These gifts signified human life, and by publicly offering such gifts, the people wished to express by sign that they consecrated, or gave back to God, their own life, which they had received from Him.
The first children of Adam and Eve were Cain and Abel. Cain grew up to be a farmer, and Abel became a shepherd. Cain and Abel offered gifts to God as a sacrifice. Cain offered fruit and grain; Abel offered a lamb of his flock. They offered these gifts to God by burning them. This expressed that they depended on God for everything as their Creator and that they were willing to obey Him in all His laws. Since Abel could not take his own life to show that He depended upon God, he offered the life of a lamb, which took his place. All this was a sign that Abel wanted to give himself and all he had to God, and that he wanted to be obedient.
When God saw that Cain’s heart was full of evil, He was not pleased with his gifts. But God was pleased with Abel’s gifts because his heart was full of goodness, and he offered his gifts to God with a better spirit.
Sacrifice expresses atonement for sin. By sin man offended God and deserved the penalty of death. By killing an animal and offering it to God, man wanted to show that he was willing to devote his life to God in obedient service in atonement for his sins.
In the ceremonies of the annual day of atonement in the Old Testament, the high priest laid his hands upon the head of a scapegoat as a sign that he was putting upon this animal all the sins of the people who stood around him. Then the scapegoat was led forth and driven into the desert, where it perished. This was a sign that the people’s sins were destroyed with the life of the animal.
After the Deluge, Noah built an altar and offered to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving. Melchizedek, the king of Salem and a priest of the Most High God, offered a sacrifice of bread and wine. Abraham was ready to offer his only son in sacrifice. Moses, too, built an altar at the foot of the mountain and offered sacrifices to the Lord. At the dedication of the Temple, King Solomon offered a great number of victims in sacrifice. The prophet Elijah prayed to God to accept his sacrifice. In obedience to the Lord’s command, the Israelites each offered two lambs in sacrifice at the Temple of Jerusalem, one in the morning and another in the evening.
Christ’s Sacrifice of the Cross redeemed you
These sacrifices of animals, offered by the Jews and even by pagans, could not of themselves take away sin, but they did express how earnestly man longed for a real redemption. After Adam’s Fall, the souls of all men were soiled by Original Sin. Someone had to come from Heaven to redeem the world.
Through God’s infinite mercy, this redemption was brought about when Jesus Christ, the Son of God, became man and offered Himself as a sacrifice to take away the sins of the world. Jesus could represent us, because He was man. As man, He could die in atonement for sin, and, as God, He could offer a sacrifice of limitless value. Our sins against God demanded an atonement that only God could make because the offense was infinite. These sufferings and death of the God-Man on the Cross are the one perfect sacrifice that takes away the sins of the world.
St. Leo I wrote, “He is our true and eternal High Priest, whose governance can have neither change nor end, He whose type was shown by the priest Melchizedek, not offering Jewish victims to God, but offering the sacrifice of that mystery, which our Redeemer consecrated in His own Body and Blood.”
The Sacrifice of the New Testament is Jesus Christ Himself, who by His death on the Cross offered Himself to His heavenly Father for us. The six points required for a sacrifice are found in the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross. The altar was the Cross. The sacrificial gift was the Body and Blood of Christ, the Lamb of God Himself. The priest was Christ Himself, the High Priest who stood as Mediator before God on behalf of sinful mankind. He offered Himself in sacrifice to the offended God, the Most Holy Trinity, out of love and pity for us.
The outward offering was made when, as Redeemer, Jesus freely offered His Blood for mankind as a sacrifice, while submitting to the forcible shedding of His Blood by His executioners. His tormentors were the instruments; Christ was the High Priest, and God was pleased only in what His Son did. The inward offering that Jesus made to God on the Cross was His Sacred Heart. By sin, men had dishonored God.
By His sacrifice on the Cross, Jesus gave back to God once more the honor that is due to Him. Jesus appeased God’s just anger, reconciled us sinners with God, and so redeemed us. By His Sacrifice on the Cross, Jesus adored God as His Lord and gave Him honor and praise in the fullest measure.
Pope Pius XII says,
“To the unbloody gift of Himself, under the appearance of bread and wine, Our Savior, Jesus Christ, wished, as a special proof of His intimate and infinite love to add the bloody Sacrifice of the Cross. Indeed, in His way of acting, He gave an example of that sublime charity which He set before His disciples as the highest measure of love: ‘Greater love than this no one has, that one lay down his life for his friends’ (John 15:13). Wherefore, the love of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, by the Sacrifice of Golgotha, clearly and richly proves the love of God Himself: ‘In this we have come to know His love, that He laid down His life for us; and we likewise ought to lay down our life for the brethren’ (John 2:16). And in fact Our Divine Redeemer was nailed to the Cross more by His love than by the force of the executioners. His voluntary holocaust is the supreme gift which He bestowed on each man according to the concise words of the Apostle: ‘Who loved me, and gave Himself up for me’ (Gal. 2:20).”
This article is adapted from a chapter in Fr. Lovasik’s The Basic Book of the Eucharist. It is available as a paperback or ebook from Sophia Institute Press.