The Holy Mass is the Sacramentum Crucis, the Sacrament of the Cross: this is its essential definition. If the Holy Mass is the Sacramentum Crucis, then we need to consider what a sacrament is.
A sacrament is a sign perceptible to the senses that signifies, and makes present by signifying, the reality to which it points. Thus, the two separate species, bread and wine, signify the reality of the separation of the body and blood of Christ on the Cross; that is, they signify the reality of the act of the sacrifice of the Cross. By signifying this reality, the sacramental signs make this reality present — as theologians say — in a sacramental way.
The Holy Mass is the sacramental form of the sacrifice of Golgotha. We can also say that the Holy Mass is the Real Presence of the sacrifice of Golgotha, the Real Presence of Christ’s immolated body and outpoured blood. This act of sacrifice is the greatest act that has ever taken place or will ever take place in human history.
Sacrifice in the biblical sense is the greatest act of love, and in Christ’s oblation on the Cross this act has been carried out not simply by a man, but by the God-Man. The sacrifice of the Cross, which is primarily an interior but at the same time a visible act, was — thanks to the hypostatic union — accomplished by the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. It is ascribed not to the nature but to the person, and therefore, to the Divine Person of Jesus Christ.
The act of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross was a divine and human act. As the Council of Chalcedon teaches, the two natures in Christ — divine and human — are united without confusion, change, division, or separation. The act of sacrifice on the Cross is primarily the highest expression of the love of Christ, the Incarnate Son of God, for His Father, and at the same time it is the highest expression of the love of Christ the Redeemer for us men. All three Persons of the Holy Trinity were in some way involved in this sacrifice. The Holy Mass is the same divine-human sacrifice of Christ, yet involving the Church hic et nunc, i.e., in this concrete time and place, in order to allow all the members of Christ’s Mystical Body to participate, in a sacramental but real way, in the Incarnate God’s unique, ever-present and eternal self-sacrificing act of love.
St. Thomas formulated the truth of the sacrificial character of the Eucharistic sacrament in these words:
Since this is the sacrament of Our Lord’s Passion, it contains in itself the Christ who suffered. Thus, whatever is an effect of Our Lord’s Passion is also an effect of this sacrament. For this sacrament is nothing other than the application of Our Lord’s Passion to us.Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of John, Lecture 6, n. 52.
The Magisterium of the Church teaches us, clearly and certainly, the truth about the essentially sacrificial character of the Holy Mass and the identity between the sacrifice of the Cross and the sacrifice of the Holy Mass.
The Mass is the living re-presentation of the sacrifice of the Cross, as St. Thomas says: “Celebratio autem huius sacramenti . . . imago quaedam est repraesentativa passionis Christi quae est vera eius immolatio”: the celebration of this sacrament is a certain image and representation of the Passion of Christ, which is His true sacrifice. Pope Pius XII explains the true meaning of the “commemoration” of the sacrifice of the Cross in the Mass in this way:
The august sacrifice of the altar, then, is no mere empty commemoration of the passion and death of Jesus Christ, but a true and proper act of sacrifice, whereby the High Priest by an unbloody immolation offers Himself [as] a most acceptable victim to the Eternal Father, as He did upon the Cross.
The Mystery of the Cross
The mystery of the Cross is enclosed in a white disk of unleavened bread and in a gem of wine. In the reiterated rite of the Mass, the one sacrifice of the Redemption expands but does not multiply, is outpoured but not dissipated; in contact with the multiplicity it is not disintegrated but aggregates; made coextensive with all times and places, it unifies them. The Mass is the prolongation, the pleroma of the Cross: Altare plenitudo Crucis; it is the
The essence of the sacrifice of the Mass lies in the interior and exterior oblation of the Body and Blood of Christ, joined with the mystical immolation made in the name of Christ by His ministers, the priests.
The sacrifice of the Cross speaks to us of the most fruitful love, and its fruits are infinite because they are borne by a Divine Person. In the Holy Mass, it is principally Christ who offers, who continues to offer Himself interiorly by the same act with which He offered Himself on the Cross. The fruits of the sacrifice of the Cross are applied to all our needs, especially the purification and sanctification of our souls.
The most beautiful fruit, however, is Holy Communion. From the tree of the Cross we gather the life-giving fruit of the immolated body and outpoured blood of Christ, offered to us as our true spiritual nourishment, as the medicine of immortality and pledge of our resurrection. Holy Communion enables us to see the intimate connection between sacrifice and banquet.
The Crowning Act of Christian Worship
The Mass is to us the crowning act of Christian worship. The altar, and not the pulpit or the choir or the organ, is the center of worship, for there is re-enacted the memorial of His Passion. Its value does not depend on him who says it, or on him who hears it; it depends on Him who is the One High Priest and Victim, Jesus Christ our Lord. With Him we are united, in spite of our nothingness; in a certain sense, we lose our individuality for the time being; we unite our intellect and our will, our heart and our soul, our body and our blood, so intimately with Christ, that the Heavenly Father sees not so much us with our imperfection, but rather sees us in Him, the Beloved Son in whom He is well pleased.
The Mass is for that reason the greatest event in the history of mankind; the only Holy Act which keeps the wrath of God from a sinful world, because it holds the Cross between heaven and earth, thus renewing that decisive moment when our sad and tragic humanity journeyed suddenly forth to the fullness of supernatural life.
What is important at this point is that we take the proper mental attitude toward the Mass, and remember this important fact, that the Sacrifice of the Cross is not something which happened nineteen hundred years ago. It is still happening. It is an abiding drama on which the curtain has not yet rung down.
Editor’s note: This article is adapted from a chapter in Bishop Schneider’s book, The Holy Mass: Steps to Restore the Centrality of God in the Liturgy. It is available from your local Catholic bookstore or online through Sophia Institute Press.
image: Missale Romanum, Luxembourg / Kent Johansson / Shutterstock