A New View of Sacrifice

THE HOLY SACRIFICE OF THE MASS. A Search for an Acceptable Notion of Sacrifice. By Michael McGuckian, S.J. (Liturgy Training Publications/Hillenbrand Books, 1800 North Hermitage Ave., Chicago, Ill. 60622, 2005), x + 134 pp. PB $12.95.

According to the New Testament, especially in Ephesians and Hebrews, the death of Jesus on the Cross on Calvary was a sacrifice to God the Father made by Jesus Christ, the God-Man, in reparation for sin and the salvation of those who would believe in him. Jesus was understood to offer that sacrifice in a special, mystical way at the Last Supper when he said to his apostles, “Do this in memory of me.” The Church did just that for 1500 years until the time of the great revolt of the Protestants in the 16th century, especially Luther, Calvin and Melanchton who denied that the Mass is a sacrifice.

The most that they would grant is that the Mass is a type of memorial of thanksgiving to God for the sacrifice of the Cross, while denying that the Mass itself is a sacrifice. The Catholic Church responded during the Council of Trent and declared dogmatically that the Mass is “a true and proper sacrifice” (D 948).

For the last 400 years Catholic theologians have been trying to explain why and how the Mass is a true and proper sacrifice and how it is related to the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross 2000 years ago. The problem is that the Church has never defined precisely what it means by the word “sacrifice.” The notion is based on the practices in the Jewish Temple of offering different kinds of sacrifices—holocausts, sin offerings, communion sacrifices, and so forth. But which one is the best to describe the sacrifice of the Cross? Or is the Cross a combination of Temple sacrifices?

In animal sacrifices there was the killing and the offering of the animal to the priest; the priest then poured out the blood and some of the animal was burned on the altar; afterward there was a meal and the animal was eaten. In offerings of grain and wine, some of it was destroyed as a sign of the offering and subjection to God and the rest was eaten.

In the Mass we have the three essential parts of Offertory, Consecration and Communion. The Church has always said that the Mass is a sacrifice—and defined it at Trent—but it is not easy to see why and how that is the case. The essence of the sacrifice takes place in the Consecration when the priest says over the bread, “This is my Body,” and over the wine, “This is the chalice of my blood.” In that instant Christ becomes present on the altar under the species of bread and wine by the marvelous change called “transubstantiation.” This means that the whole substance of bread and wine is changed into the substance of the glorified Christ in heaven. The separation of the two symbolizes the separation of Jesus’ blood from his body on Calvary and in a mystical way, by the power of God, makes the sacrifice of Calvary present on the altar at each Mass.

The Church teaches that the Mass does not add anything to Calvary, since the sacrifice of Calvary had infinite value for the salvation of mankind. In some mysterious way the Mass is a re presentation of Calvary. Other words used for this by theologians and catechisms are “renewal” and “repetition.”

Most theology textbooks and catechisms consider the death of Jesus on the Cross as the sacrifice, like the killing of the animals in the Temple. Connected to that was his internal offering of himself to the Father in reparation for sins. Fr. McGuckian thinks that this view is defective and does not adequately describe the sacrifice of Calvary. He calls this the “one-act model” of sacrifice which has been dominant in Catholic theology since at least the 16th century.

In place of that, he proposes a “three-part model” of sacrifice that will apply equally to the Mass and to Calvary. The three parts are the Offertory, Consecration and Communion. The new explanation comes in his application of the three parts to the death of Jesus on Calvary. McGuckian proposes that Jesus’ death on the Cross corresponds to the Offertory, his entrance into heaven corresponds to the Consecration and the heavenly banquet of the Beatific Vision is the Communion. In his view the Mass images this and so is a true and proper sacrifice.

The author gives us a truly challenging new perspective on the Sacrifice of the Mass and the Sacrifice of Calvary. My brief summary does not do his book complete justice and may not be totally accurate. If you are interested in sacramental theology, and especially in the notion of sacrifice, then I suggest you read the book and evaluate his arguments. The book offers a proposal to clarify the theological notion of sacrifice—that is stated clearly in the subtitle of the book.

In conclusion I must say that I am not convinced by his presentation of a new view of sacrifice, especially the point that the death of Jesus on the Cross is only the offering and not the complete sacrifice. But the book makes a positive contribution to sacramental theology and is recommended for those who wish to go deeper into it. Perhaps this study will contribute to a clearer notion of sacrifice.

Kenneth Baker, S.J.
Ramsey, N.J.

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