Catholic Sacrament Validity Under the Lutheran Sola Fide and According to the Gospel Promise

The Singular Divine Sacrament

promise[1].jpgIn this post I will examine what makes a Catholic sacrament “valid”, under the assumptions of the Lutheran Sola Fide.

Firstly, according to the Lutheran Sola Fide, there is in actual fact only one single sacrament: The preaching of the Gospel promise. This sacramental promise is effective ex opere operato in the sense that the promise is unconditional, and therefore God himself guarantees the fulfilment of the promise, and our response to that promise in the meantime cannot thwart his sovereign will in doing so. However in order for the promise to take effect at the present time and be successfully applied, it needs to be fully trusted by the person to whom the promise is spoken.

But what is the promise? The promise is God himself, the final glorious moment of history, the eschaton. From a Christian perspective, the promise is the resurrected Jesus Christ himself, revealed to the world as a pledge of things to come, and as the gateway through which we may access those good things right now in this present moment. When someone speaks the promise to another, they are bestowing God himself through their speaking, and it depends on the freedom of the listener as to whether or not the divine promise (God himself) will penetrate into their mind, heart and soul.

The Islamic principle of Tahwid and it’s manifestation as the classical theistic principle of divine simplicity apply to the promise just as much as they apply to God, due to this equivalence between the promise and God himself. So in a certain mystical sense, God is the promiser, God is the one to whom the promise is spoken, and God is the promise itself, and these three are all equivalent. Whenever one person proclaims the promise to another person, God is promising God to God. This is in fact a way of framing the Trinitarian relationship: The Father is the one who promises, The son is the promise itself, and the Spirit is the sacramental act of proclaiming the promise. (Notice the similarities to the classical/Nicaean “Father, Word/λογος, divine generation” Trinitarian construal). According to divine simplicity, God speaks his promise corporately to the entire creation, however he personalises this promise for individuals through the preaching and proclamation of the Gospel promise by those individuals.

But what IS the Gospel promise?

54c1321e40688_150124PreachingCAB.jpgThis is all very mystical however. So what does this singular sacrament look like in day to day preaching and evangelism? Well, it is different every time, but essentially always looks something like this:

“I am really with you, I love you, I will never leave you, I will always forgive you, I will save you, I will help you to forever escape the darkness and enter into the light, I will not be saved without you.”

A believer has the power to speak this fundamental sacramental promise with authority and conviction, on behalf of God, to someone who remains wandering in the outer darkness. As already mentioned, the promise is unconditional, guaranteed, and ex opere operato. However in order for the promise to actually bear fruit in the life of the person who hears it, that person must respond in faith. And so we come to the “Requirements for validity” with respect to the sacrament.

In order for the sacrament to be administered with validity, all that is required is

  1. The minister must actively intend to proclaim the divine promise to a sinner.
  2. The sinner must understand the promise and it’s full implications with their mind and intellect.
  3. The recipient must freely trust the promise with their heart and will.

These three points together are the absolute minimum that is required for the sacrament to be valid and efficacious.

Relevant questions may be raised at this point: Who is a valid minister of the sacrament? The minimum answer is “Anyone”. Literally anyone can proclaim the promise to anyone else. However it is “more perfect” (Or sunnah, as Muslims would say) firstly for the minister himself to be a believer in the promise (although this is not strictly necessary), and also for the sacrament to be administered by whoever possesses the highest degree of ordination in any given situation. So for example, in an emergency where a Hindu and Muslim are stuck in a desert and by some miracle both of them come to believe the promise, they have permission and power to speak the promise to each other with divine authority. In another situation, where there are many bishops available, the bishops should perform the sacrament. If there are no bishops, priests will suffice, and so on.

Roughly speaking, the preferential hierarchy which should be followed in the administration of the sacrament is

  1. Pope
  2. Archbishop
  3. Bishop
  4. Priest
  5. Deacon
  6. Subdeacon
  7. One who is confirmed
  8. One who is baptised
  9. One who himself believes the promise
  10. Anyone else

A Gospel Fiqr

keep-calm-and-follow-the-sunnah-2[1].pngIn Islamic terminology, what has been described so far falls under the category of Fard (ie. Obligatory). However there is also the category of Sunnah (ie. Preferred but not essential), which represents conditions which make the sacrament “more perfect”. Sunnah requirements should always be followed if possible. They are not optional, in the sense that you cannot just dispense with them at your whim and pleasure, however they are not strictly necessary, in the sense that during an emergency they may be dispensed with.

This is the point where the traditional seven sacraments come into play, as well as other unique sacramental economies such as the Later Day Saint system of ordinances. Each of these “traditional” sacraments and ordinances are in actual fact merely concrete manifestations of the one single sacrament already described. I will elaborate on how this is the case shortly.

The Sunnah requirements for all of these sacraments and ordinances are described in the various apostolic Christian traditions that are to be found throughout the world: Coptic, Byzantine, Latin, West Syrian, East Syrian, Armenian, Mormon, Lutheran, Anglican etc. And even within these apostolic traditions there are variations in the rulings and laws that are followed, for example in the Byzantine churches there are many major and minor variations in how the sacraments are performed. A broad example would be how Western Christians consider it Sunnah to use unleavened bread during the Eucharist, whereas Eastern Christians consider it Sunnah to use leavened bread. Another example would be how Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran Christians consider it to be Sunnah to baptise by merely sprinkling water on the head of the catechumen or baby in the shape of a cross, whereas many other Christians consider it to be Sunnah and essential to baptise by full immersion. The Latter Day Saints, in their interpretation of Christian law, take this particular requirement so seriously that they actually consider a baptism to be invalid if even a single hair remains above the water.

Let’s examine how the singular sacramental promise manifests under the form of the traditional seven sacraments

The Catholic Sacraments

The Catholic Sacrament of Baptism

502016177_univ_lsr_xl[1].jpgBaptism manifests the promise and intends to convey “Spiritual cleanliness”, “Justification”, “Forgiveness”, “Entry into the New Creation (Eschaton)”. The symbolism is that of dying as one goes under the water, and resurrecting as they come out of the water. (Clearly the symbolism gets a bit muddied in the Christian traditions which don’t practice baptism by immersion)

Requirements for this Catholic Sacrament to be valid:

As long as the minister intends to convey the promise (ie, to forgive, clean and justify), it doesn’t actually matter whether you use water or the Trinitarian formula (“I baptise you in the name of the father and the son and the Holy Spirit”). So baptisms which don’t involve water and don’t use the correct formula are in actual fact still valid. However remember the Sunnah requirements. If you want to perform the sacrament in accord with the rules of sacramental perfection, you should follow an apostolic tradition, and use water and the Trinitarian formula. However in a pinch, any liquid or substance that can be sprinkled will do; the exact words used don’t matter, and the only requirements for validity are those that were spelt out earlier in this article for the singular sacrament of promise.

The Catholic Sacrament of Confession

Confession3-258x258[1].jpgConfession is a sacramental reminder of the promise that was spoken during baptism. It is referred to as the promise of absolution, because in this sacrament the promise is applied specifically to wash away guilt. When we confess our sins and receive the promise of absolution, it is a reminder of the one, single promise that we are loved by God, and he will never abandon us, and generally speaking trusting in this promise leads to an absolution of guilt. After confession, you simply don’t feel guilty any more, you feel free, because you trust the promise that was spoken. Unfortunately many scrupulous Catholics don’t realise that this promise is eternal, and they end up sinning the moment they leave the confessional, forgetting the promise, and thus returning to the state of feeling horrible, soul crushing guilt.

Requirements for this Catholic Sacrament to be valid:

Traditionally, Catholics and Orthodox have understood this sacrament to require a validly ordained priest. However according to the generic rules of validity outlined earlier, this is not strictly necessary, and anyone can validly absolve anyone else in an emergency. However, when striving to follow the Christian tradition perfectly and observe the Sunnah, it is important to leave the administration of this sacrament up to the highest ranked ordained ministers who are present. So if there are priests available, leave this sacrament to them.

As long as the minister intends to speak the promise of absolution and forgiveness, it doesn’t actually matter what formula is used. But if striving to follow Sunnah, it is appropriate to use the Trinitarian formula (“I absolve you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit”)

The Catholic Sacrament of Confirmation

index.jpegConfirmation is the sacrament where election and predestination are promised, via the promise of the indwelling Holy Spirit. Someone who is confirmed has received the promise that God will never abandon them until they successfully arrive in the eschaton.

Requirements for this Catholic Sacrament to be valid:

As with Confession, as long as the minister intends to promise election and predestination, the sacrament is valid; and so long as the one being confirmed trusts the promise, the sacrament is efficacious. There is no specified minimum form and matter. So it doesn’t matter what substance is used (traditionally holy chrism) and it doesn’t matter what sacramental words are spoken, so long as the promise is conveyed and understood correctly. However again, it is more appropriate to use an apostolic verbal formula and holy oil during the administration of this sacrament. In accordance with the apostolic Christian Sunnah.

Again, it does not ultimately matter who performs this sacrament. A Hindu can confirm a Muslim. However it is more appropriate for the highest ranking cleric present to do it. So in the absence of a bishop, leave it to a priest. In the absence of a priest, leave it to a deacon, and so on.

The Catholic Sacrament of Last Rites and Extreme Unction

index (1).jpegLast rites serves as a reminder of the promise at the most crucial moment of a persons life: right before they are about to die. The process of dying is a final battle, where Satan and all his demons swoop in and do battle with Michael and all his angels. The Devil accuses the person who is dying of all of their sins, and so it is helpful for a person to have the gospel promise fresh in their memory as armour and a weapon against this onslaught of evil and temptation.

Requirements for this Catholic Sacrament to be valid:

So long as the minister intends to remind the dying sinner of the gospel promise, the general rules of validity outlined earlier are all that matter: There must be intent, understanding, and faith. And anyone is a valid minister. But to perform the sacrament perfectly it should be done according to the rubrics of a valid apostolic tradition.

The Catholic Sacrament of the Eucharist and the Sacrifice of the Mass

eucharist[1].jpgThe Eucharist manifests the promise for the purpose of giving us a tangible direction of worship, and symbolising our unity with the divine via eating. The particular aspect of the promise that is emphasised is “I am truly with you. And I am uniting myself to you”.

Whenever a consecrated host is eaten by a believer, the heavenly sacrifice and heavenly liturgy are made present. However this sacrifice and liturgy is made more perfectly present by the observation of a rich and symbolic liturgical rite. Such liturgical rites can indeed be invented out of thin air (As Vatican II demonstrated), but respect for tradition is key, and it is preferable to observe a traditional liturgy.

Requirements for this Catholic Sacrament to be valid:

As long as the minister intends to really, truly, tangibly make God present under a manifest/mundane form, this sacrament is valid. Importantly, there is no necessary prescription for form and matter: so it is possible to consecrate literally any object. Rice, wine, bread, whiskey, icecream. Even a rock or a painting could be validly consecrated. However if the consecration is occurring in the context of the mass, the matter should be something edible. Of course there are prudential considerations, such as choosing a substance that doesn’t crumble and won’t be abused. So even though it is possible to consecrate icecream, this is a bad idea as it will lead to Eucharistic desecration as the icecream melts. As before, the exact minister of the sacrament does not matter: it could be a priest or a lay person. Ordination is not necessary. And the words of institution are not necessary either, just so long as the promise and message is accurately conveyed. (There is actually already an apostolic precedent for this view in the Assyrian Church of the East. They do not include the words of institution in their liturgy, and yet it is still recognised as valid by the Catholic magisterium)

These flexible requirements allow a more permanent object to be consecrated for the purpose of extended adoration, such as a crystal or golden statue. At the same time they allow for a wide variety of edible substances to be consecrated, to cater to different allergies and dietary restrictions that recipients of the sacrament may be subject to.

Of course, to follow the requirements of Sunnah, the classical sacramental words of institution should be employed (“This is my body, this is my blood”), and bread and wine should be chosen for the elements. And as per usual, the highest ranking ordained minister should perform the rite. Furthermore, the rubrics of the liturgical rite should be followed as closely as possible, with the correct vestments, hymns, readings and so on chosen. But none of this is necessary, merely preferred.

The Catholic Sacrament of Marriage

married-by-mom-and-dad-arranged-marriage.jpegMarriage is when two spouses speak the promise to each other as individuals. Firstly the groom acts as God in promising salvation and fidelity to his wife, and then the bride acts as God in doing the same back to her new husband. Mystically speaking, this sacrament is the most perfect manifestation of the fact that “God promises salvation to God”.

Requirements for this Catholic Sacrament to be valid:

The husband must intend to promise “I love you and will never leave you until you are saved” to his wife, and vice versa. Gay marriage becomes possible, as well as polygamy and polyamory. No special words are mandated, just so long as the promise is accurately conveyed and trusted by both partners.

Of course to perform the sacrament according to the Sunnah of apostolic Christianity, the groom and bride should both use the “I marry you” sacramental formula and follow whatever other rules are specified by the Christian tradition in question. For example, according to most traditional strands of Christianity, marriage is Sunnah when it is between a man and a woman, but not when it is between two people of the same sex.

Note that under these flexible requirements, it is technically possible for children to validly get married. But obviously there are Sunnah restrictions on this practice, as there are lots of ethical concerns and issues.

The Catholic Sacrament of Holy orders

ordination[1].jpgHoly Orders is actually very similar to the Eucharist, however instead of an inanimate object being consecrated and transubstantiated, a human person becomes consecrated and transubstantiated, in such a way that they manifest God and divine authority for the benefit of some community.

Requirements for this Catholic Sacrament to be valid:

The minister performing the ordination must intend to promise to some third party that they possess the divine authority, and the community must trust that promise. This bestowal of authority more perfectly makes present God to a community. The promise in this case is similar to the Eucharistic promise: “This is (or represents) God; trust him!”

Again, it doesn’t matter who ordains who for validity. So an isolated community can validly raise up an ordained leader from amongst themselves in an emergency. However to follow the Sunnah of the apostolic traditions, the person performing the ordination should be in the line of apostolic succession and higher in authority than the person being ordained.

Interestingly, the validity of the ordination depends on the recognition of that authority by a community. If a priest were to travel to a foreign country and try to exercise his priestly authority in a community other than the one in which he was ordained, he may very well be laughed at. Authority demands recognition, or it is no authority at all.

Interestingly, it becomes possible for someone to be ordained directly by God, apart from apostolic succession. Allegedly this happened in the case of Saint Paul and Joseph Smith. And it becomes possible for an isolated community to raise up a bishop (or perhaps even a pope) ex nihilo.

This principle lends validity to religious hierarchies that naturally develop all around the world. Muslims tend to raise up imams and sheiks from amongst their own ranks, and this is a form of sacramental ordination apart from the Christian traditions. It is the same with Hinduism and Buddhism. Wherever strong, religious leadership emerges, there is usually a valid expression of sacramental ordination in play. Mormon Apostles and Prophets are therefore just as validly ordained as Catholic bishops and priests, and there can technically be more than one Pope, as the authority of the Pope depends on the recognition of the people. However at the top of every hierarchy, whether religious or secular, there is only one God. So above the Pope, and above the Ayatollah, and above the Queen, and above the American President, there is God. Democracy is a form of secular ordination that may or may not have a certain sacramental character, as leaders are chosen by the people and raised up from the people.

Roman Catholic Novus Ordo Latin Rite Sunday Mass at Saint Fiacre’s Leichhardt – “Cannibalism and Human Sacrifice”

As a Roman Catholic, I have the obligation to attend mass on Sundays, and the privilege of attending mass every day of the week if I so choose. Every day all around the world, Latin Catholic parishes offer the sacrifice of the mass. My local parish of St Fiacre’s Leichhardt is no exception.

The sacrifice of the mass is as mysterious to outsiders today as it was 2000 years ago. Rumours of Catholics engaging in cannibalism have proliferated down through history to the present day, as tales of the faithful “eating flesh” and “drinking blood” on Sundays are whispered among those who are not on the inside of this the worlds biggest cult.

But what actually happens behind the doors of a Catholic church during mass?

The Divine Liturgy

Catholics have a very high view of liturgy. Liturgy is basically whatever a group of people does when they come together. Buddhists have liturgy, Muslims have liturgy, Christians have liturgy. However unlike their evangelical brethren – whose liturgy might simply consist of singing a couple of songs, passing around the collection plate and listening to a painfully long sermon – Catholics consider their liturgy to be inspired and literally the Word of God. Catholics believe that God the Holy Spirit is active during the liturgy and divinely reveals himself through the prayers and movements.

IMG_1074.JPGWhen asked why we should believe that the bible is inspired and that God speaks through it, evangelical Christians never have a good response. They are generally brought up to believe in the inspiration of scripture as axiomatic, something not to be questioned or doubted. When pushed on this point, some evangelicals end up apostatising as they realise that “their house is built on sand”, which is to say that their faith has absolutely no rational, reasonable, logical grounding, instead resting entirely on blind faith.

Not so with the Catholic! When a Catholic is asked why the bible is inspired, he can confidently respond with “Because we read it during the liturgy, and if the liturgy is inspired then the bible is too.” Why is the liturgy inspired? That’s a question for another time, but let it be said that the answer is closely related to the holy tradition of the apostolic succession of bishops that stretches back in time all the way to the apostles and the Godman, Jesus Christ himself.

So what is the liturgy, often referred to as “the mass” all about? What actually happens?

The first thing to be grappled with when entering into a mass is the liturgical calendar. The liturgical calendar determines which prayers are to be said on any given day, which portions of scripture are to be read, which psalms are to be recited, as well as the liturgical colours that the priest must wear and the church must be decorated with. Every little detail of the mass is scripted out according to the particular day and liturgical season.

Today just so happens to be the first Sunday of the season of Advent, according to the Novus Ordo Latin Liturgical Calendar. As such the priest wore purple vestments, and certain parts of the church were decorated in purple.

Leichhardt parish is run by the Capuchin Friars. The Capuchins are a group of monks in the Franciscan “mendicant friar” tradition. Mendicant friars are essentially monks who live in the towns and cities, ministering to the average citizens and the poor. In comparison to this there are the “Cloistered monks”, who are monks that isolate themselves from the world, living either in solitude as hermits or in community with each other in monasteries, where they pray all day long.

IMG_1076St Fiacre’s Leichhardt does not have a choir or organ, and musical accompaniment to the mass is provided by members of the Neo-Catechumenal way with guitars and singing (The Neo-cats are another recently formed subgroup within Catholicism who have adopted a somewhat more Charismatic approach to the faith).

Catholics who adhere to “traditionalist” strands of Catholicism often object to the presence of guitars during the liturgy, claiming that it detracts from the reverence and sacredness appropriate to such an important event. There is a cultural battle being waged within the church between the Charismatic and Traditionalist parties for control of the mass, with many Catholic publications labelling the situation as a “crisis”. The traditionalists want to see more Latin, more Gregorian chant, a return of the organ. The Charismatics want to see more English, more modern music, drums and guitars, less scripted movements and more spontaneous prayers.

Aside from the presence of guitars, and a distinct lack of Latin during the liturgy, St Fiacre’s strikes me as a more conservative, traditional parish.

The Liturgy Begins

The Introduction

As the clock strikes 9:30am, some small hand held bells are shaken as a signal that the mass has begun. Everyone stands up as the priest walks up to the altar, and the entire church recites what is called the “Entrance Antiphon”; a short extract from the psalms. Today this was from Psalm 24:1-5:

To you, I lift up my soul, O my God.

In you, I have trusted; let me not be put to shame.

Nor let my enemies exult over me;

and let none who hope in you be put to shame.

After this, once the priest has taken his position before the altar, he recites the Trinitarian formula “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” and makes the sign of the cross with his hand. The congregation follows his motions and at the conclusion of the gesture respond with “Amen”.

The priest continues:

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

To which the people simultaneously and cheerfully respond:

And with your spirit!

The priest goes on:

Brothers and sisters, let us acknowledge our sins, and so prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries.

This is followed by 15 seconds of silence, during which it is expected that everyone attempts to bring to mind their failings and imperfections over the past week, so as to bring them to God and ask for forgiveness.

Eventually the silence is broken as the priest intones the first words of an ancient prayer, the confiteor. The congregation joins in and together everyone recites:

I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do,

at this point everyone strikes their chest three times in coordination with the words that follow:

through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault; therefore I ask blessed Mary ever-Virgin, all the Angels and Saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God.

After this, the priest delivers what is called a “general absolution” as he says

May almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins, and bring us to everlasting life.

And the congregation responds with “Amen”.

IMG_1072After this, the most ancient part of the liturgy is recited, the Kyrie. The priest chants “Lord, have mercy” and the congregation mirrors his words. He then chants “Christ have mercy” and once again the congregation repeats the invocation. Finally he again chants “Lord, have mercy” and once again the congregation returns the same phrase back to him.

The introduction of the liturgy is concluded with what is called a “collect”. The priest says “Let us pray.” and then follows this with a prayer which is unique to that day of the liturgical year. On this particular day, the first Sunday of Advent, the prayer read as follows:

Grant your faithful, we pray; almighty God, the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ with righteous deeds at his coming, so that, gathered at his right hand, they may be worthy to possess the heavenly kingdom. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Immediately the congregation says “Amen” and everyone returns to a sitting posture.

The Liturgy of the Word

At this point what is known as the Liturgy of the Word begins. This is the part of the mass where sections of scripture are read, psalms are prayed and the homily is delivered. This is the part of the mass which imparts inspiration to scripture. If not for this part of the mass, the bible would just be another book. But instead, by virtue of the fact that scripture is read during this section of the liturgy, all of scripture is considered to be inspired.

On a Sunday, there is one Old Testament reading, one New Testament reading, a psalm, and a section from one of the four Gospels. The readings today were Jeremiah 33:14-16, Psalm 24:4-14,  1 Thessalonians 3:12-4:2 and finally some sections from Luke 21.

After each reading, the reader (sometimes called a “lector”) pronounces “The word of the Lord” to which the congregation responds “Thanks be to God”. After the Gospel reading, the congregation instead responds with “Praise to you Lord Jesus Christ”

The congregation sits during the readings, but stands for the Gospel reading, and prior to commencing the reading everyone makes what is known as the “Solemn sign of the cross”. This is a threefold cross motion where you first cross your forehead with your thumb, then cross your lips, then cross your heart. It is a more intense version of the usual sign of the cross.

For the Psalm today, the guitarist set the psalm to music by strumming a Spanish tune and singing the words. The congregation entered into the “Call and response”, reciting the response line at the appropriate intervals.

IMG_1077After all of these readings and liturgical songs, everyone takes their seat as the priest mounts the pulpit to deliver a short homily.

Catholic Sunday homilies typically only last for 15 minutes, which is a stark contrast to the 40-60 minute sermons that are heard in evangelical communities. Today’s homily was about the true meaning of Christmas, and how the modern secular world has completely distorted the ancient holiday into an excuse to engage in an orgy of materialistic spending.

Once the homily had concluded, the priest resumed his throne behind the altar and silently sat, allowing the congregation to spend some time praying and processing what had been said.

After a short time, the priest rose from his seat and launched into the Apostles creed, with the congregation following along:

I believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried; he descended into hell; on the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty; from there he will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen.

After this, a member of the congregation ascended the pulpit and started reciting prayerful petitions, asking God’s favour for the parish, the church, the poor and suffering and the world. As she concluded, the liturgy of the word was brought to an end.

The Liturgy of the Eucharist

At this point we arrived at the heart of the liturgy. It has attracted many names throughout history, including “The Lord’s supper” and “The heavenly banquet”. This is the core of the mass. It is supposedly exactly equivalent to the moment where Christ offers himself to the father for the sins of the world, thus securing the salvation of the entire cosmos. If you go to church and witness the Liturgy of the Eucharist, it is helpful to understand the significance of what you are looking at: you are beholding the salvation of the cosmos, before your very eyes you are seeing it happen and the drama is unfolding in front of you on the altar.

The priest whispers some quiet prayers (which are otherwise spoken audibly if you attend a weekday mass) and then addresses the congregation:

Pray; brethren, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father.

To which the congregation in perfect unison responds:

May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands for the praise and glory of his name, for our good and the good of all his holy Church.

The priest continues:

Accept, we pray; O Lord, these offerings we make, gathered from among your gifts to us, and may what you grant us to celebrate devoutly here below gain for us the prize of eternal redemption. Through Christ our Lord.

And the people all say “Amen”.

At this point the mass enters into the Eucharistic prayer; the most ancient part of the liturgy, stretching all the way back to St Peter himself.

The Lord be with you.

And with your spirit.

Lift up your hearts.

We lift them up to the Lord.

Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.

It is right and just.

It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks, Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God, through Christ our Lord.

For he assumed at his first coming the lowliness of human flesh, and so fulfilled the design you formed long ago, and opened for us the way to eternal salvation, that, when he comes again in glory and majesty and all is at last made manifest, we who watch for that day may inherit the great promise in which now we dare to hope.

And so, with Angels and Archangels, with Thrones and Dominions, and with all the hosts and Powers of heaven, we sing the hymn of your glory, as without end we acclaim:

Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts. heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.

At this point the entire congregation kneels, as the priest enters into the Canon of the mass, the most important prayer of the entire proceedings, which is believed to have the power to change the essence of the bread and wine on the altar into the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ.

To you, therefore, most merciful Father, we make humble prayer and petition through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord: that you accept and bless these gifts, these offerings, these holy and unblemished sacrifices, which we offer you firstly for your holy catholic Church. Be pleased to grant her peace, to guard, unite and govern her throughout the whole world, together with your servant Francis our Pope and Anthony our Bishop, and all those who, holding to the truth, hand on the catholic and apostolic faith.

Remember, Lord, your servants and all gathered here, whose faith and devotion are known to you. For them, we offer you this sacrifice of praise or they offer it for themselves and all who are dear to them: for the redemption of their souls, in hope of health and well-being, and paying their homage to you, the eternal God, living and true.

In communion with those whose memory we venerate, especially the glorious ever-Virgin Mary, Mother of our God and Lord, Jesus Christ, and blessed Joseph, her Spouse, your blessed Apostles and Martyrs, Peter and Paul, Andrew, and all your Saints; we ask that through their merits and prayers, in all things we may be defended by your protecting help.

Therefore, Lord, we pray: graciously accept this oblation of our service, that of your whole family; order our days in your peace, and command that we be delivered from eternal damnation and counted among the flock of those you have chosen.

Be pleased, O God, we pray, to bless, acknowledge, and approve this offering in every respect; make it spiritual and acceptable, so that it may become for us the Body and Blood of your most beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.

On the day before he was to suffer, he took bread in his holy and venerable hands, and with eyes raised to heaven to you, O God, his almighty Father, giving you thanks, he said the blessing, broke the bread and gave it to his disciples, saying:

TAKE THIS, ALL OF YOU, AND EAT OF IT, FOR THIS IS MY BODY, WHICH WILL BE GIVEN UP FOR YOU.

IMG_1073After invoking these words, the priest picks up the wafer and holds it above his head for the congregation to worship and adore, because it is believed that with these words, the bread is no longer bread: it has become the very body of Jesus himself. God in the flesh, dwelling among us.

The priest then drops the Eucharist back onto the altar and falls down in worship. The congregation follows suit.

When the priest rises, he continues the long and lofty prayer:

In a similar way, when supper was ended, he took this precious chalice in his holy and venerable hands, and once more giving you thanks, he said the blessing and gave the chalice to his disciples, saying:

TAKE THIS, ALL OF YOU, AND DRINK FROM IT, FOR THIS IS THE CHALICE OF MY BLOOD, THE BLOOD OF THE NEW AND ETERNAL COVENANT, WHICH WILL BE POURED OUT FOR YOU AND FOR MANY FOR THE FORGIVENESS OF SINS. DO THIS IN MEMORY OF ME.

Once again the priest holds up the chalice that earlier contained wine, now believed to have literally become the blood of Jesus. The entire congregation silently adores and worships for a short time, before the priest returns the chalice to the altar and prostrates, with the congregation following in the motion.

When the priest rises, he intones the words “The mystery of faith” and the congregation responds with

Save us, Saviour of the world, for by your Cross and Resurrection you have set us free.

The priest returns to the long canon prayer:

Therefore, O Lord, as we celebrate the memorial of the blessed Passion, the Resurrection from the dead, and the glorious Ascension in o heaven of Christ, your Son, our Lord, we, your servants and your holy people, offer to your glorious majesty from the gifts that you have given us, this pure victim, this holy victim, this spotless victim, the holy Bread of eternal life and the Chalice of everlasting salvation.

Be pleased to look upon these offerings with a serene and kindly countenance, and to accept them, as once you were pleased to accept the gifts of your servant Abel the just, the sacrifice of Abraham, our father in faith, and the offering of your high priest Melchizedek, a holy sacrifice, a spotless victim. In humble prayer we ask you, almighty God: command that these gifts be borne by the hands of your holy Angel to your altar on high in the sight of your divine majesty, so that all of us, who through this participation at the altar receive the most holy Body and Blood of your Son, may be filled with every grace and heavenly blessing.

To us, also, your servants, who, though sinners, hope in your abundant mercies, graciously grant some share and fellowship with your holy Apostles and Martyrs: with John the Baptist, Stephen, Matthias, Barnabas, and all your Saints; admit us, we beseech you, into their company, not weighing our merits, but granting us your pardon, through Christ our Lord. Through whom you continue to make all these good things, O Lord; you sanctify them, fill them with life, bless them, and bestow them upon us.

IMG_1075The priest then picks up both the chalice and the Eucharist and holds one above the other as he recites:

Through him, and with him, and in him, O God, almighty Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honour is yours, for ever and ever.

This is followed by what is called the great amen. The entire congregation does a long, loud, triumphant, drawn out “Amen”.

The priest returns the Eucharist and the chalice to the altar and invites the congregation to recite the lords prayer.

Once this is completed, the priest commands the congregation to give each other the sign of peace. At this point everyone turns to their neighbour and shakes their hand or performs some other friendly gesture, while saying “Peace be with you”.

Soon after this, the priest launches into the agnus dei, another ancient prayer, and the congregation joins in:

Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us. Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us. Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, grant us peace.

Everyone kneels once again, as the priest breaks the large Eucharistic host in half and holds it up for all to see, saying:

Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb.

To which the congregation responds by beating their chests and reciting the prayer of the centurion:

Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.

At this point the priest consumes the Eucharist, confirming that the sacrifice has been accomplished.

Music is performed as everyone lines up to receive their own portion of the Eucharist. It is a very serious and reverent moment, as the devout congregation believes that they are truly and legitimately eating God.

Once everyone has returned to their seats, the priest enters into the concluding rites:

Let us pray:

May these mysteries, O Lord, in which we have participated, profit us, we pray, for even now, as we walk amid passing things, you teach us by them to love the things of heaven and hold fast to what endures. Through Christ our Lord.

Amen.

The Lord be with you.

And with your spirit.

May almighty God bless you, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Amen

Go forth, the Mass is ended.

Thanks be to God.

And with these words, the Divine liturgy comes to a close and the parishioners slowly pack up and filter out, ready to get on with the rest of their Sunday.

Conclusion

IMG_1079So what actually happened? In essence, the perfect sacrifice of Christ on the Cross was offered up to God the Father by God the Son, and the entire congregation was drawn into this movement by the work of God the Holy Spirit. The Priest served as Christ’s physical hands during the liturgy, and returned to being just another bloke once the liturgy had concluded. Blood was drunk, flesh was eaten, under the form of Bread and Wine. Salvation was sought, salvation was given. The entire cosmos was redeemed and saved.

All things come together during the mass. It is the pinnacle and turning point of history, where before we were falling head first into Hell, now we are flying at full speed towards Heaven. How great it is to witness the securing of salvation before you eyes. What a beautiful blessing. It’s a wonderful experience if you appreciate it, and I highly recommend it to everyone.

Pure Theology – The Doctrine of God as Trinity in Unity: Simplicity and Trinitarianism

1b06a2abe5efbf6f82da06140e8f59c2[1].jpgIn the previous post, we saw how pure reason, unaided by revelation, is able to arrive at an understanding of God which approximates the classical Christian presentation of the Trinity. In that article I used the words “Father”, “Son” and “Spirit” to refer to the three hypostases out of habit, however this was something of a premature move, and perhaps I should have referred to the hypostases simply as “Loved”, “Lover” and “Love”, or “God A”, “God B” and “God C”, or even “God One”, “God Prime” and “God A”. The classically Trinitarian “Father”, “Son” and “Spirit” terminology is incredibly loaded. In the previous article I simply wanted to demonstrate that within the ocean of being, consciousness and bliss that is God, there is both Unity and Plurality, Infinity and Simplicity, and that this coalesces into a divine relationship of love between distinct individuals.

However now I propose to turn to the actual, revealed Christian Trinitarian doctrine, and see what we can make of it in light of divine simplicity and the other concerns of classical theism.

Speculations on Loving, Creating and Begetting

slide-12-creator-god[1].jpgTraditional Trinitarian doctrine states that the Father is eternally unbegotten, and that he eternally begets the Son, who is in turn spoken of as being eternally begotten. Let us immediately invoke the principle of Divine simplicity: The Son is fully God, and the Father is fully God, and therefore anything that can be predicated of the Father or the Son can also be predicated of depersonalised divinity (that is to say, “God”). Notice that we immediately end up with a baffling paradox: God is simultaneously eternally unbegotten, eternally begotten, and the eternal act of begetting. Any devout Muslims reading this are probably having a seizure.

Surah Al-Ikhlas 112

قُلْ هُوَ اللَّهُ أَحَدٌ اللَّهُ الصَّمَدُ لَمْ يَلِدْ وَلَمْ يُولَدْ وَلَمْ يَكُنْ لَهُ كُفُوًا أَحَدٌ

Say, “He is Allah, who is One, Allah, the Eternal Refuge. He neither begets nor is begotten, Nor is there to Him any equal.”

Now, traditionally Christian theology has said that God is free to create or not to create, and this would not compromise his nature as creator. However, God needs to create something in order to be a creator; so if not the cosmos, then what? If God could have not created creation and yet remained the creator, he must have created something within himself, so what is it that he is eternally creating?

Substitute the word “beget” and its relevant conjugations for the word “create”, and we come up with an answer: Divinity creates itself, as God begets God. God is himself the principle of his own existence. God is simultaneously created and uncreated, begotten and unbegotten. His essence is his existence; he both eternally creates himself and is eternally uncreated. God is an ocean of paradox.

In order to make sense of this paradox, the doctrine of infinite plurality in unity comes into play: there are separate and distinct individuals in God, all playing their individual roles. The Father is the source and principle of the Godhead, the eternally uncreated and unbegotten. But the Son is the Fathers knowledge of himself, eternally created and begotten as another distinct divine hypostasis. The Spirit is the relationship between the Father and the Son, and of course, the relationship in question is one of infinite love; the father eternally loving the son into existence.

But here’s the crucial point. As mentioned towards the end of the previous post, the exact actors in the divine equation do not matter – they are interchangeable. God is the lover, the loved and the love itself. All of the hypostases are purely actual and divinely simple and therefore any of the hypostases can stand in for any of the other hypostases in this equation. The crucial thing to realise, is that within the equation itself, there are distinct roles. To make the point clear, let me restate the Trinitarian dogma in more abstract terms:

1. The Lover is God.
2. The Loved is God.
3. The Love is God.
4. The Lover is not the Loved.
5. The Loved is not the Love.
6. The Love is not the Lover.
7. There is only one God.

passionate-kiss-red-tan-peach-love-abstract-by-chakramoon-belinda-capol[1].jpgTo talk in Anthropomorphic terms, any of the infinite persons of God could occupy the role “Lover” at one moment, “Loved” at the next, and “Love” at the moment after that. You can imagine these three roles as “boxes”, and the infinite persons of God as ghostly apparitions which float in and out of these boxes, and migrate between them at will.

However, regardless of “which divine person” is currently occupying the different boxes, the fact remains that the boxes themselves are rigidly defined in relationship to one another: namely, the first box is the eternally uncreated source of the love, the second box is the object of this eternally uncreated love, eternally loved into creation by the first box, and the third box represents the eternal act of love itself. So while divine personhood itself is fluid, and can flow back and forth between the different boxes, the boxes themselves are rigidly defined in a very specific relationship to one another.

Now, all we need to do is tweak the terminology we are using, and the doctrine of the Trinity immediately falls out: The three boxes are the three “hypostases” of God. The first box we call the Father, the second box we call the Son, and the third box we call the Spirit. Suddenly the Trinitarian dogma makes so much sense: The Father hypostasis is not, and simply could not be, the Son hypostasis. And yet by divine simplicity the infinite God who “currently occupies” the Father hypostasis is very the same infinite God that “currently occupies” the Son hypostasis (using language loosely in the mode of condescension to make a point)

Divine simplicity also sheds light on the internal relationships of the Trinity in another way in that in God, to create is to love and to love is to create. So saying that the Father loves the Son, is to say that the Father “creates” the Son, and the Holy Spirit just is that act of creating. And so God is from eternity simultaneously created, uncreated and the free act of creating itself. I suspect that the church fathers adopted the language of “begetting” in order to distinguish this “eternal creation” relationship from the relationship of creation that exists between God and the contingently created cosmos which we occupy.

An East/West Controversy

hqdefault[1].jpgNow we can turn to that most controversial of words: the filioque. The Father begets the Son, and the Spirit proceeds…. from who? The Father alone? Or both the Father and the Son?

Well, the uncreated ground and source of the love between the father and the son is the father, so in that sense, the Spirit proceeds from the father alone. However, the actual act of love between father and son is given and received and reciprocated in both directions: The son loves the father just as the father loves the son. This is a throwback to the idea mentioned earlier that it does not matter which exact divine person sits in which “relationship box”. At the end of the day, God loves God and God is the love. So the Divine person occupying the father box loves the Divine person occupying the son box., and these two divine persons could swap positions and this formula of love would remain true. In other words, the son could take the position of the father and the father could take the position of the son, and the relationship would hold true. If this interchangeability were not possible, it would represent a violation of divine simplicity, because the three hypostases would become three segregated, separate and distinguishable parts of a single divinity. So so long as we are unhooking the infinite divine personhood of God from the individual Trinitarian hypostases, we are free to say that the Spirit proceeds not only from the Father and the Son, but also from the Spirit itself! Because really what we are saying is that God begets God and God proceeds from God.

Of course, if we were being pedantic by abstracting away the infinite divine fluidity of personhood and instead focusing on the concrete relationships between the concrete hypostases, then of course the spirit proceeds from the father alone, because it makes perfect sense to say that the uncreated (Subject: Father) creates (Verb: Spirit) the created (Object: Son), but it makes absolutely no sense to reverse the terms of the sentence and say that the created (Son) creates (Spirit) the uncreated (Father). This is absurd, illogical and incoherent. The Father hypostasis is the ground and source of divine being and the other hypostases, and therefore the Spirit proceeds from him alone.

So the west is correct to note the fluidity of personhood that results from divine simplicity, infinity and plurality: God loves God and God is the love. However the east is correct to insist upon the precise definition of the relationship between the hypostases: The lover is not the loved, the loved is not the love, and the love is not the lover.

To Create is to Love and to Love is to Save

Jesus+-+Touch+me+and+see[1].jpgGod is not merely a creator and a lover, he is also a saviour. But how could God be a saviour if there were nothing to save?

I’m now about to tread onto extremely speculative ground. So far we have seen two ways in which God manifests as a “Subject Verb Object” Trinity: 1. The Father loves the Son. 2. The Father creates the Son. Due to the doctrine of Simplicity, these two formulations, and the terms of these formulations are all entirely interchangeable. I propose to introduce one further Trinitarian formulation: From all eternity, the Father is the saviour of the Son.

The doctrine of the incarnation comes into play at this point. From all eternity, the son assumed fallen human nature, and took onto himself all of our sins and bore the consequences of those sins, namely – damnation, rejection, Hell, non-existence, death. The son willingly embraced this state of damnation on our behalf. But, someone who is in such a state of damnation requires a saviour; someone to deliver them from the darkness. This saviour is the father. So from eternity by his incarnation the son embraces death and non-existence and plunges into it, and from eternity the father rescues him from the Tartaran depths, resurrects him and raises him up to new life and eternal glory.

And so the divine paradoxes continue to proliferate: God is both living and dead, both unity and plurality, both simplicity and complexity, both existing and non-existing, both being and non-being, both light and darkness, both created and uncreated. God takes everything that is opposed to him up into himself and in doing so defeats it and glorifies it.

Incarnation as Trinitarian Identity

Incarnation[1].jpgThe incarnation itself can be expressed as a Trinitarian relationship: The Father (Subject) eternally incarnates (Verb) the Son (Object). The Father is inaccessible, eternally hidden, entirely transcendent, out of reach of our intellect. The Son is accessible, perfectly revealed, completely immanent, and able to relate to us as an equal. The Spirit is the act of the taking on of flesh. All three terms of the equation are equally Divine.

And due to divine simplicity, this Trinitarian relationship is equal to the others. In some analogical way, to create is to love and to love is to create, to love is to save and to save is to love, to save is to incarnate and to incarnate is to save etc etc etc.

And this is where theology becomes Gospel. Because of the doctrine of incarnation, creation has been united to divinity. And so God loves Adam just as much as he loves Jesus, because Adam has been absorbed into the infinite ocean of living love that is God. All creation lives and moves and has its being in Christ, the incarnation of God. The infinite act of creation that flows from Father to Son, now also flows to us. The infinite act of love that flows from the Father to the Son, now also flows to us. The infinite act of Salvation that flows from the Father to the Son, now also flows to us. And the infinite act of incarnating glorification that flows from Father to the Son, now also flows to us. God creates us, loves us, saves us and deifies us, because he has drawn all of us up into his inner divine life where this beautiful theodrama eternally plays out.

Final Implications of Trinitarian Theology

I return now to the question which launched this series: Did God need to create the cosmos? Could the cosmos not have been?

As we have seen in this post, God could have not created us, and yet still remained a creator. God could have not loved us, and yet still remained a lover, God could have not saved us, and yet still remained a saviour. So not only are God’s acts of Creation, Love and Salvation completely and entirely free, gratuitous and uncoerced, but it is within the realm of reasonable possibility that God may have chosen to do otherwise without compromising his nature. But, could God have chosen not to become incarnate?

Incarnation is the bridge where necessity and contingency meet and it is the road where Divinity and Creation collide. Is it necessary that the Father eternally love the Son into being? No, the Father’s act of love towards the Son is completely uncoerced, unforced, free, gratuitous. However if it were not the case that the Father loved the son, then God would not be God. The incarnation brings all of creation into this equation. Is it necessary that God eternally loves creation into existence? No, God’s act of love towards creation is completely uncoerced, unforced, free, gratuitous. However because of the incarnation, if it were not the case that the Father loved creation, then God would not be God.

BeholdTheThrone[1].jpgThis same trick can be repeated for the other Trinitarian relations: Creation, Love, Salvation. The incarnation assumes us up into the divine life of the Trinity, a life where there is no necessity and no compulsion, only freedom. And yet it is also a life of perfect Creation, Love, and Salvation, gracefully bestowed as freely offered, freely accepted gifts between one person and another. By the incarnation, we are taken up to experience the uncoerced necessity of God’s free choice to save us. God chooses to save us, and it no longer makes any sense to speak of him as doing otherwise, because we have been assumed into the divine life itself, where the boundary between freedom and necessity has melted away and God can do nothing but love us with all of the infinite freedom that this love implies.

But, all of this is predicated on the necessity of the incarnation. And so the question becomes pressing, could God have chosen not to incarnate?

Let’s once more invoke divine simplicity: If the Father freely and gratuitously loves the Son, and yet it does not make any reasonable sense to imagine the Father not freely and gratuitously loving the Son, then we must imagine the incarnation in the same way. The Father freely and gratuitously incarnates the Son, and it does not make any reasonable sense to imagine things happening any other way.

In this way, the conclusion of the first post hasn’t changed: God does not create out of some sort of necessity or out of obedience to some higher principle, but if he didn’t create, he would not be God, and it is therefore nonsensical to imagine that the cosmos might not have been. However the crucial point here is the incarnation: if not for the fact that divinity eternally united itself to creation, creation very well might not have been, because God contains everything within himself and is completely self-sufficient. But because of the incarnation, created reality is assumed into the divine life, and the so the necessary freedom of God has become applicable.

And once more we finish on a note of Gospel: We have been assumed into the divine drama. If within this drama the Father would not abandon the Son to Hell and everlasting torments, instead resurrecting him to new life and glory, then how much more will he save his creation; perfectly uniting us to Christ by faith, sacrament and theosis? Could God leave anyone or anything behind? Only if God could abandon himself, for he has united himself to the creation and everything in it. But we know that he will not abandon himself, and so we know that he will not abandon any of us. All creation, and everything and everyone within creation are destined for glory and beatitude. I leave the final word to God himself:

If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him?Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies;who is to condemn? Is it Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us?Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,

“For thy sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers,nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

(Return to first article)

The Divine Liturgy in the Book of Hebrews – The Sacrifice of the Mass and the Cross

Hebrews 10:1-18 RSV-CE

10 For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices which are continually offered year after year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered? If the worshipers had once been cleansed, they would no longer have any consciousness of sin. But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sin year after year. For it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins.

Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said,

“Sacrifices and offerings thou hast not desired,
but a body hast thou prepared for me;
in burnt offerings and sin offerings thou hast taken no pleasure.
Then I said, ‘Lo, I have come to do thy will, O God,’
as it is written of me in the roll of the book.”

When he said above, “Thou hast neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), then he added, “Lo, I have come to do thy will.” He abolishes the first in order to establish the second. 10 And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

11 And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13 then to wait until his enemies should be made a stool for his feet. 14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. 15 And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying,

16 “This is the covenant that I will make with them
after those days, says the Lord:
I will put my laws on their hearts,
and write them on their minds,”

17 then he adds,

“I will remember their sins and their misdeeds no more.”

18 Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.

When attacking Catholicism, Protestants will often rush to this passage of Hebrews to assert that Christ’s sacrifice occurred exactly once, and that the repeated sacrifice of the mass is therefore redundant and blasphemous. I personally have found it hard to respond to this attack. For the longest time I have had an intuitive understanding of the Catholic doctrine surrounding the sacrifice of the mass, but I have always struggled to articulate it in an apologetic context. When I try to explain how the mass is equivalent to the sacrifice of the cross, and yet not a repetition of that sacrifice I simply get tongue tied. I will set down some reflections in this post that may help shed some light on the issue.

The Heavenly Liturgy

A relevant question to ask: what exactly is Jesus doing up there in heaven? What does it mean that he is our great high priest? Hebrews 8 is informative:

Hebrews 8:1-7 RSV-CE

Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the sanctuary and the true tent which is set up not by man but by the Lord. For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; hence it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer. Now if he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all, since there are priests who offer gifts according to the law. They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly sanctuary; for when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, “See that you make everything according to the pattern which was shown you on the mountain.” But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry which is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion for a second.

Sacrifice of the MassSo Jesus is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, he is a minister in the sanctuary and the true tent. What is he doing? He is perpetually, eternally and timelessly offering to the father his “once for all” sacrifice of Calvary. Basically, Jesus is currently up in heaven, eternally saying the sacrifice of the mass. But it is not a sacrifice of the mass like anything you’ve ever seen before: our masses and divine liturgies here on earth take many different forms and expressions, and none of them perfectly reflect the divine liturgy that is currently taking place up in heaven. The liturgy up in heaven is performed in a liturgical language that we do not understand, the movements and rituals involved are beyond our comprehension. Angels are serving and ministering at the heavenly altar. The entire church is the congregation, surrounding the altar and perfectly united to the sacrifice being eternally offered upon it.

Our sacrifices of the mass and divine liturgies here on earth manifest this one, single heavenly liturgy such that we here on earth are able to spiritually unite ourself to the hidden, heavenly reality.

The book of Hebrews is pretty insistent that there is now no longer any need for priests and sacrifices, because Christ performs all the necessary duties as our great high priest up in heaven. So how are we to understand the existence of Catholic and Orthodox priests? The answer: Catholic and Orthodox priests have the honour of sharing or “participating” in Christ’s Melchizedek priesthood. The Catholic priest is an “Alter Christus” – another Christ.

So when a priest says the sacrifice of the mass here on earth, what is actually happening is that he is manifesting the one, divine, heavenly liturgy in a certain way here on earth. This manifestation may take many different forms: the Byzantine liturgy, the Coptic liturgy, the Latin mass, etc. All these manifestations are different and unique, and yet they are intimately connected by the fact that all of them are manifesting the one, eternal, heavenly liturgy that is currently taking place up in heaven. Within this earthly manifestation of the heavenly liturgy, the priest represents Christ – he is an “Alter Christus”. In reality the only priest is Christ, but our ordained ministers have the honour of being his earthly hands in the offering of the Eucharist.

Sacrifice of the MassWhen the heavenly liturgy manifests on earth, the priest takes the place of Christ. A sacrifice of the mass or Divine Liturgy is like a sacramental, liturgical window into the heavenly liturgy: we are able to perceive hidden, heavenly realities with our senses. The liturgical language used during the sacrifice of the mass represents the divine, ineffable, incomprehensible liturgical language employed by Christ up in heaven (Which is one reason why it is appropriate to use Latin, or some other language which not many people understand during the liturgy – this more faithfully reflects the ineffable essence of the heavenly liturgy). The incense, bells, chant, movements, bread and wine engage all the senses and draw us into the hidden realities of the heavenly liturgy where Christ presides as our one high priest.

The Once For All Sacrifice

The earthly liturgy manifests the heavenly liturgy in such a perfect way, that the earthly liturgy can truly be said to be a sacrifice. It is important to keep in mind that the sacrifice itself happens only once: it was performed around 2000 years ago by Christ on the cross. However a Catholic sacrifice of the mass manifests this single sacrifice such that we are able to be liturgically drawn into it and unite ourselves to it more closely. Similarly, the earthly liturgy manifests the offering of the sacrifice which is eternally happening up in heaven, with Christ as both victim and high priest. This offering happens only once, as per the book of Hebrews, however it is manifested many times throughout history.

So how should we deal with the Protestant objection that the sacrifice of the mass is “re-sacrificing Christ”? This is a misunderstanding. Christ is sacrificed only once, and he is offered up only once; however this sacrifice and offering is manifested here on earth many times. The sacrifice occurred on the cross, and the offering up of that sacrifice occurs up in heaven during the heavenly liturgy, with Christ as the priest. However during the sacrifice of the mass, this heavenly liturgy is made manifest in a sacramental, liturgical, tangible way, so that we who are still alive here on earth are able to be drawn into the action. During the sacrifice of the mass, we truly witness both the sacrifice, and the offering of the sacrifice, however in reality it is an eternal event and it is inaccurate to say that it is happening “again”.

1458917927[1].jpgAn imperfect analogy is prudent: If you record a soccer game, and then replay it later, the game is manifested for you in a much more real and tangible way than if you had depended merely on your memory to recall the events of the game. When you record a soccer game, you can “replay” the game and witness the exact events all over again with perfect accuracy. However you would have to be out of your mind to say that the game is literally “happening again” when you press play on your recording. Similarly with the sacrifice of the mass: the sacrifice of the mass is like the ultimate “recording” of the heavenly liturgy: it manifests the original event so perfectly that it is as if we are actually present. However it is inaccurate to say that the sacrifice is “happening again”. It is instead a “memorial”, but it is a memorial which is so completely perfect that it is as if we are literally present at the original event. In the sacrifice of the mass we are liturgically remembering Christ’s sacrifice, and the offering of that sacrifice, however this memorial is so perfect that we may as well be witnessing the sacrifice itself.

Summary

Sacrifice of the MassChrist is not sacrificed many times – he was sacrificed only once. And this sacrifice is not offered many times – it is offered only once. This offering of the sacrifice occurs eternally up in heaven in the form of the heavenly liturgy, with Christ as the high priest and the entire church as the congregation. However our earthly liturgies manifest this heavenly liturgy. Our earthly liturgies serve as a perfect memorial of the single act of sacrifice and offering, and they so perfectly manifest the sacrifice and the offering that it is as if we are truly present and witnessing the event first hand.

So the sacrifice of Christ happened once and the offering happens once in the heavenly liturgy, and the manifestation of this heavenly liturgy occurs many times in the form of our many and varied divine liturgies.