Understanding the Institution of the Mass

Many non-Catholics do not understand the Mass. Television evangelist Jimmy Swaggart wrote, “The Roman Catholic Church teaches that the Holy Mass is an expiatory sacrifice, in which the Son of God is actually sacrificed anew on the cross” (Swaggart, Catholicism and Christianity). The late Loraine Boettner, the dean of anti-Catholic Fundamentalists, said the Mass is a “jumble of medieval superstition.” 

Vatican II puts the Catholic position succinctly: 

“At the Last Supper, on the night he was betrayed, our Savior instituted the Eucharistic Sacrifice of his Body and Blood. He did this in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the cross throughout the centuries until he should come again, and so to entrust to his beloved spouse, the Church, a memorial of his death and resurrection: a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, a paschal banquet in which Christ is consumed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 47). 

Even a modestly informed Catholic can set an inquirer right and direct him to biblical accounts of Jesus’ final night with his disciples. Turning to the text, we read, “And he took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me’” (Luke 22:19). 

The Greek here and in the parallel Gospel passages (Matt. 26:26; Mark 14:22) reads: Touto estin to soma mou. Paul’s version differs slightly: Touto mou estin to soma (1 Cor. 11:24). They all translate as “This is my body.” The verb estin is the equivalent of the English “is” and can mean “is really” or “is figuratively.” The usual meaning of estin is the former (check any Greek grammar book), just as, in English, the verb “is” usually is taken literally. 

Fundamentalists insist that when Christ says, “This is my body,” he is speaking figuratively. But this interpretation is precluded by Paul’s discussion of the Eucharist in 1 Corinthians 11:23–29 and by the whole tenor of John 6, the chapter where the Eucharist is promised. The Greek word for “body” in John 6:54 is sarx, which means physical flesh, and the word for “eats” (trogon) translates as “gnawing” or “chewing.” This is certainly not the language of metaphor. 


No “figurative presence”

The literal meaning can’t be avoided except through violence to the text—and through the rejection of the universal understanding of the early Christian centuries. The writings of Paul and John reflect belief in the Real Presence. There is no basis for forcing anything else out of the lines, and no writer tried to do so until the early Middle Ages. Christ did not institute a Figurative Presence. Some Fundamentalists say the word “is” is used because Aramaic, the language Christ spoke, had no word for “represents.” Those who make this feeble claim are behind the times, since, as Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman showed a century ago, Aramaic has about three dozen words that can mean “represents.” 


The Catholic position

The Church teaches that the Mass is the re-presentation of the sacrifice of Calvary, which also is invariably misunderstood by anti-Catholics. The Catholic Church does not teach that the Mass is a re-crucifixion of Christ, who does not suffer and die again in the Mass. 

Yet, it is more than just a memorial service. John A. O’Brien, writing in The Faith of Millions, said, “The manner in which the sacrifices are offered is alone different: On the cross Christ really shed his blood and was really slain; in the Mass, however, there is no real shedding of blood, no real death; but the separate consecration of the bread and of the wine symbolizes the separation of the body and blood of Christ and thus symbolizes his death upon the cross. The Mass is the renewal and perpetuation of the sacrifice of the cross in the sense that it offers [Jesus] anew to God . . . and thus commemorates the sacrifice of the cross, reenacts it symbolically and mystically, and applies the fruits of Christ’s death upon the cross to individual human souls. All the efficacy of the Mass is derived, therefore, from the sacrifice of Calvary” (306). 


“Once for all”

The Catholic Church specifically says Christ does not die again—his death is once for all. It would be something else if the Church were to claim he does die again, but it doesn’t make that claim. Through his intercessory ministry in heaven and through the Mass, Jesus continues to offer himself to his Father as a living sacrifice, and he does so in what the Church specifically states is “an unbloody manner”—one that does not involve a new crucifixion. 


The Language of Appearances

Loraine Boettner mounts another charge. In chapter eight of Roman Catholicism, when arguing that the meal instituted by Christ was strictly symbolic, he gives a cleverly incomplete quotation. He writes, “Paul too says that the bread remains bread: ‘Wherefore whosoever shall eat the bread and drink the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner. . . . But let each man prove himself, and so let him eat of the bread, and drink of the cup’ (1 Cor. 11:27–28).” 

The part of verse 27 represented by the ellipsis is crucial. It reads, “shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.” Why does Boettner omit this? Because to be guilty of someone’s body and blood is to commit a crime against his body and blood, not just against symbols of them. The omitted words clearly imply the bread and wine become Christ himself. 

Profaning the Eucharist was so serious that the stakes could be life and death. In the next two verses (29–30), Paul states, “For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.” 

Boettner’s omitted statements reveal that when Paul uses the term “bread,” he’s using the language of appearances, what scholars call “phenomenological language.” In this form of speech, something is described according to how it appears, rather than according to its fundamental nature. “The sun rose,” is an example of phenomenological language. From our perspective, itappears that the sun rises, though we know that what we see is actually caused by the earth’s rotation. 

Scripture uses phenomenological language regularly—as, for example, when it describes angels appearing in human guise as “men” (Gen. 19:1-11; Luke 24:4–7, 23; Acts 1:10–11). Since the Eucharist still appears as bread and wine, Catholics from Paul’s time on have referred to the consecrated elements using phenomenological language, while recognizing that this is only description according to appearances and that it is actually Jesus who is present. 

We are not merely symbolically commemorating Jesus in the Eucharist, but actually participating in his body and blood, as Paul states, “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor. 10:16). 


The Manner of Melchizedek

The Old Testament predicted that Christ would offer a true sacrifice to God using the elements of bread and wine. In Genesis 14:18, Melchizedek, the king of Salem (that is, Jerusalem) and a priest, offered sacrifice under the form of bread and wine. Psalm 110 predicted Christ would be a priest “after the order of Melchizedek,” that is, offering a sacrifice in bread and wine. We must look for some sacrifice other than Calvary, since it was not under the form of bread and wine. The Mass meets that need. 

Furthermore, “according to the order of Mel-chizedek” means “in the manner of Melchizedek.” (“Order” does not refer to a religious order, as there was no such thing in Old Testament days.) The only “manner” shown by Melchizedek was the use of bread and wine. A priest sacrifices the items offered—that is the main task of all priests, in all cultures, at all times—so the bread and wine must have been what Melchizedek sacrificed. 

Fundamentalists sometimes say Christ followed the example of Melchizedek at the Last Supper, but that it was a rite that was not to be continued. They undermine their case against the Mass in saying this, since such an admission shows, at least, that the Last Supper was truly sacrificial. The key, though, is that they overlook that Christ said, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). Clearly, he wasn’t talking about a one-time thing. 

“Do this in remembrance of me” can also be translated as “Offer this as my memorial sacrifice.” The Greek term for “remembrance” is anamnesis, and every time it occurs in the Protestant Bible (whether in the New Testament or the Greek Old Testament), it occurs in a sacrificial context. For example, it appears in the Greek translation of Numbers 10:10: “On the day of your gladness also, and at your appointed feasts, and at the beginnings of your months, you shall blow the trumpets over your burnt offerings and over the sacrifices of your peace offerings; they shall serve you for remembrance [anamnesis] before your God: I am the Lord your God.” Thus the Eucharist is a remembrance, a memorial offering we present to God to plead the merits of Christ on the cross. 

Fundamentalists disbelieve claims about the antiquity of the Mass’s sacrificial.aspects, even if they think the Mass, in the form of a mere commemorative meal, goes all the way back to the Last Supper. Many say the Mass as a sacrifice was not taught until the Middle Ages, alleging Innocent III was the first pope to teach the doctrine. 

But he merely insisted on a doctrine that had been held from the first but was being publicly doubted in his time. He formalized, but did not invent, the notion that the Mass is a sacrifice. Jimmy Swaggart, for one, goes further back than do many Fundamentalists, claiming, “By the third century the idea of sacrifice had begun to intrude.” Still other Fundamentalists say Cyprian of Carthage, who died in 258, was the first to make noises about a sacrifice. 

But Irenaeus, writing Against Heresies in the second century, beat out Cyprian when he wrote of the sacrificial nature of the Mass, and Irenaeus was beaten out by Clement of Rome, who wrote, in the first century, about those “from the episcopate who blamelessly and holily have offered its sacrifices” (Letter to the Corinthians 44:1). 

Furthermore, Clement was beaten out by the Didache (a Syrian liturgical manual written around A.D. 70), which stated, “On the Lord’s Day . . . gather together, break bread and offer the Eucharist, after confessing your transgressions so that your sacrifice may be pure. Let no one who has a quarrel with his neighbor join you until he is reconciled, lest our sacrifice be defiled. For this is that which was proclaimed by the Lord: ‘In every place and time let there be offered to me a clean sacrifice. For I am a great king,’ says the Lord, ‘and my name is wonderful among the gentiles’ [cf. Mal. 1:11]” (14:1–3). 

It isn’t possible to get closer to New Testament times than this, because Clement and the author of the Didache were writing during New Testament times. After all, at least one apostle, John, was still alive. 


A misreading

Fundamentalists are particularly upset about the Catholic notion that the sacrifice on Calvary is somehow continued through the centuries by the Mass. They think Catholics are trying to have it both ways. The Church on the one hand says that Calvary is “perpetuated,” which seems to mean the same act of killing, the same letting of blood, is repeated again and again. This violates the “once for all” idea. On the other hand, what Catholics call a sacrifice seems to have no relation to biblical sacrifices, since it doesn’t look the same; after all, no splotches of blood are to be found on Catholic altars. 

“We must, of course, take strong exception to such pretended sacrifice,” Boettner instructs. “We cannot regard it as anything other than a deception, a mockery, and an abomination before God. The so-called sacrifice of the Mass certainly is not identical with that on Calvary, regardless of what the priests may say. There is in the Mass no real Christ, no suffering, and no bleeding. And a bloodless sacrifice is ineffectual. The writer of the book of Hebrews says that ‘apart from shedding of blood there is no remission’ of sin (9:22); and John says, ‘The blood of Jesus his Son cleanseth us from all sin’ (1 John 1:7). Since admittedly there is no blood in the Mass, it simply cannot be a sacrifice for sin” (174). 

Boettner misreads chapter nine of Hebrews, which begins with an examination of the Old Covenant. Moses is described as taking the blood of calves and goats and using it in the purification of the tabernacle (Heb. 9:19–21; see Ex. 24:6–8 for the origins of this). Under the Old Law, a repeated blood sacrifice was necessary for the remission of sins. Under the Christian dispensation, blood (Christ’s) is shed only once, but it is continually offered to the Father. 

“But how can that be?” ask Fundamentalists. They have to keep in mind that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever” (Heb. 13:8). What Jesus did in the past is present to God now, and God can make the sacrifice of Calvary present to us at Mass. “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26). 

Jesus does not offer himself to God as a bloody, dying sacrifice in the Mass, but as we offer ourselves, a “living sacrifice” (Rom. 12:1). As this passage indicates, the offering of sacrifice does not require death or the shedding of blood. If it did, we could not offer ourselves as living sacrifices to God. Jesus, having shed his blood once for all on the cross, now offers himself to God in a continual, unbloody manner as a holy, living sacrifice on our behalf. 

Raphael Benedict

Raphael Benedict is a Catholic who wants nothing but to spread the catholic faith to reach the ends of the world. Make this possible by always sharing any article or prayers posted on your social media platforms. Remain blessed

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  1. The literal can’t be avoided in John 6, but Jesus says in John 6:63, after many of His disciples complained of what He had said, that “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh profits nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life”. He explains that He was not speaking of His literal flesh and blood because it would not be possible to consume it when He ascends into heaven (verse 62). This is in line with what John says in 1John 3:24: “And hereby we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit which he hath given us.” This became possible at Pentecost when Christ’s Spirit was poured out to be consumed by mankind. The Spirit gives life. We are sealed by the Holy Spirit; and it is the guarantee of our inheritance (Ephesians 1:13-14).

  2. The literal can’t be avoided in John 6, but Jesus says in John 6:63, after many of His disciples complained of what He had said, that “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh profits nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life”. He explains that He was not speaking of His literal flesh and blood because it would not be possible to consume it when He ascends into heaven (verse 62). This is in line with what John says in 1John 3:24: “And hereby we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit which he hath given us.” This became possible at Pentecost when Christ’s Spirit was poured out to be consumed by mankind. The Spirit gives life. We are sealed by the Holy Spirit; and it is the guarantee of our inheritance (Ephesians 1:13-14).

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