By Cole DeSantis
Now that we are in the midst of Easter Triduum — arguably the height of the liturgical season — Catholics throughout the world prepare themselves for the celebration of Christ's death and resurrection. During this time, may I recommend that we Catholics also reflect upon the following proposition: that by which Christ saved us from sin is also viewed as the perfect act of worship. This aspect of Christ's atonement, often at the center of liturgical theology and the sacraments, is often overlooked when speaking of Christ's death and resurrection in more general theological discourse. In the following article, I hope to articulate the Church's view on the connection between Christ's redemptive act and the celebration of the liturgy.
In the contemporary era, one of the most profound magisterial documents to summarize the connection between Christ's death and resurrection and the liturgy, and thus underline the sacrificial nature of the liturgy, was Pope Pius XII's 1947 encyclical Mediator Dei. Written against some of the excesses of the liturgical movement, as well as attempting to promote authentic, organic liturgical development within the Church, Pope Pius began his encyclical on the liturgy by speaking of Christ's role as mediator between God and man, something one would associate more with the study of soteriology or eschatology than with liturgics. He writes,
Mediator between God and man (cf. 1 Timothy 2:5) and High Priest who has gone before us into heaven, Jesus the Son of God (cf. Hebrews 4:14) quite clearly had one aim in view when He undertook the mission of mercy which was to endow mankind with the rich blessings of supernatural grace. Sin had disturbed the right relationship between man and his Creator; the Son of God would restore it.
Jesus would restore the relationship between God and man, and thus, as Pope Pius put it, bring us back to our "Heavenly Father, the primal Source and final Destiny of all things," by assuming human nature, and, during the course of His life and teaching ministry, setting an example to be followed and telling us all we need to know in order to attain salvation. Yet, the epitome of Christ's saving ministry was His death. Pius wrote concerning Christ's death: Jesus "gave Himself besides in prayer and sacrifice to the task of saving souls, even to the point of offering Himself, as He hung from the Cross, a Victim unspotted unto God, to purify our conscience of dead works, to serve the living God."
Jesus thus fulfilled the role of High Priest, insofar as Christ was the one who offered His death to God for the forgiveness of sins. Yet, Jesus was also the One Who was sacrificed for the salvation of souls, thus fulfilling the role of Sacrificial Victim. Thus, in Christ's death, one sees the perfect act of worship — namely, God offering Himself to Himself. After the Resurrection, Christ then went on to bestow part of His priestly authority upon His Apostles, who then passed on this same authority through the apostolic succession. Pope Pius thus goes on to say,
But what is more, the Divine Redeemer so willed it that the priestly life begun by the supplication and sacrifice of His mortal body should continue down the ages in His Mystical Body which is the Church. That is why He established a visible priesthood to offer everywhere the clean oblation which would allow men from East to West, freed from the shackles of sin, to offer God that unconstrained and voluntary homage which their conscience dictates.
Thus, the only way to offer worship to God in a manner God finds acceptable is to participate in the perfect act of worship made manifest in Christ's death and resurrection. It is for this reason that the Mass is seen as a Sacrifice — it renews, perpetuates and partakes in the Sacrifice of Christ. It is for this reason that the Council of Trent's Decree on the Sacrifice of the Mass described the liturgy as "that oblation which was prefigured by various types of sacrifices, during the period of nature, and the Law" — that is, the Sacrifice of Christ's death, and thus the Sacrifice of the Mass, were what was prefigured or prophesied by the sacrifices made to God by humanity in its primordial state, and in the covenant between God and Israel.
So strongly was this view held by the Fathers gathered at Trent that in the first canon concerning the Mass, they anathematized any theological view that rejected the notion of the Mass as a Sacrifice.
In this Sacrifice, Christ Himself becomes present to us in an intimate manner. We have the words of Christ Himself, Who said, "For where two or more are gathered in my name, there I am with them" (Matthew 18:20). Christ is made manifest in an intimate manner whenever the community comes together in the celebration of the liturgy. Yet the sacramental validity of the liturgy does not, in itself, depend on the presence of anyone other than a validly ordained priest to administer it. Thus, due to transubstantiation, Christ is present in an intimate manner at the celebration of the Mass regardless of the number of people in the pews.
It is for this reason that Pope St. John Paul II, in his 2004 encyclical Mane Nobiscum Domine, wrote, "The 'breaking of bread' — as the Eucharist was called in earliest times — has always been at the center of the Church's life. Through it Christ makes present within time the mystery of His death and resurrection. In it He is received in person as 'the living bread come down from heaven'" (John 6:51).
It is for this reason that Pope St. John Paul II also went on to say in his encyclical Ecclesia et Eucharistia, "The Church draws her life from the Eucharist." As he later goes on to say, this is so because, in the Eucharist, Christ makes good on the promise He made at the Great Commission: "Behold, I am with you until the end of the age" (Matthew 28:20).