Under the law of Moses, the worship of God had become prescribed in much greater detail than in the former times:
1. God wished to be worshiped by the Israelites according to an exact set of regulations.
2. Saturday was set aside as the Lord's day.
3. The sacrifices to be offered and the ceremonies involved were described in detail in the Law.
4. Only the priests could offer sacrifice in worship.
5. Only the priests could make atonement for sin by specified offerings.
6. The dispositions required by God on the part of the people were based primarily on their recognition of him as the only true God.
All of these dispositions regarding the worship of God are again reflected in the New Covenant of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ:
"Since the [old] law had only a shadow of the good things to come, and no real image of them, it was never able to perfect the worshipers by the same sacrifices offered continually year after year . . . But through those sacrifices there came only a yearly recalling of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take sins away" (Heb. 10:1, 3, 4).
When we look back on the worship of the Old Testament, we see it as very imperfect, but we also see that it was all ordained by God to prepare for the redeeming sacrifice of his Son, Jesus Christ. The Old Law set the stage for the New Law by establishing worship by specific offerings and sacrifice through an established priesthood. The Old Law looked ahead in both prophecy and worship to the New Law.
Salvation in the Old Law was possible only because of its future connection, in God's Providence, with the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross. Neither the priests nor the victims of the Old Law were fully worthy of God. In his infinite love, God sent his only begotten Son to be our Priest and Victim, to offer the sacrifice that would truly ransom us and constitute us as worthy participants in that sacrifice.
Many people today have forgotten the meaning for us of the sacrifice of Jesus. The unbelievable suffering, the shedding of his blood, and his premature death are for us the foundation of our hope of eternal life. This death was ordered by God the Father out of love for us, for we could not satisfy his divine justice (John 3:16-17). On Jesus' part the heart of his sacrifice was his total obedience to the Father (Luke 22:42). On his part as man his sacrifice was, in reality, also an act of worship. In the Old Testament the true worship of God involved sacrifice.
The imperfect sacrifices of the Old Law have been replaced by the sacrifice of Jesus. "But when Christ came as high priest . . . He entered, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, and achieved eternal redemption" (Heb. 9:11, 12). The sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross is the only sacrifice that achieves eternal redemption. Therefore our worship must be linked with the sacrifice of Jesus. It is in the Mass that this sacrifice of Jesus is mysteriously renewed so that we are able to be participants.
In the Letter to the Hebrews Jesus is identified as priest and victim of the New Covenant, and the notion of priesthood is explored. "Every high priest is taken from among men and made their representative before God to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins" (Heb. 5:1). A priest's function is to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. "He is able to deal patiently with erring sinners, for he himself is beset by weakness and so must make sin offerings for himself as well as for the people" (Heb. 5:2-3).
The priesthood of the New Testament differs from the Old basically in two ways:
1. The priesthood of the baptized is much more powerful and personal than the election of the Jewish nation as a kingdom of priests. Through baptism all the faithful become true mediators with Christ of their own redemption and that of the entire world. By their ability to share in the sacrifice of Christ, all the faithful can offer "spiritual sacrifices acceptable to the Father."
2. The ministerial priesthood, the priesthood of those who are set apart and ordained, carries with it the full power of the person of Christ. An ordained priest in his sacred function of offering Mass does not act in his own name but in Christ's and with the power of Christ's sacrifice on Calvary. For this reason, the Mass is not a new sacrifice (as if it were of the priest himself) but a representation of the one sacrifice of the Cross. For this reason, too, it is incumbent upon priests to obey what has been laid down by Christ and his Church for the celebration of the Mass, identifying through their obedience with Christ who, above all, obeyed.
As in the Old Law, the priests of the New Covenant are designated as the official "agents of worship." Only the priests of the Old Law offered sacrifices in the worship of God. In the New Law the ordained Catholic priest, who shares in the one priesthood of Jesus Christ, is the only one who can renew in our Church today the sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary through the Eucharistic liturgy. The Mass is the only truly full worship in the Church of Jesus Christ.
If there is no priest, the people can pray, they can receive Holy Communion from a Eucharistic minister, but they cannot worship God in the full sense of the word because there is no priest to offer the sacrifice. We need our priests in order to worship God as he wills. That is why the precept of worship in the Church is to assist at Mass on Sunday. The only full worship now on Earth is the offering of the crucified Jesus Christ in sacrifice to his Father; this is only done by a validly ordained priest in the Mass.
In the Old Law, the people needed to be freed from sin just as we do. They wanted to be reconciled to God just as we do. Only the priest could offer the "sin offerings" specified in the law of Moses for the forgiveness of the people. In the same way today it is only the Catholic priest who is empowered to forgive sin in God's name. No other man can forgive sin in the name of God.
In the Old Testament there were many Levitical priests (from the tribe of Levi) according to the order of Aaron (Heb. 7:11). In the New Law there is only one priesthood, that of Jesus Christ. Catholic priests are not priests in their own right, but all share in the one priesthood of Christ.
When a priest offers Mass, it is really Jesus who offers the sacrifice and Jesus who says, "This is my body; this is my blood" in the person of the priest. Jesus multiplies himself through the Sacrament of Holy Orders in every ordained priest.
The one sacrifice of Jesus, his passion and death which occurred only one time, is made present in a sacramental way in every Mass that is offered, in every hour of the day, throughout the world. It is the same sacrifice of Jesus, the same Paschal mystery of his death and Resurrection that takes place on the altar whenever Mass is celebrated.
Jesus does not die again, but his death is signified, as his body and blood are separated sacramentally (under the separate signs of bread and wine) in the consecration first of the sacred bread and then of the sacred wine.
In this way Jesus continually offers himself to the Father in sacrifice for our sins. As the prophet foretold: "From the rising of the sun, even to its setting, my name is great among the nations; and everywhere they bring sacrifice to my name, and a pure offering; for great is my name among the nations, says the Lord of Hosts" (Mal. 2:11).
The sacrifice of the New Law, the sacrifice of the Mass, is a sacrifice which not only satisfies God's justice for our sins, but is the perfect means of worshiping God:
"For if the blood of goats and bulls and the sprinkling of heifer's ashes can sanctify those who are defiled so that their flesh is cleansed, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal spirit offered himself up unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from dead works to worship the living God" (Heb. 9:13-14).
We should not be ashamed to see or speak of the Mass as a sacrifice. After all, the heart of the Mass is the renewal of Christ's sacrifice on the Cross. Without our Lord's generous sacrifice--renewed each day--there would be no community and no communion. There would be no hope, no love.
Besides, to truly take part in the Mass and benefit from it, we ourselves need to have an attitude of selfless sacrifice. There is no true love of God nor of neighbor without sacrifice.
The Mass is divided into two parts, the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. We have seen that God is worshiped by sacrifice. In the prayers of the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the Mass is referred to as a sacrifice on various occasions:
"Lord God we ask you to receive us and be pleased with the sacrifice we offer you with humble and contrite hearts."
"Pray, brethren, that our sacrifice may be acceptable to God the Almighty Father." We respond: "May the Lord accept this sacrifice at your hands, for the praise and glory of his name, for our good and the good of all his Church."
In the first Eucharistic Prayer, the Roman Canon, the idea of sacrifice dominates, and in the third Eucharistic Prayer, which is often said at Sunday Mass, emphasis is placed on our worshiping God by the sacrifice of Jesus:
". . . so that from east to west a perfect offering may be made to the glory of your name" (before the Consecration).
"Father, calling to mind the death your Son endured for our salvation . . . we offer you in thanksgiving this holy and living sacrifice" (after the Consecration).
"Look with favor on your Church's offering, and see the Victim whose death has reconciled us to yourself."
We are to allow Jesus to offer us to the Father as part of the sacrifice. "May he make us an everlasting gift to you."
When we assist at Mass we are truly called upon to join with the priest in these prayers and with him offer Jesus in sacrifice to his heavenly Father especially for the salvation of ourselves to God, joining with the sacrifice of Jesus, praying that God's will be done in our lives.
With the Our Father the liturgy begins to look toward the reception of Holy Communion. We receive Holy Communion at the conclusion of the sacrifice. The liturgy prepares us through the recitation of the Our Father. The dispositions expressed in this prayer are the dispositions that we should have when we receive Holy Communion. We pray:
". . . Hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done . . . Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive . . ."
The sign of peace is a sign of our forgiveness for all who have hurt or offended us.
In Holy Communion we truly receive the Body and Blood, soul and divinity of Jesus, the sanctified Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Our union with the "Lamb of God" makes us part of the offering.
In the sixth chapter of St. John's Gospel, Jesus tells us about Holy Communion:
"'I myself am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats this bread he shall live forever; the bread I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.' At this the Jews quarreled among themselves saying, 'How can this man give us his flesh to eat?' Thereupon Jesus said to them: 'Let me solemnly assure you, if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. He who feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has life eternal and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood real drink.'" (John 6:51-55).
Receiving Holy Communion is such a great gift that we need to guard against its being routine. Not too many years ago people received Holy Communion only once or twice a year, at Christmas or at Easter. Before receiving there was significant preparation. Not only did they go to confession, but they were forbidden to eat or drink anything after midnight. This made them conscious of the coming reception of Holy Communion.
St. Paul's description of the institution of the Holy Eucharist is said to be the earliest account written. In that account he speaks of the dispositions that we should have when we come to the Lord's Supper:
"Every time you eat this bread and drink this cup you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes! This means that whoever eats or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily sins against the body and blood of the Lord. A man should examine himself first; only then should he eat and drink of the cup. He who eats and drinks without recognizing the body eats and drinks a judgment on himself" (1 Cor. 11:23-29).
We have to be properly disposed to receive Holy Communion worthily. In other words, not everyone should receive Holy Communion at every Mass. Those who should not receive Holy Communion ordinarily include:
1) those not baptized Catholics;
2) baptized Catholics, of whatever age, who have never been instructed for First Communion;
3) married Catholics who are not married in the Church;
4) Catholics who are conscious of serious sins that have not been confessed to a priest;
5) those who have not abstained from food and drink (except water) for one hour before receiving Holy Communion.
In the Old Law only the priest was authorized to offer sin offerings to God on behalf of the people. In the New Law it is also only the priest who is given authority by Christ to forgive sin (John 20:19-25).
It is only to the Church through Peter that Christ gave the keys of the kingdom of heaven with the power to bind and to loose (Matt. 16:17-19). Therefore, in such a serious matter as the reception of the body and blood of Christ in Holy Communion, until serious sin has been confessed and absolved, one should not receive Holy Communion.
What is the role of the Catholic laity in worship? Do they simply constitute a praying audience at Sunday Mass even though they receive Holy Communion? It is much more than this because by their baptism the laity are empowered to exercise a priesthood proper to themselves, and thereby share actively in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ in the Mass. It is our purpose now to explore what this priesthood means in worship and the great potential that it has for the sanctification of the laity.
First of all, let us look at two beautiful quotations from the Second Vatican Council. These quotations link together the Mass and the liturgy with the apostolic mission that each baptized person has received. From them we can see the unity that there should be between daily life and worship. In the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (section 10) we read:
"The liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; it is also the fount from which all her power flows. For the goal of apostolic endeavor is that all who are made sons of God by faith and baptism should come together to praise God in the midst of his Church, to take part in the sacrifice and to eat the Lord's Supper.
"The liturgy, in its turn, moves the faithful filled with 'the Paschal sacraments' to be 'one in holiness'; it prays that 'they hold fast in their lives to what they have g.asped by their faith.' The renewal in the Eucharist of the covenant between the Lord and man draws the faithful and sets them aflame with Christ's insistent love. From the liturgy, therefore, and especially from the Eucharist, grace is poured forth upon us as from a fountain, and the sanctification of men in Christ and the glorification of God to which all other activities of the Church are directed, as toward their end, are achieved with maximum effectiveness."
In the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (section 34) we read:
"Since he wishes to continue his witness and his service through the laity also, the supreme and eternal priest, Christ Jesus, vivifies them with his spirit and ceaselessly impels them to accomplish every good and perfect work. To those whom he intimately joins to his life and mission he also gives a share in his priestly office, to offer spiritual worship for the glory of the Father and the salvation of man. Hence the laity, dedicated as they are to Christ and anointed by the Holy Spirit, are marvelously called and prepared so that even richer fruits of the Spirit may be produced in them.
"For all their works, prayers, and apostolic undertakings, family and married life, daily work, relaxation of mind and body, if they are accomplished in the Spirit--indeed even the hardships of life if patiently borne--all these become spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ (1 Pet. 2:5). In the celebration of the Eucharist these may most fittingly be offered to the Father along with the body of the Lord. And so, worshiping everywhere by their holy actions, the laity consecrate the world itself to God."
The Second Vatican Council recalls with new richness the truth of the dignity, vocation, and mission of the laity. Everyone who is baptized is called to holiness and to carry out the mission of Christ and his Church toward God and humanity. This entails both a great privilege and a great responsibility. Whether priest, religious, or laity, a person's dignity and mission are essentially the same and are completely dependent on Christ. Everyone, then, must seek to be united to Christ and to work for him with sincere dedication.
In meditating upon the full meaning of the lay vocation, we come to the realization that each lay person needs to have his life centered on the Mass and the Eucharist as much as any priest or religious. To deny this would be to deny the dignity of the lay vocation and the universal call to holiness.
No one should be content with a merely passive role in the Church's mission. Everyone is called to make a substantial contribution. In the words of St. Augustine, every baptized person is to be "another Christ." This means that we all need the Mass and Christ's presence in the Eucharist as the source of strength and light for our actions; as Christ said, "without me you can do nothing" (John 15:5). It also means that everyone should feel the responsibility of bringing to Christ and placing before him in the Mass the gift of his life and of the world in which he lives.
To live this way does not mean spending long hours in Church. For a lay person to do so would generally mean not fulfilling his essential duties. Daily or frequent Mass is often very possible. Visiting the Lord frequently in our churches and chapels can often be fully compatible with one's daily duties. This way of acting is normal for a person who realizes the meaning of Christian vocation. Such acts make possible a profoundly Christian life.
Two points can be made to help clarify how we can bring the Mass and our daily life together more:
1. We should act with a sense of mission, the mission of Christ. No action, no matter how small or secular, is unrelated to Christ and his will. Even the most humble of tasks and certainly hardships can be offered to God in union with Christ's sacrifice. Many times the thought of Christ's presence among us in our churches, even while we work or rest, gives deeper meaning to what we are doing or what is happening in our lives. We should try to offer all our activity to God in union with the sacrifice of the Mass.
2. The Mass is a sacrifice, and we must bring to it the gift of our own sacrifice. Some people may not understand this requirement. It is ourselves and our fulfillment of duty that we ought to bring as an offering to the Mass. For the lay person, the gift God wants is essentially his ordinary, everyday duties performed well. We have to be like Abel and bring to God our very best efforts.