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Why a Sacrifice?

The author explains to a confused ex-Catholic why the Eucharist must truly be a sacrifice -- and why the Real Presence is essential to our salvation.

Years ago, I had a fascinating conversation with a former Jesuit scholastic who had left formation for the priesthood and was teaching theology at a Catholic school. Sadly, this young man had rejected the Catholic faith because he discovered during his formation for the priesthood that he could no longer accept, in his words,a God who demands blood. This is just warmed-over paganism, Tim! What do we see in paganism but gods demanding blood from sacrifices offered by priests on altars and consumed by the people in order to participate in some way in the gods they worship? This is the cross, the priesthood, and the Eucharist. Catholicism is just another sad case of the imitation of these barbaric religions!” 

I was taken aback at the thought that this man was teaching theology at a Catholic school! To his credit, he informed me he tried his best to teach what the Church teaches, even if he did not believe it. And he did not let on to the students his true beliefs. 

“Wow,” I thought. “I really have to get down to the basics this guy!”  

To my surprise, we ended up having quite a conversation. I began with a story to answer the question why when it comes to sacrifice: 

“Let’s say my son Luke were to break a window of a neighbor. That would be a clear injustice that would at least wound the relationship of my son and our neighbor. And it could also result in problems in relations between the families as well. First, I—acting as mediator here—would encourage my son who caused the injustice to acknowledge his fault and apologize to my neighbor (sounds like a priestly role of a father, wouldn’t you say?). That would be a great and essential first step toward healing.  

“Now, let’s assume there was forgiveness. That, of course, would be great. But even then, there would still be an inequity, right? The window would still be broken. This is where the ideas of ‘sacrifice’ and ‘redemption’ come to the fore. For there to be true justice—or redemption—the window would need to be replaced. We call that making ‘satisfaction’ for the damage done. Naturally, I would inform my son that the real, tangible damage done by this injustice would have to be rectified with a real and tangible replacement.  

“For his part, my son would have to make the necessary sacrifice of his time and money to fully heal the damage he had done. With that sacrifice we would have not only forgiveness but redemption. And that redemption goes beyond just the replacement of the window for the sake of justice; it also contributes to the perfecting—the redemption—of my son as well. In performing this act of justice, my son himself becomes more just in the process. As I John 3:7 says (in Greek), “Ho poion tein dikaiosuneiv dikaios estin,” which translated literally means, “The one doing justice is just.”  

How was this reconciliation accomplished? Through an exchange of a good of equal (or greater) value for what was lost. That is the essence of what true and full redemption is.  

I used that story to try and help my former-Jesuit friend understand that if the idea of justice, satisfaction, and redemption are true in interpersonal, human relations, there is no reason to believe the same would not be the case in our relationship with God.  

Bringing the lesson home 

It shouldn’t be hard for us to see the reasonableness of the various ancient religions attempting to rectify human beings’ broken relationships with God. Priests as mediators for the people and various sacrifices to make satisfaction for offenses committed against God begin to make sense. And we will consider the idea of communion below. But in this context, we can begin to see why session 22, chapter 1 of the Council of Trent, On the Mass as a Sacrifice, refers to religion during what the Council calls “the period of nature and the law” as having certain essentially good components rooted in nature.  

This refers to both the time before the law of Moses and after, leading up to the Incarnation, where there were real tangible sacrifices being offered to God to attempt to make up for man’s manifold sins against him. In fact, the council would refer to these sacrifices (and the Eucharist) as “visible sacrifice[s], such as the nature of man requires”: 

[The Eucharist], in fine, is that oblation which was prefigured by various types of sacrifices, during the period of nature, and of the law; in as much as it comprises all the good things signified by those sacrifices, as being the consummation and perfection of them all.

Vatican II contributed to this discussion, referring to the various natural religions as seeking the true God though in “shadows and images”: 

Nor is God far distant from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God, for it is He who gives to all men life and breath and all things, and as Savior wills that all men be saved (Lumen Gentium 16).

These ancient natural religions attempted to fulfill what the Council of Trent described as being required by human nature for the most “human” of reasons. Human beings generally know they have sinned against God or the gods and in so doing have caused real damage to their relationship with God. Even one sin against an infinitely holy God represents the ultimate injustice. And man in general knows he cannot redeem himself because he knows he is the problem! He knows he needs to be sorry for his transgressions and to make amends with God whom he has offended.  

That is where the sacrifices come in. But importantly, man also knows he needs some way of communing with God. Thus, consuming the sacrifices consecrated by God through the priest becomes a way of experiencing that communion. There is nothing more human when it comes to fellowship with one another than sharing a meal. In eating the sacrifices of the altar, man reaches out toward God with the intention of establishing or restoring fellowship with God.    

The Council of Trent also noted that man needs both a visible and daily sacrifice—our human nature requires it because we are not angels, we are bodies who need to see, feel, and touch. We are hylomorphic beings, that is, body/soul composites. We need something visible. Second, we commit daily sins that need a daily sacrifice whereby the healing we need can be applied to our lives in our need.: 

He, therefore, our God and Lord, though he was about to offer himself once on the altar of the cross unto God the Father, by means of his death, there to operate an eternal redemption; nevertheless, because that his priesthood was not to be extinguished by his death, in the last supper, on the night in which he was betrayed, that he might leave, to his own beloved spouse, the Church, a visible sacrifice, such as the nature of man requires, whereby that bloody sacrifice, once to be accomplished on the cross, might be represented, and the memory thereof remain even unto the end of the world, and its salutary virtue be applied to the remission of those sins which we daily commit.

I explained to my new friend that it is really no surprise that we find priests, sacrifices, altars, etc. in pagan religions, which in some ways resemble what we find in the holy sacrifice of the Mass. Both exist as answers—or attempted answers in the case of the sacrifices offered during “the period of nature”—to the deepest of human needs. 

I explained that Jesus offered himself in sacrifice and established the Catholic priesthood in ordaining the apostles so that they could offer, or re-present, his own once-for-all bloody sacrifice in an unbloody way, because his sacrifice alone accomplishes what the priesthoods/sacrifices of old could not due to, among other things, the inherent inadequacy of their priesthoods, sacrifices, etc.  

For we Catholics, it’s simple, really: “Of course many ancient religions sought a relationship with God through priests, sacrifices, altars, etc. How else would they do it?”  

A firm foundation  

At this point, I thought my friend was beginning to see what I was saying. So I backed up just a bit in my argumentation, explaining to him that these phenomena we see comprise what Catholic theologians and philosophers call “natural religion,” which finds confirmation in Paul:  

What can be known about God is plain to them [referring to those who do not have the law and the covenants God made with Israel], because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made (Rom. 1:19-20).

The foundation of the idea of “natural religion” is found in the truth that man can know the truth of the existence of God through the pure and natural light of reason.  

Moreover, in Romans 2:14 Paul describes the knowledge of the moral law that can be known through that same natural light of reason. He calls it “the law written on [the] hearts” of those who have no knowledge of the public revelation of God. This law finds its origin not in Moses but in human nature, created by God into the very nature of our original parents.  

This is “the law” that binds not only God’s faithful people but the entire world today and in all ages. The Ten Commandments, except for the day on which God commands man to worship, are nothing more than key elements of natural law that bind all of humanity, written in stone.

From Abel to Abraham to Moses 

To bring this home, I decided to lay out in brief what we see in the Old Testament leading up to Christ concerning the worship of the people of God. From the beginning, when Adam and Eve rejected God’s covenant and lost the perfect union they had with God in the Garden, as would be expected, their children began to attempt to worship God in the only way they could barring a special revelation of God: they began to offer sacrifices to God in accordance with nature.  

Abel offered sacrifice from his flocks and Cain from his crops (Gen. 4:3-4). This marks the beginning of “the period of nature” the Council of Trent spoke of. Then, as the population of Earth grew, and men separated into “peoples” and “nations,” we had the advent of all the religions of the world. And among these would arise the pagans to which my friend referred.  

It would be by God’s grace that he would choose certain men, beginning in a special way with Abraham, to reveal both himself as the one, true God, and the way God himself designed for his people to worship him. In this process, we discover God to have baptized what is true and good out of the natural religions that arose in this earliest “period of nature.” And that would be codified by Moses and the people of God in the Old Testament.  

But why did we need Moses if all could be known through “the pure and natural light of reason”? For three essential reasons: 

  1. God deigned to reveal some truths to man that are beyond his rational faculties. That is true whether we are talking about the day on which he is to worship (the Sabbath) in the Old Covenant, or the truth about God’s inner life, the Blessed Trinity, in the New Covenant, and many other essential truths that are beyond man’s natural rational powers.
  2. Due to original sin, man’s will had been weakened and his intellect darkened so that he fell prey to manifold errors that could be corrected only by divine intervention, even regarding matters that can be known through the pure and natural light of reason.
  3. Not all men are equal in their intellectual abilities. Thus, revelation was needed so that all could know the truth concerning both natural and supernatural religion, with “facility, firm certainty, and without any admixture of error” (Vatican I, session 3, chapter 2, On Revelation, para. 3). 

And then there’s Jesus 

The “period of nature” produced much goodness, beauty, and truth, more than I could begin to explain to my newfound friend years ago at that Catholic school. But I did begin to see some things were getting through as I explained to him that nature could not get humanity to the eternal destination God willed for him. As Cardinal Charles Journet said, in the Incarnation “the universe of nature” gave way to “the universe of redemption” that only Jesus Christ could bring (The Mass: The Presence of the Sacrifice of Christ, 7).  

I explained that there was much more God willed to reveal about himself than what could be known by our natural powers. For example, the Blessed Trinity: there was much more concerning the moral law that had to be clarified and revealed. Enter the Sermon on the Mount. And for our purpose here, there was much more concerning the worship of the people of God that was revealed and communicated to the world 2,000 years ago.  

And all of this came in fullness through a divine person incarnate, Jesus Christ. And this brought me to my final thoughts with my friend where I was surprised to find him seeming to finish my sentences as I explained them: 

“You see, my friend, God willed for humans to have a priest who could truly save them from their sins. The priests of old, whether in the pagan religions or in the revealed religion of Judaism, could not do so. They were weak and flawed (cf. Heb. 7:22-26). Jesus was the only priest in the universe who could reconcile God and man because he was and is both God and man, infinitely qualified to reconcile the separated parties. God willed a sacrifice that could actually ‘take away the sins of the world,’ but the sacrifices of old were impotent to accomplish the task” (John 1:29; cf. Heb. 10:1-11).  

Jesus alone represented a sacrifice that was of the infinite value necessary to appease an infinitely holy God. And God willed an altar that had the power to transform those who partake of its sacrifices, but the altars of old were merely altars of stone (Matt. 23:19, Heb. 13:10). The true altar was the humanity of Christ upon which almighty God himself, who alone can save, could and would be sacrificed.”

I was saddened that I had to leave at this point since I thought we had made such progress. And my friend acknowledged as much; he thanked me as I left. “You’ve given me much to think about, Tim.”

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