The sacrifice of the Mass


This is reason No. 2 in the series. Please read my introduction and explanation here.

I remember the last time I attended Mass as a Catholic. I didn’t get there early enough (yeah…I was probably late), and it was the last Mass of the day, so it was packed and I had to stand in the back. My boots had a heel a little too high for comfortable standing and before long all I could think about was my aching feet. As I stood there in pain I thought, this is ridiculous. The only reason I’m here is to avoid the guilt I would feel if I wasn’t. And in an uncharacteristic (but quite reasonable, really) act of rebellion, I walked out halfway through the service. And never looked back.

For most of my life as a Catholic, the only reason I attended weekly Sunday Mass was because either my folks Catholic churchmade me go, or I was afraid of the consequences if I didn’t. I was taught that missing it without a good excuse (like being bedridden) was a mortal sin which would send me directly to Hell if I died before confessing it. That always struck me as being a little over the top, but I was not brave enough to test it. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “Those who deliberately fail in this obligation [weekly Sunday Mass] commit a grave sin.” (2181)

Is this biblical? Well, one certainly gets the impression from reading the New Testament that a regular, even weekly coming together as a church body is recommended. At the Last Supper Jesus commanded us to break bread together to remember his sacrifice. That’s not something we can do as a solitary Christian. In Acts 20:7 Luke indicates that the disciples were in the habit of meeting together on the first day of the week. Also, in the book of Hebrews, we are told not to neglect this gathering with fellow believers.

But legislating weekly attendance under threat of eternal punishment is simply unwarranted. Nowhere in Scripture are we commanded to attend church every Sunday. Even if you transfer the Sabbath day mandate to the church-age Lord’s Day, the commandment is to “keep it holy” and do no unnecessary work. Not to go to the Temple, or synagogue, or church.

Not only does the Catholic Church order Sunday Mass attendance, but also requires it on specific “Holy Days of Obligation.” These include Christmas, All Saints Day, three feast days for Mary, and a few others. A Catholic misses Mass on these unbiblically solemn days at his or her own peril.

But what is most objectionable about the Mass is its supposed sacrificial component. It is sometimes called the “Sacrifice of the Mass” because the Church claims that at the climax of the service when the priest consecrates the host, it becomes the body of Jesus and he is really being sacrificed, as on the cross but in an unbloody manner. Not “again”… it’s “one single sacrifice.” “In this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass, the same Christ who offered himself once in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross is contained and is offered in an unbloody manner.” (1367) The Church asserts that just as Jews celebrating Passover recall the Exodus, and its events in history are “made present” to them, so “the sacrifice Christ offered once for all on the cross remains ever present. As often as the sacrifice of the Cross by which ‘Christ our Pasch has been sacrificed’ is celebrated on the altar, the work of our redemption is carried out.” (1364)

But “once” and “often” are time descriptors that are in opposition to each other, and asserting both in reference to the same event is simply incoherent.

The sacrificial nature of the Mass is the primary reason why I, as a new Christian, felt I could not attend my parents’ 35th wedding anniversary Mass many years ago, much to their hurt and dismay. I believed then, as I do now, that a ritual re-offering of Christ as a sacrifice for sins diminishes and depicts as insufficient his real, historical, “once for all” death on the cross. And instead of being a vehicle or means of receiving his grace, is a disgraceful and dishonoring rejection of Jesus’ own time-bound pronouncement from the cross…”It is finished.”

All numbered references in parentheses are source paragraph numbers from the Catechism of the Catholic Church.