The Mass: A Sacrifice of Praise

Sacrifice is perhaps the most fundamental and essential part of the rites of all religions in all parts of the world.  It is the most ancient form of religion, far older than Christianity, and even Christianity’s source, Judaism.  The aim is to offer something precious to God in order to establish - or maintain - or restore - a right relationship between human beings and a sacred order thought of as “holy”, i.e. above and apart from humanity, but with profound effects upon human destiny if that relationship has been disrupted. The things sacrificed range from fruit and flowers, to living animals and even live human beings in certain cultures. St Paul in his letter to the Hebrews speaks of a sacrifice of praise, “Through him [Jesus] then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, "the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.” (verse 13:15)

Our Sacrifice of Praise is in the Holy Mass. “The heart of religion is worship and the heart of worship is Sacrifice”, says Fr. Mike Schmitz, which is why the Sacrifice of the Mass is so important, and the fact that it is a Sacrifice of Praise - the Sacrifice of Praise of God Himself on the Cross - is everything. A sacrifice of praise is not one of bargaining for one’s life, (‘save me if I give you my goat, my daughter etc.’).  It says everything about our relationship with God who cannot be bought, bribed, flattered… but whom we honour as part of a loving relationship with Him.

Old Testament Sacrifices 

The Old Testament presents many instances of sacrifices.  The Mosaic law required sacrifices of cereal offerings, birds, “unblemished” animals as a sort of price to pay for sins. The sacrifices were made and the priests were the only ones allowed to make them as part of a ritual and were also the only ones allowed to eat the offerings.   But the first sacrifices mentioned in the Old Testament go back even before Moses.

Noah’s Sacrifice

The sacrifices of live animals were traditionally offered on the altars in the time before the destruction of the Temple (AD70) to God in attempted expiation of sins.  Animal sacrifices were a practice that predated the 10 commandments.  In Genesis 8:20, Noah, in the first mentioned sacrifice to God, offers burnt offerings as a Sacrifice, “choosing from all the clean animals and all the clean birds”.  This was a Sacrifice of flesh but it’s purpose was to thank God and praise Him.  It pleased the Lord because of its intention and as a result, God made the first Covenant with mankind, whose witness is the rainbow.  

Abraham’s Sacrifice

The most significant sacrifice after that, is that of Abraham.  Abraham was asked by God to sacrifice the only son that was left to him (his first son by his wife’s servant, having been cast out with his mother from Abraham’s camp).  At that point, the sacrifice was not specified as being for any particular purpose.  Abraham’s only remaining son was Isaac.  When he had loaded Isaac with the wood for the sacrifice, he took him to a place 3 days away (so he had all that time to think about it) from his camp.  He did not tell Isaac, but when this young man, who carried the wood for the sacrifice, asked where the lamb was to be sacrificed, Abraham said “God will provide”.  In fact, the Lord’s angel stayed Abraham’s hand, just as the latter who had bound his son, lifted the knife. Abraham then saw a ram and sacrificed that animal instead of his own son.  But God the Father told Abraham that he was touched because Abraham did not refuse him his only son and promised him descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky.  This story is also an indication of God’s amazing generosity towards those who act generously towards Him.  He repays a thousand fold in a way that a person can understand.

Moses’ Sacrifices

In Exodus, we are told of the second Covenant whose sign was the 10 Commandments, written on tablets of stone.  The price of infringing the first, second and third commandments was death.  The price for the death of a slave by goring by an ox was 30 shekels (Exodus 21:32, compare Matthew 26: 14-15 where Judas is paid 30 pieces of silver to betray Jesus). In the case of theft, the thief must repay double the value of the stolen property. (Exodus 22:8 - compare Luke 19:8 where Zacchaeus gives half of all he owns to the poor and if he has cheated anybody out of anything he offers to pay back four times the amount). Moses then ratifies the Covenant with burnt offerings and sacrifices of bulls, (a communion sacrifice) whose blood he then sprinkles on the people saying “This is the blood of the Covenant which Yahweh has made with you.” (It is from this that we get the notion of Jesus’ blood covering us). God then gives Moses instructions about a daily offering to Him (Exodus 29:38-42) which involves one lamb at dawn, one at twilight, both with measures of fine flour blended with olive oil, and wine.  Aaron and his sons were consecrated to the priesthood by a ritual involving covering them in blood of the sacrifices and they were the only ones allowed to appear in the tent of the Lord bearing on them the sins of the people.  The book of Leviticus sets out the various types of Sacrifices, including sacrifices for the expiation of sins.

Elijah’s Sacrifice

In 1 Kings 18: 16-45, Elijah enters into a sort of sacrificial contest with the priests of the Ba’als.  Whereas the priests of the pagan gods try again and again to induce their false gods to light the fire for their sacrifices - without success, Elijah utters one prayer to the One God, God the Father, who answers it immediately with such force that the priests of Baal are scattered.  It is presented as evidence of the power which God gave Elijah, but fundamentally, it is evidence that God is all powerful and no other gods can compare.  Only one sacrifice is effective:  that made to God Almighty. 

So, later on, we see that the old Jewish rituals come to an end after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD and only one sacrifice remains: the Sacrifice instituted by Jesus at the Last Supper - which is a sacrifice of remembrance of Jesus’ sacrifice of his life  - Sacrifice which is, like that of Moses and Abraham and Elijah but also infinitely more because Jesus is God.  God cannot be outdone in any way, either in generosity, or in sacrifice, or in courage, or in power, or in humility or in any other way.  And the very remembrance of that sacrifice involves praise of God.  Hence the Mass is a Sacrifice of Praise.

How Jesus Changes the Form of Sacrifices

The “imperfect” sacrifices of dumb beasts could not achieve the reconciliation with perfection that humans desired.  Their purpose was to help us to understand that loving a thing is not as good as loving God.  You sacrifice the thing you love to God, to show Him you love Him more than anything.  But, as people reckoned sacrifice as a price to pay for sin rather than as a sign of love, the sacrifices could not effect the change.  

The Scriptures tell us that “people look on the outside, but God looks on the inside” (1Sam 16:7), and it is our hearts - i.e. the core of our being - that God, like any lover, wishes to receive in the most complete way and respond to that gift.  Because Jesus allowed it in Love for God the Father, the sacrifice of Christ’s self - human perfection Himself - achieves what sinful and more limited humans cannot do.  In love, his sacrifice offers himself utterly and completely to our Father, and at Mass we offer ourselves according to our capacity joined to Jesus Christ. This is where God not only tells us what to do but shows us.  He becomes the High Priest and the lamb, and He asks us to share both in His priesthood and in sacrificing ourselves (consecrating ourselves) to God.

The Mass, re-presenting, as it does, the Holy and perfect Sacrifice of Jesus to God the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, renews the earth and the whole of creation and becomes the source of eternal salvation. This is why we join the Angels, Archangels, thrones and dominions and all the hosts and powers of Heaven, to sing the Holy Holy Holy... , giving worship, glory, praise to God the Holy Trinity. That is why the Mass, the Eucharist, is the perfect and most efficacious form of worship.

The Lamb of God

Whereas for Noah, Abraham and Moses, the sacrifices of animals were made by the prophets themselves, and later by the priestly cast - Aaron’s descendents - in the case of Jesus, Jesus himself is the Sacrifice.  He is put to death by some intermediaries (the Romans) on behalf of the Jewish people who accept Pontius Pilate’s casting of Jesus’ blood on them and their subsequent generations (Matthew 27:25).  God the Father, gives us his only son in an eternal sacrifice for the expiation of sins, so that the bloody sacrifices of animals are no longer necessary, since Jesus, in his love and purity offered Himself in expiation of sins for all mankind, like the priestly cast (Aaron and his sons did and later the Levites), was put to death and rose again from the dead three days later.  He is the lamb of God.  He is also the last Covenant. So, St Paul says that it is only now necessary for us to praise God for this sacrifice of Jesus’: that is all that remains for us to do.  In other words, we need to accept Jesus and his works for us, and realise our need for them, and give thanks and praise to God the Holy Trinity. 

The Cereal and Wine Offering

The priest holds up the host made of cereal.  The host is Jesus, because, at the last supper, when he had given thanks,  He said, holding up the bread “This is my body… Do this in memory of me.” (Luke 22:19-21). 

It is also the manna in the desert, which God the Father gave to the Israelites who were wandering in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt.  The manna being a pure bread from heaven - another name for Christ (Exodus 16) - was given by God. So although the host looks like bread, just like manna its substance is very different, since it is the Body of Christ. But it also represents the cereal offering which was to be made at every sacrifice, together with the animal, and eaten by the priest.  The sacrificial lamb and the cereal offering are one and the same in this Covenant, since they are Jesus.  

The priest then holds up the chalice which contains the precious blood of Jesus, which God has turned, at the priest’s request (in the same power as Elijah) speaking for us all, from wine into blood.   Like the cereal offering, the blood still looks like wine, which was to be offered at the sacrifices of the Old Testament priests, but in heavenly (that is to say ‘real’) substance it is actually very different.  Jesus took up the wine, at the last supper, and said to his disciples: “Drink of it, all of you for this is my blood of the Covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:27)

The Prayers of Praise in the Sacrifice of Praise

The prayer of the Mass itself can be said to be a sacrifice of praise, since at its heart is the Eucharist - a word which means “Thanksgiving”. The Mass always begins with an Entrance Antiphon which gives praise to God.  

On Sundays outside of Lent and Advent, the Gloria is said, which is a hymn of Praise to God.  At the beginning of Mass we want to praise God, thank Him, adore Him, glorify Him because, having created us, he reduced himself to enter into our humanity from being God Almighty, and this because He loved us so much, and saw us floundering without Him and unable to conquer ourselves or recognise Him properly. And in so doing, He redeemed us, He changed our way of thinking, He saved us from the boredom of self-obsession and jealousy, from the machinations of the evil one, and from eternal damnation, and He gave us another focus: on Love and eternal life with Him.

  • The Gloria is said or sung to the Holy Trinity.  It is probably the greatest worshipful canticle of the Church as the bride of Christ.  

Before the Gospel reading, the Acclamation is also an exclamation of thanksgiving and praise, usually beginning with Alleluia, and as the Gospel is announced, the people’s response is: “Glory to you, O Lord”, which is an exclamation of praise, and at the end of the Gospel, the people’s response is: “Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ”. 

  • The Offertory begins with “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation…”, a statement which is repeated again and again during the Mass.  Before the Eucharistic prayer, there is a prayer said by the priest to God the Father on our behalf as the Body of Christ, such as: “Receive, O Lord, the sacrifice of conciliation and praise…”  This explicitly refers to the Mass as a sacrifice of praise.  Just before the Eucharistic prayer is “May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands for the praise and glory of his name, for our good and the good of all his holy Church.”

  • The Eucharistic Prayer also holds prayers of thanks and praise for the Lord: “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.”  Response: “It is right and just.”  In the body of the Eucharistic prayer is the “Holy, Holy, Holy” which is a prayer of praise sung by angels and Saints.  Just before the Communion Rite begins, the “through him and with him and in him, O God, almighty Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honour is yours for ever and ever.  Amen” concludes the Eucharistic prayer.  

The Lord’s Prayer or the “Our Father”  is the first prayer of the Communion Rite which Our Lord Jesus taught us, praising the Father: “hallowed be thy name”.  As the prayer closes, after another request inserted by the Church for delivery of evil and freedom from sin and distress, the people add: “for the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours now and forever”, which is another exclamation of praise

Why? Because the whole Mass is one long prayer by Jesus our high priest who shares his priesthood with the priests of the Church, and with us, to God the Father, so that: “all beings in the heavens, on earth and in the underworld, should bend the knee at the name of Jesus and that every tongue should acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:10-11).  “Through Him (Jesus), with Him and in Him in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honour is yours, Almighty Father -  Amen”  which is the moment of Sacrifice: we ourselves offer the Sacrifice of the Mass “for the praise and glory of God the Father and for our good and the good of the whole Church” (from the liturgy). The very last words of the Mass, after the dismissal, are “Thanks be to God”.

The Mass, then, is a great prayer of praise by Jesus (through His body, the Church) to God the Father.   It  talks about the works of God for his chosen people, ending in the most amazing incarnation of God (celebrated by Our Lady in the Magnificat) and the Sacrifice of the Incarnate God as a means to show us, His people, that Sacrifice is to do with Love, and not a bargain with God, because no bargain could achieve reconciliation with God.  Only God’s action could achieve that.  And He only does that out of Love.

As Sacrifice of Praise where the bloody Sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross is represented, as He himself asked, in an unbloody way on the altars of the world, the Mass is one of the great symbols of the Covenant of Mercy.  Because it has Jesus beating and suffering heart at it’s own heart, it is more than just a symbol, it is a reality: the Reality of God’s mercy and love, made flesh and blood to give us life - eternal life and also fullness of life in this world.  

Praise God with Hozana

Hozana offers you hundreds of opportunities for prayer.  Study the Word of God with Communities of Hozana such as One week to learn to pray with the Bible, and  a daily reading meditation on the Gospel.  Pray and praise the Psalms in the morning and evenings prayers of the Church, and pray into the Passion of Our Lord with John Henry Newman Holy Week with St John Henry Newman, which you can start at any time.