The Perfect Sacrifice
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To sacrifice is to give up something we would rather keep, for the love of God or neighbor. There are many ways to sacrifice. You may give up some of your money to help the poor or give up some of your free time to help a friend when they are tired. The value of a sacrifice does not always depend on the size of the thing one gives up. Once Jesus watched some people offering money in the Temple. Some people gave large amounts, but since they were very rich their sacrifices were not great. Then, a poor widow came, and she offered two copper coins of little value. Jesus remarked that her sacrifice was worth more than all the others' because it was all she had to live on.
Mankind has had a long tradition of offering sacrifices to God in response to God's command and as a way to show sorrow for sin, to show love for God, and to thank God for the good things he has given them. At the very beginning of the Bible, Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam and Eve, made sacrifices of their crops and animals to the Lord.
The Jewish people made the offering of sacrifice a regular part of their worship. They would bring to the Temple the best of what their farms produced. If it were an animal, such as a lamb, calf, or goat, the priests would slaughter it and sprinkle its blood upon the altar. Offerings of wine were poured over the altar, and cakes of fine wheat flour were burned. When Mary and Joseph presented the infant Jesus in the Temple, they brought along two doves as a sacrifice (Lk 2:24).
Although God was pleased with many of these offerings and sacrifices, they were not enough to make up for sin and completely restore mankind to its original friendship with God. Without sanctifying grace, no one could make a perfect sacrifice. That is why Jesus came. As the sinless man, he could make the acceptable sacrifice. As the sinless man, he could make that sacrifice on behalf of the human race. In this supreme sacrifice, Jesus was both priest and victim. In other words, he not only took the place of the victim (the animal) that was offered to God by a priest, but he was himself the priest as well. The role of the priest was to stand between God and mankind to make the offering. Jesus, being both God and man, was the perfect "link" between Heaven and earth. He offered, not an animal, but himself, as the sacrifice for sin. In the Gospel, John the Baptist called Jesus the "Lamb of God". Just as the blood of a slaughtered lamb saved each Hebrew family from death in Egypt, the blood of Christ saves us from the eternal death that comes from sin.
Until Christ's saving sacrifice, Heaven had been closed to all who had died since the time of Adam. This did not mean that all souls were suffering in Hell. The souls of those who had lived good lives (Noah, Abraham, Saint Joseph, and many others) were in a place of waiting. (The Apostles' Creed calls this place Hell, although it was not the same as the Hell of eternal punishment.) When Jesus died, he released the souls of the just men and women who had died in the past. Finally they could live with God in Heaven. The sacrifice of Jesus was great enough to save all mankind: those from the past, those who lived at the time of the Incarnation, and all those who would ever live in the future.
Jesus opened Heaven and won back, or redeemed, the souls of all mankind. Now the gift of sanctifying grace would be available to all in the sacrament of Baptism.
The Sacrifice Goes On
Although Jesus died at one moment in history, the saving action of God is an eternal act. Jesus will not die again, but his saving grace will go out to all the earth until the end of time. To perpetuate his redemptive act, Our Lord instituted the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The Mass is a re-presentation of the same sacrifice Jesus made two thousand years ago. The priest takes the place of Christ, and he changes bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Our Savior. Remember, Jesus gave his apostles the power to this at the Last Supper. Later, the apostles passed this power on to other men, and this has continued for centuries, right up to the priests we have today. So at the Mass, through the priest, Jesus offers himself to the Father.
When we participate in the Mass, we share in the priest's action by offering ourselves along with Jesus as a sacrifice to God. There is no better way to pray than to join ourselves to Jesus, in the Sacrifice of the Mass. Christ chooses ordinary bread and wine to make into his Body and Blood. When we give him our own ordinary, sinful souls, he can also make us into something wonderful: a precious gift to God.
The Mass it the way in which Christ's saving grace goes out to the world. It is no wonder, then, that throughout history it has been under attack. But brave Christians were always willing to risk anything for the Holy Sacrifice.
In England during the late 1500s, the protestant Queen Elizabeth I made it a crime to attend Mass. Priests had to travel in disguise from one Catholic home to another to celebrate Mass in secret. Catholic families built secret compartments in the walls or floors of their homes to hide the sacred vessels and other items needed to celebrate Mass. Sometimes, if government officials arrived, it was necessary for the visiting priest to squeeze into these hiding places. Many of these priest were caught and hanged, as were some of the lay people. Some of them are now saints of the Church, because they were martyrs.
In North America in the 1600s, Indians who became Christians had to face persecution if they participated in Mass. One of them, Blessed Kateri Tekawitha, was chased all the way to the church by the pagan Indians of her tribe. They threw stones at her and threatened her with tomahawks. Her own family would not let her eat on Sundays if she went to Mass. But Kateri loved God more than her own life, and she refused to give up going to Mass.
Even today in some countries, police watch to see who goes to church on Sunday. Their names are taken down, and these people are usually not allowed good-paying jobs or nice homes. But the Mass means more to them than any earthly treasures.
Used with the permission of The Ignatius Press 800-799-5534
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