Editor’s Note: Readers are also encouraged to view an episode of Ask Father with Fr. Albert Kalio which addressed this same question. Also, Crucifixion to Creation, a book by Father James Mawdsley, is an excellent resource for understanding the Old and New Testament roots of the Mass.
What Is the Mass?
“If we really understood the Mass, we would die of joy.” (St. John Vianney)
The Mass is the form of worship given to us by Christ at the Last Supper. First and foremost, Holy Mass is a Sacrifice. Holy Mass is the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. It is a sacrifice that can always be efficacious for us as it does not depend on the merits or personal holiness of the priest. In the Mass, the Lord is both priest and victim. He is present on the altar of Sacrifice, and even the priest acts in persona Christi in offering up to the Eternal Father the unblemished Sacrifice during the Canon of the Mass.
We can further receive grace by partaking of the Holy Eucharist, if we are Catholics in the state of grace, though our doing so is not the purpose of the Mass or the reason why we must go to Mass on Holy Days.
Priests of the Old Testament frequently offered animal sacrifice to God in atonement for their sins, as was prescribed by the Law of Moses. However, as children of the New Testament, Catholic priests offer to God in the Mass the only true Sacrifice – Jesus Christ. Jesus is the Lamb of God because He was the sacrifice that paid the price for all our sins.
Four Necessary Components of the Mass:
As the Council of Trent has affirmed, the Mass is the “true and proper sacrifice.” As with any sacrifice, there are four necessary components: a sacrificial gift (res oblata), a sacrificing minister (minister legitimus), a sacrificial action (actio sacrificica), and a sacrificial end or object (finis sacrificii).
First, the res oblata, or sacrificial gift, must be physical and real. In the Old Testament it consisted of animals offered up to God. Today, at Mass the priest offers to the Father one sacrifice – His Son.
Second, only a qualified person can offer the sacrifice, and that is a priest. In the Old Testament priests were to come only from the Tribe of Levi; in particular, from the House of Aaron. Similarly, priests of the Holy Catholic Church must be males who validly receive the Sacrament of Orders. The priest not only offers the Sacrifice of Jesus truly present, but the priest acts in the person of Christ (in persona Christi), so it is actually Christ Who offers the Sacrifice through the human nature (body, mind and will) of the priest. Thus, when the priest pronounces the words of Consecration, it is not merely the priest speaking but, more importantly, it is Jesus speaking through the priest.
Third, the sacrificial action of the Old Testament was the spilling of the blood of animals. In the New Testament, it is Jesus’ voluntary surrender of His Blood and the offering of His life.
Finally, the object of Sacrifice is to be offered solely to God for His honor and glory. Such an offering is lifted into the realms of the Divine.
The New Testament Fulfills the Old in the Mass
Just as Melchisedech brought forth bread and wine (“bringing forth bread and wine, for he was the priest of the Most High God…”), Jesus instituted the Eucharist as a Sacrifice at the Last Supper. Thus, we again see the importance of the continuity of the Old and New Testaments. Jesus did not come to destroy the Old Covenant but instead, to fulfill it (cf. Matthew 5:17) and establish a new and greater one with His Body as the true and lasting Sacrifice.
The tearing of the temple veil is the final sign of the Sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross. The veil in the Old Testament was of thick linen and it separated the Holy of Holies (an inner shrine – the most holy place – housing the Ark of the Covenant) from the rest of the temple. In particular, it was so holy that a priest could only enter the Holy of Holies one day a year, on Yom Kippur. He would even have a rope tied around his ankle because the high priest could die for violating the ritual laws laid down by God. In such an eventuality, he was to be pulled from the inner sanctuary using the rope because if anyone else were to enter the Holy of Holies, he too would die.
The tearing of the veil (cf. Matthew 27:51) laid open the Holy of Holies. This seventy-foot high curtain tore from the top down, showing it was an act of God above. No longer was this physical place to be set apart. This signified the end of the Old Covenant, for it was replaced by the [new] perfect and Eternal Covenant established in the Blood of the Son of God. All of the Old Testament had served to prefigure the Sacrifice of Our Lord Jesus Christ and His redemptive work. Now mankind could approach God’s presence and offer to God their sufferings and prayers if they were united spiritually with the Cross. The Protestant notion that the tearing of the veil (or destruction of the temple in 70 A.D.) signified the end of all Sacrifices is false. The Old Testament had ended. As the early Church shows, the Sacrifice of the Mass was celebrated by the Apostles themselves as the New Sacrifice.
The time has come when the words of Malachi 1:11 have been fulfilled:
“For from the rising of the sun even to the going down, My name is great among the Gentiles, and in every place there is sacrifice, and there is offered to My name a clean oblation: for My name is great among the Gentiles, saith the Lord of hosts.”
Does Christ Therefore Die Again at Each Mass?
This next logical question is well answered by Cardinal Cajetan:
“The single Victim offered once on the Cross continues to be present in the manner of an offering in the Eucharist instituted by Christ and daily repeated” (Cardinal Cajetan, on the Sacrifice of the Mass, 1531).
The Mass is the re-presentation of the one and same Sacrifice of Our Lord Jesus Christ on the Cross. This Sacrifice which took place at one particular point in time in human history is the same Sacrifice of the Mass. As such, Christ does not die again at each Mass. Christ reigns in Heaven where He is seated at the right hand of God the Father and from where He will come again to judge the living and the dead. Yet His same eternal Sacrifice is made present in our time and space each time a priest offers Holy Mass.
The Council of Trent, in response to the errors of Protestants, who abandoned the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and who abandoned the priesthood, states: “The victim is one and the same: the same now offers through the ministry of priests, Who then offered Himself on the cross; only the manner of offering is different.” The Council continues: “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.” This is therefore in perfect conformity with Hebrews 9:25-28, which refers to the one Sacrifice of Christ:
“Nor yet that [Christ] should offer Himself often, as the high priest entereth into the holies, every year with the blood of others: For then He ought to have suffered often from the beginning of the world: but now once at the end of ages, He hath appeared for the destruction of sin, by the sacrifice of Himself. And as it is appointed unto men once to die, and after this the judgment: So also Christ was offered once to exhaust the sins of many; the second time He shall appear without sin to them that expect Him unto salvation.”
Christ’s death on the cross is not physically repeated at each Mass, but His one sacrifice is made present again in a mystical and sacramental way at Mass.
Christ won all graces by His sacrifice on Calvary, all graces from the beginning of the world to the end of the world. Our Lord then distributes graces (which He already won) to men as they sacramentally participate in His one sacrifice at Holy Mass in accordance with their faith and charity.
Prayer to Obtain the Grace of All the World’s Masses
Eternal Father, we humbly offer Thee our poor presence, and that of the whole of humanity, from the beginning to the end of the world at all the Masses that ever have or ever will be prayed.
We offer Thee all the pains, suffering, prayers, sacrifices, joys, and relaxations of our lives, in union with those of our dear Lord Jesus here on earth.
May the Most Precious Blood of Christ, all His Blood, and Wounds, and Agony save us, through the Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart of Mary. Amen.
 Those interested in this subject are encouraged to study especially chapters 65 -67 of St. Justin Martyr’s First Apologia, a defense of the Christian Faith which he sent to the Roman Emperor circa 150 A.D.