The meaning of what we see at Mass: Part II

Last week I suggested the real key to the difference between Mass facing the people or Mass facing the tabernacle is the relation of the Mass to the Last Supper. Mass facing the people usually gives the impression that the Mass is a re-enactment, representation, or dramatization of the Last Supper, with the priest acting the part of Jesus.

I pointed out that that this clearly is not the way the Catholic Church has understood the Mass for a period of close to 2,000 years and that it does not actually fit with the whole of the eucharistic prayer.

The eucharistic prayer is a prayer directed to the Father and made by the priest, representing Jesus Christ as head of the Church, on behalf of the whole Church. The prayer refers to the Last Supper not in the form of a re-enactment, but as a narrative, an account of what took place, which quotes the words of Jesus, “Take this all of you and eat of it… take this all of you and drink from it.”

In the context of the whole prayer the narrative of the Last Supper and the institution of the sacrament of the holy Eucharist is given as an argument for why God should change the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. In effect we are asking God to do this because this is what his Son did at the Last Supper and commanded us to do in memory of himself.

Maybe we need a better understanding of what Jesus did at the Last Supper and what he asked us to do. The key to understanding this is the Cross; at the Last Supper Jesus anticipates what he is going to do on the Cross; at the Mass we commemorate what Jesus did on the Cross. The Last Supper looks forward to the Cross; the Mass looks back to the Cross.

By instituting the Eucharist as the Last Supper, Jesus reveals the meaning of what he is about to do when he will give his life on the Cross and at the same time he gives to his Church a means of commemorating, perpetuating, and even enacting what he did on the Cross.

Consider the words quoted by the priest at Mass: This is my Body, which will be given up for you. … This is the chalice of my Blood, the Blood of the new and eternal covenant, which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.

These words are sacrificial, that is they refer to the offering of Jesus’ Body and Blood upon the Cross as a sacrifice. The Cross is referred to both by the future tense of “will be given up for you” and “will be poured out for you” and by the separate consecration of the Body and Blood, which symbolizes the separation of Jesus’ Body and Blood that took place in his death.

That is why the first and primary point of reference for the Mass is the Cross, not the Resurrection. The separate consecration of the Body and Blood shows Jesus’ death on the Cross. This is why St. Paul, commenting on the words of Jesus at the Last Supper writes, As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes. (1 Cor 11:26).

The primary point of reference is the Cross, but Jesus has risen from the dead and ascended to the right hand of the Father. He is alive: he is inseparable, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. So in the Mass the living Jesus, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, is offered to God, but offered in an unbloody commemoration of his death on the Cross.

This is what is expressed right away in the eucharistic prayer when the priest says, “We… offer to your glorious majesty … this pure victim, this holy victim, this spotless victim, the holy bread of eternal life and the Chalice of everlasting salvation.” (Eucharistic Prayer I – the ancient Roman Canon) The newer eucharistic prayers contain similar expressions.

This is what Jesus, at the Last Supper, commanded us to do in his memory.

At the Last Supper, then, Jesus points forward to his self-offering on the Cross. The Mass, by way of the narrative of the Last Supper, refers us also to Jesus’ self-offering on the Cross. Since the primary reference point is the Cross, the Mass is first of all a sacrifice, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

The Mass is both sacrifice and banquet, but it is first a sacrifice so as to then be a banquet; Jesus is first offered in sacrifice, then received in communion as the fruit of the sacrifice. When we lose the primary reference point of the sacrifice, we lose also the true meaning of communion.

So when for almost 2,000 years Catholics have seen priests standing at the altar facing the crucifix and the tabernacle, their backs to the people, what they have seen is precisely a priest standing at the altar, offering sacrifice to God on their behalf. This is the fundamental truth of the Mass that is obscured when the priest turns and faces the people.

Somebody might ask, “Okay, then, if the priest is up there offering a sacrifice on our behalf, how can I be involved at all? It sounds like I am just a spectator?” Good question. (To be continued.)



Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.

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