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HOLY MASS – The Perpetuation of the Pascal Mysteries

The Mass of St Gregory: Jesus appears to Pope St Gregory I (c. 540 – 604) as the Man of Sorrows at consecration so as to confirm His presence in the Sacrament of the Altar.

Professor Roberto Ceolin

As Easter Season approaches its end, it is good to keep in mind that Easter still goes on every time the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is offered upon a consecrated altar by a validly ordained priest.

Around Christmas time, when the world is overtaken by a sudden wave of instantaneous goodwill we are constantly bombarded with emotional outbursts such as ‘Christmas should be everyday’ and the like, usually by pop singers and celebrities, always on the lookout for a bit of free publicity. But behind this plastic-made and wrapped in golden ribbons love-all-the-world sentiment is a hidden attempt to water down the significance of Christmas as the commemoration of Christ’s Birth. In some places, such as the USA, Christmas has been under such attack that the greeting Merry Christmas! is now thought of as politically incorrect because it is divisive; instead what we want is the inclusive and cosy greeting Happy Holidays! so as to accommodate also the Jews who celebrate their Hanukkah festival in December. Well, what can one say except that this is only slightly different in form from what was going on not that long ago in the Soviet Union and other so-called progressive, even if starving, countries!

Back to the topic in hand, no such strident outbursts exist for Easter yet, and thank God for that!, as the meaning of Easter is much too deep to be vulgarized so easily. Even though no-one has yet come up with the brilliant slogan ‘Easter Sunday should be everyday’, Easter does happen every day and not in a metaphorical manner. Let us see exactly how.

Origin of the Words Pasch and Paschal

Alongside the word Easter, English also has the much less used, and even unknown to some, Pasch /pask/. Easter, going back to Anglo-Saxon ēastre, refers more to the season than to the actual Christian festivity. Pasch and the adjective paschal, both derived from Middle French Pasche, go back to Pascua, the Latin version of the Greek πάσχα /páscha/, itself a Hellenization of the Hebrew פֶּ֫סַח /pésaḥ/.

The relation between English Pasch and Hebrew פֶּ֫סַח /pésaḥ/ follows from the fact that our Paschal Festival is the heir and the consequence of the Pesach or Jewish Easter.

Pesach is the official name of the Jewish Passover, also known as feast of the Unleavened Bread. This festival commemorates the Exodus or liberation of the Jews under the leadership of Moses from their captivity in Egypt and the beginning of their journey into the promised land (Exodus 11-15). Pesach is the Anglicized form of the Hebrew פֶּ֫סַח /pésaḥ/ which means ‘the act of passing over or away from something’ and it refers to how on the night when the Lord sent the tenth plague over the land of Egypt death passed-over the houses of the Jews and they were spared.

Although for the Jews their liberation from captivity and departure from Egypt are the key aspects of this celebration, the festival itself takes its name from what could be considered a secondary event from a Jewish perspective. Yet it is this somewhat marginal event which will later on connect the Jewish Passover to the sacrifice of Christ at Calvary where once again the blood of the lamb will save Men from Death.

The Jewish Passover is thus the prefiguration of the Sacrifice of the Cross and the meal which took place after that sacrifice is the prefiguration of the Last Supper.


The Passover in the Old Covenant

The history of the Ancient Covenant between the Jewish people and God begins with Abraham accepting to sacrifice onto God his only son Isaac (Genesis 22-22:19). But, in the very moment when Abraham was about to slaughter his own son on the altar, God provided a lamb to replace Isaac as the sacrificial victim. God did so because he saw that Abraham was willing to obey Him to the last consequences, even if that meant to sacrifice his only and much beloved son: ‘now I know that thou fearest God, and hast not spared thy only begotten son for my sake’ (Genesis 22:16). Since the originally intended victim was not actually the sacrificed one, the sacrifice of Isaac remained incomplete, that is to say, imperfect.


According to Biblical tradition, after the death of Abraham’s great-grandson Joseph the Jews became slaves of the Egyptians (Exodus 1:8-14) and God, ever faithful to His alliance, wishing to free them from their captivity and lead them into the promised land, sends Moses and his brother Aaron to Pharaoh (Exodus 3:7-12). Pharaoh, however, was unwilling to free the Jews and to let them go and worship the God of their ancestors in the Sinai desert. As a consequence of this refuse, God sends down the famous Ten Plagues over Egypt (Exodus 7-12) which end up forcing Pharaoh to let them go.

The Pesach or Feast of the Unleaded breads commemorates the liberation of the Jews from Egypt after the tenth plague and the beginning of their journey towards the promised land.


The blood of the lamb

The last of the Ten Plagues was the death of all firstborns in every household of Egypt, except for those marked with the blood of the lamb in their door lintel. According to the instructions given to Moses, on that night the Jews should kill a lamb and stain the lintels of their front doors with the blood of the slaughtered lamb which was to be eaten afterwards with unleaded bread and bitter herbs.

When on that night the hand of the Lord passed through the land of Egypt, death passed away or passed-over the houses which had the blood stain on their doors and the inhabitants were protected against the tenth plague.

All those marked with the blood of the lamb were protected against death; this is the first time that the blood of a lamb appears as a sign of life against death. Also in the New Covenant all those marked with the blood of the Paschal Lamb, in this case Jesus, are shielded against Death; in both covenants the blood of the sacrificed lamb is token of Life

After the death of the firstborns of Egypt, including his own heir, Pharaoh let the Jewish people go and they, the chosen people God, having being saved through the blood of a lamb, started a journey which will lead directly to the cross of Christ where the blood of another lamb is to be shed for the salvation, not of a few enslaved Jews, but of all mankind. The blood shading at Calvary frees Men from the racial constraints of the Old Covenant and the new chosen people, the Universal Church, begins the second part of this journey, now into the real promised land, the Resurrection. Both covenants are signed in by the shading of the blood of a lamb, in the case of the first covenant, one lamb per man, in the new covenant, where the victim is the Son of Man, one Lamb for the whole of mankind.


Jesus, the New Isaac

cum Pascha nostrum immolatus est Christus

‘when Christ our Passover was sacrificed’

There are key differences between the sacrifice of the Old Covenant and that of Calvary. One major difference is that, the sacrifice of Isaac remained incomplete because a lamb took his place whereas at Calvary Jesus takes the place of the sacrificial lamb, that lamb which Moses first sacrificed for the liberation of his people from Egypt. Abraham did have the intention to obey God but it is Jesus who actually does so by laying down His own life in obedience to the will of the Father; Jesus’ sacrifice was not only complete but also perfect given that the victim is the Son of God himself.

A second difference is that, being the sacrifice of Christ absolutely perfect in view of Christ’s own nature, His sacrifice is also final. In the Old Covenant, the Jews had to keep on offering sacrifices in the course of their lives for the atonement of individual sins. Christ’s sacrifice, in turn, frees at once the whole of mankind from all Sin, and in consequence from Death (Hebrews 9:23-10:18). When Jesus initiates his public life, St John the Baptist identifies Him as the Lamb of God who came to ‘take away the Sin of the World’ (John 1:29, the singular τὴν ἁμαρτίαν τοῦ κόσμου ‘the sin of the world’ used in the original Greek is noteworthy for its abstract meaning). The consequence of Jesus’ atonement through His cross is the liberation of Men from the rule of Death which entered the world through Sin (Romans 5:12). Freedom from Sin and Death is the new Exodus of the new house of Israel, the Church. All those who confess Jesus Christ as God are members of the New Covenant of His blood (John 1:12) and through the blood of Jesus Christ, the New Isaac, we are all made descendants of Abraham and heirs of God’s promise to him: I will bless thee, and I will multiply thy seed as the stars of heaven, and as the sand that is by the sea shore: thy seed shall possess the gates of their enemies. And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because thou hast obeyed my voice (Genesis 22:17-18).


The Paschal Sacrifice of the Mass

Contrary to the sacrifices of the Old Covenant, which had to be repeated for individual atonement, Christ’s sacrifice is one and final, atoning at once the whole of Humanity, even those who preceded Jesus in time. Although it does not need to be repeated, the very same sacrifice of the cross becomes present on the altars of the whole world every time Mass is offered.

The Mass is not a sacrifice offered anew and much less the repetition of the Sacrifice of the Cross, the Mass IS the Sacrifice of the Cross which becomes present, or actual, to use more modern nomenclature, on the altar. In other words, the Mass brings the reality of Calvary to our presence, or, from a different perspective, it takes us to Calvary. It is not a question of as if it were, but of it is. At Mass, in front of the altar, we are placed before of the very Cross of Christ at Calvary; we are present at the events of two thousand years ago in a metaphysical way inasmuch as the constraints of time and space become voided.

However, since the liturgical reform of 1969-70, for different reasons, some to do with the reform itself and its troublesome implementation, some confusion arose among Catholics in their understanding of the nature of the Mass. Sadly many now see it as a sort of mise on scene or theatrical representation of the Last Supper. This is in fact the protestants’ view; they do not accept the concept of the Mass as a sacrifice nor do they accept the idea of Christ’s substantial presence in the consecrated host. Instead they believe that Christ is only spiritually present in the bread and wine, and only during communion. In order to avoid any confusion on this matter and to avoid, what they call, the danger of superstition, some pastors make a point in throwing away the remains of communion which were not consumed during the ceremony. They do, however, call real presence to this spiritual-only presence.

This is another problem among Catholics nowadays; from the somewhat unconcerned and easy-going way some people approach Holy Communion it can be assumed that many are not aware of the substantial presence of Jesus Christ in the consecrated host. Such attitude derives partly from the fact that communion is often distributed without the proper ceremonial solemnity which the full majesty of God present in the Host and held by the priest’s hand requires. Also some of those responsible for the education of the faithful fail in their fiduciary duty of warning the people about the risks one takes when approaching the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of our redeemer Jesus Christ in an unworthy manner. It is through the sacrament of Confession that we can prepare ourselves for that enormous act which is to take God Himself into one’s own body; being mindful of that should be enough to move us to go to confession and prepare ourselves for sacramental communion.

According to the doctrine shared by the whole Church, both Latin and Oriental, the Mass is the sacrifice of Jesus Christ which is renewed or actualized over the altars of the whole word for the atonement of the living and the dead. The outwardly difference between the Sacrifice of the Cross and the sacrifice of the altar, is that the later takes the form or aspect of the Last Supper (causa formalis) and there is no blood shedding (sacrificium incruentum). This has always been the doctrine of the Church it hasn’t been changed by Vatican II at all.

Chapter II of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Vatican II document on the Liturgy begins by saying ‘at the Last Supper, on the night when He was betrayed, our Saviour instituted the Eucharistic sacrifice of His Body and Blood. He did this in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the Cross throughout the centuries until He should come again, and so to entrust to His beloved spouse, the Church, a memorial of His death and resurrection: a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, a paschal banquet in which Christ is eaten, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us’. As these words from Vatican II make it quite clear, the Mass is a sacrifice which was instituted to perpetuate Christ’s sacrifice at the Cross and not a mere theatrical representation of the Last Supper.


But the Mass goes beyond the Sacrifice of the Cross, as the text of the Sacrosanctum Concilium states. In the altars of the whole world, whenever Holy Mass is offered the Paschal mystery is present in its entirety, that is to say, not only Christ’s death on the Cross but also his Resurrection from the dead, for it is the Risen Christ truly present in the consecrated host what we take in Sacramental communion.

Thus, through the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the Passover of our redeemer Jesus Christ is made present in the life of the Church as a Sacrament or channel of grace. Through our participation in the sacraments, especially Holy Communion and Confession, we, in our own time, are active participants of the Paschal mysteries which took place two thousand years ago in Jerusalem. It is exactly because of that that, even though Catholics are obliged to take communion only once a year, they have to attend Mass every Sunday and main festivities, so as to keep throughout the course of their earthly lives an effective association with Jesus Christ by participating in his Paschal Mysteries which ultimately open for us all the doors to Eternal Life.

Laus Deo!





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