Have you ever heard someone say that “Catholics believe they are re-sacrificing Jesus” in the Catholic Mass? I have. And guess what; that’s not the teaching of the Catholic Church regardless of what you might have heard! What follows is what is really happening in the simplest terms I can communicate.
Terminology is the key in Catholic mass
Part of the problem with understanding Catholic teaching is really just a terminology problem. For Catholics, the word “sacrifice” is a more robust word for what many Protestants mean when they use the word “offering.”
Tell a Protestant you made a sacrifice at church, and they might imagine you mean you took out a knife and plunged it into an animal at an altar, or worse (as some people mistakenly believe Catholics teach)—you re-nailed Jesus to the cross again (and again and again).
Tell a Protestant you gave (or received) an offering, and they’ll typically imagine putting money into a plate or bag as it is passed around.
Catholic teaching is not that a priest is “crucifying Jesus” again, or that Jesus is dying again for our sins in the “sacrifice of the Mass.” Then what exactly is Catholic teaching on the Sacrifice of the Mass?
In Catholic teaching, there are actually two sacrifices (offerings) that are coming together so that the one becomes truly present in the other, and indeed, as the other, and can be appropriated into the very being of everyone who receives it.
First: The Sacrifice of the People – During a Catholic Mass, members of the parish will make their way to the back of the church to pick up trays of bread and bottles of water and wine. They will then walk up the middle of the aisle and “offer” these things to the priest, on behalf of all the people present, as their “sacrifice” (again, think “offering” if it helps you). These plain elements—water, bread and wine—are both God’s creation (He made everything in them), and the work of the people (“work of the people” is a composite of two Greeks words: leitourgía (people-work) translated “Liturgy”). It is people who brought these things to the Lord. Someone had to bake the bread and make the wine out of God’s grain and grapes, right? In a sense, the first sacrifice is an offering of God’s creation (through the ordinary elements that stand for our whole lives) back to the creator. These ordinary things are brought to the meal table (“the altar” to use the language of worship) and offered to God in a specific way. In fact, the priest asks the people to pray together as one voice for him as he sets them on the table on their behalf by saying:
“Pray, brothers and sisters, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father.”
To which the people respond with one voice in prayer, with the words…
“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.”
What’s all this? This is simply people asking one of their own (the priest who presides) to bring their ordinary things to the dinner table. These ordinary things re-present (I hyphenated it on purpose so you’d say “REE” instead of “REH”) their labor, their work, their time, their blood, sweat, tears, energy and talents. These realities are all bound up in the sacrifice (offering, gifts, etc.) of these ordinary elements. It’s kind of like saying, “God, by giving you these ordinary elements, we are all here together saying that we give you our entire lives. We surrender all!” This first sacrifice is communicated on behalf of all the people by one person who has been designated to stand in for all of them with bread, wine and water.
Second: The Sacrifice of Jesus – During the liturgy, the priest will then ask Jesus (who died for our sins, once and once only, 2,000 years ago, and who rose from the grave, and who ascended to God’s right hand, ever-alive and ever making intercession for us, cf. Heb. 7:25) to come and make what He has done on the cross a present reality, and to join who He really is (the crucified and risen Lord of Lords), to those ordinary elements. Jesus, who, as it says in the book of Revelation, is “a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne” (Rev. 5:6) graciously answers the prayer of His people, and comes to be fully present in the midst of His people in the consecrated bread and wine. He is not “re-sacrificed,” but rather, his once-for-all sacrifice is “re-presented” (there’s the hyphenation again), and becomes a truly-present (i.e., “real presence”) reality available to His people.