The Sacrifice of the Mass

The word Mass (missa) in regards to the Eucharistic Sacrifice came into use after the time of Pope Gregory the Great (d. 604).  The early Church used expressions such as “the breaking of bread”, “liturgy”, “The Lord’s Supper”, “the gathering together”, or simply “the Sacrifice”.  The word missa was derived from the “dismissal” (dimissio) from prayer.  

Whatever it’s name, the Mass has always been understood to be a sacrifice.  This does not mean, however, that we are “re-sacrificing” Christ in any way, but rather entering into that one perfect eternal sacrifice made once and for all by Christ.  There are two keys to understanding this.  The first is that not all sacrifices are bloody or involve death.  The fact that Scripture speaks of sacrifices of praise (Hos. 4:12) and of thanksgiving (Ps. 50:14) show that not all sacrifices involve death.  Besides offering lambs, the Israelites also made grain offerings and drink offerings.

The second key is understanding that Christ’s sacrifice was eternal as well as perfect. Hebrews 9:24–28 states that Christ was offered “once and for all”, which many Christians interpret as “over and done”, but a closer look at the context of Scripture shows that a better  understanding would be “once and for all eternity.”  One clue is the book of Revelation, where Christ appears as a lamb, standing as though he had been slain (Rev. 5:6). This is not because he still needs to suffer but because Jesus is eternally a priest, and a priest’s very nature is to offer sacrifice, which in this case, the eternal sacrifice that He offers is Himself. Christ re-presents himself to God for all eternity, appealing to the work of the cross and interceding for us (Rom 8:34).  St. Paul declares that Jesus is “a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek” (Heb. 6:20) who, in offering bread and wine, is clearly a type of Christ (Gen. 14:18).  “Once for all”, then, means Jesus is permanently the High Priest (Hebrews 7:3, 27) who has offered Himself once for all of time.  His sacrifice is never repeated, but it also never ends.

This idea of an eternal sacrifice being made present for all Christians can be seen in Christ’s actions leading up to His sacrifice on the cross.  During the Last Supper, the Lord said to his disciples, “Do this in memory of me.” In Greek, this statement reads, “Touto poieite eis tan eman anamnesin,” but the phrase touto poieite can be translated as do this or as offer this. In the Old Testament, God commands the Israelites “you shall offer (poieseis) upon the altar two lambs” (Ex. 29:38). This use of poiein is translated as offer this or sacrifice this over seventy times in the Old Testament. So the same word that is used for the sacrifice under the Old Covenant is used for the sacrifice of the Mass in the New.  In addition, the word anamnesin is always used within a sacrificial context (for example, Numbers 10:10). It also can be translated as memorial offering or memorial sacrifice. As Jews, the Apostles would have understood the sacrificial meaning of Christ’s words.

His words and actions become even more clear when one compares the Last supper to the traditional Jewish Passover Seder.  John 19:14, 31 says that Christ was condemned on the “day of preparation of the Passover,” but Mark 14:12-16 states that the Last Supper was a celebration of the Passover.  This can be explained by the Dead Sea Scrolls, which tells us the Essenes followed a solar calendar and thus celebrated Passover on Tuesday,while the Pharisees followed a lunar calendar and would have celebrated it on Friday.  The “Didascalia Apostolorum” (ca 230 A.D.) shows that early Christians commemorated the Last Supper on Tuesdays instead of Fridays.

If the Last Supper was a celebration of the Jewish Passover, then something comes to light.  The Passover Haggadah required 4 cups of wine:

1st cup of wine with Kiddush blessing 

2nd cup after reciting the Passover

3rd cup, “cup of blessing” after eating lamb and unleavened bread

4th cup after singing “Great Hallel”

The cup that Christ calls “blood of  the covenant” in Mark 14:24-26, Paul calls the “Cup of blessing” in 1 Cor 10:16.  After passing this cup, Jesus says he will not drink from the fruit of the vine again (Mark 14:25), thus omitting the 4th Cup!  They then  leave singing a hymn (Mark 14:26), most probably the Great Hallel.  In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prays “let this cup pass from me” 3 times (Matt 26:39) alluding to 4th Cup.  When arrested, Jesus tells Peter to sheath his sword, and says “Shall I not drink the cup my Father has given me?” (John 18:11).  Jesus is then said to be wearing a seamless garment, which is typically priest vestment (John 19:23).  At Golgotha, they offer him wine, but he refuses it (Mark 15:23).  Then, at the end, Jesus says “I thirst” (John 19:28) and they give him vinegar, or soured wine (Jn 19:29) on a hyssop, which is the branch used to sprinkle the blood of the lamb in O.T. (Ex 12:22).  Jesus receives it and says “it is finished” (Jn. 19:30)

By following Christ’s actions, it is clear that He is linking the Last Supper with His Sacrifice on the cross.  However, it was not enough for the people to sacrifice the lamb, they also must eat of it. (1 Cor 5:7-8, 1 Cor 10:16, 1 Cor 11:29). Because Jesus is the lamb (John 1:29, 1 Peter 1:18-19, 1 Cor 5:7), and the Passover was not complete until they “eat the flesh” (Ex 12:8), then Christ makes His flesh available for all Christians for all eternity through the Mass (John 6:48-68).  (For more on this, read Scott Hahn’s The Fourth Cup, or Brant Pitre’s Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist).

The Church Fathers recognized the sacrificial character of Jesus’ instruction, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Touto poieite tan eman anamnasin; Luke 22:19, 1 Cor. 11:24–25), which is better translated, “Offer this as my memorial offering,” and reflected it in their writings (see quotes below).

The Historical Evidence of
the Mass as a Sacrifice:

Bible Verses:

1 Corinthians 10:14-21
Therefore, my dear friends, flee from the worship of idols.  
I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say.  The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?  Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.   Consider the people of Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices partners in the altar?  What do I imply then? That food sacrificed to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything?  No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons.  You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.”

Church Father Quotes:

The Didache

“Assemble on the Lord’s day, and break bread and offer the Eucharist; but first make confession of your faults, so that your sacrifice may be a pure one. Anyone who has a difference with his fellow is not to take part with you until he has been reconciled, so as to avoid any profanation of your sacrifice [Matt. 5:23–24]. For this is the offering of which the Lord has said, ‘Everywhere and always bring me a sacrifice that is undefiled, for I am a great king, says the Lord, and my name is the wonder of nations’ [Mal. 1:11, 14]” (Didache 14 [A.D. 70]).

Pope Clement I

“Our sin will not be small if we eject from the episcopate those who blamelessly and holily have offered its sacrifices. Blessed are those presbyters who have already finished their course, and who have obtained a fruitful and perfect release” (Letter to the Corinthians 44:4–5 [A.D. 80]).

Ignatius of Antioch

“Make certain, therefore, that you all observe one common Eucharist; for there is but one Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, and but one cup of union with his Blood, and one single altar of sacrifice—even as there is also but one bishop, with his clergy and my own fellow servitors, the deacons. This will ensure that all your doings are in full accord with the will of God” (Letter to the Philadelphians 4 [A.D. 110]).

Justin Martyr

“God speaks by the mouth of Malachi, one of the twelve [minor prophets], as I said before, about the sacrifices at that time presented by you: ‘I have no pleasure in you, says the Lord, and I will not accept your sacrifices at your hands; for from the rising of the sun to the going down of the same, my name has been glorified among the Gentiles, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering, for my name is great among the Gentiles . . . [Mal. 1:10–11]. He then speaks of those Gentiles, namely us [Christians] who in every place offer sacrifices to him, that is, the bread of the Eucharist and also the cup of the Eucharist” (Dialogue with Trypho the Jew 41 [A.D. 155]).

Irenaeus of Lyons 

“He took from among creation that which is bread, and gave thanks, saying, ‘This is my body.’ The cup likewise, which is from among the creation to which we belong, he confessed to be his blood. He taught the new sacrifice of the new covenant, of which Malachi, one of the twelve [minor] prophets, had signified beforehand: ‘You do not do my will, says the Lord Almighty, and I will not accept a sacrifice at your hands. For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name is glorified among the Gentiles, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure sacrifice; for great is my name among the Gentiles, says the Lord Almighty’ [Mal. 1:10–11]. By these words he makes it plain that the former people will cease to make offerings to God; but that in every place sacrifice will be offered to him, and indeed, a pure one, for his name is glorified among the Gentiles” (Against Heresies 4:17:5 [A.D. 189]).

Cyprian of Carthage

“If Christ Jesus, our Lord and God, is himself the high priest of God the Father; and if he offered himself as a sacrifice to the Father; and if he commanded that this be done in commemoration of himself, then certainly the priest, who imitates that which Christ did, truly functions in place of Christ” (Letters 63:14 [A.D. 253]).


“Accept therewith our hallowing too, as we say, ‘Holy, holy, holy Lord Sabaoth, heaven and earth is full of your glory.’ Heaven is full, and full is the earth, with your magnificent glory, Lord of virtues. Full also is this sacrifice, with your strength and your communion; for to you we offer this living sacrifice, this unbloody oblation” (Prayer of the Eucharistic Sacrifice 13:12–16 [A.D. 350]).

Cyril of Jerusalem

“Then, having sanctified ourselves by these spiritual hymns, we beseech the merciful God to send forth his Holy Spirit upon the gifts lying before him, that he may make the bread the Body of Christ and the wine the Blood of Christ, for whatsoever the Holy Spirit has touched is surely sanctified and changed. Then, upon the completion of the spiritual sacrifice, the bloodless worship, over that propitiatory victim we call upon God for the common peace of the churches, for the welfare of the world, for kings, for soldiers and allies, for the sick, for the afflicted; and in summary, we all pray and offer this sacrifice for all who are in need” (Catechetical Lectures 23:7–8 [A.D. 350]).

Gregory Nazianzen

“Cease not to pray and plead for me when you draw down the Word by your word, when in an unbloody cutting you cut the Body and Blood of the Lord, using your voice for a sword” (Letter to Amphilochius 171 [A.D. 383]).

Ambrose of Milan

“We saw the prince of priests coming to us, we saw and heard him offering his blood for us. We follow, inasmuch as we are able, being priests, and we offer the sacrifice on behalf of the people. Even if we are of but little merit, still, in the sacrifice, we are honorable. Even if Christ is not now seen as the one who offers the sacrifice, nevertheless it is he himself that is offered in sacrifice here on Earth when the body of Christ is offered. Indeed, to offer himself he is made visible in us, he whose word makes holy the sacrifice that is offered” (Commentaries on Twelve Psalms of David 38:25 [A.D. 389]).

John Chrysostom

“When you see the Lord immolated and lying upon the altar, and the priest bent over that sacrifice praying, and all the people empurpled by that precious blood, can you think that you are still among men and on earth? Or are you not lifted up to heaven?” (The Priesthood 3:4:177 [A.D. 387]).

“Reverence, therefore, reverence this table, of which we are all communicants! Christ, slain for us, the sacrificial victim who is placed thereon!” (Homilies on Romans 8:8 [A.D. 391]).

“In ancient times, because men were very imperfect, God did not scorn to receive the blood which they were offering . . . to draw them away from those idols; and this very thing again was because of his indescribable, tender affection. But now he has transferred the priestly action to what is most awesome and magnificent. He has changed the sacrifice itself, and instead of the butchering of dumb beasts, he commands the offering up of himself” (ibid., 24:2).

“What then? Do we not offer daily? Yes, we offer, but making remembrance of his death; and this remembrance is one and not many. How is it one and not many? Because this sacrifice is offered once, like that in the Holy of Holies. This sacrifice is a type of that, and this remembrance a type of that. We offer always the same, not one sheep now and another tomorrow, but the same thing always. Thus there is one sacrifice. By this reasoning, since the sacrifice is offered everywhere, are there, then, a multiplicity of Christs? By no means! Christ is one everywhere. He is complete here, complete there, one body. And just as he is one body and not many though offered everywhere, so too is there one sacrifice” (Homilies on Hebrews 17:3(6) [A.D. 403]).

Augustine of Hippo 

“In the sacrament he is immolated for the people not only on every Easter Solemnity but on every day; and a man would not be lying if, when asked, he were to reply that Christ is being immolated. For if sacraments had not a likeness to those things of which they are sacraments, they would not be sacraments at all; and they generally take the names of those same things by reason of this likeness” (Letters 98:9 [A.D. 412]).

“For when he says in another book, which is called Ecclesiastes, ‘There is no good for a man except that he should eat and drink’ [Eccles. 2:24], what can he be more credibly understood to say [prophetically] than what belongs to the participation of this table which the Mediator of the New Testament himself, the priest after the order of Melchizedek, furnishes with his own body and blood? For that sacrifice has succeeded all the sacrifices of the Old Testament, which were slain as a shadow of what was to come. . . . Because, instead of all these sacrifices and oblations, his body is offered and is served up to the partakers of it” (The City of God 17:20 [A.D. 419]).

Sechnall of Ireland

“[St. Patrick] proclaims boldly to the [Irish] tribes the name of the Lord, to whom he gives the eternal grace of the laver of salvation; for their offenses he prays daily unto God; for them also he offers up to God worthy sacrifices” (Hymn in Praise of St. Patrick 13 [A.D. 444]).

Fulgentius of Ruspe

“Hold most firmly and never doubt in the least that the only-begotten God the Word himself became flesh [and] offered himself in an odor of sweetness as a sacrifice and victim to God on our behalf; to whom . . . in the time of the Old Testament animals were sacrificed by the patriarchs and prophets and priests; and to whom now, I mean in the time of the New Testament . . . the holy Catholic Church does not cease in faith and love to offer throughout all the lands of the world a sacrifice of bread and wine” (The Rule of Faith 62 [A.D. 524]).

Non-Catholic Quotes:

J. N. D. Kelly, Protestant early Church historian

“the Eucharist was regarded as the distinctively Christian sacrifice. . . . Malachi’s prediction (1:10–11) that the Lord would reject Jewish sacrifices and instead would have ‘a pure offering’ made to him by the Gentiles in every place was seized upon by Christians as a prophecy of the Eucharist. The Didache indeed actually applies the term thusia, or sacrifice, to the Eucharist.

“It was natural for early Christians to think of the Eucharist as a sacrifice. The fulfillment of prophecy demanded a solemn Christian offering, and the rite itself was wrapped in the sacrificial atmosphere with which our Lord invested the Last Supper. The words of institution, ‘Do this’ (touto poieite), must have been charged with sacrificial overtones for second-century ears; Justin at any rate understood them to mean, ‘Offer this.’ . . . The bread and wine, moreover, are offered ‘for a memorial (eis anamnasin) of the passion,’ a phrase which in view of his identification of them with the Lord’s body and blood implies much more than an act of purely spiritual recollection” –Early Christian Doctrines, 196–7