The Mass as Sacrifice

Fr Paul’s sermon for Sexagesima Sunday 

I’m sure I don’t expect anybody to remember what I said on this Sunday, three years ago! Until I looked it up, I didn’t remember myself! But I preached on the first reading, the story of creation, and one of the things I said was that the author of Genesis “imagines God building a house, or perhaps rather a Temple, roofed over by the sky, with sun and moon as its lamps, with plants and animals, but most importantly with human beings charged to look after the house, to be priests of the Temple.”

This time I want to take up what I only said in passing the previous time, that God has appointed human beings to be priests of his Temple, the Temple of Creation. This has all sorts of implications for the environment, for ecology and for so-called “green” issues generally.

A priest is essentially an intermediary between God (or in some religions gods) and human beings. A priest leads human beings in their worship of God, the offering they make of themselves. He is their spokesman. He also has the responsibility of making known to human beings the will of God in their regard. He is God’s spokesman.

The great High Priest of humanity is our Lord Jesus Christ. In him, God and humanity are united in a single Person. He is, above all, the supreme Mediator between God and human beings. And because human beings, through their own fault, have become estranged from God, Jesus is also the great Reconciler, the Redeemer who frees humanity from its exile and slavery to sin, and brings them into the liberty that is their heritage as children of God. This is, as it were, the big picture.

The Old Testament, which begins with the story of creation we have just listened to, continues with the story of mankind’s disobedience, and the degeneration that occurs as a result – Cain murdering his brother Abel, and so on. It then tells the story of God’s activity to put all this right, starting with Abraham, through Moses and the prophets, up to the coming of Jesus. Even the Chosen People of Israel were constantly falling away let alone the pagan nations), but God never faltered in his plan.

This story is also about revealing the pattern of this plan, with the themes of Kingship and Temple, sacrifice and priesthood. When Jesus came, he came as both King and Priest. He himself became the new Temple, the dwelling-place of God among men; he himself became the sacrifice which would blot out the sins of the world. What is more, and this is the key-point of what I am saying today, he associated those who put their trust in him with this work of reconciliation. WE are the Body of Christ, WE are the new Temple of the Holy Spirit. We regularly say this, but do we always think about what it means?

In the old Prayer Book communion service (which we still use here on occasion), the priest says that Jesus, on the cross, “made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world; and did institute, and in his holy Gospel command us to continue, a perpetual memory of that his precious death, until his coming again.”

By a “memory”, the Church does not mean simply that we should think about it now and then, or even regularly. It means that we should, in the Mass, re-present that his precious death; and “re-present” means both “make present again”, in every age until Christ’s coming again, and also “present again”, offer again, ourselves personally, the Sacrifice of Christ, and so to unite ourselves with it that we can say (again in the words of the Prayer Book), “And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy and lively sacrifice unto thee.”

Think about that: at Mass we offer ourselves, body, soul and everything we have and are, in union with our Lord Jesus Christ, to God the Father. And why? “For the sins of the whole world.”

Our modern services have tended (if I may say so) to have soft-pedalled this, making it all a little too cosy, a nice family meal for those who are “inside”. When we make our common confession, we say merely that we have sinned “in thought, word and deed.” The old Prayer Book was much harsher: “We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we from time to time most grievously have committed, by thought, word and deed, against thy Divine Majesty, provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us. We do earnestly repent, and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; the remembrance of them is grievous unto us, the burden of them is intolerable.”

Does that sound a bit “over the top”? Well, yes it is, if we have in mind only our own selves. But the point is, we are the Body of Christ. We are a priestly people, sharing in the priesthood of Christ, the priesthood that (in a certain sense) belongs to the human race from its origin. And the human race, if we just look at history and at the world of the present day, IS full of grievous and intolerable sins. Savage murders, the refusal to come to the aid of refugees fleeing from violence, abuse of children, exploitation of the weak and vulnerable: it’s all going on, all over the world, day after day. And when we come together, on Sundays, to share in Christ’s holy sacrifice, these are the things we have to implore God’s pardon for, to ask his mercy for. We are spokesmen for our race: like Jesus on the Cross, we are praying, “Father, forgive them,” Father, turn their hearts.

As priests of the world, we give praise and thanks to God on behalf of the whole creation. Through our voices, sun and moon, birds and beasts, mountains and springs and “everything that has breath” gives praise to the Lord. That’s easy. But also, through us, sinful humanity, still so often unaware of its position, needs to implore mercy and forgiveness for its failure to cherish and care for the world, and above all for its inhumanity to mankind. Lent is drawing near, the season of penitence leading up to the remembrance of Christ’s death and resurrection. Jesus died to save the world; here, we are privileged to stand with him and pray, “Lord, have mercy.”