“I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” —John 6:51 (final verse of the Gospel for the Nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B)
What is the Mass?
All-too-many Catholics today would no doubt struggle to answer this question. Whatever the cause of this difficulty, the Church cannot remain idle while her children remain ignorant of essential truths of the Faith.
These weeks during which the Sunday Gospels are drawn from Christ’s Bread of Life Discourse in John 6 provide an opportunity for deepening faith and growing in wisdom and knowledge about the “source and center” of the Christian life.
Failure to believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is the most well-publicized crisis of faith, because studies have consistently shown a decline in the percentage of Catholics who believe that the Eucharist is truly and substantially the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. But lack of faith in the sacrificial nature of the Mass is an intimately related crisis of paramount importance.
The existence of this second crisis is not supported by the same amount of sociological research, to be sure. Nevertheless, the experience of countless priests and concerned members of the lay faithful tells the grim tale: Catholics by and large are unfamiliar with the essence of the Mass, that it is a sacramental representation of the one saving Sacrifice of Calvary and the Church’s supreme act of redemptive worship. Similarly, few Catholics today seem to be aware of the truth that in the Holy Sacrifice the Church participates in the worship that Christ offers His Father in heaven.
Of course, most Catholics who regularly attend Mass know something about the nature of the Mass. For example, the communal aspect of the Mass is widely acknowledged by the faithful. They know something of the importance of God’s word proclaimed in the readings and, by extension, in the homily. And many Catholics express a beautiful hunger for the Bread of Life received in Holy Communion. But even among many clergy the truth of the Sacrifice of the Mass has often fallen by the wayside.
Yet the truths of the Real Presence, transubstantiation, and the Mass as a Sacrifice are interdependent and mutually reinforcing. Pastors should never expect a return to robust faith in the Real Presence without cultivating faith in the sacrificial nature of the Mass.
One excellent guide to sharing the Church’s faith in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is Msgr. Ronald A. Knox (1888-1957). Knox, an English priest and apologist, was one of the Church’s most profound and articulate preachers of the past century.
The “dazzling truth” of the Holy Sacrifice
In affirming the sacrificial nature of the Mass, Ronald Knox stands squarely in the Thomistic and Tridentine tradition. His manner of expression, structure of his arguments, choices about what themes to highlight and which to leave in the background, use of images, and spiritual lessons are Knox’s own, but the basic theological underpinnings of his understanding of the Sacrifice of the Mass is an inherited part of the Tradition, a fact Knox would be the first to affirm. And the supreme importance of the Sacrifice of the Mass is a truth Knox is at pains to emphasize. Commenting on the relationship between Holy Communion and the Sacrifice, Knox writes:
For us, holy communion, important as it is, awe-inspiring as it is, figures as something secondary in intention to the Mass itself; a gracious corollary, a stupendous after-effect, which unites us in a special way with the thing done. For us the immediate, dazzling truth is that here and all over the world Christ, in the person of the priest, is offering Christ under the forms of bread and wine in perfect sacrifice to the eternal Father. If I am worthy, if I am willing, he gives himself to me; but, worthy or no, willing or no, he gives himself for me, as for all mankind, his brothers; on earth, as in heaven, he is our High Priest and representative.i
In addition to pointing out the importance of the sacrificial aspect of the Eucharist, the Christocentric focus of Knox’s description is also significant. Man is in no way qualified to offer an acceptable sacrifice to God: “Sinful creatures, we have neither the status nor the capacity to make any worthy oblation.”ii Our unworthiness extends not only to the act of oblation, but also to those of praise, impetration, and thanksgiving. All of these aspirations must be given over to Christ, joined to his self-offering to the Father. “In the Mass, helpless man is trying to hide away, to compensate for, the utter worthlessness of his own aspirations towards God, by uniting them to the perfect aspirations of the God-Man here offered up in sacrifice.”iii All Christian sacrifice is made possible by the one Sacrifice of Calvary.iv
The Sacrifice of Calvary and its sacramental representation in the Mass constitute the fulfilment of the Jewish sacrifices of the Old Covenant. For Knox, the sacraments are unlike the Jewish sacrifices in that they do not involve the destruction of a body, and yet in the Eucharist there is a new offering of the death of Christ: “Somehow, mysteriously, he who was immolated once for all on Calvary makes fresh offering of his death every time we celebrate the holy mysteries.”v
This sacrifice is offered for the living and for the dead.vi And participation in the Mass through the reception of Holy Communion heralds the death of Christ celebrated therein.vii But what does it mean to herald the Lord’s death? Knox attempts to enter into the thought of St. Paul on this point from 1 Corinthians 11:26.viii First, he contrasts the kind of heralding that occurs in the Mass with that of the veneration of a martyr’s relics. The Eucharist, Knox writes, is the risen Body of Christ, and not a dead relic. Secondly, Knox asks how we can herald Christ’s death in the Mass when St. Paul himself writes that Christ has died once and cannot die again.ix We receive “the risen body, the living body of Jesus Christ” in Holy Communion.x So why does not St. Paul say that we herald Christ’s Resurrection in the Mass?
If the Mass only involved the consecration and reception of Holy Communion, perhaps one could only speak of heralding Christ’s Resurrection, and not his death, in the Mass. But the Church teaches us that the Mass is not only about the consecration and reception of Holy Communion, but also that it is a sacrifice. At the same time, what is heralded in the Mass, Knox writes, “is Christ dying, not Christ dead.”xi
The Last Supper, Calvary, and the Mass
Christ died once and for all, historically speaking. One may begin by speaking of the Mass as an “echo” or a “ripple” of Christ’s one sacrificial death, but these are only metaphors, helpful though they may be. Something unfathomably deeper and more mysterious is at work than such metaphors communicate. The reality of Christ’s death on the Cross is made present on the Christian altar. “The sacrifice of the Mass is a mystery, and perhaps its relation to the sacrifice on the cross is the most mysterious thing about it,” Knox writes.xii It would be fascinating to know the degree, if any, to which Knox was aware of the contemporary debates regarding the sacrificial nature of the Mass and the interrelationships between the Last Supper, Calvary, and the Mass. Unfortunately, Knox makes no mention of these debates, nor of the theologians involved in them. Despite the great mystery involved in understanding the Sacrifice of the Mass, Knox is able to offer the following:
Only this is certain, that the victim who is there presented to the eternal Father for our sakes is the dying Christ; it is in that posture that he pleaded, and pleads, for our salvation, atoned, and atones, for the sins of the world. We herald that death in the holy Mass, not as something which happened long ago, but as something which is mystically renewed whenever the words of consecration are uttered. From the moment of his death on Calvary until the time when he comes again in glory, the dying Christ is continually at work, is continually available. It is in this posture of death that he pleads for us, when the Mass is offered. And it is in this posture of death that he comes to you and me when he comes to us, the living Christ, in holy communion. “This is my body which is being given for you…this is my blood which is being shed for you”; so he spoke to his apostles when his death still lay in the future, so he speaks to us now that his death lies in the past.xiii
Thus, the Mass is more than an echo or ripple of Calvary. Christ the Victim is truly, mystically offered. Christ is the active Agent making the offering and he is the Victim offered in each Mass. His Body and Blood are given anew on the altar for the salvation of mankind. “It is only with the Consecration that the sacrifice of the Mass is achieved,” Knox writes elsewhere.xiv He affirms the unity of the entire Mass, but the union of sacrament and sacrifice is seen most clearly at the moment of consecration. The Consecration comes first, and then is it possible for Christ to give himself to the faithful as “their food and their victim”.xv
Perhaps the most extended treatment of the sacrificial dimension of the Mass to be found in Knox’s sermons occurs in a Corpus Christi sermon entitled “A Priest Forever”.xvi Here Knox considers the relationships between the Last Supper, Calvary, and the Mass at comparative length. At the beginning of this sermon, Knox addresses the difficulty that while the gift of the Eucharist is exactly the same at the Last Supper and in the Mass, the historical circumstance of the Last Supper was clearly different.
When he stood in the upper room, and broke the bread and divided the cup among the friends from whom he was parting, the sacrifice of Calvary had not yet happened. The bread of angels has not yet been ground in the mill, the wine of salvation has not yet been trodden in the wine-press, yet here, in the first Eucharist, that bread and wine are being blessed, and received, and desecrated. The whole Christ gives the whole Christ; the living Christ gives the living Christ; the victim who has not yet been immolated gives the victim that already avails. O admirabile commercium!
What does that mean, except that the sacrifice of Christ, although it was effected in the world of sense and under the conditions of time, is yet in its own nature spiritual and eternal? As the merits of that sacrifice could avail to deliver our Lady from all taint of sin at the instant of her conception, so they could avail to effect the miracle of transubstantiation before the sacrifice itself was enacted. And if the merits of his death lived already, before he died, how much more easily do we understand that they live on now, after his resurrection! The crucifixion happened at a particular moment in time; the pain of Calvary, the humiliation of Calvary, the agony of Calvary have ceased. It is never repeated, but that is because it has no need to be repeated; it continues, it lives. Every time a priest goes to the altar—he continues the sacrifice which Christ offered in the hour of his Passion. xvii
Christus Patiens, Christus Agens
Knox goes on to adjust his statement about the priest continuing the sacrifice of Calvary by adding that Christ continues his own sacrifice “through his priest”. Christ is always the principal Agent, at the Last Supper, on the Cross, and in the Mass. “Christus Patiens is also Christus Agens,” Knox writes of Christ laying down his life of his own will on Calvary.xviii In the Mass, “wherever the bloodless sacrifice is offered in the whole world, whenever the bloodless sacrifice is offered to the last end of time, it is Christ continuing on earth the work he began on earth, our reconciliation with the Father.”xix In both roles, of Priest and Victim, Christ mirrors and continues the work begun at the Last Supper and on the Cross.xx Yet even to say this is not to say quite enough. The Eucharist is a continuation of Christ’s whole life. The Word of God became flesh and lived among us for three purposes, Knox writes: to be, to suffer, and to do.xxi And each of these purposes finds its point of correspondence in the Eucharist—“to be” referring to the Real Presence, “to suffer” referring to the Eucharistic Sacrifice, and “to do” referring to the Eucharist as a sacrament.
The “primary purpose of the Incarnation,” however, is the work of salvation, of atonement. “The road that begins at Bethlehem leads to Calvary. So in his chief sacrament our Lord becomes present, not simply for the sake of being present, but in order that being present he may be offered up.”xxii Yet what of the all-sufficiency of Calvary? The age-old problem presents itself whenever a theologian tries to deal with the question of sacrifice. Is the Mass a new sacrifice? How can we speak of the Mass as a sacrifice without diminishing the power and sufficiency of the Cross? Knox asks rhetorically, “Anything else (other than Calvary), surely, that goes by the name of sacrifice must be no more than a shadow and pale reflex of this?”xxiii Of course, Knox answers this question in the negative. The Mass is a true sacrifice, neither because it repeats the Sacrifice of Calvary, nor because it is an utterly new and different sacrifice, but rather because it continues the Sacrifice of Calvary in an unbloody manner: “Mystically, yet none the less really, the immolation as well as the oblation of the spotless Victim takes place whenever the priest goes to the altar. It is not repeated, it is continued.”xxiv
Each such offering, Knox affirms, has “in itself an infinite satisfactory value, won by that sacrifice of Calvary from which it derives.” xxv He next offers the analogy of a piece of music which, once written, is a completed work and yet which can be performed an unlimited number of times by others. As with other such analogies, this one has its imperfections, but it nevertheless furnishes a key insight into the relationship between Calvary and the Mass:
Each performance is not a repetition, but a continuation of that single act by which the composer first brought it into being. So the Mass does not add to Calvary, does not multiply Calvary; it is Calvary, sacramentally multiplied. And in it the true priest is still our Lord himself, though he makes use of a human agent to repeat the same mystic words and to perform the sacramental gestures. The Mass is not the priest doing what Christ did; it is Christ continuing what Christ began.xxvi
The sacrificial nature of the Eucharist has important implications for both the ministerial priesthood and the priesthood of the faithful. Just as the Lord crowned his creative work with the creation of man, so “God set the crown on his work of redemption by instituting the Christian priesthood.”xxvii Man gives voice to the praise of all creation, as he alone of all creation is able to give reasonable worship. So too the ministerial priest is selected from among men, ordained to offer sacrifice on behalf of all God’s people. “The world, fallen and redeemed, was to be reconciled to God by the ministry of the priest—a representative man, chosen out among his fellows to be their spokesman and God’s ambassador,” Knox writes. “Sanctified by his office, he was to intercede for his sinful brethren, to come between them and God’s anger, offering sacrifice in their name.” xxviii It has already been shown that in Knox’s conception Christ is the principal Agent offering the Sacrifice of the Mass. In this regard, Knox quotes St. John Chrysostom: “When you see a priest offering the sacrifice, do not think as if it were he that is doing this; it is the hand of Christ, invisibly stretched forth.” In the same place, Knox makes use of Aristotle’s image of the slave as a “living tool” to describe the role of the ministerial priest at Mass.xxix
Participatio actuosa and the Eucharistic Sacrifice
Knox is equally clear about the Christological foundation of the priesthood of the faithful. Christ wants to make victims of his people, just as he is our Victim. “He wants to impress something of himself on me; I am to be the wax, he the signet-ring.”xxx Every member of the faithful is called to make an offering of his or her life to God, along with the Self-Offering of Jesus Christ to the Father. That the people’s offering is embarrassingly small by any natural standard is not the point. Knox in one sermon tells the story of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes by first telling the story of the boy who provided the original loaves and fishes after being pointed out to Jesus by the apostles. Knox offers the meditation in order to drive home the point that we stand very much in the position of the little boy. The Offertory, he once claimed, is most neglected part of the Mass in the minds of Catholics.xxxi Yet it is important to recognize that the Mass does not belong to the priest alone, but to the laity as well: “The laity have a true share in the sacrifice.”xxxii This participation by the laity has most directly to do with the offering of the bread and wine to be consecrated into Christ’s Body and Blood, but it does not end there. “The laity, in offering the bread and wine which are to become the Body and Blood of Christ, are offering also their prayers to him; their needs, their aspirations, their ambitions, their hopes to him; all that is to be taken up into his sacrifice, made part of his sacrifice.”xxxiii Knox continues in the same sermon:
You must think of our Lord’s Sacrifice in the Mass as a great whirlwind, which catches up your prayers, your weak human prayers, and sweeps them away in the current of its own impetuous movement; or as a great furnace, in which your prayers glow with sudden heat, like the wire filaments under an electric spark. Then you will see what it means when we talk about “going to Mass” or “hearing Mass” or “assisting at Mass”. It doesn’t mean, or rather it oughtn’t to mean, simply hanging about in a building where Mass is going on. It means, it ought to mean, being caught up and vitalized by the spirit of our Lord’s eternal Sacrifice.xxxiv
There are at least two levels at which we might understand Knox’s teaching about the share the lay faithful have in the Sacrifice of the Mass. First, this teaching stands as a strong testimony to the power of Christ’s Sacrifice and Our Lord’s desire to make not only its riches available to his people, but also the possibility of sharing in the action itself. Secondly, it is possible to see in Knox’s approach a preview of the participatio actuosa, the “full, conscious, active” participation of the laity called for by the Second Vatican Council. While there certainly is an argument to be made that Knox was a forerunner of this approach, it must also be said that he was a man of his own time and place. It is unclear to what extent the Liturgical Movement influenced the Catholic Church in England, but it seems fair to say that its influence grew more slowly there than on the Continent.xxxv Also, Knox would at times adopt a more passive approach to lay participation in the Mass, such as when he told the school girls to whom he preached on the Mass, “The Church doesn’t oblige you to follow the Mass; she only obliges you, now and again, to be there.”xxxvi Much could be said to qualify this rather stark pointxxxvii, but for our present purposes it is most important simply to recognize that Knox’s approach to the participation of the laity in the Mass was multifaceted and included elements both of his time and those that were more forward-looking.
While the Church’s exact understanding of the laity’s participation in the Mass can develop over time, the role of sacrifice in Christianity always remains central. Sacrifice helps distinguish Christianity from mere spiritualties, wins the gifts of grace and salvation, and allows man to participate in the worship the Son of God offers to the Father:
The truth is that the word “religion” under the Christian dispensation has changed its meaning. It does not stand for a mere attitude, it stands for a transaction; if you will, for the paying off of a debt. Religion, in our sense, means the offering up of a man’s self to God; for us Christians, it means the offering up to God of Jesus Christ, the perfect Victim once for all immolated in our stead, and of ourselves in union with that sacrifice.xxxviii
i Ronald A. Knox, “The Thing that Matters,” Pastoral and Occasional Sermons (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2002) 301.
ii “Giving of Thanks,” Pastoral and Occasional Sermons, 266.
iv Of the Christian’s self-offering to God, such as St. Paul calls for in Romans 12:1, Knox writes, “We Christians, then, can offer our bodies to God, a reasonable, a living sacrifice; but only for one reason. Only because God himself was made flesh, took upon himself a passible body like ours, offered it at every moment of his life to his heavenly Father, was born in it, suffered in it, died in it.” “The Mass and the Ritual,” Pastoral and Occasional Sermons, 284.
v “The Mass and the Ritual,” 282-283 and 286.
vi “The Thing that Matters,” 299.
vii “The Pattern of His Death,” Pastoral and Occasional Sermons, 313. “You cannot receive communion without associating yourself with a death. You are heralding the death of Jesus Christ, until he comes again.”
viii Ibid, 314-317.
ix Romans 6:9.
x “The Pattern of His Death,” 315.
xi Ibid, 316.
xiii “The Pattern of His Death,” 316.
xiv Ronald Knox, “Communicantes, Consecration”, The Mass in Slow Motion, (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1948) 110. Saint Thomas Aquinas ascribes a unique status to the Consecration in representing Christ’s Passion.
xv “The Great Supper,” Pastoral and Occasional Sermons, 367.
xvi The date of this sermon is unknown, but it was among the earlier sermons preached at Corpus Christi Church, Maiden Lane, and first published in Heaven and Charing Cross (1935).
xvii “A Priest For Ever,” 368-369.
xviii Ibid, 369.
xx “He lies upon the altar, as he lay stretched out on the cross on Good Friday. Yet he stands at the altar, as he stood in the upper room on Holy Thursday.” Ibid.
xxi Ibid, 369-370. Knox describes these purposes as follows. First, Christ came “to be amonst us men, to make us, through his participation in our nature, participators in his, to bring heaven down to earth, Emmanuel, God with us.” Secondly, Christ came “to suffer for men: to take upon himself, as the head of our fallen race, the sins that we could not expiate; to offer a divine victim in satisfaction to the divine justice.” And thirdly, Christ came “to go about amongst men doing good: to heal the sick, give sight to the blind, to cast out the evil spirits, to raise the dead; to comfort the mourner and to rescue the souls lost in sin—that was to set the crown of mercy of his Incarnation.”
xxii Ibid, 371.
xxiii Ibid, 372.
xxv Ibid. Regarding the “infinite satisfactory value” of the Mass, Knox does not here address the distinction between this objective infinitude and the subjective limitations of those who receive the fruits of the Mass and who, therefore, benefit from having multiple Masses offered for them. If only the objective fruit of the Mass were at issue, of course, it would make little sense to offer multiple Masses for the same people or intentions. Theologians solve this difficulty in different ways, but here we want simply to highlight Knox’s careful use of language, particularly his inclusion of the restrictive phrase “in itself,” above.
xxvi Ibid. In a 1940 Whit Sunday meditation entitled “The Birth of the Church” and originally published in The Tablet, Knox writes, “The sacrifice which was made once for all on Calvary is not repeated, cannot be repeated, in time. But the sacrifice of Calvary echoes down the ages whenever the Mass is said and whenever the tabernacle is opened; Christ on the altar is continuing what Christ on Calvary began.” Pastoral and Occasional Sermons, 483-484.
xxvii “The Divine Sacrifice,” Pastoral and Occasional Sermons, 396.
xxviii The establishment of the ministerial priesthood, according to Knox, was “a fresh act of creation, no less amazing in its results than the other; for the powers which the Christian priesthood enjoys exceed the natural powers of man no less significantly than man’s natural powers exceed those of the brute beasts.” Ibid.
xxix Ibid, 398.
xxx “The Pattern of His Death,” 317.
xxxi Knox, “The Mass,” Retreat for Beginners (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1960) 128.
xxxii Ibid, 121-132 (quotation on p. 124).
xxxiii Ibid, 125-126. In one of his sermons on the Mass given to the school girls at Aldenham, for whom he served as a chaplain during World War Two, Knox offers a couple of touching and even somewhat humorous examples of what it means to offer the whole of one’s life to God. First, regarding the offering of the chalice by the priest, Knox writes, “How would it be if we accompanied the priest’s offering of the chalice with an offering to God of the destiny that awaits us, of the good fortune and the misfortune he means to send us; in fact, of our lives?” Secondly, he writes later in same sermon that “the whole chalice of our lives” ought to be offered to the Lord. “Sometimes when holy people, especially religious, want to be very kind to you, they give you a spiritual bouquet…It is always understood that the sacrifices are unpleasant things, isn’t it? But I hope if you ever give me a spiritual bouquet, you will include a whole lot of the other sort of thing too; so many ice-creams eaten, so many gramophone records played, so many visits to the pictures, for my intentions. Because then I shall feel you are offering the WHOLE of your lives to God.” “Offertory II,” The Mass in Slow Motion, 67 and 69-70.
xxxiv “The Mass,” 126.
xxxv Horton Davies, Worship and Theology in England: The Ecumenical Century, 1900 to the Present (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1996) 276-277.
xxxvi “At the Foot of the Altar”, The Mass in Slow Motion, 4.
xxxvii Andrew Wadsworth writes, “Perhaps Knox intended to convey the notion that a meticulous following of every detail of the liturgy was not required but rather our presence, allowing the liturgy to leave its impression on us…I don’t know how (Knox’s statement from The Mass in Slow Motion, quoted above) chimes in with more contemporary notions of participation in the liturgy but it might well have lessened the burdens in the heart and mind of the girls who first heard these sermons preached.” Andrew R. Wadsworth, “Ronald Knox and Liturgy”. Ronald Knox A Man for All Seasons: Essays on His Life and Works with Selections from his Published and Unpublished Writings, ed. Francesca Bugliani Knox (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2016) 226. Knox preached another sermon to the students at Aldenham in which he emphasizes the Mass as an action, one performed for its own sake rather than merely as a means to the end of receiving Holy Communion, and in which the faithful take an active part in union with the Sacrifice of Christ. Knox contrasts the “action” of the Mass with the “transaction” (performed for the sake of its result) involved in some of the other sacraments in a way that may not express a fully developed liturgical theology, but nevertheless makes an important point about the sacrificial nature of the Mass and the laity’s part in it. See “The Communion of Saints (2),” The Creed in Slow Motion (Notre Dame, IN: Christian Classics, 2009) 202-205.
xxxviii Ronald A. Knox, “What is Religion”, University Sermons of Ronald A. Knox, ed. Philip Caraman, S.J. (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1963) 158.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!