The Mass — You Can’t Live Without It, Part I


On Saturday, 5 July 2014, I gave the following talk at the Evangelium Ireland Conference  for young people held at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth. Part II of the same talk will follow.

Man’s True Self

In my long monastic life how often have I heard young men aspiring to become monks say, “I want to be myself”? And how often have I found myself saying to young men aspiring to become monks, “Be yourself”? The one thing I can say unreservedly about this need to be oneself is that man becomes his true self only on the way to the altar. God created man to be an offerer, a sacerdos, one who makes things over to God. God gave man all created things that they might become, in his sacerdotal hands, an offering of thanksgiving. Finally, God willed that this whole round world, created by him, should serve as man’s altar: a place from which man can reach into heaven to present there his sacrifice to God. Man becomes his true self, his best self, the self God intends him to be insofar as he recovers his own sacerdotal dignity and discovers in all things created matter for a holy oblation. Ultimate the search to become one’s true self leads one to the altar and to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Hence, the title of my talk: “The Mass — You Can’t Live Without It”.

Homo Sapiens

We refer to man as the homo sapiens: that is, one who tastes life, who experiences all things through his senses; who interprets what he has experiened, organises what he has interpreted, and finds meaning in what he has organised.

Homo Liturgicus

Man, however, is more than the homo sapiens. He is also the homo liturgicus, the homo hieraticus, the sacerdos. All that is good, beautiful, and true has been given into his hands. Delighting in what is good, true, and beautiful, man plays in the sight of the Most High. His play is, at once, both solemn and divine. It is an innocent play, bringing joy to the human heart and delighting the Heart of God. Thus is the word fulfilled in which Wisdom says, “I was at his side, a master-workman, my delight increasing with each day, as I made play before him all the while; made play in this world of dust, with the sons of Adam for my play-fellows” (Proverbs 8:30–31).

Homo Eucharisticus

Man is, morever, the homo eucharisticus: the one creature uniquely capable of offering thanksgiving to God. All that he has received from God, he lifts up and gives back to God in thanksgiving. Being the homo eucharisticus, man sees the liturgical potential of all created things; he recognises their doxological finality — for all things attain that for which they were created by uttering something of the glory of God.

Sursum Corda

There is something deep in the soul that stirs to life when one hears the solemn cry from the altar, rising over the earth in the age–old intoning of the Sursum corda, “Hearts on high!” And again, Gratias agamus Domino Deo nostro, “Let us give thanks unto the Lord our God”. One becomes one’s true self only by saying to this solemn invitation: Dignum et iustum est, “It is right and just”.

Becoming an Offering

The human vocation is eucharistic, priestly, and victimal; that is to say that man becomes his true self by giving thanks, by making the holy offering and, finally, by offering not only things to God, but by making the oblation of himself. The Latin word for victim is hostia, from which we derive the English word host, signifying the bread set apart for the Holy Sacrifice. In the Eastern Churches, the same bread set apart for the Holy Mysteries is called the lamb. By offering himself to God, man becomes a sacrificial victim, a hostia (host), an offering made over to God and identified with “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Apocalypse 13:8).

In the Image of God

It is helpful to reflect, I think, on what Sacred Scripture means in saying: “And God created man to his own image: to the image of God he created him: male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). Man is created in the image of God the Word, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity.  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was facing God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). The Son, eternally begotten of the Father, finds Himself face–to–face with the Father and, in every moment of eternity, offers Himself to the Father in an oblation of self–giving love and of praise. The Father, for His part, holds the Son in the gaze of His love, and takes delight in the ceaseless offering that rises from the Son in the Holy Spirit. Already, even before His descent into the womb of His Virgin Mother as Priest and Victim, the Son exercises a divine priesthood, offering Himself to the Father.

Adam and Eve, a Royal Priestly Couple

Enchanted by the eternal priesthood of the Son, the Father willed to extend that priesthood to men and women created in His image. Adam and Eve emerged from the creating hands of the Father facing the Father, even as the Son faces Him from all eternity. Seeing the Father, their hearts leaped up in a surge of self–offering and of thanksgiving. Adam and Eve were, from the beginning, invested with a royal priesthood. Not only were they moved to make the spontaneous and gratuitous offering of themselves to God; they were given all of creation as matter for a grand priestly oblation of thanksgiving. Seeing all that God created for them in beauty, in goodness, and in truth, Adam and Eve were compelled to give back what they themselves had received. This was the sacrificial liturgy of the earthly paradise such as God intended it: a royal, priestly couple making over to God — that is sacrificing — what God had made over to them. In exercising this natural priesthood, Adam and Eve realised their highest vocation. Theirs it was to give back to God all that God has bestowed upon them.

Original Sin: Anti–Eucharistic

Then came the tragedy of original sin. Satan, hating the liturgy of the earthly paradise, despising the royal priesthood of Adam and Eve, and disgusted by the consecration of all things created to the Creator, laid his plans to destroy the liturgical, to defile the sacerdotal, and to stop the sacrifice. Deceived by Satan, Adam and Eve fixed their gaze upon one thing and refused to give it up to God. Instead of making an offering to God of the good, the true, and the beautiful things given them, they took what was given them to be sacrificed and left untouched for God — the fruit of the tree — and, grasping it, clutched it to themselves. In that terrible moment they sinned against their sacerdotal dignity. The temple of the earthly paradise was defiled; their royal priesthood was perverted; the earth, designed by God to be an altar, became instead a tomb. The original sin was, it is clear, anti–eucharistic, anti–sacerdotal, and anti–liturgical. Thus was the great and glorious plan of God frustrated; thus did man stop being himself as God intended him to be.

Cain and Abel

The divine spark of Adam’s natural priesthood survived, nonetheless, in the souls of their sons. In Abel, whose sacrifice is still recalled daily in the Roman Canon, it blossomed into a fair offering pleasing to God. In Cain it was troubled and perverse.

And Abel was a shepherd, and Cain a husbandman. And it came to pass after many days, that Cain offered, of the fruits of the earth, gifts to the Lord. Abel also offered of the firstlings of his flock, and of their fat: and the Lord had respect to Abel, and to his offerings. But to Cain and his offerings he had no respect: and Cain was exceedingly angry, and his countenance fell. (Genesis 4:2–5)

Noah Builds an Altar

After the Great Flood, all things having been destroyed, Noah responds to the sacerdotal spark within him and builds an altar. Man cannot be himself without an altar, without a sacrificial oblation, and without exercising his natural priesthood. Man is, by God’s unchanging design, an altar–builder, a sacrificer, and an offering.

“Then Noah built an altar to the Lord” (Genesis 8:20). While both Cain and Abel brought offerings to the Lord (Genesis 4:3), they did so without presenting them upon an altar. Noah is the first altar-builder of the Bible. He builds an altar and offers burnt offerings upon it (cf. Genesis 8:20). Thus does the mystic triad of altar, offering, and offerer appear in the Bible for the first time. Noah, his altar, and his sacrifice already foreshadow the mystery of Christ sung in the reformed Roman Missal’s magnificent fifth Preface for Paschaltide:

Christ, by the offering of His own Body,
brought to perfection the ancient sacrifices in the truth of the cross
and, in commending Himself to you for our salvation,
showed Himself to be at once the priest, the altar, and the lamb.

Earth Rising Heavenward

After Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all built altars to the Lord. In addition to being the place of sacrifices and libations, the altars built by the patriarchs marked a place of divine intervention. They localized and memorialized the encounter of man with God. Originally a mound of rocks or elevation, the altar symbolizes the earth rising above itself and straining heavenward. It is, at the same time, the place where heaven bends low to touch the earth, to receive man’s offering.

The Meaning of Sacrifice

When, in a sacrificial action, a creature is placed upon an altar, it is made over to God and given up to His hands. Jesus Himself says in Matthew 23:19 that it is, “the altar that makes the offering sacred”. It is by virtue of being placed on the altar that the offering becomes a sacrifice. Saint Augustine (in Book X of The City of God) teaches that whatsoever is placed on the altar becomes sacrificium, a thing made over to God, a thing made sacred. When the same creature is set ablaze in a holocaust, its rising smoke carries the prayer of the offerer into heaven where God takes pleasure in its fragrance.

Communion with God

The altar is the place of a mysterious exchange. The altar of the sacrifice is, at the same time, the sacred table of a mysterious at-one-ment (adunatio) with God. Offerings of food and libations become the food and drink of God; food and drink received from the altar become the means of communion with God.


The altar is also the place of a bonding in blood. Moses takes the blood of sacrifices, pours it upon altar, and throws it over the people (cf. Exodus 24:5-8). Altar-blood becomes the blood of a covenant, the blood-bond between God and the people. “And Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he threw against the altar. . . . And Moses took the blood and threw it upon the people, and said, ‘Behold the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you in accordance with these words” (Exodus 24:6-8).

An Altar You Shall Make for Me

In Exodus, the Lord speaks to Moses amidst thunders, lightnings, thick cloud, and trumpet blast (Ex 20:18), giving instruction on how to build an altar: “An altar of earth you shall make for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you. And if you make me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stones, for if you wield your tool upon it you profane it” (Ex 20:24-5). Later, the Lord requires a portable “tabernacle of the tent of meeting” (Ex 39:32), a sign that He dwells in the midst of His people even as they journey in the wilderness. At the center of the tabernacle of the tent of meeting stands the altar. The Lord prescribes the form of this portable altar. “You shall make the altar of acacia wood, five cubits long and five cubits broad; the altar shall be square, and its height shall be three cubits” (Ex 27:1).

A History of Altars

In some way, the history of the Chosen People is a history of altars. The building of multiple altars marks a movement toward the one altar of the the one God that, in the temple of Jerusalem, will be the sign of the one worship offered by God’s one people. The religious life of Israel revolves around the altar. The prophet Ezekiel describes in detail the temple altar and its fittings (cf. Ezechiel 43:13-17). While the Levites will be charged with ordering the service of God in a more general way, the Aaronic priesthood will be centered exclusively on the service of the altar (cf. Numbers 3:6-10 and 1 Chronicles 6:48-49).

The Body of Christ

The one altar of the one temple, in turn, points to Christ. The true and indestructible altar is the Body of Christ Himself, covered with the outpouring of His Precious Blood. True God and true Man, Jesus, raised high on the wood of the Cross, fulfills the mystery signified in every mound of rock and earth straining heavenward to receive the descending glory of God. “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all things to myself” (John 12:32).  Christ, being our true Communion Sacrifice, establishes in the blood-bond of His new and everlasting covenant those who drink from the chalice offered in thanksgiving to God at the altar.

Christ the Altar

It is in this sense that the tradition speaks of the altar as Christ. The altar signifies Christ because His Body is the one altar of Christians, the one altar of the Church, the one altar of the cosmos, covered with the Blood of the Lamb. The altars we build are sacred signs pointing to Christ, the one altar upon which all men can be consecrated, the one altar from which ascends the “worship in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24) that the Father seeks.

Consecration of the Altar

The consecration of the altar is the high point of the rite of the Dedication of a Church. The altar is anointed lavishly with Holy Chrism, making it a sign of Christ, the Anointed of the Father. The smoke of burning incense rises from the altar itself; it is the prayer of Christ and of the Church ascending to the Father in the sweet fragrance of the Holy Spirit. The altar is clothed in holy vesture; more than merely functional or even festive table linens, the altar cloth signifies the splendor of the risen Christ in the midst of the Church. “The Lord has reigned; He is clothed with beauty” (Psalm 92:1). The illumination of the altar with candles evokes the gladsome radiance of Christ; all who look to the altar and all who approach it reflect something of the light of Christ. “Look towards Him” says the psalm, “and be radiant” (Psalm 33:6). Worked into the base of the altar, beneath the holy table itself, is a miniature sepulchre prepared for the relics of the saints. Thus does the altar signify Christ the Head’s indissoluble union with the members of His Mystical Body.

Overshadowed by the Holy Spirit

The altar is often considered in relation to Christ; less frequently is it seen as the rock from which the Holy Spirit flows to irrigate the Church and make her fruitful. In every celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the Holy Spirit overshadows the altar, the offerings placed on it, and the people assembled around it. Even outside of Mass the altar remains a sign and pledge of the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit.

Theology of the Altar

A primary source for any theology — and for any spirituality — of the altar is the proper Mass given in the Roman Missal for the Dedication of an Altar. The Preface, in particular, deserves to be studied, repeated, and held in the heart:

It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation,
always and everywhere to give you thanks,
Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God,
through Christ our Lord.
He is the true priest and He is the victim
who offered Himself to you on the altar of the cross
and commanded us ceaselessly to celebrate
the memorial of that sacrifice.
And so your people have built this altar
which we dedicate to you with surpassing joy.
Here is the true high place
where the sacrifice of Christ is continually offered in mystery;
here perfect praise is given to you;
here our redemption is set forth.
Here is made ready the table of the Lord
where your children are refreshed by the Body of Christ
and gathered into the Church one and holy.
Here your faithful drink deeply of the Spirit
from the streams of water flowing from Christ the spiritual rock;
through Him they themselves become a holy oblation, a living altar.
Therefore, Lord, with all the Angels and Saints,
we praise you, singing in joy.

Veneration of the Altar

We express this rich significance of the altar and impress it upon ourselves by means of certain prescribed gestures. Clergy and laity alike, passing before the altar, venerate it with a profound bow; if the Blessed Sacrament is reserved there, one genuflects. The priest and deacon kiss the altar upon arriving in the sanctuary and before leaving it. In the traditional rite of Holy Mass the priest kisses the altar frequently; these repeated kisses signify the desire of the priest — representing both Christ the Bridegroom and the whole bridal Body of His Church — for the fruitful consummation of their sacramental union. The suppression of the repeated kissing of the altar in the Novus Ordo is a cold rationalistic innovation foreign to the language of love in which one or even two kisses are not enough.

The incensation of the altar at Lauds during the Benedictus (Canticle of Zechariah), at Vespers during the Magnificat (Canticle of the Blessed Virgin Mary), and at several key moments during Mass evokes the mystery of Christ through whom every prayer of ours ascends to the Father and through whom every “grace and heavenly blessing” (Roman Canon) descend to us.

The Heart of Ecclesial and Missionary Life

The altar at the heart of our churches is, in the deepest sense, the heart of the Church. Man becomes his true self only in relation to the altar of the Holy Sacrifice. “I will come to the altar of God, the God of my joy” (Ps 42:4). Man cannot become his true self, his best self, the eucharistic, sacerdotal, and oblative self that God wills him to be, apart from actual participation in the Holy Sacrifice of Mass.

To be continued.