Many Protestants today may consider the Mass to be just a more colorful and elaborate form of the Communion service that they themselves are familiar with. Such a view is however quite mistaken. The central concept and action of the mass is not communion but sacrifice. In the words of a Roman Catholic expositor, 'The mass is a dramatic re-enactment in an unbloody manner of the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary'.
First, it is affirmed that the priest by virtue of his office has the power to change the bread and wine into the actual body and blood of Christ when he pronounces the words of consecration, 'This is my body', and 'This is my blood'. These words are interpreted as a command which makes the whole Christ present as a victim on the altar. The priest is then supposed to immolate, that is, to slay Christ and offer him up to God as a sacrifice for the expiation of sin, as really and effectually as Christ himself made his oblation of himself at Calvary. The term 'Host', applied to the consecrated wafer used in the mass, is a term of Latin derivation and means a sacrificial victim.
Thus the central action of the mass is the repetition of the sacrifice of Calvary. Christ, it is supposed, is crucified afresh to put away sin every time a mass is said in thousands of Roman Catholic churches throughout the world. And, it is claimed, only by the continual offering of this sacrifice that sin can be put away. It is important to realize that the mass is not simply the memorial of the sacrifice of Christ made once on the cross, but is itself a sacrifice for sins. This is what in the eyes of Roman Catholics gives it its power, and makes it central to the worship and theology of the Church of Rome. It also serves to make the laity absolutely dependent on the priesthood for only the priest is empowered to offer this sacrifice for sins.
In this encyclical letter on The Mystery and Worship of the Holy Eucharist issued in 1980, Pope John Paul II emphasizes again this central concept of the mass, which he considers some priests and laity may have begun to neglect. 'The Eucharist', he states, 'is above all else a sacrifice'. It is today's sacrifice of redemption and, 'the celebrant, as minister of this sacrifice, is the authentic priest, performing -- in virtue of the specific power of sacred ordination -- a true sacrificial act that brings creation back to God'. In view of a tendency by some priests to omit certain words from the liturgy the Pope reminds them that the words of the celebrant, 'pray that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father' are 'binding, since they express the character of the entire Eucharistic liturgy and the fullness of its divine and ecelesial content
This spirited and unequivocal assertion of the traditional teaching of the Roman Catholic Church by the present Pope can leave us in no doubt as to the central concept of the mass both past and present. It is above all things a sacrifice.
The Holy Communion service of the Protestant churches, including of course the Church of England, is not a sacrifice in that sense at all. We have seen how the Reformers were at pains to remove altogether this understanding of the service and to ensure that it was administered 'according to Christ's ordinance'. In careful and measured language they drew a line of distinction between the New Testament teaching on Holy Communion and the Roman doctrine of the mass. They were not indulging in petulance when they described the mass as a 'blasphemous fable' and a 'dangerous deceit'. It was blasphemous, they considered, because it pretended to be a 'propitiatory sacrifice for the sins of the living and the dead', whereas the Bible teaches that there is only one propitiatory sacrifice for sin made once for all by Christ upon the cross. 'My glory', says God, 'I will not give to another'. To take God's glory, that is, that which rightly belongs to him alone, and ascribe it to something or someone else is to commit blasphemy, to dishonor God. That is what the Roman Catholic teaching about the mass does when it takes from Christ the honor of making the one sacrifice for sin and ascribes this power to the actions of the priest in offering the sacrifice of the mass. The language of the Reformers was plain and efficient, and not exaggerated.
The word 'fable' was used because the sacrifice of the mass is not only something that is derogatory to the honor of God, but it is also, they argued, fictitious, something invented and not found in the New Testament. We do not find there any teaching about the efficacy of the sacrifice of the mass. There is teaching about the Communion service, or Lord's Supper, and about the need to receive by faith the benefits of Christ's death made once upon the cross, but nothing about the need to offer further sacrifices for sins. Such teaching is therefore the invention of a later period when the Church began to move away from the Scriptures into error.
Finally, the mass was spoken of as 'a dangerous deceit'. A thing or person is deceitful if it misleads, and claims to be what it is not. The mass misleads with regard to man's salvation; how he may be justified and find peace with God. The Roman Church teaches' people that the mass has power to take away their sins, that they will find forgiveness by virtue of the 'work' of attending mass. Masses are said for the souls of those in purgatory that they may be forgiven and their time in its fires shortened. All this is deceitful because it misleads, and diverts attention from the One who alone is able to pardon and justify. It teaches people to trust in a work performed by the church, rather than in the Lord Jesus Christ who is the only Savior. The mass has no power whatsoever to effect the forgiveness of sins, and because it is represented as having that power it can only properly be described as a 'deceit'. It is of course a 'dangerous deceit' because it misleads men on the fundamental question of their eternal salvation.
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