Catholics rarely say that they are going to church. Typically they say that they are going to Mass. They do go to church because that is the location of the altar upon which the sacrifice of the Mass is offered.
In the early revelation of God to Abraham, altars were constructed outdoors because the animal sacrificed on the altar was often burnt after it was slain.
Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.
When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. … And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. (Genesis 7-9,13)
In contrast, the sacrifice of the Mass does not only lack flame and smoke, but it is also unbloody. It is the glorified self-sacrifice of the Lamb of God by which he takes away the sin of the world. At the beginning of Jesus’ public life, St. John the Baptist identified him as the Lamb of God.
The next day [John] saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)
Jesus averred that he freely offered his life in sacrifice.
“For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.” (John 10:17-18)
The Source and Summit of Christian Life
The Catechism of the Catholic Church identifies the Eucharistic Sacrifice of the Mass as “the source and summit of Christian life” (CCC 1324; cit. Lumen Gentium 11.1). In the separate consecration of the bread as his body and the wine as his blood, Jesus offers his human life entirely to the Father in cooperation with the Holy Spirit. In this act of total self-sacrifice, he removes the impediment to union between man and God, which is sin. The Lamb of God takes away the sin of the world before our very eyes. In giving thanks, we consummate the sacrifice for the forgiveness of sin through the reception of Holy Communion with the Lamb of Sacrifice.
In this Eucharistic Sacrifice, that is, this Sacrifice of Thanksgiving, we recognize we owe our life and our salvation from sin to the Lamb of sacrifice. In the Latin Mass, the priest, before receiving the sacramental blood, acknowledged that our very thanksgiving is to call out our dependence upon our Lord, the Lamb, who takes away the sin of the world:
What return shall I make to the Lord for all He has given to me? I will take the chalice of salvation, and I will call upon the name of the Lord. Praising I will call upon the name of the Lord and I shall be saved from my enemies.
May the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ keep my soul unto everlasting life. Amen.
Witness to the Nature and Necessity of the Mass
Appropriately, the parish in which I live no longer holds a Communion service in lieu of Mass at noon, if no priest can attend. Several years ago, however, one noon hour when I was present, it was announced that, because no priest was available, a Communion service would be held. Upon that announcement, a young adult and her mother got up and left. It was edifying to see their witness to the nature of the Mass. By their action, two generations testified to the fact that Holy Communion, under ordinary conditions, is by nature the consummation of the sacrifice of the Lamb whose sacrifice takes away the sin of the world.
Many of our recent ancestors, as emigres from countries of Catholic culture, settled in ethnic communities in America to preserve that culture. The loss of ethnic neighborhoods parallels the secularization of their offspring. This gradual loss of cultural affirmation in the early twentieth century, however, does not explain the precipitous loss of faith over the past sixty years. One would have hoped that the dispersion of Catholics from ethnic neighborhoods into the general population would have spread the yeast of the faith, but it did not.
Yet, when I read disparaging comments about cultural Catholicism, I think of the lyrical lament of the emigrant from Catholic culture (here or here), who experienced secularization immediately upon moving to London in the 1960’s. He acknowledges the grace of having lived in the cultural Catholicism of County Clare by specifically witnessing to the necessity of the Mass, not only to exercise the virtue of piety but to sustain virtue, including the practice of filial love:
My ma would like a letter home, but I’m too tired for writing.
And getting up late on Sunday, I never get to Mass.
It’s a long, long way from Clare to here.
It’s a long, long way. It gets farther day by day.
It’s a long, long way from Clare to here.
When next we go to Mass, let us take note of the altar of sacrifice. Let us pray not only for the forgiveness of our sins, but that the Lamb, in his sacrifice by which he takes away the sin of the world before our very eyes, may make his love and sacrifice incarnate in our culture that we, those we love, and all may be buoyed up by the grace that permeates a Catholic culture. We have our Lord’s own description of such permeation, which begins with a minority:
And again [Jesus] said, “To what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” (Luke 13:20-21)
Let us also be grateful by thanking God for our ancestors (by blood or in spirit), who passed down to us through the centuries the faith, our undiminished treasure.