The Biblical Origins of the Mass

Issue: What are the biblical origins of the Mass and the New Testament priesthood? Is the Mass really a sacrifice, or is it merely symbolic?

Response: The biblical origins of the Mass and the New Testament priesthood are rooted in the Old Testament. Both the Old and New Testaments provide clear evidence that the Mass is a true sacrifice, offered by a priest, and the Victim is the Body and Blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ.

God stated three times that the Passover sacrifice would be “an ordinance for ever,” not for a temporary period, such as until the Messiah came. This sacrifice, and other Old Covenant sacrifices, find their culmination in Christ—’s sacrifice on Calvary (Ex. 12:14, 17, 24; cf. Lk. 22:7-20). Christ’s sacrifice at the Last Supper was a sacrifice of His Body and Blood, soul and divinity (cf. Catechism, nos. 1362-67, 1373-77). Much as the sacrifice offered at the Last Supper fulfilled the Old Covenant sacrifices, the priesthood of Christ—the priesthood of Melchizedek—replaced the Levitical priesthood of the
Old Testament. This New Testament priesthood, handed on to the apostles and their successors, allows Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary to fulfill the perpetual ordinance of a sacrifice through the celebration of the Mass (cf. Heb. 6:19-7:28).

Prefiguring the Lamb of God

God made a covenant with Abraham, swearing that all the nations (Gentiles) would bless themselves through his descendants (cf. Gen. 22:18). He designated Mount Moriah as the place where He would provide the sacrificial lamb, which was prefigured by the lamb that Abraham sacrificed that day (cf. Gen. 22:4-14). God the Father fulfilled the sacrificial provision in an ultimate way by offering His only-begotten Son (cf. Gen. 22:2; Jn. 3:16), the Lamb of God (cf. Rev. 5:6).

Interestingly, Mount Moriah’s location, Salem, is another name for Zion or Jerusalem (cf. 2 Chron. 3:1; Ps. 76:2). In fact, Scripture identifies Mount Moriah as the site of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, the city in which Christ’s sacrificial death took place. Also, Melchizedek was the priest and king of Salem (cf. Gen. 14:18). Jesus, as the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world, is the definitive High Priest according to the order of Melchizedek; Jesus offers Himself as the sacrifice of salvation and the universal blessing through whom all the nations will bless themselves (cf. Gen. 22:18; Acts 3:17-26; Heb. 6:19-7:28).

According to the terms of the Old Covenant, the Passover sacrifice has to be offered at the Temple in Jerusalem (cf. Deut. 16:1-6; 2 Chron. 35:1-19), a sacrifice that has not occurred since the Temple’s destruction in A.D. 70. One is left with two alternatives. First, one could state that Israel has failed to keep the covenant with God recorded in Exodus 12. Yet if that is true, God is thereby implicated for failing to provide His People with the means to continue the ordinance that He told them to keep forever.

Alternatively, one could state that the Temple sacrifice was destined by God to become obsolete and that, as the Lamb of God, Jesus perfectly fulfilled the Passover sacrifice (cf. 1 Cor. 5:7). This is the teaching of the Church. Jesus prophesied the fall of the Temple (cf. Mt. 24:1-2), an event that happened in A.D. 70 shortly after the “desolating sacrilege” of the Temple (Mt. 24:15). In addition, while prophets accurately foretold that the Temple would be
rebuilt after its destruction in 587 B.C., no subsequent biblical prophets prophesied the Temple’s restoration after Christ’s predicted destruction.

Attempts to rebuild the Temple have failed, most notably the effort of the Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate in 362. He hoped to discredit Christ’s prophecy about the Temple. Violent earthquakes at the site killed many of his workmen. When miraculous balls of fire kept bursting forth from the Temple foundation to prevent the approach of workmen, Julian finally abandoned his attempt.[1]

The question remains: How does the Passover sacrifice of Jesus Christ continue as an ordinance forever? Just as the old Passover lamb freed the People of the Old Covenant from the bondage of slavery, the new Passover Lamb frees us from the slavery of sin (cf. Mt. 26:28). In accepting Saint John the Baptist’s designation of Jesus as the new Lamb of God (Jn. 1:29-35), Jesus states clearly that He will be both sacrificed and eaten (cf. Lk. 22:7-20; Jn. 6:51-66), just as the old Passover lamb was both sacrificed and eaten (cf. Ex. 12:8-11). Unfortunately, most contemporary Protestants do not accept this biblically
based teaching about the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.[2]

Transcending Time and Space

The quick Protestant rejoinder to Catholic teaching on the Mass is that Christ died “once for all” (cf. Heb. 9:26-28; 10:10), to which the Church would say, “Amen!” The Church has always taught that the one sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist (the Mass) are “one single sacrifice,” and that the Eucharistic Sacrifice “re-presents (makes present)” Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross (Catechism, nos. 1366-67, emphasis in original). How can this be? God the Son created time and space and therefore is not bound by them (cf. Jn. 1:1-3). As eternal Being, Christ stands outside of time, and therefore all of history is simultaneously present to Him. We cannot fully grasp God’s omnipotence. Like the dogmas of the Trinity or Christ’s being both God and man, God’s omnipotence is beyond our capacity to understand, yet does not contradict reason. To argue that God is limited by time and space is necessarily to argue that God is not omnipotent, and therefore not God.

In short, then, God cannot create something, including time and space, that can limit Him. For example, because of God’s omnipotence, all of us, not just one of us, can be temples of the Holy Spirit (cf. 1 Cor. 6:19). This demonstrates His ability to be beyond space, for the Holy Spirit is present in the souls of all believers: the saints who have died (cf. Rev. 6:9-11), as well as all the faithful who are living today.

We can also speak of God’s ability to be present throughout time on earth and also outside of time in heaven. Relative to God, Who is eternal and unchanging, everything is present; relative to us human beings, everything we experience is bound by time and space. Because the Son of God is eternal and transcends time, what He does as the God-Man in history can transcend time. Jesus’ sacrifice on Calvary is thus once for all, yet never ending; it is timeless. Thus, when we re-present Christ’s one sacrifice at Mass, God actually enables us to make ourselves present to this timeless offering. Analogously, we become “present” to the sun each morning. The sun basically stays put, while we change relative to the sun because of the earth’s daily rotation.

The Eucharistic Sacrifice is foreshadowed by the prophet Malachi: “For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering; for my name is great among the nations, says the LORD of hosts” (Mal. 1:11). The Church sees these verses as a prophecy of the Sacrifice of the Mass, for what other truly pure sacrifice could there be that Christians can offer throughout the world every day?

The Mass’s transhistorical nature is first illustrated when Christ offered His glorified Body and Blood at the Last Supper, the day before He actually died on the Cross (cf. Catechism, nos. 1337-40). It is illustrated thereafter in the Mass offered by His disciples. Saint Paul notes that Christ’s sacrifice as the new Passover Lamb is once for all, but he also explains that its celebration somehow continues on in history: “For Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us, therefore, celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Cor. 5:7-8). Thus, the merits of Christ’s sacrifice are applied to Christians throughout the centuries.

We speak of the Eucharist as an unbloody sacrifice. Christ is not killed at each Mass. If that were so, there would be many sacrifices, and Christ would not have died “once for all.” Rather, the Council of Trent teaches that at each Mass “the same Christ who offered himself once in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross is contained and offered in an unbloody manner” (as quoted in Catechism, no. 1367).

He’s Got His Whole Self . . . in His Hands?

Some people ask incredulously, “Could God hold Himself in His hands at the Last Supper? And how could He offer up a sacrifice the day before He actually died?” The short answer is that Jesus could because He can do all things (cf. Mt. 19:26), such as when He appeared to His disciples in the flesh miraculously after His Resurrection, despite locked doors. To answer these questions about the Last Supper adequately, we must examine the biblical and other historical evidence for the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist by analyzing whether God really offered His Body and Blood, soul and divinity at the
Last Supper, and whether priests re-present the same sacrifice at every Mass.

Consider Jesus’ words: “[H]e who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. . . . [H]e who eats this bread will live for ever” (Jn. 6:54-56, 58).

Some Christians argue that Christ meant this statement figuratively, just as He did when He described Himself as the “vine” or the “door” (Jn. 10:7-9; 15:1-5). However, “to eat the body and drink the blood” of someone was an ancient Hebrew idiom that meant to slander a person. The Old Testament testifies to this figurative meaning: “When evildoers assail me, uttering slanders against me, my adversaries and foes, they shall stumble and fall” (Ps. 27:2). A footnote in the Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition confirms that “uttering slanders against me” in Hebrew literally means “to eat up my flesh.” If we then insert the figurative meaning in John 6:54, Jesus says that “he who slanders me has eternal life.” Such a figurative interpretation would make our divine Lord look very foolish.

While the Levitical priesthood prohibited the consumption of blood (cf. Lev. 17:10-14; see also Gen. 9:1-4), Jesus came to do away with and yet fulfill this temporary discipline. Given that this Levitical prohibition and similar ones that were still in force when Christ preached on the Eucharist in Capernaum, one could understand the Jews’ disbelief and would therefore expect Christ to clarify Himself if He intended a figurative interpretation of His words. However, despite the ensuing departure of many of His followers (Jn. 6:66), Jesus did not back down from His command to eat His Body and drink His Blood.

Like the Passover lambs before Him, Jesus would be both sacrificed and eaten. Whereas animal blood symbolized life and thus yielded imperfect atonement, Jesus freely offers us His Blood—indeed commands consumption (cf. Jn. 6:54-55)—because His Blood provides us redemptive life and perfect atonement.

Saint Paul affirms Christ’s Real Presence during the sacrifice of the Mass (cf. 1 Cor. 11:23-32). How can people “be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Cor. 11:27), and why are they getting sick and even dying, if they are merely consuming bread and wine? As Jesus teaches and Saint Paul affirms, the re-presentation of this one offering—this “breaking of bread” (Acts 2:42)—was to continue in the Church. We partake of this one sacrifice in a sacramental manner, under the appearance of bread and wine, and in a way that does not diminish God, Who is infinite. Jesus not only fulfills Passover in
Easter, but also makes it possible for the New Covenant of His sacrifice to be re-presented every day at Mass.

The Priesthood of Melchizedek

Christ’s priesthood forever according to Melchizedek (cf. Ps. 110:4; Heb. 5:6) makes clear the connection between the Last Supper, Jesus’ Crucifixion, and the Mass. When Christ died on Calvary, “he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek” (Heb. 5:9-10). While Christ suffered and died once for all, His sacrifice on Calvary is somehow connected with and continues forever according to a Melchizedekian offering or sacrifice: one using the elements of bread and wine (cf. Gen. 14:17-20). On the day before He died on the Cross,
Jesus “pre-presented” His completed, glorified sacrifice under the appearances of bread and wine (cf. Lk. 22:19-20) and thus manifested that He is not constrained by time (cf. Catechism, nn. 1337-40). Fulfilling Christ’s command to “[d]o this in remembrance of me” (Lk.22:19), the Church re-presents this same timeless offering of His Body and Blood under the appearances of bread and wine.

Indeed, as a faithful Priest Who continues to intercede for His People in Heaven after His death and Resurrection, Jesus must have something to offer. He does, and it can only be His one, definitive, and never-ending sacrifice (cf. Rev. 5:1-14), which He continues to offer forever as a priest according to the order of Melchizedek through His priests on earth (cf. Catechism, no. 1337). While Jesus does not need to re-present His sacrifice sacramentally to save us, He faithfully continues the Passover ordinance forever as His gift to us, reminding us daily of His great love and providing us with abundant
graces to aid our journey to heaven. “When the Church celebrates the Eucharist, she commemorates Christ’s Passover, and it is made present: the sacrifice Christ offered once for all on the cross remains ever present. ‘As often as the sacrifice of the Cross by which ‘Christ our Pasch has been sacrificed’ is celebrated on the altar, the work of our redemption is carried out’” (Catechism, no. 1364, citations omitted).

Christ is the one mediator between God and man (cf. 1 Tim. 2:5), but He allows certain men to participate in His mediation, by exercising authority in general (cf. Mt. 28:18-20), granting forgiveness of sin (cf. Jn. 20:21-23), and re-presenting His one sacrifice sacramentally (cf. Mt. 26:26-28). The Catholic Church is the new Israel, a spiritual house, and a holy priesthood (cf. 1 Pet. 2:5). The Eucharist is disconcerting to some Christians, not only because it simultaneously shows God’s awesome omnipotence and humble condescension, but also because it reminds us that salvation is not a momentary, once
and for all event, but a process that involves our saying yes to God each and every day. Salvation is by grace, but our free assent is needed for the gift of salvation to be efficacious in our lives.

Christ has perfected the Passover ordinance. He has torn down the barrier between God and man, enabling us to be reconciled to the Father and partake again of His divine nature (cf. Rom. 5:15-17; 2 Pet. 1:4). Heeding Christ’s command, we continue re-presenting and partaking of His sacrifice at every Mass. While “[t]his is a hard saying” (Jn. 6:60), it is very much in keeping with salvation history, and not too remarkable for a God Who created us out of nothing and became man to save us from our sins. Our response to such an incredible gift should echo the words of Saint Peter, when Christ asked him if he
also would leave Him: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (Jn. 6:68-69).

Questions for Reflection and Group Discussion:

1. How is Jesus Christ the new and definitive Passover Lamb?

2. How would I respond to the objection that Christ died “once for all” (Heb. 9:26), yet Catholics offer this sacrifice over and over again? See Catechism, nos. 1366-67.

3. How does my understanding of the sacrificial nature of the Mass affect my attitude toward the Eucharist? See Romans 12:1-2 and Colossians 1:24. What can I do to offer my own life in union with Christ crucified?

Recommended Reading:

Holy Bible (Catholic edition)

Catechism of the Catholic Church (Paperback and Hardback available)

Vatican II Documents

Scott Hahn, The Lamb’s Supper

Albert Van Hoye, Old Testament Priests and the New Priest

Fr. Peter Stravinskas, The Bible and the Mass

Jean Cardinal Danielou, S.J., The Bible and the Liturgy

Fr. Joseph Jungmann, The Mass

To order, call Benedictus Books toll-free: (888) 316-2640. CUF members receive a 10% discount.

Hahn and Suprenant, eds., Catholic for a Reason: Scripture and the Mystery of the Family of God

Leon Suprenant and Philip Gray, Faith Facts: Answers to Catholic Questions

Ted Sri, Mystery of the Kingdom: On the Gospel of Matthew

Leon Suprenant, ed., Servants of the Gospel

Most Rev. Thomas J. Tobin, Without a Doubt: Bringing Faith to Life

To order these and other titles, call Emmaus Road toll-free: (800) 398-5470.

Available Faith Facts:

• Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist • St. Augustine’s Real Faith in the Real Presence • Eat, Drink, and Be Catholic: The Prohibition of Eating Blood • Rock Solid: The Salvation History of the Catholic Church • Persevering to the End: The Biblical Reality of Mortal Sin • Going God’s Way: The Church’s Teaching on Moral Conscience • It Works for Me: The Church’s Teaching on Justification

© 2003 Catholics United for the Faith

Last edited: 3/20/2003

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[1] Cf. George Sim Johnston, “Notes from the Apocalypse Watch,” Lay Witness (September 1994), 1-5.

[2] Interestingly, Martin Luther and John Calvin, leaders of the Protestant Reformation, believed in the Real Presence, although their doctrine was inaccurate. Luther believed that Christ’s Body and Blood were present with the bread and wine, while Calvin believed Christ was present spiritually with the bread and wine. Neither, however, recognized the sacrificial nature of the Mass.

Date created:
4/22/2004
Date edited:
9/26/2007

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