If you’ve seen Mel Gibson’s film Apocolypto you’ll remember the pretty graphic scenes of human sacrifice. Most primitive religions featured human sacrifice and ritualistic cannibalism in some form or other at some point. The logic was pretty simple: to appease the gods you gave them something valuable. What would they like? Life. How do you give them life? The life is in the blood, so you have to shed blood. What life is best? Pretty young virgins, lovely children, strong young warriors. You get the idea.
The Centrality of Sacrifice
The Jews were given a get out. They could sacrifice animals instead of their children. This was the main lesson that came out of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac: God said human sacrifice was un-necessary. So the Jews developed their sacrificial system, but even in the Old Testament God was indicating that this was insufficient. “Do you think I eat the flesh of goats and bullocks?” he asks.
Then he sends his Son as the one, full, final sacrifice. Suddenly all other sacrifices have meaning. They were pointers to this one human sacrifice to end all human sacrifices. The Mass is the proper re-presentation of that one, full, final sacrifice. It brings into the present moment that timeless moment and applies that benefit to one and all.
Now the problem with modern Catholicism is that modern people, thinking that human sacrifice is really rather horrific, and that the wanton, ritualistic slaughter of animals is also rather gruesome, have chucked out the religious concept of sacrifice altogether. The modernists saw it as superstitious, bloodthirsty, primitive and barbaric. The considered themselves to have moved on from such superstitious concepts as placating rather petulant and cruel gods, and wanted a different model for understanding the Mass.
The other model was there. In the Bible we have the Almighty making covenants with his people. The ancients sealed these covenants with a ritual meal. The Jews had lots of ritual meals. The Passover was just one. So this model of covenant, ritual, fellowship meal took precedence in the theology that preceded the Second Vatican Council.
Now the main model for the Mass was the ritual fellowship meal of the people of God. The focus shifted from a memorial of Christ’s death on the cross to a memorial of the Last Supper. The Mass was not so much a re-presentation and application of Christ’s death, but a re-living of the Last Supper, with us as Jesus disciples and the priest as an alter-Christus presiding at the Last Supper.
If this was to be the model, then of course it made sense for the priest to go around to the other side of the altar (now called the Communion Table) and face the people. He was no longer the priest offering the sacrifice with and for the people, but he was the Father presiding at the family meal rather like Daddy standing up to ceremonially carve the roast beef for family dinner.
This change of position was nowhere legislated by the Fathers of the Council. In fact, the rubrics of the Novus Ordo Mass assume that the priest is still facing East with his back to the people, praying with them and for them. That’s why at the “Pray brethren that our sacrifice…” and the “Behold the Lamb of God” the rubrics instruct the priest to ‘turn and face the people’.
In the wake of this theological change everything else changed. Churches became big round meeting halls in which the people met for the fellowship meal. The introit became the ‘gathering song.’ The hymns changed content from worship of God and meditation on the Divine Sacrifice to songs about us and our community and how we felt about God and how we were going to change the world.
What happened when sacrifice went out the stained glass window? We lost an understanding of God himself, for sacrifice is woven into the very warp and woof of creation. Sacrifice is the character of God himself, for just as the blood flows out of the sacrifice, so God’s Divine Love flows from him at all times. This Divine Love is the energy of all creation, it is the force that ‘moves the sun and the other stars’. It is the energy that binds together the three members of the Holy Trinity. Sacrifice is the outpouring of one’s life and one’s love, and without sacrifice Christianity is reduced to a club of people who sing songs together, and talk about how they are going to make the world a better place.
When we start to understand the proper place of sacrifice in the whole cosmos, we will start again to understand the sacrifice of the Mass, and when that happens everything else in our liturgy architecture, music, prayer and spirituality should fall back into place.