Go to the Altar

Saint Thomas Aquinas in Prayer by Stefano di Giovannica

“What are you?” a construction worker demanded quizzically of a cassock-wearing priest, as he passed a job site near a hospital.

The priest looked at his interlocutor and hesitated; the undercurrent of contempt was perceptible. Deciding to take the question at face value, he responded peaceably: “I am a priest.”

“And what,” the man inquired flippantly, “does a priest do?”

The cassocked one answered seriously, “A priest is one who primarily offers sacrifice.”

“Birds? Little dogs?” suggested the wise guy.

The priest laughed. “No, not birds. The Catholic priest offers the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.”

The man’s tone lost its edge. “But didn’t that happen on the cross, nearly two thousand years ago? Didn’t Jesus already die for all our sins?”

“Yes, He offered Himself for us on Calvary nearly two thousand years ago. However, in order for us to come into contact with the merits of His sacrifice, the priest renews it in an unbloody way each day.”

It took a moment for that to sink in. Then the man asked in quite a different voice, “Where do I have to go?”

This was the priest’s reply: “You have to go to the altar.”

At the moment, it’s impossible for lay Catholics to go to the altar of God. Our churches are closed and public Masses are cancelled. We’re all aware of the public health grounds for this prudential decision, and since the Sunday obligation has been temporarily lifted, we’re certainly not offending God by our absence. Nonetheless it will be a great relief when the church doors are flung open once again for the public celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. For “to be barred from its sanctuaries,” as a priest of my acquaintance wrote, “is one of the greatest losses we can endure.”

Writing for Rorate Caeli on March 24, Father Richard Cipolla suggested that Catholics’ greatest anxiety at this time of locked churches isn’t missing Mass per se, but rather missing an opportunity to receive Communion, overlooking, he fears, the true nature and importance of the Mass itself. This time of waiting and deprivation offers an excellent opportunity to consider the enormous significance of each Mass—with or without communion of the faithful.

Why is the Mass so important? Well, quite simply, the Mass is the sum and substance of our religion. It is the jewel that blazes at the very heart of Christianity, the unbloody renewal of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, carried out continuously in every time and place until the end of the world. It is the heart of our Christian lives, for to be a Christian, as one of the greatest missionaries of the 20th century said, is to be one “who offers himself as a victim on the altar with Our Lord.”

To assist at Mass is not merely to attend a commemoration or a memorial of an event that happened long ago. The holy sacrifice is an action that happens now, in the present. The priest, acting in persona Christi, approaches the altar—not a table, for this event is not reducible to a meal—to perform the sacrifice, accomplished in consecrating the bread and wine. When the priest pronounces the words of consecration, Saint Gregory Nazianzus tells us, he “sunders with unbloody cut the Body and the Blood of the Lord, using his voice as a sword.” The faithful assisting at Mass unite their hearts to the priest and unite their lives and sufferings to the Victim, that all may be offered to God together.

The good news is that the Mass can be properly and efficaciously accomplished in the absence of the faithful, as is made clear by session twenty-two of the Council of Trent As we consider the locked doors of our churches in this time of crisis, we can take comfort from one fact: Christ is both priest and sacrifice, and therefore a valid Mass is always efficacious, meaning that it always accomplishes the ends for which it is offered. Its efficacy is not determined by the presence of the faithful; the sacrifice of the Mass, the theologian Ludwig Ott tells us, is the sacrifice of the Church, and in that sense is never “private.” Nor are the faithful needed to offer the sacrifice since it is Christ Himself who offers it through His priest.

The efficacy of the Mass was so beautifully explained to me by the priest who kindly permitted me to publish the story about the construction worker that it’s worth reproducing his words here:

“The holy Mass,” he said, “is the supreme act of religion that renders to God what is due to Him: adoration, thanksgiving, and propitiation for sin, after which we can then present to Him our petitions.

“Our Lord Jesus Christ perpetuates this supreme act Himself throughout the ages, through the ministry of His priests upon our holy altars. He abases Himself in perfect adoration before the Godhead, acknowledging our utter dependence upon Him. The most perfect praise of the excellence of God above all wells up from His Sacred Heart.

“He offers nothing less than His own Sacred Body and Precious Blood, united to His Soul and Divinity, as the perfect gift of thanksgiving in the Eucharist… by which we render to God fitting and perfect gratitude for all of His goodness and mercy towards us.

“He likewise perpetuates the offering of His Sacred Body and Precious Blood in propitiation for sin. In and through the same sacrifice, Jesus presents our petitions (for we utterly depend on Him for all things)…

“It is indeed upon the holy altar that heaven meets earth and earth meets heaven…”

While many parishes have turned to the internet to allow Catholics observing stay-at-home orders to follow the Sunday Mass and Holy Week ceremonies, some voices have rightly expressed concern about the danger of accustoming Catholics to virtually “attending” streamed Masses. One such is Edouard Husson, a Frenchman whose appeal to the French bishops conference for the restoration of public Catholic life—among which he includes the thrice-daily sounding of the Angelus bell—was recently published in translation by First Things. He reminds us that under ordinary conditions, our Sunday obligation requires physical presence in church, for the Catholic religion is an incarnate religion, involving both soul and body.

Indeed, while the Mass doesn’t need the faithful to be efficacious, the faithful need the Mass. There are special graces reserved at each Mass for those physically present. And by attending Mass on days of obligation, we fulfill our duty of religion by uniting ourselves with the priest as he offers the sacrifice, both internally (in our hearts and minds) and externally (by physical assistance at the sacrifice before the holy altar). Saint Thomas Aquinas says that although the internal part is most important, the physical aspect is necessary, too. As Psalm 83 says: “My heart and my flesh have rejoiced in the living God.” Once the lockdown is over, livestreamed Sunday Mass will not suffice.

The great mysteries of our redemption will pass before our eyes this Holy Week like stained glass panels in a medieval cathedral, glowing high above our reach, but still diffusing light upon those below. In cobalt and ruby hues, perhaps, the indissoluble bond between Holy Thursday’s institution of the Mass and Good Friday’s Passion and Crucifixion will take shape before our gaze.

For Christ lifted up on the cross and Christ lifted up in the Host at the elevation were both foretold in the same words: “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all things unto myself.” It is by the cross and the Host, lifted high above the world, raining down the fruits of the Passion, that we are raised up, transformed, and saved.

Once we become aware of this sublime reality, all that’s left is to ask the same question as the construction worker asked the priest: “Where do we have to go?”

And the answer, when our churches reopen, will be the same: “To the altar.”