Letters From a Young Catholic

My reflections as a Catholic young adult passionate about the Faith, seeking to grow in knowledge and understanding of God and discerning the will of the Lord in my life.

Friday, July 28, 2006

'Table' Not 'Altar'

Yesterday as I was helping my grandpa eat lunch (which was a two and a half hour ordeal. . .) I picked up the nearest reading material off the table which happened to be "The Church Herald," a magazine published "serving members of the Reformed Church in America." You see, grandparents I'm spending most of my time with this summer belong to the Reformed Church (they're Northern Irish Protestant. . . my dad's a convert). Anyways, I thought I'd give it a quick skim through. Between an article on drive-in churches where the congregation stays in their cars and watches the services on a large screen and an article on the ongoing discussion of redefining the Reformed Church's position on homosexual marriage, I found a "Question and Answer" section. Since I enjoy reading the Q & A's on EWTN, www.askfather.net, and Catholic Answers, I figured this might be interesting. . . it was.

This question stuck out in particular:

"Q: Why does our pastor avoid using the word altar to describe the communion table?
A: Altars, as we find them described in Scripture, are built for the purpose of making sacrifice to God. Animals were slain on the altars as offerings to God, so it was this model that was picked up by the pre-Reformation Church to describe communion as a re-enactment of the sacrifice of Christ, which made the use of the word altar appropriate.
However, one of the key ingredients in our Reformed understanding of the sacrament is that it is - as it was in the Upper Room - a meal shared around a table. For this reason the pastor presents the sacrament from behind the table, sharing the bread and wine, as well as the prayers and concerns of the congregation. At our Lord's Table the sacrifice of Christ is remembered, but it is not re-enacted. The sacrifice was a once-and-for-all event, sufficient for eternity, in the history of God's relationship with us. When we gather in remembrance, in communion, and in hope at the table, Christ is there with us, not as a sacrifice but as our risen Lord."

Ok. Where do I start. First of all, I obviously have no problem with the Reformed Church referring to the table at their communion services as a table because, well, that's what it is in their context. It's a table. Now, as for this pastor's explanation of communion in the "pre-Reformation Church" and why the Church uses the the word altar, it's not entirely on the mark.

As a simple practising Catholic who has much to learn about the Mass, a few things stood out to me right away. Firstly, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass isn't a "re-enactment" or a re-sacrificing of Christ's perfect sacrifice upon Calvary. At Mass we are witness to the Sacrifice of Calvary. It is that very Sacrifice which is made present on the altar, not a re-enactment. Therefore, the Mass does not contradict this pastor's statement that "The sacrifice was a once-and-for-all event, sufficient for eternity, in the history of God's relationship with us."

Furthermore, with our knowledge that at Mass we witness the singular Sacrifice of Christ upon Calvary we know that our participation in the Mass is more than a meal shared around a table.

Since I'm highly unqualified to be explaining Christ's sacrificial presence in the Mass, I'll turn to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

"[What is this Sacrament Called?] The Holy Sacrifice, because it makes present the one sacrifice of Christ the Savior and includes the Church's offering. The terms holy sacrifice of the Mass, "sacrifice of praise," spiritual sacrifice, pure and holy sacrifice are also used, since it completes and surpasses all the sacrifices of the Old Covenant." (1330)

"In the New Testament, the memorial takes on new meaning. 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."(1364)

"Because it is the memorial of Christ's Passover, the Eucharist is also a sacrifice. the sacrificial character of the Eucharist is manifested in the very words of institution: "This is my body which is given for you" and "This cup which is poured out for you is the New Covenant in my blood." In the Eucharist Christ gives us the very body which he gave up for us on the cross, the very blood which he "poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins." (1365)

"The Eucharist is thus a sacrifice because it re-presents (makes present) the sacrifice of the cross, because it is its memorial and because it applies its fruit:
[Christ], our Lord and God, was once and for all to offer himself to God the Father by his death on the altar of the cross, to accomplish there an everlasting redemption. But because his priesthood was not to end with his death, at the Last Supper "on the night when he was betrayed," [he wanted] to leave to his beloved spouse the Church a visible sacrifice (as the nature of man demands) by which the bloody sacrifice which he was to accomplish once for all on the cross would be re-presented, its memory perpetuated until the end of the world, and its salutary power be applied to the forgiveness of the sins we daily commit." (1366)

"The sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice: "The victim is one and the same: the same now offers through the ministry of priests, who then offered himself on the cross; only the manner of offering is different." "In this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass, the same Christ who offered himself once in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross is contained and is offered in an unbloody manner." (1367)

"The Mass is at the same time, and inseparably, the sacrificial memorial in which the sacrifice of the cross is perpetuated and the sacred banquet of communion with the Lord's body and blood. But the celebration of the Eucharistic sacrifice is wholly directed toward the intimate union of the faithful with Christ through communion. To receive communion is to receive Christ himself who has offered himself for us." (1382)

"It is in the Eucharistic cult or in the Eucharistic assembly of the faithful (synaxis) that they [priests] exercise in a supreme degree their sacred office; there, acting in the person of Christ and proclaiming his mystery, they unite the votive offerings of the faithful to the sacrifice of Christ their head, and in the sacrifice of the Mass they make present again and apply, until the coming of the Lord, the unique sacrifice of the New Testament, that namely of Christ offering himself once for all a spotless victim to the Father." From this unique sacrifice their whole priestly ministry draws its strength." (1566)

To better understand the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass it's also well worth taking your time to read paragraphs 1356 to 1381 from the Catechism of the Catholic Church on The Sacramental Sacrifice Thanksgiving, Memorial, Presence.

It's interesting to note that I came across this article on the same afternoon that I began reading The Holy Eucharist by St. Alphonsus de Liguori. I'm only on page 37 but so far it's a fantastic book. He begins the book with a "Short Explanation of the Prayers of Mass" which I'm finding fascinating. Why didn't I ever learn this stuff in catechism class when I was younger? I think that doing a better job of explaining the Mass should be a priority for catechists at all levels. Anyways, although I've just begun reading the book, I'd highly recommend it. Maybe someone out there who has read the whole book could second that recommendation. . .