August 11, 2013


A crowd of people gather around a building early in the morning, as the blood-red sun rises. Foregoing their ordinary dress, they clothe themselves in festal garments, reserved exclusively for events such as this. In small groups, they sift through the doors to this massive building, stopping to dip their fingers reverently into a sacral pool and sign themselves with a sacred sign. Now inside, they gather in the darkened and hushed space, shaped like an amphitheater. Rows of roughly hewn benches surround a stone table, elevated and set apart from the slowly gathering crowd. The haunting, heavy silence is suddenly broken as a procession of even more strangely-clad people step through the midst of the crowd toward the stone table, while the lights suddenly flare and each of the crowd begins to chime in with the sacred chant. The priest, for no other word describes such a man, robed in sacred garments, ascends the three steps below the stone table, and the secret ceremony begins. From a gilded text, he reads a variety of prayers, alternately calling out his own oration and accepting the response of the people. Then, a story from the sacred text, which has been lovingly passed down from generation to generation and kept reverently apart from other books, is read to the people. Then, the tone changes toward an ever more reverent and mystical silence as the priest again approaches the altar, in a posture of unworthiness. He cleanses his hands to prepare himself symbolically for the sacrifice, and in another dialogue of supplication with the gathered people calls down their god upon the gifts brought humbly to his altar. Overawed by the mystery presented to them, the people drop to their knees as the priest, his voice clearly piercing the silence with sacred words, recounts the ancient tale of the divine, proclaiming that this god is indeed present among them even now, offering his own flesh to be the salvation of those gathered in his worship.

This isn't the way we normally talk about the Mass. In fact, talking about the Mass this way would probably be called sacrilegious by some very pious and holy people. However, I think that to see the Mass as what it is - the direct descendant and fulfillment of the slaughtering of animals as a holocaust to God as described in the Old Testament - is necessary for us to truly participate in it, and thus to attain salvation.

The Law described in the Pentateuch in bloody detail instructs the Israelites on how to slit the throats of animals, burn their entrails, and feast on their flesh as a direct means to appease the wrath of God at our sins. This was not alone in ancient culture: the sea towns on the coast of Greece would offer their catch of fish to Poseidon, the Babylonians would sacrifice one infant out of every family to Moloch, and the Vikings would pour out a drop of their mead as that portion which the gods rightly deserve. Rich ceremonies developed around the simple concept of killing an animal for the gods, where every gesture of the priest's hands, every fragment of incense burnt, and every word from the lips of all present took on a symbolic and sacred significance. Why? Because the people believed that it worked. By sacrificing goats to YHWH, you could find forgiveness for your sins. By killing fish for Poseidon, you could guarantee the safety of your fishermen. By pouring out a libation to the gods, you could include them in your merriment and avoid their wrath. By doing a physical and, apparently, otherwise meaningless act, you could bring about a metaphysical and spiritual reality. This is the essence also of Catholic sacraments.

When we pour water over a baby's head, we believe with every fiber of our being that, because God so promised, the action of washing will lead to God pouring out His cleansing grace. When we recount the passion of Christ over bread and wine, we totally and unreservedly believe that His promise holds true, and we will soon be able to eat and drink the flesh and blood of the Son of Man. When we gather in the Church for these rituals, we are doing perfectly and efficaciously what the pagans sought to do with their sacrifices and rituals. The Mass is a cultic, ritual offering superior to the most terrifying religion described by Lovecraft, because the most powerful being in existence truly becomes present in the most complete and perfect way that He can, whether we want Him or not.



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