In my last column I reflected on the meaning of an authentic Christian memorial. The early church adopted the belief that commemorating God’s life-giving actions in history involves an active re-presentation of those same events into the present.
Each time we gather to celebrate Mass, then, we are taken to the Last Supper, and the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection as constitutive components of the Mass.
This belief caused some difficulties at the time of the Protestant Reformation. Many of our Protestant friends reasoned that since Catholics call the Mass a sacrifice, it must mean we believe we are re-crucifying Christ each time we celebrate Mass.
To understand why this is not the case, we need to reflect again on the nature of God in light of the Paschal Mystery — the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ. Scripture tells us that God is beyond creation. He is eternal and therefore is not subjected to the effects of time.
All that God created, however, is encompassed into the confining box of time. Everything ages and will ultimately exist no longer. God exists outside of time, so when he performs actions that save His people from ultimate dangers, He does so from outside of time.
Jesus teaches us that He is one in being with the Father. As such, death has no ultimate power over Him. His Resurrection and the events that lead to it are part of the eternity of God. The Paschal Mystery must stand outside of time because it nullifies the limits that time places on creation in defeating death. God limits Himself by becoming a man in time, but His salvation-anticipating Last Supper, death, and Resurrection in Christ are not limited since they lead the way through time into eternity.
For us, death is the ultimate danger, but God can overcome it since He is able to do all things. If Christ is one with the Father then it is clear why our faith teaches us that Jesus conquered our ultimate demise by His Paschal Mystery. In it, He passed over from this life, through death, and returned to life anew.
The previous Covenant celebrated liberation from slavery in order to solidify faith that God would always provide for His chosen ones in the present. The New Covenant celebrates liberation from time itself because its confines no longer have the final say on our being through death.
I have previously argued that the Mass unites the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection all-in-one. The Paschal Mystery must stand outside of time because the events of which it is composed are those through which Jesus anticipates, battles and defeats death itself. In defeating death, Jesus beats it as a final end for us. As such, the Last Supper anticipates, the Crucifixion enters into, and the Resurrection conquers Christ’s death and therefore the confines of time itself.
Since the Mass perpetuates the Paschal Mystery, then Mass stands outside of time because it presents anew the memorial of those events that live in eternity. This is why Mass is repeated every day except Good Friday itself. The events that overcome history must constantly be re-presented so they can be experienced in every generation.
Christ’s Paschal Mystery is unique because it conquers death, which nothing else can do. Mass takes Christ’s work and applies it to the present on behalf of the future. Defeating death never runs out because such a victory must continually be commemorated if we hope to survive its effects through the victory of the cross.
Thus the Mass does not re-crucify Christ. It perpetuates His one sacrifice that stands outside of time. God cannot be killed and when His humanity died in the person of Jesus Christ on Good Friday, such an event must break through the confines of time if God is truly eternal and infinite. The one sacrifice of Christ is continually offered because its merits can continue to be experienced until He chooses to return in glory.
As eternal, the Mass requires the absolute best of what we have and are. Some of its elements cannot change based upon the whims of contemporary culture because it supersedes any one given time or place in re-presenting the fact that death has no more power over those nourished by it. We must always hear the tales of God’s intervention in history and we must always repeat Christ’s actions.
They are, after all, timeless.
Father Bryan P. Babick, SL.L., is the diocesan vicar for Divine Worship and the Sacraments.