The Mass as Cross and Re-presentation
“Now, the sacrifice is unsurpassable. Now, it’s a re-presentation of that sacrifice.”
As he says these words about the “climactic moment” of the Mass, he gestures to the crucified Christ behind him: the definitive sacrifice; the Lamb of God; the high priest who entered once for all into the sanctuary—not with the blood of goats and calves but with his own blood—to obtain eternal redemption (Hebrews 9:11-12).
This scene from the last episode of Bishop Barron’s new film series on The Mass is an important one, because while many Protestants reject the sacrificial dimension of the Mass as unbiblical and heretical, the controversy really stems from a failure to communicate—and might just be dissolved by a single word.
Of course, every effort to bridge the divide between Catholics and Protestants can feel daunting, even impossible. Our relationship has been mostly tense and often murderous for hundreds of years. Thankfully, we’ve come a long way. Without for a second claiming that the theological issues that divide us are not real or serious, Catholics and Protestants have increasingly entered into peaceful conversations and even found common cause in an increasingly secularized world. Think of the spirited but civil G3 Conference debate between apologists Dr. James White and Trent Horn, or Bishop Barron’s recent dialogue with Dr. William Lane Craig, or Rick Warren extending a hand of friendship to Pope Francis—the list goes on and on. So in that spirit of friendly dialogue (and with an eye to the Gospel call to Christian unity), I’d like to offer some clarity on the Catholic perspective of the Mass in light of the critiques of leading Reformed pastors.
In a sermon titled “The Curse of Priestly Failure,” John Piper says of the Mass: “This repeated sacrifice in the church necessitated an official priesthood to administer the sacrifices just like the Old Testament had an official priesthood to offer the animal sacrifices. But both the mass and the clerical priesthood minimize and distort the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ on Calvary.” R.C. Sproul, in an essay titled “The Battle for the Table,” adds: “Catholicism says that though this sacrifice is not bloody, it nevertheless is a real sacrifice (the Council of Trent used the word sacrificium). In this understanding, the Reformers saw a violation of the once-for-all offering of Christ on the cross.” John MacArthur makes the same point somewhat more bluntly in “Explaining the Heresy of the Catholic Mass”: “The Mass is a deception…At heart, it is a denial of the singular sacrifice of Christ on the cross, because the Mass is an offering of Christ repeatedly by an illegitimate priesthood on an illegitimate altar for a useless and ungodly purpose.” A statement published by John MacArthur’s “Grace to You” critiquing the “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” document doubles down on this position, arguing that the “teaching” from Rome is that “every time Mass is said, the sacrifice of Christ is offered over again.”
All of these critiques of the Mass accuse Catholics of essentially the same thing: denying or violating a basic Gospel truth—that Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary was the unique, definitive, and once-for-all sacrifice—by offering repeated sacrifices in the Mass.
So what’s the problem? Well, simply put, it’s just not true. If you look at the Catechism of the Catholic Church (the definitive summary of Catholic Church teaching—which, by the way, is absolutely saturated in Scripture), you’ll find the following statements about the sacrifice of the cross:
- The cross is the unique sacrifice of Christ, the “one mediator between God and men” (1 Timothy 2:5). (CCC 618)
- This sacrifice of Christ is unique; it completes and surpasses all other sacrifices. (CCC 614)
- Christ’s death is both the Paschal sacrifice that accomplishes the definitive redemption of men, through the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world”, and the sacrifice of the New Covenant, which restores man to communion with God by reconciling him to God through the “blood of the covenant, which was poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins”. (CCC 613)
- Everything that the priesthood of the Old Covenant prefigured finds its fulfillment in Christ Jesus, the “one mediator between God and men” (1 Timothy 2:5). The Christian tradition considers Melchizedek, “priest of God Most High,” as a prefiguration of the priesthood of Christ, the unique “high priest after the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 5:10); “holy, blameless, unstained” (Hebrews 7:26), “by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified” (Hebrews 10:14), that is, by the unique sacrifice of the cross. (CCC 1544)
- “And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:10).(CCC 606)
If this sounds like essentially the same thing that the Protestant pastors say in their critiques of the Mass—well, that’s because it is. When it comes to lifting the cross as the definitive and final sacrifice, Catholic teaching mirrors Reformed preaching.
So where does the disagreement set in? It has to do with how the Mass fits, or doesn’t fit, into this picture. Does the Mass presume to supplement Calvary with repeated sacrifices, or doesn’t it?
Let’s turn again to the Catechism, and see how it explains the relationship of the Mass to the cross:
- 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. (CCC 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. And since 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…” (CCC 1367)
If you want a case study in the power of words, observe what a mountain of difference hinges on that one word: re-present. What’s being said here? Not that “every time Mass is said, the sacrifice of Christ is offered over again.” Re-presenting doesn't mean repeating, reproducing, or redoing. The sacrifice is not being double-checked, dittoed, or duplicated to ensure completeness. On the Catholic view, it’s already complete; the first set of Catechism passages makes that very clear.
No—the truth is stranger than fiction. To re-present is to make present—to manifest an eternal reality here and now. “Since Jesus is divine,” Bishop Barron writes in his book Eucharist, “all of his actions, including and especially the sacrificial act by which he saved the world, participate in the eternity of God and hence can be made present at any point in time.” The Catholic Church teaches that this is precisely what the Mass does: makes present, from eternity, the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ on Calvary. And while the manner of presentation is different, the sacrifice remains the same. This is why, in The Mass, Bishop Barron gestures at the cross as he uses this word to describe the Eucharist. The Mass is the cross re-presented—not on our own initiative, but on the initiative of Jesus; not through our own work, but through the work of Christ; and not to try and supplement the perfect offering of the only begotten Son as if God needs it, but to participate in that offering and apply its fruits down the ages because humanity needs it.
Can the sacrifice of the Son to the Father be perpetuated mysteriously through time? Can Calvary suddenly be made present, mystically but truly, in another place—say, Santa Barbara, California? Can the faithful then radically unite their lives to it, not just spiritually but physically? If we engage the Catechism, these seem to be the real questions dividing us. Protestants and Catholics are not split on the completeness of the sacrifice of Christ; we are split on the metaphysical depth and breadth of that one sacrifice. But the conceptual strangeness and nuance of the (actual) latter debate causes it to be distorted into the (mythical) former debate, which—though less strange and more straightforward—curiously finds Protestants passionately making the same case the Catholic Church does.
Engaging the Catechism makes this misreading of Catholic teaching less possible—but not impossible. In MacArthur’s sermon, for example, he cites the Catechism early on (“The Mass is ‘the source of and summit of the Christian life’” [CCC 1324]), and even after his denunciation of the Mass, quotes CCC 1367 (quoted above). But after the phrase “unbloody manner,” he then adds the word “repeatedly”—for, as he puts it, “clarification.” But the Catechism doesn’t say “repeatedly,” and neither does Trent (from which that passage quotes). After coming very close to articulating Catholic teaching—even to the point of contradicting his earlier charge of Catholicism’s “denial of the singular sacrifice”—sure enough, the bottom drops out: “It’s not a separated sacrifice, but it is the same sacrifice as the cross continually being offered again, and again, and again, and again, and again. It’s really an amalgamation of pagan sacrifices which has found their way into Christianity very, very early.” No matter how close he gets to it, MacArthur can’t help but see the New Covenant slipping out and something like paganism taking its place. But I would argue that this says more about MacArthur than it does about Catholicism. He casts an ominous light on the text, conjuring shadows of ghosts (“repeatedly”) and goblins (“pagan sacrifices”) that simply aren’t there. Unfortunately, the upshot of this approach is that authentic dialogue—let alone authentic disagreement—becomes impossible.
Of course, Protestants and Catholics bring their own sets of background convictions, assumptions, and imaginations (either/or vs. both/and, dialectical vs. sacramental, etc.) to any doctrinal question, which is only human. No one reasons in a Cartesian vacuum. But I would invite these Reformed pastors and their flocks to carefully read the Catechism on this question and consider where the disagreement really arises. The idea of the Mass as a single, trans-historical sacrifice across time and space may be difficult to conceptualize, much less accept. It may run so counter to a million other beliefs and intuitions that it just looks and feels grotesque. Fair enough. But why artifically inflate the conflict? Ignoring, distorting, or adding to the Catechism to argue that Catholicism teaches repeated sacrifices rather than re-presentations of one sacrifice is not casting out a false Gospel. It’s tilting at windmills.
On the Catholic reading, the Eucharist is not an invitation to surpass the unsurpassable sacrifice of Christ. On the contrary, it’s a far more mysterious and beautiful invitation: to surpass the dimensions of time and space and participate, body and soul, in the New Covenant. And this invitation is not a medieval corruption; instead, it stretches back to the Apostolic Fathers and indeed to the Last Supper, where (as Scott Hahn, a former Protestant pastor, has pointed out) the Lamb of God fulfills and transforms all Passover sacrifices; sacramentally anticipates the definitive sacrifice of Calvary; and then commands his disciples to continue to do likewise among themselves (Luke 22:17-20). And so they have, in awe of the inexhuastible mystery before them. As Bishop Barron puts it in Eucharist: “Those who are gathered around the altar of Christ are not simply recalling Calvary; Calvary has become present to them in all of its spiritual power.”
And so the Catholic Church gathers around the altar—through him, with him, and in memory of him—and it gathers often, drawing strength for the road of life from the source of life. If our Protestant brothers and sisters could see the once-for-all sacrifice in the same way, would they dream of doing otherwise?