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Angle-stone - Maccabees - Clean oblation

Jewish sacrifice, holy of holies

Rev. Rama Coomaraswamy


Christ didn't die once and for all. His sacrifice is a perpetual sacrifice. The immolation of the lamb is continuous in heaven. It is the priest - or Christ acting in the priest, who once again brings this sacrifice down on earth - on the altar in an unbloody manner - for us and for our salvation. As M. Olier of St. Suplice wrote: 'to understand the mystery of the most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.... it is necessary to know that this Sacrifice is the Sacrifice of Heaven... It is the Sacrifice effected in Paradise and which at the same time is offered up here on earth; the only difference is that here below, it is seen under a veiled form.' This is the 'Lamb, slain but alive' of which St. John speaks in the Apocalypse. Thus the Mass is not a 'memorial' in the sense of commemorating something that occurred in the past, but rather a making present in time of something occurring eternally. How pregnant with meaning is the priest's prayer 'Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.'

The Jewish sacrifice of the holocaust was only performed in the Temple. Now the temple is as it were the center of the world, and in fact, when the Jews held the Pasch they always faced in the direction of the Temple, much like Moslems today face the Kaaba in Mecca when they pray. At the Last Supper the Apostles all sat on the same side of the table facing the temple which could be seen through the portico. After the destruction of the temple, the first stage of which was the rending of the curtain over the holy of holies, Christians faced the east, for the rising sun is a symbol of the Risen Christ we await at the end of time. There is absolutely no history of the priest facing the people in the early Mass.

But there is a difference in the Church, as was indeed foretold by Malachias, the last of the Prophets: 'I have no pleasure in you [referring to the lax sacrifices of the Levites] and I will not receive a gift from your hand. For from the rising of the sun even to the going down, My name is great among the Gentiles and in every place there is offered to My name a clean oblation' (Malachias, 1, 10-11).17 No longer is the Sacrifice centered in a single place - the temple. Rather wherever the Mass is said becomes the center of the world. As Nicholas of Cusa said, 'the center of the world is that point from which all creation is equidistant.' The architectural symbolism of the Church which incidentally parallels that of the temple, placed the altar directly under the dome which was in turn over the center of the cross. That is to say that the Church was built in the form of a cross with a dome over the center - a pattern still followed in the east. In the western church the altar was moved forward into the nave which is as it were half a dome. But to make the symbolism clear, altars were placed under a baldachino. This term is perhaps strange. However, picture the altar in St. Peter's of which we have all seen at least in pictures. There are four pillars surmounted by a dome; the entire structure being under the central dome. The dome symbolizes the heavens while the square structure on which it rests is the created world in which we live. Many of our traditional chapels have a similar structure over the tabernacle. Now every traditional altar must have over it a crucifix. Within the requirements of space, this crucifix is also at the center of creation - as indeed it was in Jerusalem historically. We must all return to this 'center' and be centered in Christ. The priest prays daily for conversion - converte nos salutaris noster as he says in Compline. Conversio means to turn towards the center. And every time we make the sign of the cross we are ourselves enacting the same thing symbolically.

We know that the Jews had a high priesthood and rites which were performed only in the temple. But every Jew could not go to the temple for the High Holidays, and so it was that the same rites were also carried out in each family. Remember that the family is as it were, a 'mini-Church.' The Father in the family is Christ's representative within this structure. Thus it is not without accident that we refer to God as the 'Father'; we call the Pope the 'holy father' because he is Christ's representative over the whole Church; we call the priest a father, for he is Christ's representative in the community; and we call the head of the family a father because he is Christ's representative in the family. Now Christ and the Apostles at the Last Supper were actually carrying out the Jewish Pasch - and Christ who allowed himself to be circumcised, who declared that He came to fulfill the law, carried out the traditional Jewish rites in the normal manner. As Sister Agreda says, 'He observed all the ceremonies of the Law (Exodus 12,3), as prescribed by Himself through Moses.' Catherine Emmerich goes even farther and points out that one of the accusations brought against Him before Caiaphus was that he had introduced innovations into this rite - a charge Nicodemus successfully defended Him against. During the Last Supper Christ gave the Apostles an understanding of all the ceremonies of the figurative law as observed by the Patriarchs and the Prophets. He showed them how beneath these rites was hidden the real truth, namely, all that He himself was to accomplish as Redeemer of the World. It is not surprising then that the Mass as we know it should encompass all the sacrifices of the Old Law. Catherine Emmerich also tells us that the Apostles took notes so as not to forget His instructions as to how the Mass should be said.

It is not surprising then that many of the phrases used in the Mass such as 'The Lord be with you' and 'Peace be with you' also come from the Jewish ritual. This is also true of the phrase '...and for ever and ever' which is the exact translation of the Hebraic liturgical formula min ha-olem ad ha-olem. The Alleluia and Amens are also derived from this source. The Alleluia incidentally means 'praise God' and is taken from the Hallel psalms sung at the Paschal meal. After each verse of these psalms the people present exclaimed Hallelou-yeh. In the Mass the three Alleluias follow verses taken from the psalms which are sung before the Gospel.

Yet another formula retained from synagogal usage is the solemn prayer used at the start of the Canon in all the liturgies of both East and West - called the Anaphora in the East and the Preface in the west. The phrases sursum corda, oremus and gratias agamus are direct translations of phrases used in the Jewish rite are the various phrases preceding and including the triple Sanctus. Finally, another practice adapted from the Jewish ritual is the repetetive liturgical cycle which annually as well as in each and every Mass renews the cycle of events in our Lord's life, as it does the feasts such as Easter and Pentecoste.18

And so we see that our traditional Mass is the culmination and the fulfillment of all the Sacrifices of the Old Law. Now it is of interest that the Jews no longer have a priesthood. Rabbis are not priests but scholars who graduate from special schools, often called seminaries. They are not ordained by any rite whatsoever and such is not surprising, for as Daniel prophecized, 'when the Holy of Holies has come, anointing will cease.' Once the temple veil was torn, the supreme sacrifice, the Mass, was no longer limited to a central temple, but rather every altar became the center. And when we contemplate the close relationship of our Mass - the true Mass, with all that was prefigured in the Old Testament, let us not forget that Daniel also prophecized that 'they shall defile the sanctuary of strength, and shall take away the continual sacrifice, and they shall place there the abomination unto desolation. And such as deal wickedly against the covenant shall deceitfully dissemble: but the people that know their God shall prevail and succeed. What is this abomination but a defective sacrifice? 'Thou shalt not sacrifice to the Lord thy God a sheep or an ox wherein there is blemish or any fault; for that is an abomination to the Lord thy God' (Deut. 17.1).

This defilement is again referred to in Maccabees where Antiocus set up false altars in Jerusalem and where 'there went out of Israel wicked men, and they persuaded many, saying: Let us go, and make a covenant with the heathen that are round about us... The Jerome Biblical Commentary speaks of this in the following terms: 'Antiochus thought it necessary to foster the process of cultural and religious syncretism that had received such impetus under Alexander.' St Matthew, Mark and Luke all refer to this event and add that frightening phrase, 'he that readeth, let him understand.' For those of us who tend to see the preservation of the traditional Mass as a function of the 'Remnant,' and who are constantly accused of being in 'rebellion,' it is pertinent to note that the original Maccabian force rallied precisely around this issue and consisted of some 300 individuals! If this sounds strange, allow me to quote a passage from the introduction to the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost taken from the St. Andrew Missal of a previous era: 'One of the most outstanding lessons which may be drawn from the books of the Maccabees, which almost every year are still being read at Matins at this time, is the reverence due to the things of God. What is generally called the rebellion of the Maccabees was in reality a magnificent example of fidelity to God, to His law, and to the covenants and promises that he made to His people. These were threatened with oblivion and it was to uphold them that the Maccabees rebelled.'

It logically follows from this that everything that the priest does in the Mass is full of meaning - is symbolic or representative of something divine. - is patterned after a divine archetype - as in heaven, so also on earth. 19 As St. Bonaventura said, 'the Holy Mass is as full of mysteries as the ocean is full of drops, or as the sky is full of stars, and as the courts of heaven are full of angels. For in it so many mysteries are daily performed that I should be at a loss to say whether greater or more lofty wonders have ever been accomplished by divine omnipotence.' The Mass is in a certain sense a 'mini-drama' which recapitulates, not only the entire life of Christ, but the entire history of man's relationship to God. The pious Marchantius writes: 'What is the Mass if not a forcible and complete representation, nay renewal, of the incarnation, the birth, the life, the sufferings and the death of Christ, and the redemption that He wrought?' Dennis the Carthusian teaches us that 'The whole life of Christ which He led upon earth was one long celebration of Mass, He being Himself the altar, the priest, the victim.'

Let us consider the altar. In the consecration of the Catholic altar, reference is made to all the altars set up by the patriarchs of the old testament. The Shekina or divine presence in the temple in Jerusalem was dependent upon the presence of the Ark. The Ark was set upon a stone which was the center of the earth - not in a geographical sense, but in a symbolic sense. You have heard it said that the altar is a symbol of the body of Christ. This is because he is the 'rock' under the Ark. He is the rock that Moses 'split' and from which poured forth living waters. We are all familiar with Peter being described as the 'rock.' But Peter is the rock by participation. It is Christ who is the rock as St. Paul makes clear when he tells us in Hebrews XIII: 10 that 'they drank of the spiritual rock... and the rock was Christ.' It is Christ who is the corner-stone or more precisely, the 'angle stone.'20 All our altars are of course of stone - strictly speaking, a wooden altar always encloses a altar stone, and that is the altar. The reason for this has already been explained. It is not without significance that the novus ordo no longer requires an altar stone and insists that the what occurs, occurs upon a 'table.' As Cranmer said, 'the use of an altar is to make sacrifice upon it; the use of a table is to serve men to eat upon.' Our Mass and our Faith is built, not upon shifting sands or corruptible wood, but on solid rock.21

As mentioned above, the Catholic altar must have a Crucifix over it - the Crucifix is as the 1908 Catholic Encyclopedia says, 'the principal ornament of the altar... placed [there] to remind the celebrant and the people that the Victim offered on the altar is the same as was offered on the Cross.' The novus ordo has dropped this requirement.

Speaking of the Holy of Holies, the place in the temple which held the Arc which in turn contained the Shekina or 'presence' of God, has been replaced by the tabernacle fixed on the main altar - or suspended over the main altar in the Eastern churches. The removal of the tabernacles from the altar and their replacement with the Bible - usually one of the badly translated versions aimed at being acceptable to every shade of Christian belief or disbelief, can only be likened to the removal of the Arc of the Covenant and replacing it with poorly translated versions of the Torah.22


17 Unlike the Jewish sacrifices which God often rejected because they were rendered loathsome by the impurity of the offerer, the Sacrifice of Christ is called a 'clean' Sacrifice because it cannot be defiled by the sins of the priest.

18 Gueranger's Liturgical Year, highly recommended by St. Theresa of Liseaux, provides us with the best guide to the recurring liturgical cycles.

19 It follows that the deletions and changes made to create the Novus Ordo Missae are equally significant.

20 The 'angle-stone' is diamond shaped and placed at the apex of the arch. It is what holds all the other stones of the arch in place.

21 During the times of persecution the Church did in fact use wooden altars, but whenever possible would say Mass over the tombs of the martyrs as in the catacombs. Altar stones became mandatory from about the middle of the third century. The altar stone may be replaced by a special cloth in which relics are sown. Such is used in the Eastern Churches, in missionary lands, and where priests have to travel distances to say masses.

22The Jews rightly have a horror of anything that might distort the meaning of the Torah. thus it is that it is written in Hebrew letters and to even change a letter would be considered a sin. somehow the Jews never felt the need to vernacularize their Torah, much less to mistranslate it in order to bring it into line with 'our times.' Again, one can look at this in the light of the evening service of Maundy Thursday. Once a year, commemorating the Passion of our Lord, our altars are stripped naked, our tabernacles emptied, and the altar light extinguished. The new Church has made every day a Maundy Thursday It will be argued that the tabernacles have been placed elsewhere in the Church - usually some obscure corner. Even when placed on a side altar, it is n o longer covered with a veil. As on Good Friday, the veil that covered the Holy of Holies has been rent.

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