While I was waiting to enter here as a postulant, back in 1984, I received a series of letters from Dom Maurus, who was novice master at the time. He often signed himself with some such phrase as “In His service” or “In cor Iesu et Mariae”. Once though he signed himself “semper vivens ad interpellandum”. I’m ashamed to say I had to look that up. I wasn’t familiar with that rather odd word “interpello”. Even more shamefully, I wasn’t too familiar either with the text of the Letter to the Hebrews, from which the phrase is taken. It means, of course, as we heard in our second reading today “ always living to make intercession”. I thought at the time that that was a remarkable phrase, and a powerful idea. I still do.
A monk, Dom Maurus implied, lives always to make intercession, or to make intercession always. A Christian lives always to make intercession, or to make intercession always. Christ lives always to make intercession, or to make intercession always. That, according to this text, is what he is doing in heaven. Jesus Christ is a Priest, and he does what Priests do. He stands ever before God on behalf of all of us. We come to God through him. That is, we are able to get to God only because Christ offers for us the sacrifice of his blood which takes our sins away.
The Letter to the Hebrews insists again and again that the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross was definitive, all sufficient, unrepeatable, permanently efficacious. He died, the author repeats almost like a refrain, “once for all”. And the sacrificial death of Jesus, he insists again, was specifically a Priestly act: an act of both worship and intercession. Jesus in heavenly glory now and perpetually offers that to his Father through the Holy Spirit on our behalf. All our hope of salvation and eternal life and joy rests on this mediation, this intercession, this advocacy.
In the 16th century the Reformers picked up this idea, and concluded from it that the Catholic Priesthood and Mass is an un-Christian abomination. Catholics, they said, try to add something to what Jesus has done once and for all. They try to set up their own Priests, in addition to him, thereby corrupting purely New Testament religion with what is ultimately mere paganism. In this country, for more than a century, it became a capital offense to be a Catholic Priest, or even to assist at a Catholic Mass.
Catholics have no difficulty whatever in answering the charges of the Reformers. We are not embarrassed by this text. In fact, focussing on it can help us to be ever more clear about what we do when we attend Mass, or when we pray, or when we do anything at all as Christians.
No Catholic theologian in all of history has ever once suggested that the Mass adds anything to Christ’s sacrificial death on the Cross. That would be an utterly ridiculous and nonsensical idea. But on the contrary: the Catholic Mass shows precisely that Christ’s death is irreplaceably central to our faith and our salvation. The Mass shows that the significance of Christ’s sacrificial death cannot be contained merely in the historical past, but is ever present in the sight of God. At the Last Supper Jesus took his death into his hands, and specified that it would be “for you”. He solemnly commanded his Apostles to repeat his action with the bread and the wine. In this way, his sacrificial death would be recalled and made present in the life of the Church until the end of time. So the Mass is precisely Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary, to which we unite ourselves through this sacred action. To it we add all our own graced acts of love and devotion, so that they are truly made one with the sacrifice of Jesus.
According to St. Augustine’s happily phrased formula, Jesus himself is the Priest who offers, and the victim which is offered, and the God to whom the sacrifice is offered. This was true on Calvary, and it’s true at every Catholic Mass. And here is the difference between Catholic and Protestant Theology. Catholics believe that Jesus invites participation in his Priesthood, as he invites participation in his Sonship, and in his prayer, and in his love. All Christians by their baptism are conformed then to Christ’s Priesthood. They participate in his Priestly mediation when they pray for others, and when they selflessly offer themselves to God, through him, and with him, and in him.
We Catholics also believe that at the Last Supper Jesus instituted his Apostles and their successors as true Priests of the New Testament. Unlike the Jewish Priests, these Christian Priests would not offer constantly repeated and ultimately inefficacious sacrifices of animals. Instead they would offer only the one sacrifice of Jesus. He promised to act through them, so they would truly perform his own action, in his name, for the sake of his people.
So we say that at every Mass, Christ makes intercession for us.
The Priest you see who carries out the action of the Mass is merely an instrument. The one who offers, who prays, who intercedes, is most truly Jesus himself.
And at every Mass, we too make intercession, through him, and with him, and in him. We do so repeatedly, because for now we are living in time, and while we’re on this earth we need all the help and all the grace that we can get.
So the Mass matters to us. It will always be the centre of our life and worship. In principle we stand ready to die for it.
Pope Benedict XVI was fond of quoting early African martyrs who were caught illegally attending a celebration of the Holy Eucharist on a Sunday. When questioned about this by the judge, they responded simply: We cannot live without it.
Can we live without the Mass?
Please God our devotion to the Eucharist is such that life for us would be unthinkable without it. It would anyway be quite wrong to imagine that somehow we could live well as Christians without having to bother going to Mass and participating in it as well as we can. But on the other hand: in times of persecution, or maybe of Priest shortage, it can happen that no Mass is available. In that case, we say, Ecclesia supplet - the prayer of all the Church supplies what is lacking. Christians so deprived recall with gratitude the gift and wonder of the Holy Eucharist; they make spiritual communions; and they pray that the Lord will send them good and holy Priests.
When we come to Mass, then, it’s good occasionally to remind ourselves, if that were necessary: this is the work of Jesus. This is his saving death, undergone for me. Here I meet Jesus himself. Here he prays for me. Here I too pray, through him and with him and in him: in order to give glory to God the Father, and to pray for all the intentions close to my heart.