The Mass: a ‘Holy Sacrifice’?

Sep 7, 2017 | 2 comments

Josefa de Ayala, The Sacrificial Lamb (c. 1670-1684)

Must Catholics believe that God is violent? Taught that the Mass is a ‘Holy Sacrifice’ must we therefore believe that ‘the Father’ required a violent sacrifice to still his anger, and that this is the central message of the Eucharist?

Never having heard an Irish Catholic cleric squarely address such questions, and therefore inferring more than a little uncertainty, I (and others in Ireland) have followed with fascination the key ideas of the late American-French anthropologist René Girard and his collaborators. (These can be traced from the website of the Girardian Colloquium on Violence and Religion.)

René Girard, 1923-2015

Girard argues that the historical origins of all religion lie in an attempt to minimise social violence by focussing it upon a single victim. He argues also that the Judeo-Christian scriptures point to a unique critique of this religious violence – and especially of the ancient practice of blood sacrifice. His work has therefore been exploited by some theologians to deny that the death of Jesus, or the Mass, can safely be understood as a sacrifice.

However, Girard himself famously changed his mind on this very issue. Influenced especially by the Austrian theologian, Raymund Schwager, Girard concluded in his mature work that the meaning of ‘sacrifice’ is itself undergoing a shift in the course of the Judeo-Christian texts. The ‘precious gift to God’ aspect of sacrifice had always accompanied the ‘killing’ aspect (for example in Abraham’s intention to sacrifice Isaac). This story shows how this ‘gift’ aspect gradually becomes predominant – in the end supplanting, in Jesus self-giving, the element of priestly killing. In offering himself, Jesus united the always previously separate roles of priest and victim – defining a sacrifice that resists all projection of the consequences of sin onto someone else. This leaves open an interpretation of ‘Christian’ sacrifice as directly oppositional to violence, and as ‘self-emptying’ or ‘self-giving’ – utterly uncompromised by any suffering inflicted upon a third party.

In the latest issue of the Girardian journal Contagion, Anthony R. Lusvardi S.J. argues that theologians who use Girardian anthropology to reject any concept of the Mass as ‘Holy Sacrifice’ are therefore mistaken. Lusvardi tracks this scholarly debate with detailed footnotes and makes the case for regarding the Mass as a divinely inspired act of worship that makes present “that central moment in human history when seemingly endless cycles of violence and falsity are brought to a halt by the limitless self-offering of God” (‘Girard and the “Sacrifice of the Mass”: Mimetic Theory and Eucharistic Theology’, Contagion Vol. 24, 2017 ).

For me this article strengthens a conclusion that it is unnecessary to oppose an understanding of the Mass as ‘holy sacrifice’ on the one hand, to its character as celebratory ‘communal meal’ on the other. If Christian sacrifice is self-giving, the ‘communal meal’ implication also follows logically from that understanding. In this understanding to ‘sacrifice’ is ‘to give completely of oneself’ – a meaning wholly compatible with contemporary understandings of ‘goodness’ and ‘heroism’.  It is the ‘Offering’, the self-giving ritual in which we all can join, that makes possible the communal meal, and no violence is implied by the Christians who practise this sacrifice – even if blood is nevertheless shed by others who misunderstand. The ‘bloodiness’ of Jesus crucifixion was solely due to the human sin that impelled his persecutors, in defiance of God – not to divine need, wish or intent. For Girard, the Calvary event starkly revealed the archetypal practice of scapegoating or ‘lynching’ – the unjust blaming of any individual for any social crisis to save the community. The Cross therefore lies at the root of the principle of ‘human rights’ – in opposition to all scapegoating.

Far from requiring our assent to his ‘divine violence’, the Father can therefore be understood as true to Jesus’ teaching that ‘the Father and I are one’ – in the rejection of violence, as in all other matters. The Mass is a ‘holy sacrifice’ because non-violent self-giving is central to the divine nature – and to heroic human potential also, when aided by grace. It is to that self-offering that all of us are called.

Clerical reticence on ‘divine violence’ and ‘sacrifice’ surely began with the fourth century acquiescence by Christian bishops in Constantine’s assertion that his violent acquisition of imperial power had been sanctioned and assisted by the Christian God. That acquiescence lies also at the foundations of Christendom – the long and often horrifically scandalous imbroglio of church and state that lasted into the twentieth century. Girard’s insights, and those of theologians who continue to be stimulated by Girardian theory, allow for a re-evaluation of all that, without in any way compromising the Creeds. Pacific self-offering was never utterly absent under Christendom, proving the subliminal counteraction of the Cross to all violence.

The secular Enlightenment was partially motivated by a revulsion at the semi-religious wars that followed the Reformations of the 1500s, but is still lacking a convincing explanation of human violence. On the other hand, Girard’s insight into the origins of our own aggressive desire in the desire of someone else – vindicating the thrice-repeated biblical ban on ‘coveting’ – is as copiously illustrated in the daily news as it is in the TV epic Game of Thrones.

Meanwhile Christian fundamentalism continues to scapegoat the Father for the crucifixion, and to cloud our thinking on Christian sacrifice. This can be regarded as a time-limited hangover of Christendom. Anthony Lusvardi’s article well illustrates how Girardian anthropology, and the theology it inspires, give us a far better pair of glasses.

(ACI is grateful to Professor William A. Johnsen, editor of Contagion, and to Fr Anthony Lusvardi S.J., for the permits that allow us to make this complete article available here, in .pdf format.)
Girard and the “Sacrifice of the Mass”

Sean O’Conaill, 07/09/2017

(For a list of articles on Girardian ideas on this website, click here.)


  1. Aidan

    A great article Sean, making a long and complex article by Anthony R. Lusvardi S.J. and the theory on the same subject by Rene Girard more understandable in fewer words.

    There are various versions of the Atonement Theory of Christ’s Death, none of which I find particularly helpful in my own spiritual journey. The Penal Substitution version I find the most unacceptable. That theory posits the sacrifice of Jesus the Christ as being a vicarious, substitutionary sacrifice to satisfy the demands of God the Father for justice for the sins, including Original Sin, of human kind and thus offering them forgiveness. The other versions of that theory are not much better. That is not the image of God the Father portrayed in Jesus’ wonderful parable of The Prodigal Son, His window on eternity.

    I see the sacrifice of Jesus as being in continuity with the centuries old Hebrew tradition of sacrificing to God what one owns and values as a recognition that all humanity has and is, is a free gift from God. Additionally they want, or experience an inner need, to ask forgiveness for their sins and failings. In a rural community one’s animals are particularly valued, hence the Hebrew tradition of ‘blood sacrifice of animals’. It is mirrored somewhat in the Catholic tradition of giving up or ‘sacrificing’ what one likes for the period Lent and Advent as a demonstration of one’s love for God.

    Let me link that to the Parable of the Prodigal Son. In that parable the father demonstrates total unconditional love for his erring son, a love which has caused the father great suffering when the son left home to squander his inheritance. The father does not demand justice, nor does he demand an apology from the son or promise never to do it again. Throughout His life Jesus often preached on the centrality of unconditional love by His Father for Him and for all mankind. He asked, commanded might by a more accurate term, that such love be the hallmark of His followers (c.f. John 3:16, 13:35, 15:12, John 15:17 etc). By the end of the first century A.D. John the evangelist clearly understood Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross in terms of love; “For this is how God loved the world: he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”(John 3:16). Paul, in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, spelt out in detail the full meaning of unconditional love.

    Those who love unconditionally will always suffer, to which any loving parent with children can attest. They sacrifice their money, time, energy and perhaps their ambitions for love of their children. In return they may suffer many rebuffs and let-downs by those same children but the best of them go on loving. Looking after a spouse with Dementia or Alzheimer’s or a mentally or physically handicapped child requires even more self-sacrificing love by parents. I see the Cross as Jesus saying to all of humanity over time “This is the price the Father and I, in my humanity, are willing to pay to demonstrate powerfully and in human and traditionally Hebrew terms, the unconditional love your Triune God has for all sinful and broken humankind in order to bring them to redemption and resurrection. Greater love has no one than he or she who willingly lays down their life for the one or ones they love. If you love in this unconditional way, which is My desire for all my followers, you too will suffer at times because of humanity’s abuse of my precious gift of free will – a gift necessary for love. But through My and your suffering for unconditional love the world will become Our divine Kingdom of God on earth – a Kingdom of love, compassion, peace and joy in which everyone will be valued and supported to fulfill their true potential.”

    For me the celebration of Mass is a celebration of joy and gratitude to God for that example and ideal to me and others of self-giving sacrifice for unconditional love by Jesus the Christ. We celebrate His self-giving sacrifice of love by participating in a ligurgical and communal remembering of the original sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary. In that remembering we are present at the original sacrifice of Jesus. In receiving Him in Eucharist, He strengthens us, through helping us to be more aware the abiding presence within us of His Holy Spirit, to persevere in that unconditional love for all humanity and all of nature. We are called to be like God – great and unconditional lovers of ourselves and all others.

    Hence, Sean I am in full agreement with you when you write; “The Mass is a ‘holy sacrifice’ because non-violent self-giving is central to the divine nature – and to heroic human potential also, when aided by grace. It is to that self-offering that all of us are called.”. All I am adding to self-offering is “in unconditional love”, which, I accept, is likely presumed anyway. I don’t see Calvary in terms of bringing an end to violence or ‘aggressive desire ‘. Rather it is the practical demonstration within His own human body of the price of practising the unconditional love for others to which He calls us, which all who love in that way will experience to some degree. That is the redeeming, life-giving and resurrecting power of self-giving unconditional love. That is the gift and treasure of the Kingdom of God on earth, which all Christians are commissioned to help bring about.

    My apologies to Sean and readers for the length of this response.

  2. Martin Murray

    Thank you Sean for your article on the Mass as sacrifice. This is really part of the ongoing questioning of atonement theory that all the Christian denominations inherited in some form or other, but done here in the Catholic context. Thank you also Aidan for your reflection on the Mass as a presentation of God’s unconditional love and our expression of gratitude. (My summaries don’t do justice to either of your remarks).

    The Mass is indeed multi-dimensional and I would just mention another one of those dimensions, namely, the Mass as a sign and instrument of the unity among all people and in all of creation – a unity in which differentiation is preserved and respected and celebrated, but where the illusion of separation behind all sin is overcome (paraphrasing Cynthia Bourgeault.)

    But what I would really like to ask is, “is there any correlation between any of our reflections above and the teaching given to a first communion class – teaching that quite possibly remains the general understanding of most adults attending Mass?” I’ll leave it to anyone reading this to spell out for themselves what that teaching is and whether its anywhere near adequate for children or adults.

    For me, any strength emanating from our participation in the Eucharist is not magical, but rather profoundly related to, (1) our appreciation of the self-sacrificing, non-violent and unconditional love of God; (2) our full-hearted participation in the communal expression of gratitude and praise (which transcends our difficulties and struggles) and (3) the overcoming of the illusion and lie of separation through our sharing in what should be a completely open and welcoming communion table.


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