Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Mass - Fire from Heaven

One of the beauties of studying Sacred Scripture is that the more we meditate upon God as He has revealed Himself to us, the deeper into truth He draws us...and the deeper we go, the more we realise just how unfathomable are the depths of the knowledge of God. Which is one reason why spending an eternity in Heaven learning and loving God will NEVER be boring.

My blog post last week  explored the topic of how Abel knew that his sacrifice was acceptable to God (i.e. by the visible sign of fire from heaven). In my blog, I touched on a New Testament fulfilment of this in the descent of the Holy Spirit in tongues of fire on Pentecost. Based on a subsequent comment on my blog post by a reader (and fellow-blogger),  I would like to explore a bit more just how much significance this has for us Catholics today – so much so that it impacts the grind and routine of our everyday lives.

I pointed out in my previous blog that the Holy Spirit was the fire which descended from Heaven on Pentecost to declare the acceptability of the Apostles and to empower them for their mission. But the Holy Spirit did not descend and remain only during the lifetime of the Apostles. Before His ascent back to Heaven, Jesus taught His disciples that although He was leaving them (in one sense) He would always remain with His Church until the end of the ages (Matt 28:20). Now there are many ways in which Jesus remains with His Church – the primary way obviously being His Presence in the Most Holy Eucharist. However, there are also many other ways in which He remains with us. One of these is in the Person of the Holy Spirit. Before going to His Passion, Jesus told the Apostles that He would not leave His Church comfortless but that He would send the Great Comforter – the Holy Spirit – to lead and guide His Church into all truth (Jn 14:16-26).

As we know the Holy Spirit was definitively poured out on the Apostles on Pentecost Sunday as tongues of fire rested upon each of their heads. And so began their mission to build the Church of Christ. But what happened when the Apostles died? Did their ministry cease? Not at all! For example, St. Paul instructed Sts. Timothy and Titus to ordain faithful men to continue the Apostolic mission, just as they themselves had been ordained (2 Tim 2:2; Tit 1:5). Part of this entailed the laying on of hands. Just as the Apostles had passed on the Holy Spirit and their authority to their immediate successors through the laying on of hands (1 Tim 4:14), so their successors were instructed to do the same. And thus arose the Church’s teaching of Apostolic Succession.

I mention this because it is necessary to understand that every Mass around the world is offered by someone who has been ordained with the power and authority of the Holy Spirit. Which is why we don’t need to have a literal “Pentecost experience” (i.e. fire from heaven, etc.) every single time someone is ordained. This isn’t unusual in the Scriptures either. For example, it was only the first Temple sacrifice that was consumed by fire from Heaven – the rest of the burnt offerings were no less acceptable to God, although they were not subject to the same miraculous circumstances. 

Understanding this, we can now take the next step to see how Abel’s sacrifice relates to us lay people who populate the pews. For this, I would like to look at the Epiclesis i.e. that part of the Eucharistic Prayer which is offered after the Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy...). Here is citation from one of the Eucharistic Prayers, which will no doubt be familiar to many of us:
“You are indeed Holy, O Lord,
the fount of all holiness.
Make holy, therefore, these gifts, we pray,
by sending down your Spirit upon them like the dewfall,
so that they may become for us
the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ...”

- Eucharistic Prayer II

In this prayer we notice that the priest (who has received a special charism of the Holy Spirit through ordination) speaks on our behalf when asking the Father to send down the Holy Spirit to make holy the gifts offered upon the altar. In another form, Eucharistic Prayer I, the Epiclesis is phrased in words asking God to accept the gifts offered on the altar [keep in mind here the acceptance of Abel's sacrifice]. 
What are the gifts offered on the altar? Simply answered they are bread and wine, fruit of the earth and work of human hands – but the bread and wine symbolise so much more than simple bread and wine. In another previous blog, I showed that these gifts of bread and wine symbolise us, all that we are and have. It is through the Eucharist that we present ourselves – all our prayers, works, joys, and sufferings – as living sacrifices to God; and by receiving the Lord Jesus in Communion, we are in turn conformed to His image. And so, just as the bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ, all the things that we bring to the altar in the Holy Mass – whether it is our family, our work, our struggles, whatever it might be – is united to Christ so that these same things are transformed so that we can become more like Our Blessed Lord.  
Now to bring this back full-circle to the topic at hand...
In the Mass, we offer ourselves on the altar as living sacrifices, but it is the Holy Spirit that makes our offerings holy and acceptable to God; and it is the Holy Spirit that transforms us more and more to be like Christ through the same Eucharist [have a read of Rom 12:1-2 in this light; it is quite awe-inspiring].
The sacrifices of Abel and a few others in the Old Testament were shown to be accepted by fire descending from Heaven. The Holy Spirit descending as tongues of fire from Heaven on Pentecost was a fulfillment of this. But the fulfillment is also ongoing, because whatever we offer up during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is made acceptable by Holy Spirit descending (like He did on Pentecost) to transform our gifts into the Body and Blood of Christ.
If the Epiclesis, which represents only a very small portion of the whole Mass, is so full and rich and relevant to us; how much more so are all the rest of the parts of the Mass? If ever we are tempted to think that Mass is boring and irrelevant to our daily lives – hopefully remembering something this “small” will serve to convince us otherwise...and hopefully it will serve as an encouragement to learn more deeply the beauty and truth contained in the Church's liturgy.
As mentioned above, this blog was inspired by a comment from a reader of my previous blog on Abel’s sacrifice (Renee of So, I am indebted to Renee for helping me to make the connection between two profound truths – and seeing in another way just how beautifully and intricately related all the truths of our Catholic faith are. So, thank you Renee – and God bless!

By the way, I have included the link to Renee’s blog above because it is certainly worth a read...

Sunday, September 9, 2012

How did Abel know his offering was acceptable?

A few years ago, as I was reading through the book of Genesis, I noticed something interesting. After the Great Flood of Gen 7, we are told that Noah “built an altar to the Lord...and offered burnt offerings on the altar” (Gen 8:20). In Gen 8:21, we learn that God was pleased with Noah’s offering and subsequently made a covenant of peace with Noah and with the whole of His Creation.

When I read this, it got me to thinking back to Cain’s and Abel’s offerings in Gen 4:3ff. But I noticed something...Abel’s sacrifice was simply called an “offering”; whereas, Noah’s sacrifice was called a “burnt offering”. This caused me to embark upon a study which led me to a variety of conclusions – one of which was how Cain and Abel knew which offering was acceptable to God.

The conclusions I had drawn excited me – so much so that I mentioned them to a few other Christian friends at the time. To my disappointment, they didn’t seem as enthusiastic about what I had discovered – and for the most part, they probably thought I was getting “too lost in details” and seeing things that weren’t actually there. So, I relegated the thought to my mental filing cabinet under “Insignificant / Irrelevant”...


...That was until I started reading Genesis again over the past few days from my Douay-Rheims Bible [not because I think that only REAL Catholics read the D-R; but because I personally find the poetic flow of the older English assists me in my devotional reading of Scripture]. Lo and behold! I found that my view regarding the offerings of Cain and Abel actually agreed with the footnote to Gen 4:4 in my D-R Bible.  Boy – was I excited!!! All over again!!! [Sometimes I think that God puts these little gems in Scripture for us to find so that He can take pleasure in our delight – much like I enjoy watching my kids’ excitement when they find the Easter eggs I’ve hidden around the garden on Easter Sunday morning].

So I decided to retrieve my previous thoughts on this topic from the category of insignificance and share them here in my blog – with the hope that whoever reads it will be able to join me in the excitement of marvelling at the wonder of our God and the Scriptures He has given us...

Here goes...

Gen 4:2-5 tells us that:

“Abel was keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground. In the course of time [probably a reference to the Sabbath] Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering He had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell.”

We see in the above passage that God accepted Abel’s offering, but didn’t accept Cain’s (see also Heb 11:4). The reasons as to WHY God accepted Abel’s offering over Cain’s is a topic for another occasion. For now, I simply want to focus on how I think Cain and Abel knew which offering was acceptable to God.
As already noted above, Gen 8:20 is the first time in the Scriptures that we find reference to “burnt offerings” (Hebrew = “olah”). However, this isn’t the first reference to a sacrifice because we have the offerings (Hebrew = “minchah”) of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4. In fact, it is arguable that whilst Gen 4:4 is the first time the word “offering” is used, it is not necessarily the first sacrifice in the Bible.
It is likely that the animal sacrifice of Abel was itself modelled on what had already happened in Gen 3 – where an animal would’ve been put to death (i.e. sacrificed) in order for God to clothe Adam and Eve in “garments of skin” following the Fall (see Gen 3:21). [As a side note, this foreshadows the Lord Jesus Christ, who would be the Sacrificial Lamb to cover the sin of mankind]. Whilst not conclusive, the fact that “burnt offerings” are not mentioned before Genesis 8 indicates that before the Great Flood, worshippers probably did not burn the offerings themselves.
My theory is that when Noah built the altar to the Lord and offered “burnt offerings”, he used the materials that he had readily to hand i.e. he used the wood from the ark which he no longer needed. And thinking a bit laterally here, I would venture to guess that they probably also used the already cut and prepared wood of the ark to build their homes – I mean, why not? Who in their right mind would go about trying to saw, plane, and shape leftover driftwood following the Flood when all the hard work had already been done in building the ark? This might be one reason why Noah’s ark hasn’t officially been found – because it was “demolished” for Noah’s burnt offering, and subsequently building materials. Now this might seem like a digression – and it kind of is...but not completely because it fits into the bigger picture. Stay with me here...
OK – so there were offerings before Genesis 8, but they were not “burnt” by the worshippers themselves. Which brings me back to the question: How did Abel know that his offering was acceptable to God? The answer to the question, I believe, is found by looking at a pattern that continues to surface throughout the history of God’s people in Sacred Scripture:
Leviticus 9:24 – Moses has finished instructing the people regarding the building of the Tabernacle, and Aaron is instituted as the first Levitical High Priest. God sends down fire from heaven to consume the offerings made by Aaron to show His acceptance.
1 Chron 21:26 – David builds an altar and offers sacrifices at the threshing floor of Ornan (the site upon which the Temple would be built by David’s son, Solomon). God showed acceptance of David’s offering by sending fire from heaven. [This in itself was a sign showing that God also accepted the moving of the Ark of the Covenant from Bethel to Jerusalem].
2 Chron 7:1 – King Solomon had finished the building of the Temple – which would now become God’s permanent dwelling place amongst His people – as opposed to the moveable Tabernacle. After Solomon had completed his prayer of dedication, God send down fire from heaven on the offerings to show His acceptance.
1 Kings 18:17-39 – Israel had been led astray by a wicked king (Ahab) and his evil wife (Jezebel – who was not an Israelite). Of particular concern to the prophet Elijah was the fact that Israel was now no longer serving the true God, but rather they were serving the god of Jezebel’s people (Baal). If you are not familiar with the story, I would encourage you to read it in the passage cited; but the long and the short of it is that God showed His acceptance of Elijah’s sacrifice (over the sacrifice of the prophets of Baal) by sending down fire from heaven. 
The common theme in all of the above accounts is how God through the history of His people showed His acceptance of true worship. Each of the accounts represents a momentous occasion in the history of God’s people – and in each account God shows His acceptance of true worship by sending down fire from heaven.
So given this, and the fact that burnt offerings only seem to come in after the Great Flood, it would appear that this is how Cain and Abel knew that God had accepted Abel’s offering i.e. He send down fire from heaven to consume Abel’s offering. Without elaborating on the reasons why, the Douay-Rheims’ footnotes concur with this view:

“[God] showed His acceptance of [Abel’s] we may suppose, by some visible token, such as sending fire from heaven upon his offerings.”

Now, I don’t know about you – but I find this kind of thing exciting to discover and an encouragement to dig for other little gems that might be hidden for “Scripture sleuths”. However, as fantastic a little titbit as this piece of information might be, I have to admit that what I didn’t appreciate all those years ago is how this interesting concept is actually relevant for Christians...and more importantly, for Christians living today.
The New Testament also contains an account of God sent down fire from heaven – it happened on a day called Pentecost (see Acts 2:1ff). By sending down fire from heaven in the Person of the Holy Spirit, God was not only empowering the Apostles for their mission of building His Church; but He was also declaring His acceptance of them in this task.
As Christians 2,000 years on, we are continually called to present our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God (Rom 12:1). Ultimately, it is union with Christ’s Sacrifice that makes our sacrifices acceptable to God. More particularly, it is when we present the sacrifice of ourselves united to the Sacrifice of Christ in the Eucharist that it is accepted by God as our “spiritual worship” (as St. Paul calls it) – for more on this, see here for a previous blog that I wrote on this subject.
One of the criteria required for the Eucharistic Sacrifice to be valid is ordination in a line of succession with the Apostles. And so it is that if we really want to worship God in the way that is acceptable to Him today, then we must follow the Church that He built upon the foundation of His Apostles – because Jesus promised that He would build His Church (Matt 16:18); and that the Holy Spirit that He would send would lead the Church into all truth (Jn 16:13).
The Holy Spirit that God poured out upon the Church founded by Christ upon His Apostles 2,000 years ago has never left the Church – and He never will. So, if we want to worship God today in Spirit and Truth, if we want to know how to present our bodies as living sacrifices acceptable to God, then the best way to do so is by listening to the Holy Spirit speaking to us through the Holy Catholic Church.

[For a follow-up post to the above - see]