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...


  1. This post admirably demonstrates a very compelling reason for becoming Catholic. As a Protestant, I would hear pastors preach that "The New Testament is the fulfillment of the Old Testament." And that made sense, but then we would say things like "Thank God we don't have things like altars and sacrifices and priests under the New Covenant!"

    Something of a disconnect there....

    This post ably connects the dots between Old Testament sacrifices and New Testament sacrifices, and demonstrates why it is reasonable to expect that the Church Jesus established will have altars and sacrifices and priests. Just as the Old Testament promise that "God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering" was fulfilled by the sacrifice of the Lamb of God, so also under the New Covenant is the fire for the offering provided by God, in the Person of the Holy Spirit.

    I am blown away. Thank you, Justin, for reminding me once again of Why I'm Catholic!


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  3. Justin, I, as Renee am blown away, as well. Thank You, kindly for reminding me why I have become a devout Catholic!