"I lay down my life for my sheep." St. John, 10:16.
One of the most heroic stories of history is that of Anton Winkelried, the Swiss patriot. Duke Leopold and his huge Austrian army had invaded Switzerland. Scarcely more than a thousand Swiss, poorly armed and poorly trained, went out to stop them. Like a wall of iron the invaders advanced. The Swiss soldiers could not get beneath or around those bristling spearpoints, that heavy armor.
Arnold Winkelried saw the situation. He called out to his comrades: "Follow me. I shall make a passage through the spears. Tell the others to follow close behind. I shall be dead, but Switzerland shall be free."
With arms outstretched, Arnold rushed forward. A dozen spears plunged into his body. But before the Austrian knights could pull out their spears, the bold peasants rushed into the gap and fell upon the enemy, turning the tide into a complete victory for the Swiss.
On the field they found the body of Arnold Winkelried, pierced and bloody, a smile on his dead lips. He had made the way for liberty.
Suppose the Swiss wanted to keep this heroic deed forever in mind. They could commemorate Arnold's sacrifice in three ways: 1) By causing the story to be retold. 2) By re-enacting the scene upon the stage. 3) By having Arnold himself personally present, if that were possible, in order to give his life again for his beloved country.
1. So too the death of Christ for all of us nineteen hundred plus years ago could have been merely retold. The Mass does that but more.
2. The Holy Sacrifice represents the sacrifice of the cross, re-enacting the tragedy of Calvary here upon the altar.
3. But Holy Mass is more. It is the actual re-presenting in an unbloody but true way of the death of Christ. The separate consecration, the separation of His body and blood at the consecration, shows forth the death of Christ mystically re-presented.
Holy Mass, then, is the sacrifice of the body and blood of Christ, really present on the altar under the appearance of bread and wine, and offered to God for the living and the dead.
In a wide sense, a sacrifice is something set aside and offered to God to show that God is the Creator and Owner of all things. The killing of an animal, the burning of incense, the consuming of food, shows that God is the Owner and Maker of all these things.
In a strict sense, as in the Mass, a sacrifice is the official offering of a victim by a priest to God alone, in order to admit that God is the supreme Lord of all things.
From the time of Adam sacrifice was offered. Cain offered fruits; Abel offered animals. God made known that such sacrifice was pleasing to Him.
He even ordered how and when these sacrifices were to be offered. The Old Testament records that thousands of oxen, sheep and goats were slain to acknowledge God's supremacy, to ask favors, to beg God's pardon, to express gratitude and for many other reasons.
But the supreme sacrifice was to be offered by the Redeemer of all mankind. Christ's death for all of us, His sacrifice most pleasing and powerful, was foretold and shown forth beforehand. Abel and Isaac and the Paschal Lamb, for instance, were figures and representations of the offering Christ was to make.
Upon Himself He took this great burden of worship, thanksgiving, petition and reparation. Upon a cross He died for all. Truly could Christ say: "I lay down my life for my sheep." That death and sacrifice was to continue to the end of time.
True, Christ could die but once, but His death is brought forth in the Mass in a mystical way. Mystical death means that Christ's death is presented in every Mass in a way that cannot be seen or felt or heard, in a way that the unaided human mind cannot understand.
There is the essence of Mass - Christ dying for us upon the altar the very hour as you kneel before Him, and every minute of every day upon some altar of the world.
How thrilled the Swiss of today would be if they could be present at the heroic death of Arnold Winkelried, if they could see him give his life to save them. How thrilled you must be as you see the death, the sacrifice of Christ re-presented for you in your own church for your own souls. How thrilled we are to see our Good Shepherd laying down His life for us.
Ever more, we not only see Mass and hear Mass, we assist the priest in offering Mass, taking part in Christ's heroic sacrifice for us.
Adapted from Talks on the Sacraments
by Fr. Arthur Tonne,OFM (© 1947)