Calvary and Sacrifice, by Venerable Fulton Sheen, 23 February 1936

1952 photograph of Venerable Fulton John Sheen produced as promotional material for the television show 'Life is Worth Living'There are certain things in life which are too beautiful to be forgotten, such as the love of one’s mother. Hence we treasure her picture. The love of soldiers who sacrificed themselves for their country is likewise too beautiful to be forgotten, hence we revere that memory on Memorial Day. But the greatest blessing which ever came to this earth was the visitation of the Son of God in the form and habit of man. That Life is above all lives too beautiful to be forgotten, hence we treasure the Divinity of His Words in Sacred Scripture, and the Charity of His Deeds in our daily actions. Unfortunately this is all some souls remember, namely His Words and His Deeds; important as these are, they are not the greatest characteristic of the Divine Savior. The most sublime act in the history of Christ was His Death. Death is always important for it seals a destiny. Any dying man is a scene. Any dying scene is a sacred place. That is why the great literature of the past which has touched on the emotions surrounding death has never passed out of date. But of all deaths in the record of man, none was more important than the Death of Christ. Everyone else who was ever born into the world, came into it to live: Our Lord came into it to die. Death was a stumbling block to the life of Socrates, but it was the crown to the life of Christ. He Himself told us that He came “To give his life a redemption for many”; that no one could take away His Life; that He would lay it down of Himself.

If then Death was the supreme moment for which Christ lived it was therefore the one thing He wished to have remembered above all others. He did not ask that men should write down His words into a Scripture; He did not ask that His kindness to the poor, the lame, and the blind should be recorded in history; but He did ask that men remember His Death. And in order that its memory might not be any haphazard narrative on the part of men, He Himself instituted the precise way it should be recalled. Man has instituted Memorial Day to recall the death of soldiers in the field of battle, but Christ instituted His own Memorial to re-enact His death on the gibbet of the Cross.

The memorial was instituted the night before He died, at what has since been called “The Last Supper.” Taking bread into His hands. He said: “This is my body, which shall be delivered for you”, i.e., delivered unto death. Then over the chalice of wine, He said, “This is my blood of the new testament, which shall be shed for many unto remission of sins”. Thus in an unbloody symbolic manner of the parting of the Blood from the Body, did Christ pledge Himself to death in the sight of God and men, and represent His death which was to come the next afternoon at three. He was offering Himself as a Victim to be immolated, and that men might never forget that “greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends”, He gave the Divine Command: “Do this for a commemoration of me.”

The following day what He had prefigured and foreshadowed He realized in its completeness, as He was crucified between two thieves and His Blood drained from His Body for ,the redemption of the world.

The Church which Christ founded has not only preserved the Words He spoke, and the Wonders He wrought; it has also taken Him seriously when He said: “Do this for a commemoration of me.” And that action whereby we re-enact His Death on the Cross is the Sacrifice of the Mass, in which we do as a memorial what He did at the Last Supper as the prefiguration of His Passion.

Hence the Mass is to us the crowning act of Christian worship. A pulpit in which the words of Our Lord are repeated does not unite us to Him; a choir in which sweet sentiments are sung brings us no closer to His Cross than to His Ascension. A temple without an altar of sacrifice is non-existent among primitive peoples, and is meaningless among Christians. And so in the Catholic Church the altar and not the pulpit or the choir is the center of worship, for there is re-enacted the Memorial of His Passion. Its value does not depend on him who says it, or on him who hears it; it depends on Him Who is the One High Priest and Victim, Jesus Christ Our Lord. With Him we are united, in spite of our nothingness; in a certain sense, we lose our individuality for the time being; we unite our intellect and our will, our heart and our soul, our body and our blood, so intimately with Christ, that the Heavenly Father sees not so much us with our imperfection, but rather sees us in Him, the Beloved Son in whom He is well pleased. The Mass is for that reason the greatest event in the history of mankind; the only Holy Act which keeps the wrath of God from a sinful world, because it holds the Cross between, and renews that decisive moment when our sad and tragic humanity journeyed suddenly forth to the fullness of supernatural life.

What is important at this point is that we take the proper mental attitude toward the Mass, and remember this important fact, that the Sacrifice of the Cross is not something which happened nineteen hundred years ago. It is still happening. It is not something past like the signing of the Declaration of Independence; it is an abiding drama on which the curtain has not yet rung down. Let it not be believed that it happened a long time ago, and therefore no more concerns us than anything else in the past. Calvary belongs to all times and to all places. That is why, when Our Blessed Lord ascended the heights of Calvary, He was fittingly stripped of His garments: He would save the world without the trappings of the world. Adam lost his innocence and hence sought to clothe himself to hide the foulness of the temple of his body. Our Lord kept His innocence, hence He had no need of clothing that covers shame. His garments belonged to time, for they localized Him, and fixed Him as a dweller in Galilee. Now that He was shorn of them to be utterly dispossessed of earthly things. He belonged not to Galilee, not to a Roman province, but to the world. He became the universal poor man of the world. Henceforth He would belong to no one people, but to all men.

To express further the universality of the Redemption, the cross was erected at the crossroads of civilization, at a central point between the three great cultures of Jerusalem, Rome, and Athens, in whose names He was crucified. This fact was placarded before the eyes of men, to arrest the careless, to appeal to the thoughtless, to arouse the worldly. It was the one inescapable fact the cultures and civilizations of His day could not resist. It is also the one inescapable fact of our day which we cannot resist.

The figures at the Cross were symbols of all who crucify. We were there in our representatives. What we are doing now to the Mystical Christ, they were doing in our names to the Historical Christ. If we are envious of the good, for example – for goodness is a reproach to the evil – we were there in the Scribes and Pharisees. If we are fearful of losing some temporal advantage by embracing Divine Truth and Love, we were there in Pilate. If we trust in material forces and seek to conquer through the world instead of through the spirit, we were there in Herod. And so the story goes on for the typical sins of the world. They all blind us to the fact that He is God. There was therefore a kind of inevi- tability about the Crucifixion. Men who were free to sin, were also free to crucify.

As long as there is sin in the world the Crucifixion is a reality. As the poet has put it:

“I saw the son of man go by
Crowned with a crown of thorns.
Was it not finished Lord, said I,
And all the anguish borne?
He turned on me His awful eyes;
Hast thou not understood?
So every soul is a Calvary
And every sin a rood”.

We were there during that Crucifixion. The drama was already completed as far as the Vision of Christ was concerned, but it had not yet been un-folded to all men and all places and all times. If a motion picture reel, for example, were conscious of itself, it would know the drama from beginning to end, but the spectators in the theater would not know it until they had seen it unrolled upon the screen. In like manner. Our Lord on the Cross saw in His Eternal Mind, the whole drama of history, the story of each individual soul, and how later on it would react to His Crucifixion; but though He saw all, we could not know how we would react to the Cross until we were unrolled upon the screen of time. We were not conscious of being present there on Calvary that day, but He was conscious of our presence. Today we know the role we played in the theatre of Calvary, by the way we live and act now in the theatre of the twentieth century.

That is why Calvary is actual, why the Cross is the Crisis, why in a certain sense the scars are still open, why Pain still stands deified, and why blood like falling stars is still dropping upon our souls. There is no escape from the fact, not even by denying it as the Pharisees did, not even by selling Christ as Judas did, not even by crucifying Him as the executioners did, for the Cross is still set up in the world.

But how is it visible? Where shall we find Calvary perpetuated? We shall find Calvary renewed, re-enacted, represented, as we have seen, in the Mass. Calvary is one with the Mass, and the Mass is one with Calvary, for in both there is the same Priest and Victim. The Seven Last Words are like the seven parts of the Mass. And just as there are seven notes in music admitting an infinite variety of harmonies and combinations, so too on the Cross there are seven’divine notes, which the dying Christ has sent down the centuries, all of which combine in the beautiful harmony of the Drama of the Worlds Redemption.

Picture then the High Priest Christ leaving the sacristy of heaven for the altar of Calvary. He has already put on the vestment of our human nature, the maniple of our suffering, the stole of priesthood, the chasuble of the Cross. Calvary is His Cathedral; the rock of Calvary is the altar stone; the sun turning to red is the sanctuary lamp; Mary and John are the living side altars; the host is His Body; the wine is His Blood. He is upright as Priest, yet He is prostrate as Victim. Christ is going to His altar. We shall assist at His First Mass.