July is the month of the Precious Blood. In the traditional rite, the first day of the month is the feast of that name. In the Roman Martyrology, July 1 also commemorates Aaron the High Priest, the brother of Moses. This liturgical concurrence is appropriate, since Aaron’s priesthood — part of the alliance mediated by Moses — was a priesthood that offered many sacrifices prefiguring Christ’s Precious Blood.
The covenant that God made with Israel was ratified in blood, which Moses sprinkled on the altar and on the people, saying, “This is the blood of the covenant…” (Exodus 24:8). When our Lord ratified the New Covenant in His blood, He echoed Moses’ words, with a notable change: “This is my blood of the new testament [i.e., the “new covenant”]…” (Mt. 26:28). In the four biblical passages relating the words of institution (Mt. 26, Mk. 14:22-24, Lk. 22:19-20, and 1 Cor. 11:24-26) there are slight variations, but the essential words are the same. The ancient Roman Canon puts them all together with two additions that do not appear in any of the scriptural accounts, but which were uttered by Our Lord, as Saint Thomas affirms in the Summa. Those additions are “and eternal” and “the mystery of faith.” It is the second of these — mysterium fidei — which commands our present attention.
When the New Mass came out, these deeply mystical words were moved and (in some, at least, of the the approved translations) considerably altered in their meaning. The phrase “mystery of faith” was removed from the words of consecration and placed after them. In the English translation, they were turned into a versicle and response of sorts: “Let us proclaim the mystery of faith.” The proclamation which follows can be one of a few options, including this one: “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.”
Such proclamations are contained in certain ancient Eastern Rites of the Church (e.g., the Syrian Rite). Some of what the liturgists did in synthesizing the Novus Ordo was to insert Eastern Rite formulas into the Mass. This “mixing of rites” — which our Eastern Rite brethren generally do not like — is not without precedent in the history of the Church. (Alleluias were notably absent from the most ancient form of the Roman Rite. I recall reading that Saint Jerome, who had witnessed the more jubilant rites of the East, complained about this to the Pope. The result is what we have now by way of Alleluias in the “Extraordinary Form” of the Mass.)
The merits of this particular liturgical alteration affecting the mysterium fidei do not interest me here. What does interest me is the rich meaning behind the words in the classical Roman Rite.
In that venerable liturgy, the words mysterium fidei clearly and unambiguously refer to the Sacrifice present on the altar here and now. They do not refer to past or future events, but to what is presently unfolding before our eyes in the sanctuary. The Precious Blood in its Eucharistic state is the specific point of reference. Jesus the Victim is reduced to sacramental helplessness. His Precious Blood is offered in a clean (unbloody) manner. This is the mystery of faith.
This was foretold by the prophet Malachias (1:11): “For from the rising of the sun even to the going down, my name is great among the Gentiles, and in every place there is sacrifice, and there is offered to my name a clean oblation: for my name is great among the Gentiles, saith the Lord of hosts.”
When we say that the Mass is the “unbloody” representation of the bloody sacrifice on the Cross, we are not saying that it is “bloodless.” What we are saying is that it is not a violent sacrifice. Of the different oblations in the Old Testament, some were “clean,” like the offerings of food, and drink (e.g. Melchisedech’s typical offerings of bread and wine, or the pouring out of oil on the altar); others were “bloody,” as they entailed slaughter, such as the offerings of “the blood of goats and of oxen, and the ashes of an heifer” (Heb. 9:13). The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, in a way, combined these two types of Old Testament sacrifice. It renews a “bloody” offering, but in an “unbloody” manner. There is no violent slaughter as on the Cross. The immolation is of an immortal Victim who “dieth now no more” (Rom. 6:9).
Notably, both Pope Paul VI, in his 1965 encyclical, Mysterium Fidei, and Pope John Paul II, in his 1983 letter, Dominicae Caenae, wrote of the Eucharistic Sacrifice (not the death, resurrection, and second coming) as the “mystery of faith.”
There are many reasons why these words are referred so specifically to the Precious Blood. For one, St. Paul commands deacons to “[hold] the mystery of faith in a pure conscience” (1 Tim. 3:9). In the traditional Eastern and Western liturgies, the deacon has a particular custody over the chalice. This is seen in the Solemn Mass of the Roman Rite, wherein the deacon pours the wine into the chalice, holds it with the priest during the offertory, covers and uncovers it with the pall during the Canon, and assists with purifying it at the ablutions.
In the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas refers these words to the Eucharist in general and to the Precious Blood in particular. He says it is called a mystery because “Christ’s blood is in this sacrament in a hidden manner,” and of faith because only those who believe may partake of it, in keeping with the words of St. Paul: “God hath proposed [Jesus Christ] to be a propitiation, through faith in his blood. . .” (Rom. 3:25).
As we work and pray to restore the sense of the sacred in the Church’s liturgy, let us also work and pray to convert America, so that more of our countrymen will assist at these beautiful rites, and “wash their robes in the blood of the Lamb” (Apoc. 22:14), which is offered for them on the altar.
For the month of July, I encourage readers to cultivate a special devotion to the Sacred Blood of our Lord. Let us all be penetrated with the strong words of the Prince of the Apostles: “You were not redeemed with corruptible things as gold or silver… but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb unspotted and undefiled” (1 Pet. 1:18-19).