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 or the organ, 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. (Sheen, Calvary and the Cross)
There is a reason why Catholics traditionally called the liturgy 'The Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.' Why do we not hear that term anymore? I recently read an article over at Aleteia about why the Mass is called the Mass. I found it baffling how the author quoted Aquinas' explanation of the word Missa but quoted it out of context, stressing over the course of the article that the Mass is named primarily for us as going out into the world as a mission, "to be sent, or dismissed," The emphasis with modern Catholics always seems to be on the dismissal element when it comes to Ite, missa est. This however misses the essential point of calling the liturgy 'The Mass' as well as missing the point in "being sent." Aquinas' focus is on sacrifice! This shows how far modern Catholics have strayed from the sacrificial dimension of the Mass, which is its very essence! Ite, missa est is literally translated as “Go, it has been sent.” At one point this term was linked only with the concluding prayer of the Mass meaning "dismissal." But as the term in the West gradually began to adopt Missa or Mass as representative of the entire liturgy, it took on a much deeper meaning. Let's first look at what Aquinas says about it,
The priest does not pray that the sacramental species may be borne up to heaven; nor that Christ's true body may be borne thither, for it does not cease to be there; but he offers this prayer for Christ's mystical body, which is signified in this sacrament, that the angel standing by at the Divine mysteries may present to God the prayers of both priest and people, according to Apocalypse 8:4: "And the smoke of the incense of the prayers of the saints ascended up before God, from the hand of the angel." But God's "altar on high" means either the Church triumphant, unto which we pray to be translated, or else God Himself, in Whom we ask to share; because it is said of this altar (Exodus 20:26): "Thou shalt not go up by steps unto My altar, i.e. thou shalt make no steps towards the Trinity." Or else by the angel we are to understand Christ Himself, Who is the "Angel of great counsel" (Isaiah 9:6: Septuagint), Who unites His mystical body with God the Father and the Church triumphant.
And from this the mass derives its name [missa; because the priest sends [mittit] his prayers up to God through the angel, as the people do through the priest. or else because Christ is the victim sent [missa] to us: accordingly the deacon on festival days "dismisses" the people at the end of the mass, by saying: "Ite, missa est," that is, the victim has been sent [missa est] to God through the angel, so that it may be accepted by God. (III, Q83, A4)
Notice how Christ's sacrifice is emphasized here in the context of the mystical body. Aquinas tells us the victim, Christ, has been sent as a sacrifice 'victim' to God. He thus puts the emphasis here on the reality of the end of the Mass completing the perfect sacrifice to God the Father. "It has been sent." The "It" being Christ's sacrifice. Of course at the end of the Mass we are called to go out and evangelize, to go and make disciples. Aquinas rightly says that we need to make the consecration "fruitful." But as to why the Mass is truly called the Mass, that was never the real point here for Aquinas. The author over at Aleteia puts the emphasis in the wrong place, that is on the original prayer at the end of Mass pointing to us being sent, which however true that may be, is not why the Mass is called the Mass. Yes, I know we hear this all the time by priests today after Mass, right? The reality is that it's called the Mass because it is the sacrifice of Christ who is perfect and accepted by God. The sacrifice is finished, let us go. In other words when they began using this term as a designation for the entire liturgy the word took on a deeper hidden meaning only known to Christians. The theological emphasis was be focused on the right place, that is the sacrifice of Christ, Christ being sent to the Father. Without that, we have no mission, we cannot be sent. This realty does not obscure our mission to go and be sent, it gives it its true meaning.
The Catholic liturgical theologian Nicholas Ghir explains clearly this term in the context of the liturgy. It is clear that Ghir puts the emphasis on Sacrifice in the context of liturgy.
...the dismissal prayer, namely, is conceived, supported and based in a manifold way. At one time by the subject of the day's celebration of the Sacrifice, at another by the celebration of the Sacrifice, again by participation in the Sacrificial Banquet, and also by all these motives combined. The goods and gifts implored are of most various kinds. They comprise all that may be beneficial to our welfare and salvation for time and for eternity. Chiefly do we pray for a plenteous outpouring, as well as for the preservation, of all the fruits of the Sacrifice and of the Communion celebration. What is more opportune at this moment than the ardent desire, that the Sacrificial Body and Blood of Christ, which we have received, may "as the vine bring forth a pleasant odor, the fruit of honor and riches" (Eccl. 24, 23), of virtue and sanctity unto perfection ! The Post-Communions are always recited by the priest in the plural number, that is, for all and in the name of all who have taken part in the Mass, either by actual (sacramental) Communion, as was generally the case in ancient times, or at least by Spiritual Communion, which should never be omitted by those who unite in the Sacrifice. (Ghir, The holy sacrifice of the mass; dogmatically, liturgically and ascetically explained)Finally, if we look to Archbishop Fulton Sheen we can see how he clearly understands both realities, yet is always sure to put the emphasis first on sacrifice. He compared the term Ite, missa est to "It is finished."-John 19:30, the work of salvation is finished. This clearly emphasizes Christ's sacrifice. However, Sheen beautifully takes Christ's sacrifice and calls us to join it to our lives. This is where the mission truly derives. We should not be telling people that ite missa est as the root to the name 'Mass' as merely the call to our mission, or for us to be sent, or dismissed. The term does not stand on its own. It is deeply tied to the sacrifice of Christ, which we never hear about from todays theologians or priests these days. Today we are given a watered down explanation divorcing the dismissal prayer from the essence of the altar. I am not implying that the author of the article does not believe that the Mass is a sacrifice. However, in his article on this topic its not mentioned once! He calls it the "celebration." It is time to reemphasize proper Catholic theology. Are we called to go out into the world at the end of Mass, yes! But this is not possible without first and primarily acknowledging how it is possible that we can go forth. It is only possible in that we are grafted into the cross of Christ! The Mass is literally His Sacrifice! This is why it is called the Mass.
He has finished salvation, we have not yet applied it to our souls. He has finished the Temple, but we must live in it. He has finished the model Cross, we must fashion ours to its pattern. He has finished sowing the seed, we must reap the harvest. He has finished filling the chalice, but we have not finished drinking its refreshing draughts. He has planted the wheat field; we must gather it into our barns. He has finished the Sacrifice of Calvary; we must finish the Mass. (Sheen, Calvary and the Mass)