The Mayans the Mass and Me

Sorry not to have been blogging for some time, but after a week’s vacation in Belize I need a few days to catch up.

While in Belize we had the chance to visit some Mayan ruins. I climbed to the top of the main pyramid in Caracol and sitting up there on a beautiful day in April, the jungle birds crying and the jungle trees and neatly trimmed lawned–I imagined the priests offering their sacrifices of grain and human lives to their sky gods. It was a different scene then. The forests all cut down, the barbaric rites continued in fear and desperation as famine and starvation loomed.

The critics of Catholicism–both Protestant and atheist–might say, “Geesh, it’s not really any different than what you do is it Father?”

They’d argue, “Don’t you also get dressed up and ascend to the heights of the holy place where you offer a sacrifice of bread and blood? Don’t you say this is the Body of Christ? Aren’t you making the same pagan sacrifices of body and blood and grain to the sky god hoping that he will bring you prosperity and peace?” The Protestant will turn away in horror at the idea that Catholicism is simply brutal paganism warmed up and the atheistic materialist will turn away in ridicule and disgust that we still believe such superstitious ideas and practice such crude religious magic.

Is it so? We must think of the Mayans and the other pagan civilizations as we do the Hebrews. In their own way in their own place they are all precursors and figures of that which was to come. Among the Hebrews the hints and prophecies were most specific. Among the Hebrews the hints and prophecies were inspired by God himself and he walked with his pilgrim people in a unique way. Still the echoes, the hints and the guesses which pointed to the coming Christ were there in  each of the pagan and primitive religions in their own way.

In the jungles of Central America the Mayans too looked to the heavens and knew their creator was there. They knew in some deep magic from before the dawn of time that a sacrifice of grain and blood was required, and they made that sacrifice–one which had already been fulfilled in the one, full final sacrifice of Christ the King on the cross. There the grain was offered for the bread of life was offered. There the blood was offered–the blood of the one son. There the human sacrifice to which all human sacrifices looked was offered once for all.

What does the Catholic priest do at Mass? We re-present that one, full, final sacrifice of Christ. We bring into the present moment its mysterious benefits and the power of forgiveness and reconciliation. We apply the benefits of that one bloody sacrifice in an unbloody way.

What went before in all the pagan myths, the pagan rites and the pagan sacrifices was simply a foreshadowing of what was to come. The Mass is only related to the Mayans as an oak tree is related to an acorn. The acorn holds within itself the oak tree, but the oak tree is the living fulfillment of the acorn. So the Mayan sacrifices, and all the pagan religions were seeds of what was to come.

When Christ the King came and the final sacrifice was made all the other sacrifices died a death and were no longer necessary. They had played their part. They had looked forward–even in horror and despair to what was to come. I remember as an Evangelical child hearing about the missionaries who went into primitive tribes in the jungles. Invariable they found within those cultures some hint–some guess or some prophecy of the mystery of Christ the King. Usually it was in the form of some kind of sacrifice to the gods–and all those religious seeds and unformed half-completed mysteries could be used to communicate to people of each different culture the reality and fulfillment of their hopes and dreams in the one who completed all things in himself.

  • Ben

    I’ve been to Belize only for a few hours: I was on a cruise. It was gorgeous and I’d love to go back and spend more time there. Welcome home!

  • Marian

    Thank you, Father, for this great great insight! I’m a recent convert ( 3 years now) and in my earlier days of following God , He opened many short term missions to me to Venezuela, Mexico, Cuba, Ecuador and then for the last 10 years, to China. In all of those places were the “seeds” of the truth of the Messiah….I see that now where before it all just gave me great sadness that these dear ones just didn’t know about God and the freedom He gave us by the death and resurrection of Jesus, His Son. But after your insight here….all those years from 1998 to the present…I see it all with new eyes now! The pagan gods I saw, their rituals surrounding all their idol worship, I realized did speak to their reaching for God, but they just didn’t know. That part I always realized. But to see all that as being “seeds of what was to come” as you say….that has been an epiphany for me today. Thanks be to God!!

  • AnneG

    Thanks for your excellent explanation of our teachings. It isn’t syncretism, more like seeing through a glass, darkly. Hope you got to the beach, too. The jungle is too sticky this time of year, and too buggy!

  • Charles E. Mac Kay

    Excellent! its a reminder of Paul’s letter to the Romans. You are very brave to have ascended those heights. I would have had the heeby jeebies remembering what the Mayans were up to there

  • David Zelenka

    It’s true. C.S. Lewis likewise explained that many of the myths of past civilizations are ‘shadows’ of truth.

    I’ll add that one key to the Sacrifice and the Priest (Christ) is the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It is that act that heals man on the cross through Christ. We lay our sin in Christ on the cross and our sin is turned white and is not remembered anymore as our sin dies with him on Golgotha.

    Now one confusion that should be straightened out ASAP is about *whose* sins die with Christ. Who can give their sin offering to our beloved Jesus? The answer, of course, is any one who places their sin in Christ’s heart. As a baptized member of the Church (Trinitarian baptisms are acknowledged valid and true), but not yet a [C]atholic (for personal reasons, though I know I am catholic through baptism), I am not allowed to receive “absolution” from the priest. However, I know that by just the fact that I believe Jesus hears and accepts my confession, and that the priest literally hears the confession, it still goes to Christ during the sacrifice of the mass. So, even if I am not yet in full communion with the [C]atholic Church, yet I am baptized into the Church, and even though I am not given technical absolution, I am absolved through faith. Yes, the Church was given the Keys to loose and to bind, but would Jesus really bind my sins to myself when I present them to him? He’s more merciful than that! One priest explained that the Church uses the Keys of Peter to loose only those in full communion with the church and my sins couldn’t be absolved by him. Am I still bound to those sins? Jesus knows better than that. Did Jesus ever withhold his keys to loose someone’s sins? Christ came to set us free. I have been set free.

    I expect this rule will change one day–it will have to be. Until then, more non-Catholic Christians should seek this sacrament and they should know in their hearts that the sacrament is valid for them, whether or not it is “valid.” Because after all, as the Church’s rules are presently set, many non-Catholics won’t be able to become Catholics (unless they totally and completely overhaul their family relationships, which is not a reasonable expectation for most and it certainly isn’t merciful). But these people should understand today that when they lay their sins on Jesus, they are fully and totally absolved through the one-time sacrifice. They must know it and be involved with this most precious and reconciliatory sacrament. We all must be reconnected to God through Christ.

    I must also add that when we fully enter the Kingdom of Heaven, the Mass, the sacrifice spoken of here, will be no more. We will be with the Victim and we will be fully with him and in him. All the church structure that we have in this age which produces the reality of the sacrifice will be no more also. There will be no need for those edifices and they will crumble. Oh, the Glory of the Kingdom! “Lord Jesus, I am in awe and I long for that day. Amen.”

  • Kathleen Sable

    So cool Fr.