"But from farthest east to farthest west my name is great among the nations, and everywhere incense and a pure gift are offered to my name, since my name is great among the nations, says Yahweh Sabaoth" (Malachi 1:11).If the first and most fundamentalal truth that must be believed about the Eucharist is that Jesus Christ is truly and substantially present to us in the Blessed Sacrament, we must next consider why exactly He has made Himself present in this manner. After all, Christ can (and often does) manifest His presence in a variety of ways in our lives--and yet it is this Sacrament which the Church calls "the source and summit of the Christian life." Why, then, does Christ choose to come to us hidden under the appearances of bread and wine?
To Fulfil the Law
In Matthew 5:17, Jesus says to His hearers, "Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have come not to abolish but to complete them." Many people suppose that through Jesus' sacrificial death on the Cross, that He did away with sacrifices. This idea is only partly correct. The fact is that Jesus completed in Himself everything that the Old Testament sacrifices meant and pointed toward. Jesus came to be our ultimate sacrifice, and it is for this reason that He comes to us hidden under the forms of Bread and Wine, and bids us to eat Him.
For many Christians, the connection between Christ's sacrificial death and the Eucharist is not immediately apparent. They have been led to believe that the culmination of the Old Testament sacrifices was the death of the bull or goat or lamb. But this is only half the story of sacrifice.
Christ Our Pasch
The New Testament makes it plain that Christ's death was a sacrifice for our sins. This fact is brought out clearly when St. John the Baptists calls Him "the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29). The fact that Jesus is crucified on the feast of the Passover is not simply coincidence, but rather is filled with significance. St. John notes this significance several times, such as when he refers to the fact that none of Jesus' bones were broken, referring to the law regarding selecting the Passover lamb. He reinforces the point again when he comments that it was a hyssop branch on which Jesus was offered the sour wine--hyssop being the plant used to apply the blood on the doorposts at Passover. In 1 Corinthians 5:6, St. Paul makes things perfectly clear: "For our Passover has been sacrificed, that is, Christ." Examples could be multiplied like loaves and fishes.
The Jewish Passover, then, becomes the key touchpoint for understanding Jesus' sacrifice. The original Passover involved the killing of a lamb, and spreading its blood on the doorposts of one's home, in order that the firstborn son might not die when the angel of death passed by. Jesus, as our Paschal Lamb, is crucified for us, having His blood spread on the "doorpost" of the Cross, in order to expiate our sins, bringing us out of slavery to sin and reconciling us to God. And for many Christians, that is the end of the sacrifice, and as such, Jesus' coming to us in the Eucharist makes very little sense.
Keeping the Feast
Had you been a Hebrew in Egypt at the first Passover, and dutifully followed Moses' instructions to kill a lamb and smear its blood on the doorposts of your house, and then gone to bed thinking that all would be well, you would have woken up far more than sadly mistaken. You would have been bereaved. God was very specific when He gave the instructions for the Passover sacrifice. It is laid out for us in Exodus 12. Verses 1 to 7 speak of the selection and slaughter of the lamb, and about spreading the blood on the doorposts. But it goes on from there. Verse 8 says very clearly: "That night, the flesh must be eaten, roasted over the fire; it must be eaten with unleavened bread and bitter herbs" (emphasis mine). In fact, the next three verses give very detailed instructions about how the lamb must and must not be eaten, and verses 13 and 14 lay out the benefits of doing so, or the implied penalty of disobedience.
That is, the feast is integral to the sacrificial process. It was not enough for the Israelites to simply kill the lamb; they had to eat it, as well. In fact, if the lamb was too much for one household to consume, they had to join with another household to make sure all of it was eaten. This principle holds true for essentially every Old Testament sacrifice. This is why St. Paul writes "Now compare the natural people of Israel: is it not true that those who eat the sacrifices share the altar?" (1 Corinthians 10:18). The slaughter of the animal was for the expiation of sin, but the eating of the animal was how one appropriated that expiation to himself.
If Christ is our Passover Sacrifice, then it becomes clear why He chooses to come to us under the appearances of Bread and Wine. His emphatic statements in John 6, that unless one eats His flesh and drinks His blood, that one has no life in him, but whoever does eat His flesh and drink His blood has eternal life (cf. John 6:51, 53-56), suddenly take on greater import when we recognise that this eating Him is the very means by which we must participate in the salvation He purchased for us on the Cross. It was Jesus' real flesh and blood that He gave up for us on Calvary, and of that flesh He says, "My flesh is real food, and my blood is real drink" (John 6:56). Jesus again makes this clear when He instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper, saying, "This is My body given for you," and "Drink from this, all of you, for this is my blood, the blood of the covenant, poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins" (Luke 22:19; Matthew 26:27-28). Through the Eucharist, we enter into Christ's redeeming sacrifice on Calvary, and appropriate to ourselves the graces He won for us.
A Massive Sacrifice
Earlier, I mentioned that St. Paul explicitly refers to Christ as our Passover Sacrifice. In chapter 5 of his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul writes to excoriate a particular member of the congregation for his incestuous lifestyle, and rebukes the whole church for tolerating this behaviour. He compares sin in the congregation to yeast in a lump of dough, and recalls the injunction of the Passover, that the feast should be eaten with only unleavened bread:
Your self-satisfaction is ill founded. Do you not realise that only a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? Throw out the old yeast so that you can be the fresh dough, unleavened as you are. For our Passover has been sacrificed, that is, Christ; let us keep the feast, then, with none of the old yeast and no leavening of evil and wickedness, but only the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (1 Corinthians 5:6-8)In his instructions on excommunication, Paul ties that notion directly to Christ our Pasch, and commands us to keep the New Passover with sincerity and truth. He ties the sacrificial meal together with the Crucifixion.
He is even more specific about the Eucharist being a sacrifice in chapter 10 of the same epistle, which I quoted in brief above. In warning against idolatry, and specifically knowingly eating food sacrificed to idols in order to share in the worship of those idols, St. Paul draws a direct analogy between sharing in pagan sacrifices, sharing in Old Testament sacrifices, and sharing in the Eucharist:
For that reason, my dear friends, have nothing to do with the worship of false gods. I am talking to you as sensible people; weigh up for yourselves what I have to say. The blessing-cup, which we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ; and the loaf of bread which we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? And as there is one loaf, so we, although there are many of us, are one single body, for we all share in the one loaf. Now compare the natural people of Israel: is it not true that those who eat the sacrifices share the altar? What does this mean? that the dedication of food to false gods amounts to anything? Or that false gods themselves amount to anything? No, it does not; simply that when pagans sacrifice, what is sacrificed by them is sacrificed to demons who are not God. I do not want you to share with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons as well; you cannot have a share at the Lord's table and the demons' table as well. Do we really want to arouse the Lord's jealousy; are we stronger than he is? (1 Corinthians 10:14-22)St. Paul really couldn't be much more explicit. We share in Christ's sacrifice on the Cross when we partake of His Body and Blood in the Eucharist. The writer of the Book of Hebrews again makes this sacrificial aspect clear at the close of his epistle:
Remember your leaders, who preached the word of God to you, and as you reflect on the outcome of their lives, take their faith as your model. Jesus Christ is the same today as he was yesterday and as he will be for ever. Do not be led astray by all sorts of false doctrines: it is better to rely on grace for inner strength than to rely on food, which has done no good to those who concentrate on it. We have our own altar from which those who serve in the Tent have no right to eat. The bodies of the animals whose blood is taken into the sanctuary by the high priest for the rite of expiation are burnt outside the camp, and so Jesus too suffered outside the gate to sanctify the people with his own blood. Let us go to him, then, outside the camp, and bear his humiliation. There is no permanent city for us here; we are looking for the one which is yet to be. Through him, let us offer God an unending sacrifice of praise, the fruit of the lips of those who acknowledge his name. (Hebrews 13:7-15)The author is contrasting the Jewish Law and sacrificial liturgy, with its emphasis on clean and unclean animals for sacrifice, with the New Law of Grace. We don't need to focus on sacrificing and eating clean animals, for we have a better Food which those who offer the Jewish sacrifices have no right to eat--Jesus Christ. Against the Judaizers, he exhorts the Hebrew Christians to pursue Christ "outside the gates"--that is, according to the New Covenant, and to offer God the sacrifice of praise through Christ, that is, we offer God Christ's own sacrifice, and unite ourselves to it, in order that we may offer ourselves with Christ, as St. Paul says, "as a living sacrifice, dedicated and acceptable to God" (Romans 12:1).
The above passage from Hebrews gives a brief outline of the Mass, which is the liturgical setting for the Eucharistic Sacrifice. In it, we have the Word of God proclaimed and preached, and then we offer to God the bread and wine, with our tithes and our whole selves. When the priest prays the prayers of consecration, God accepts our offering of thanksgiving to Him, and in exchange, Jesus makes Himself present to us in the Bread and Wine which become His Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity. He offers Himself to us, and we are united to Him in His once-for-all Sacrifice on Calvary, as we appropriate the grace given to us in the Crucifixion, and in Him, with Him, and through Him, offer ourselves up to God as adopted members of His Family through the Blood of the New Covenant, in what Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Nebraska, calls the Great Exchange.
A Missive Sacrifice
This is why, as I said at the beginning of this article, the Church refers to the Eucharist as the source and summit of the Christian life. Because Christ is truly present in the Eucharistic elements, and through Communion we participate in His eternal offering of Himself to the Father, and apply His sacrifice to our lives, the Sacrament truly is our Salvation. It truly is the beginning of all our love and labour as Christians, and the focus toward which all our faith and our work is oriented. In this act of uniting our entire selves with Christ, meaning is given to all the disparate threads of our everyday existence. Our job, our marriages, our commutes, our joys, and even our sorrows and sufferings take on a redemptive value in their union with and participation in the Sacrifice of Christ. About this, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says,
The Eucharist is also the sacrifice of the Church. The Church which is the Body of Christ participates in the offering of her Head. With him, she herself is offered whole and entire. She unites herself to his intercession with the Father for all men. In the Eucharist the sacrifice of Christ becomes also the sacrifice of the members of his Body. The lives of the faithful, their praise, sufferings, prayer, and work, are united with those of Christ and with his total offering, and so acquire a new value. Christ's sacrifice present on the altar makes it possible for all generations of Christians to be united with his offering.This is what St. Paul is talking about when he instructs us to be living sacrifices (cf. Romans 12:1), and why he can write to the Colossian Church, "It makes me happy to be suffering for you now, and in my own body to make up all the hardships that still have to be undergone by Christ for the sake of his body, the Church" (Colossians 1:24).
In the catacombs the Church is often represented as a woman in prayer, arms outstretched in the praying position. Like Christ who stretched out his arms on the cross, through him, with him, and in him, she offers herself and intercedes for all men. (#1368)
In the offering up of each and every aspect of our lives, we are able to redeem the time. Nothing that we do or suffer is wasted if we bring it to God in the Mass. Our suffering even becomes a powerful form of intercessory prayer as it is united to the infinite merits of Christ. And in return, we receive grace through the Sacrament to become more like Christ and to bring His light back into the world from which we came. This is the focus of the Mass--to be filled with grace in order to bring the Lord we have just received into the world which so desperately needs Him. The very term "Mass" is taken from the dismissal in Latin, "Ite, missa est." We are sent out (missa) "to love and to serve the Lord." Thanks be to God!
"In Remembrance of Me"
From Luther onward, Protestants have been essentially uniform in their denial of the sacrificial component of the Eucharist. While one denomination to the next has varying understandings of the meaning of the Lord's Supper, its meaning and its practice, that it is most assuredly not a sacrifice is something they all hold in common, despite the clear teaching of Scripture as outlined above. The source of the Protestant's difficulty with this teaching is the idea that if the Eucharist is truly Christ, and is actually a sacrifice, then Christ must be being repeatedly sacrificed at every Mass. Essentially, we would be re-crucifying Christ, which the Bible equates with the gravest of sins. Moreover, since Hebrews clearly states that Christ died once and can die no more, and that His offering was complete and there is no more need of other sacrifices (cf. Hebrews 9:25; 10:11-18), it seems Scripture is clearly against the notion that the Mass is a sacrifice.
However, to come to this conclusion is to simply misunderstand what the Mass is, and what the sacrifice of the Eucharist entails. When Jesus instituted the Eucharist, He said to "Do this in remembrance of Me" (Luke 22:19, cf. 1 Corinthians 11:25). What Christ meant by that instruction is the key to understanding what the Sacrifice of the Mass is. This will be the subject of our next article.
(Category: Catholic Distinctives: Sacraments--The Eucharist)