Catholic Understanding of the General Truths of the Eucharist (Part III)

Today, we investigate the question: How can the Eucharistic Celebration – The Mass – be a Sacrifice?

As Catholics, we must reconcile two teachings. On the one hand, Trent teaches that each and every Mass is a sacrifice. Without explicitly asserting from what passages in Scripture this doctrine originates (or in which it is rooted), Trent declares that the Eucharist is a true and real sacrifice, i.e., the representation of the Sacrifice of Calvary, SCD 938. (SCD = Sources of Catholic Dogma, a very handy text I recommend. Or you could get the newest translation which is up to date, though it employs a newer numbering.)

Trent teaches that Jesus is immolated in an unbloody manner on the altar at every Mass, SCD 938, 940. It is “propitiatory” in the sense that it pleases and satisfies (appeases) the Father, as Christ’s death appeases the Father because we disobedient subjects paid the price of their sin in Christ, their Savior, SCD 940. (I.e., he paid it for us and draws us into the payment when he freely baptizes us, making us sharers in the payment.) Thus appeased, the Father grants forgiveness and new life.

Why ought there to be continual representations? Why should there be many Masses? The nature of man demands this. If you told your wife you love her once, why twice? If your first statement was true, it was unto death. Why then the second statement? I trust that wives know why.

We need repetition. Now, in this sacramental re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice, we draw fruits of that one offering. Similarly, husband and wife are renewed in their love when they truly re-speak their fidelity.

Perhaps Catholics need a wake-up call regarding the sacrifice of the Mass. They may have lost sight of what it is we believe. I include a few dogmatic declarations: SCD 948, The Mass is a “true and real sacrifice (verum et proprium).” Again, SCD 949 teaches that by the words, “Do this in commemoration of me (Lk 22:19; 1 Cor 11:24), Jesus instituted the Priesthood. Again, Canon 3, SCD 950, “If anyone says that the sacrifice of the Mass is only one of praise and thanksgiving, or that it is a mere commemoration of the sacrifice consummated on the Cross, but not one of propitiation; or that it is of profit to him alone who receives; or that it ought not to be offered for the living and the dead, for sins, punishments, satisfactions, and other necessities: let him be anathema.” Strong words, strong teaching—eternal life is at stake.

Is this just Medieval? Well, if it is dogma, it most certainly is not “just Medieval”. Dogma resounds eternally; it is in the archives of Being as God wills it to be, so to speak.

As a sign of this, we see that John Paul has recently expressed this same teaching, “By virtue of its close relationship to the sacrifice of Golgotha, the Eucharist is a sacrifice in the strict sense, and not only in a general way, as if it were simply a matter of Christ’s offering himself to the faithful as their spiritual food” (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, art. 13). John Paul notes that the sacrifice is first of all a gift given to the Father. And we have lost sight of this. The Eucharist is chiefly an act given to God. It is not chiefly about us.

Similarly, heavenly life is chiefly about God, not chiefly about us. We shall be standing agape (pun – why not?) at God’s Beauty. We shall not primarily be saying to ourselves, “wow, I’m happy”; rather, we shall be lost in God. So too, at a great party, we seldom reflectively sit and say, “Hey, I’m glad I’m part of this marvelous event.” Rather, we just party. So, only secondly is the Eucharist about the forgiveness of sins and the food of life. However, to put these in order is not to put them in competition. It is to put them in order. It is to say that we are for God, not “God for us.” God indeed loves us, but his glory is not for our sake. Our glory is for his sake. Amen.

 

I have gotten off the track. In some respect. I must return to what needs to be Reconciled. What is the “other teaching” Catholics must hold? The Scriptures teach that Christ suffered “once for all” Heb 9:12. He did not suffer repeatedly Heb 9:25–26. Moreover, he offered but one sacrifice for all time, Hebrews10:11–14, since that sacrifice was perfect.

How can we reconcile these apparently contradictory indications?

First, we must recall that Christ is a priest “forever.” Thus, he lives forever to make intercession, ever holding his priestly office, Heb. 7:23–25. See also, Ps 110 (Ps 109 in the Latin and Greek numbering). The Church teaches that the Eucharist is not a “repeat sacrifice” but a renewed presence of that same very sacrifice. That Christ is a priest forever seems to factor into the unity of this one sacrifice and its real re-presentation throughout time and space.

Secondly, there are Scriptural bases for this doctrine. John Paul II rightly draws attention to the deeply Scriptural roots of this teaching. In Matthew 26:28, we read, “This is (estin) my blood… which is being poured out (ekchunnomenon).” In Luke 22:19 we have the following, “And he took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is being given for you (estin, didomenon). Do this in remembrance of me.’” We have here a present progressive action. (The present participle is usually used for present action.) In addition to this present tense participle, the present tense of the main verb, is, seals the case: The blood of Christ “is being poured out” for you.

We must read this passage in light of its context in the life of Jesus: the Passover meal (Exodus 12:14; 13:9; Deut 16:3–6). The Jewish men are to tell their sons, “‘It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s Passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he slew the Egyptians but spared our houses,’” Exodus 12:27. In the re-presentations of this sacrifice through the ages, the head of the Jewish family was to interpret the Passover by referring the unleavened bread to the “bread of affliction” in Deuteronomy 16:3 (Joseph Fitzmeyer, Luke X–XXIV, vol. 28A (1985)). That is, these two ritual elements came to be (or always were) identified.

In his life, Jesus identifies himself with that bread (Fitzmeyer, p. 1399). If in the Old Testament times, the father is to point out the identity of the sacrificial victim by indicating a present “afflicted” reality, then Jesus is pointing out that he himself is that sacrificial lamb. Thus, the commemoration of Jesus’ sacrifice which he commands us is the New Testament version of the memory of the Passover. Jesus is establishing a new practice; he is fulfilling the Old Law.

Further, the verb “given” has a sacrificial ring to it. This ring is confirmed by the vicarious implication of “for others.” (Note: not “instead of others” (anti) but “for others” (huper). The same is true in Romans 5.)

Now, the OT sees blood as the life of the animal, Lev 17:11. Therefore, the shedding of blood is the offering of life, Lev 16:1–34, echoed in Hebrews 9:22. Moreover, the present imperative “Do this” is not only a command to repeat but also an allusion to sacrifice and memory in the OT, e.g., Lev 24:7; Num 5:15; Num 10:9–10; Ps 19:3; and cf, Heb 10:3. (The Hebrew zakar = remember/memory.)

The Scriptural imagery is one of sacrifice. Moreover, the context of the institution of this sacrament is one of anticipation of the coming crucifixion: “‘You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of man will be delivered up to be crucified.’” Jesus predicts his death, Mt 26:2. He is instituting this New Passover at a crucial moment. This is as it were his last will and testament.

Just as the first Passover meal was real, so were its ritual representations. Every year, a real immolation of real lambs – and real eating! Similarly, just as Jesus meal was real, so are its representations which he commands. Thus, the ritual he commands is real not merely symbolic, (see also LaGrange, p. 544).

But we must understand that the true Sacrifice of the Mass is a not a “repeat.” It is not “a second sacrifice”. What is repeated is only the ritual reenactment. But the Sacrifice is one and the same. In each reenactment, there is a re-presentation of the same sacrifice on Calvary. Its application now helps us who are spread all over the globe, centuries or yes millennia after Jesus, it helps us experience this sacrifice humanly for it is present now to us. It is thus “for the remission of sins” now. The whole sacrifice is offered up to the Father through the Son.

The separate consecrations of the bread and wine help signify this mystery. Just as in sacrifice, blood is separated from flesh, so the bread and wine are separately consecrated.