Basic questions and answers: question two
The Jan. 17 issue of The New Catholic Miscellany carried the introduction and part one of “Why does Jesus give himself to us as food and drink?”
This month we continue with part two of this document on the Holy Eucharist by the U.S. Catholic bishops, published in July 2001. The topic is “Why is the Eucharist not only a meal, but also a sacrifice?”
In reaction to opinions of various theologians at the time of the Reformation who held that the sacrifice of the altar is called a sacrifice only in the sense that it is a figure or memorial of the sacrifice on Calvary, the Council of Trent in the 16th century underlined the fact that the Mass is a sacrifice per se, that there is a real oblation of Christ offered under the appearance of bread and wine. In the sacrifice of the Mass there is a real oblation of Christ present, as at Calvary.
The U.S. bishops reiterate this teaching and indicate that “Christ’s sacrifice is made sacramentally present ….” “The church gathers to remember and to re-present the sacrifice of Christ in which we share through the action of the priest and the power of the Holy Spirit. Through the celebration of the Eucharist, we are joined to Christ’s sacrifice and receive its inexhaustible benefits.”
The one sacrifice of Christ at Calvary becomes sacramentally present to us at Holy Mass. “Jesus’ one perfect sacrifice is … eternally present before the Father, who eternally accepts it. … in the Eucharist Jesus does not sacrifice himself again and again. … by the power of the Holy Spirit his one eternal sacrifice is made present once again, re-presented, so that we may share in it.”
In this Year of Evangelization, we are attempting to deepen our understanding and appreciation of the Holy Eucharist, which is at the center of all our evangelizing efforts. Hopefully this continued catechesis on the Eucharist will help us in these efforts.
Bishop Robert J. Baker
2. Why is the Eucharist not only a meal, but also a sacrifice?
While our sins would have made it impossible for us to share in the life of God, Jesus Christ was sent to remove this obstacle. His death was a sacrifice for our sins. Christ is “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Through his death and resurrection, he conquered sin and death and reconciled us to God. The Eucharist is the memorial of this sacrifice. The Church gathers to remember and to re-present the sacrifice of Christ in which we share through the action of the priest and the power of the Holy Spirit. Through the celebration of the Eucharist, we are joined to Christ’s sacrifice and receive its inexhaustible benefits.
As the Letter to the Hebrews explains, Jesus is the one eternal high priest who always lives to make intercession for the people before the Father. In this way, he surpasses the many high priests who over centuries used to offer sacrifices for sin in the Jerusalem temple. The eternal high priest Jesus offers the perfect sacrifice which is his very self, not something else. “He entered once for all into the sanctuary, not with the blood of goats and calves but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption” (Heb 9:12).
Jesus’ act belongs to human history, for he is truly human and has entered into history. At the same time, however, Jesus Christ is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity; he is the eternal Son, who is not confined within time or history. His actions transcend time, which is part of creation. “Passing through the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made by hands, that is, not belonging to this creation” (Heb 9:11), Jesus the eternal Son of God made his act of sacrifice in the presence of his Father, who lives in eternity. Jesus’ one perfect sacrifice is thus eternally present before the Father, who eternally accepts it. This means that in the Eucharist, Jesus does not sacrifice himself again and again. Rather, by the power of the Holy Spirit his one eternal sacrifice is made present once again, re-presented, so that we may share in it.
Christ does not have to leave where he is in heaven to be with us. Rather, we partake of the heavenly liturgy where Christ eternally intercedes for us and presents his sacrifice to the Father and where the angels and saints constantly glorify God and give thanks for all his gifts: “To the one who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor, glory and might, forever and ever” (Rev 5:13). As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “By the Eucharistic celebration we already unite ourselves with the heavenly liturgy and anticipate eternal life, when God will be all in all” (no. 1326). The Sanctus proclamation, “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord …,” is the song of the angels who are in the presence of God (Isa 6:3). When in the Eucharist we proclaim the Sanctus we echo on earth the song of angels as they worship God in heaven. In the eucharistic celebration we do not simply remember an event in history. Rather, through the mysterious action of the Holy Spirit in the eucharistic celebration the Lord’s Paschal Mystery is made present and contemporaneous to his Spouse the Church.
Furthermore, in the eucharistic re-presentation of Christ’s eternal sacrifice before the Father, we are not simply spectators. The priest and the worshiping community are in different ways active in the eucharistic sacrifice. The ordained priest standing at the altar represents Christ as head of the Church. All the baptized, as members of Christ’s Body, share in his priesthood, as both priest and victim. The Eucharist is also the sacrifice of the Church. The Church, which is the Body and Bride of Christ, participates in the sacrificial offering of her Head and Spouse. In the Eucharist, the sacrifice of Christ becomes the sacrifice of the members of his Body who united to Christ form one sacrificial offering (cf. Catechism, no. 1368). As Christ’s sacrifice is made sacramentally present, united with Christ, we offer ourselves as a sacrifice to the Father. “The whole Church exercises the role of priest and victim along with Christ, offering the Sacrifice of the Mass and itself completely offered in it” (Mysterium Fidei, no. 31; cf. Lumen Gentium, no. 11).