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Sacraments: Eucharist - Sacrifice

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Eucharist is both a Sacrament and a Sacrifice: as a Sacrament it is received as the soul’s nourishment; as a Sacrifice it is offered to God for the needs of the world. In the Mass, the Sacrifice of Christ on Calvary, the Spotless Victim’s self-offering to God the Father, is made present in a bloodless manner upon the altar, not only as a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, but as a sacrifice in expiation for sin and in petition for divine favour. By affirming the sacrificial nature of the Mass, therefore, the Church emphasises that the Eucharist benefits not only the community gathered for its celebration, but – as an event of cosmic significance – that it benefits the whole world, the living and the dead.

As Br Nicholas noted in his post on Real Presence, Christ’s passion is re-presented – it is made present again – by the Sacramental Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The Eucharistic Sacrifice is a ‘memorial sacrifice’, but this remembrance has a unique character – it is not simply a recollection of history or a dramatic re-enactment of a past divine favour, but an anamnesis, a remembrance that actually makes present today the events of salvation history, as the means by which we get vitally in touch with the power of the cross.

The Mass and the Sacrifice of Calvary are therefore one and the same. The Eucharistic sacrifice has a dependent and relative character, being logically inconceivable without the incarnation, passion, death and resurrection of the Lord. Neither is the Mass a repetition of the complete and sufficient saving work of Christ: as the Epistle to the Hebrews makes clear, the one sacrifice of the superior New Covenant is distinguished from the sacrifices of the Old Covenant by being truly efficacious, unrepeatable and complete. Indeed, there can be no question of Christ being repeatedly sacrificed, for He is risen, glorified and ascended, sitting at the right hand of the Father. 

Although this has been the faith of the Church from the earliest days – there have always been Christian priests, and it is the proper duty of a priest to offer sacrifice – during the medieval period scholastic theologians disputed which part of the Eucharistic liturgy constituted the sacrifice. Perhaps it was in the offering of the bread and wine (Eck), or in the breaking of the bread (Cano), or in the destruction of the accidents at the priest’s communion (Bellarmine)? All these ritual actions have clear sacrificial significance, but there was a gradual realisation that they all related primarily to the substance or the enduring accidents of the bread and wine, and not to the real sacrificial offering, which is Christ Himself, substantially present in the Eucharist.

When we consider the notion of ‘sacrifice’ our thoughts are often dominated, I think, by the destructive aspect of sacrifice: the killing of an animal or the destruction of a crop, etc. In the sacrificial system of the Old Testament, the killing of an animal was a means of obtaining its blood for use in worship: blood, which theologically represents the life principle of the animal, is poured (Leviticus 1:5), sprinkled (Leviticus 16:15), and used to symbolise a ritual sealing (Exodus 24:3-8) and consecration (Exodus 29:20). The sacrificial action was one that involved the separation of the animal’s blood from its body, so that blood could be applied in divine worship.

As Christ hung on the cross, his blood too was separated from his body. In the Mass, this real immolation is made mystically present (as a “bloodless cutting”) by the separate consecration of the bread and wine, which represent His Body and Blood respectively. Of course, it is the whole Christ – body, blood, soul and divinity - that is present under each kind, because in the resurrection Christ’s body and blood, his soul and his divinity, are reunited, and he is glorified and impassible in his ascension, never to endure the separation of body and blood again. So the scholastics made a distinction between what was present by the power of the sacrament’s words, and what was present by ‘natural concomitance’. By the words “This is my body”, the bread is converted in Christ’s Body, which ‘brings with it’ His Blood, Soul and Divinity, because it is eternally united to them. By the words “This is my blood”, the wine is converted into Christ’s Blood, which ‘brings with it’ His Body, Soul and Divinity for the same reasons. It is, therefore, this mystical immolation, brought about by the two-fold consecration, that constitutes the essential sacrificial action of the Mass.

As a re-presentation of the Sacrifice of Calvary, in which priest and victim are identical, it is not only the same victim that is offered, but the same interior act of oblation, and the same offering priest. The Sacrifice of the Mass, therefore, is only validly offered by a priest who has been identified with Christ the High Priest by his Ordination. That is not to say that the faithful  –  who by their baptism are conformed to Christ as priest, prophet and king  –  have only a passive role at Mass, for they too offer the Sacrifice through and with the priest’s offering. The common priesthood of the Baptised deputes the believer to participate in Christ’s attitude of worship, pre-eminently by participation at the Eucharistic table, but this priesthood differs not merely in degree, but fundamentally in kind, from those deputed and empowered by ordination to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

Oliver James Keenan OP


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