Eucharist as Sacrifice – Sacrament
By Father John A. Hardon S.J.
The most serious challenge to the Catholic faith in the Eucharist was the claim that the Mass is not a real but merely a symbolic sacrifice.
To defend this basic Eucharistic mystery, the Council of Trent made a series of definitions. Originally drafted as negative anathemas, they may be reduced to the following positive affirmation of faith.
- The Mass is a true and proper sacrifice which is offered to God.
- By the words, “Do this in commemoration of me” (Luke 22:19; I Corinthians 11:24), Christ made the apostles priests. Moreover, He decreed that they and other priests should offer His Body and Blood.
- The Sacrifice of the Mass is not merely an offering of praise and thanksgiving, or simply a memorial of the sacrifice on the Cross. It is a propitiatory sacrifice which is offered for the living and dead, for the remission of sins and punishment due to sin, as satisfaction for sin and for other necessities.
- The Sacrifice of the Mass in no way detracts from the sacrifice which Christ offered on the Cross (Council of Trent, Session XXII, September 17, 1562).
Volumes of teaching by the Church’s magisterium have been written since the Council of Trent. There has also been a remarkable development of doctrine in a deeper understanding of the Mass. For our purpose, there are especially two questions that need to be briefly answered: 1) How is the Sacrifice of the Mass related to the sacrifice of the Cross? 2) How is the Mass a true sacrifice?
Relation of the Mass to Calvary. In order to see how the Mass is related to Calvary, we must immediately distinguish between the actual Redemption of the world and the communication of Christ’s redemptive graces to a sinful human race.
On the Cross, Christ really redeemed the human family. He is the one true Mediator between God and an estranged humanity. On the Cross, He merited all the graces that the world would need to be reconciled with an offended God.
When He died, the separation of His blood from His body caused the separation of His human soul from the body, which caused His death. He willed to die in the deepest sense of the word. He chose to die. In His own words, He laid down His life for the salvation of a sinful mankind.
But His physical death on Calvary was not to be an automatic redemption of a sin-laden world. It would not exclude the need for us to appropriate the merits He gained on the Cross; nor would it exclude the need for our voluntary cooperation with the graces merited by the Savior’s shedding of His blood.
The key to seeing the relation between Calvary and the Mass is the fact that the same identical Jesus Christ now glorified is present on the altar at Mass as He was present in His mortal humanity on the Cross.
Since it is the same Jesus, we must say He continues in the Mass what He did on Calvary except that now in the Mass, He is no longer mortal or capable of suffering in His physical person. On Calvary He was, by His own choice, capable of suffering and dying. What He did then was to gain the blessings of our redemption. What He does now in the Mass is apply these blessings to the constant spiritual needs of a sinful, suffering humanity.
Before we look more closely at the Mass as a sacrifice of propitiation and petition, we should make plain that it is first and foremost, a sacrifice of praise (adoration) and thanksgiving. No less than He did on Calvary, in the Mass Jesus continues to offer Himself to the heavenly Father. Since the highest form of honor to God is sacrifice, the Mass is a continuation of Christ’s sacrifice of praise and gratitude to God the Father. But, whereas on Calvary, this sacrificial adoration was bloody, causing Christ’s physical death by crucifixion, in the Mass the same Jesus is now sacrificing Himself in an unbloody manner because he is now glorified, immortal, and incapable of suffering or dying in His own physical person.
We now turn from the Mass as a sacrifice of adoration and thanks (referring to God), to the Mass as a sacrifice of propitiation and petition (referring to us).
Notice we use two words, propititation and petition. They are not the same.
- The Mass is the most powerful means we have to obtain propitiation for sin. This occurs in different ways.
Through the Mass, God’s mercy makes reparation for the want of divine love that we have shown by committing sin.
Through the Mass, God’s mercy removes the guilt of repented venial sins and moves the sinner estranged from Him to return to God.
Through the Mass, God’s mercy remits more or less of the punishment still due on earth to forgiven sins.
Through the Mass, God’s mercy also remits more or less of the punishment which the souls in purgatory have to undergo before entering heaven.
- The Mass is a powerful means of petition to God for the graces that we and others need in our pilgrimage through life.
Graces are necessary for the mind to know what is God’s will and how it should be fulfilled.
Graces are necessary for the will to desire what pleases God, to choose what He wants us to do, and to sustain our choice by loving Him above all things.
In both ways, as a means of propitiation and petition, the Mass is a sacrament. It confers the graces needed from God’s mercy to expiate the sins of the past and the graces needed from God’s bounty to obtain His blessings for the future.
The Mass a True Sacrifice. Since the first century of her existence, the Church has considered the Mass a sacrifice. The earliest manual of the liturgy (before 90 A.D.) has this directive for the attendance of Sunday Mass.
“On the Lord’s own day, assemble in common to break bread and offer thanks. But first confess your sins so that your sacrifice may be pure. However, no one quarreling with his brother may join your meeting until they are reconciled; your sacrifice must not be defiled (Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, 14).”
Why is the Mass a true sacrifice? Because in the Mass the same Jesus Christ who offered Himself on Calvary now offers Himself on the altar. The Priest is the same, the Victim is the same, and the end or purpose is the same. The Priest is the same Jesus Christ whose sacred person the ordained priest represents and in whose Name he offers the Eucharistic Sacrifice.
The Victim is the same, namely the Savior in His human nature, with His true Body and Blood, and His human free will. Only the manner of offering is different. On the Cross, the sacrifice was bloody; in the Mass it is unbloody because Christ is now in His glorified state. But the heart of sacrifice is the voluntary, total offering of oneself to God. Christ makes this voluntary offering in every Mass, signified by the separate consecration of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of the Redeemer.
The end or purpose is the same, namely to give glory to God, to thank Him, to obtain His mercy, and to ask Him for our needs. But, as we have seen, whereas on Calvary Christ merited our salvation, it is mainly through the Mass that He now dispenses the riches of His saving grace.
Pocket Catholic Catechism, John A. Hardon, S.J., An Image Book, Published by Doubleday
Copyright © 1989 by John A. Hardon, All Rights Reserved
Effects of Holy Communion
Since the earliest times, the benefits of receiving the Body and Blood of Christ were spelled out to encourage frequent, even daily, Holy Communion.
Thus, St. Cyril of Jerusalem (died 387) said that reception of the Eucharist makes the Christian a “Christbearer” and “one body and one blood with Him” (Catecheses, 4,3). St. John Chrysostom (died 407) speaks of a mixing of the Body of Christ with our body, “…in order to show the great love that He has for us. He mixed Himself with us, and joined His Body with us, so that we might become one like a bread connected with the body” (Homily 46,3). These and other comparisons of how Communion unites the recipient with Christ are based on Christ’s own teaching, and St. Paul’s statement that, “the bread which we break, is it not the partaking of the Body of the Lord? For we, being many, are one bread, all that partake of this bread.” (I Corinthians 10:16-17).
So, too, the church officially teaches that “Every effect which bodily food and bodily drink produce in our corporeal life, by preserving this life, increasing this life, healing this life, and satisfying this life – is also produced by this Sacrament in the spiritual life” (Council of Florence, November 22, 1439). Thus:
- Holy Communion preserves the supernatural life of the soul by giving the communicant supernatural strength to resist temptation, and by weakening the power of concupiscence. It reinforces the ability of our free will to withstand the assaults of the devil. In a formal definition, the Church calls Holy Communion “an antidote by which we are preserved from grievous sins” (Council of Trent, October 11, 1551).
- Holy Communion increases the life of grace already present by vitalizing our supernatural life and strengthening the virtues and gifts of the Holy Spirit we possess. To be emphasized, however, is that the main effect of Communion is not to remit sin. In fact, a person in conscious mortal sin commits a sacrilege by going to Communion.
- Holy Communion cures the spiritual diseases of the soul by cleansing it of venial sins and the temporal punishment due to sin. No less than serving as an antidote to protect the soul from mortal sins, Communion is “an antidote by which we are freed from our daily venial sins” (Council of Trent, October 11, 1551). The remission of venial sins and of the temporal sufferings due to sin takes place immediately by reason of the acts of perfect love of God, which are awakened by the reception of the Eucharist. The extent of this remission depends on the intensity of our charity when receiving Communion.
- Holy Communion gives us a spiritual joy in the service of Christ, in defending His cause, in performing the duties of our state of life, and in making the sacrifices required of us in imitating the life of our Savior.
- On Christ’s own promise, Holy Communion is a pledge of heavenly glory and of our bodily resurrection from the dead (John 6:55). St. Irenaeus (died 202) simply declared that, “when our bodies partake of the Eucharist, they are no longer corruptible as they have the hope of eternal resurrection” (Against the Heresies, IV, 18,5).