By DON FIER
As we began to unpack the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) on the Holy Eucharist as a sacramental sacrifice last week, we saw an immediate emphasis given to the fact that “we offer to the Father what he has himself given us” (CCC, n. 1357).
The gifts of His creation, bread and wine, which miraculously become the living Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit and the words of Christ, are offered back to God the Father. The Catechism proceeds, then, to examine the critical importance of understanding the Eucharist as a sacrifice by considering three underlying aspects: thanksgiving, memorial, and presence.
Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ, in his typical clear manner, synthesizes the key points we considered last week in explaining how the Eucharist is a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. “It is a sacrifice of thanksgiving to the Father as an act of gratitude for the blessings of His creation, redemption, and sanctification,” states the Servant of God. “It is a sacrifice of praise by which the Church glorifies the Father through Christ, with Christ, as an acceptable sacrifice in Christ” (The Faith, p. 119).
The liturgical celebration of the Holy Eucharist, the Sacrifice of the Mass, is unmistakably the most perfect means we have for giving thanks to God for all His blessings.
Furthermore, as was also noted last week, the Eucharist is a memorial (anamnesis in Greek) of Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary. It is a memorial, however, not only in that it recalls past events and proclaims the marvels God has done for men, but also “in the sense that it makes present and actual the sacrifice which Christ offered to the Father on the cross, once and for all on behalf of all mankind” (Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 280).
In other words, Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary and the sacrifice that takes place on the altar at each Mass are “one and the same sacrifice. The priest and the victim are the same; only the manner of offering is different: in a bloody manner on the cross, in an unbloody manner in the Eucharist” (ibid.).
Let us now look more closely at the meaning of sacrifice. Interesting to note is that in doing research for this column, several sources (including catechetical works by contemporary Jesuit theologians Fr. Hardon and Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ) commented on a change in terminology that has become commonplace in recent times: weekly parish bulletins in diocese after diocese no longer refer to the Holy Eucharist as a “sacrifice,” as the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Rather, the Eucharist is referred to as the “liturgy,” the “sacred banquet,” “the Eucharistic Celebration,” or some other combination of similar words.
While there is a true sense that the Eucharist can be spoken of in such terms, Catholics must never forget that the Mass is preeminently a sacrifice.
In volume 3 of his excellent catechetical work entitled Fundamentals of Catholicism (FoC-3), Fr. Baker speaks in clear terms on the critical importance that we realize and comprehend that the Mass is a true sacrifice.
“The Mass cannot possibly be understood by Americans or by anyone else if the essential element of sacrifice is omitted from the explanation of it,” says Fr. Baker. “That the Mass is a true and proper sacrifice should be basic to all teaching on the subject, whether in catechetical instructions or in Sunday sermons” (p. 257).
The word “sacrifice” is derived from two Latin words: sacer (“sacred”) and facere (“to make”). Hence, sacrifice means “to make sacred” or “to make holy.” Although the term has a broader nonreligious meaning in the English language (“a giving up of something especially for the sake of someone else”), its root meaning in religion is “the surrender of something precious to God as a way of acknowledging His dominion over us as Creator, and our total dependence on Him as Our Lord,” as defined by Fr. Hardon.
“The essential elements of every sacrifice are, first of all, the object offered and, secondly, the act of surrender by which the object is offered. The object offered is something precious. This object is offered, or given completely, so that the giver no longer possesses any of it” (Basic Catholic Catechism Course [BCCC], p. 141).
Fr. Baker provides an alternative definition for “sacrifice” as used in an ecclesiological or liturgical sense: “An external religious act in which a material gift is offered to God by an ordained minister for the fourfold purpose of adoration, thanksgiving, petition, and expiation” (FoC-3, p. 258).
He goes on to list the requisite elements of a true sacrifice: (1) a visible gift; (2) a validly ordained priest who is authorized to appear before God as the representative of the community; (3) the intention of fulfilling the aforementioned fourfold purpose of the sacrifice; and (4) an act which visibly represents the invisible, inner sacrificial disposition, for “outward sacrifice, to be genuine, must be the expression of spiritual sacrifice” (CCC, n. 2200).
“The sacrificial character of the Eucharist is manifested in the very words of institution” (CCC, n. 1365). For example, in St. Luke’s narrative we read the words, “This is my body which is given for you” (Luke 22:19), and “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20).
Likewise, in St. Matthew’s narrative we read the words, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:28). An Old Testament verse that seems to point to the Sacrifice of the Mass comes from the Book of Malachi: “From the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering” (Mal. 1:11).
What about magisterial pronouncements from the Church? In the mid-16th century, in response to the Protestant Reformation, the Council of Trent very explicitly defined the Mass as a sacrifice: “If any one shall say, that in the Mass a true and proper sacrifice is not offered to God; or, that to be offered is nothing else but that Christ is given unto us to eat; let him be anathema” (Session 22, can. 1).
Pope Pius XII, in his 1947 encyclical Mediator Dei (MD), highlighted the sacrificial nature of the Mass: “The august sacrifice of the altar, then, is no mere empty commemoration of the passion and death of Jesus Christ, but a true and proper act of sacrifice, whereby the High Priest by an unbloody immolation offers Himself a most acceptable victim to the Eternal Father, as He did upon the cross” (n. 68).
The Catechism goes on to state: “The sacrifice of Christ [on Calvary] and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice” (CCC, n. 1367). How can this be, for “the redemptive sacrifice of Christ is unique, accomplished once for all” (CCC, n. 1545)?
Fr. Hardon explains: “[The sacrifice of the Eucharist] is not an additional sacrifice, nor does it constantly multiply the one Sacrifice of Calvary. It is the ‘commemorative re-presentation’ of Calvary in which Christ, offered under the Eucharistic Species of bread and wine, makes His ‘one, definitive redemptive sacrifice always present in time’ (St. John Paul II, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n. 12c). In the Holy Eucharist, the Sacrifice of Calvary is made new in an unbloody manner, and the hour of our salvation is made present” (BCCC, p. 141).
In other words, there is one sacrifice of Jesus for all time and all people that is made present on our altars at every Mass. The sacrifice of Christ, the eternal Son of God, is also eternal — His perfect sacrifice on Calvary is perpetuated for all time.
The Saving Reservoir
Let us now take a closer look at the relationship between the Sacrifice of Calvary and the Sacrifice of the Mass. Although substantially the same, they differ in certain ways.
First, as we have seen, the manner of offering is different. Christ died in a bloody manner on the cross whereas His sacrificial offering is in an unbloody manner on the altars of the Catholic Church.
Second, Christ offered Himself alone and directly on the cross; on the altar He likewise offers Himself, but along with the faithful and through the ministry of priests who act in persona Christi.
Third, Christ’s humanity was visible on the cross on Calvary whereas in the Mass, it is hidden under the veil of the Eucharistic Species.
Fourth, on the cross Jesus merited once for all the graces necessary for the redemption of all mankind; in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, these graces are not added to, but communicated or applied (cf. BCCC, p. 142).
The importance of this final point cannot be overemphasized. The Sacrifice of the Mass is the principal sacramental means through which Christ confers the salvific graces He won on Calvary.
In the words of Pope Pius XII, “Christ built on Calvary a purifying and saving reservoir which He filled with the Blood He poured forth, but if people do not immerse themselves in the waves of his Blood and do not, therefore, cleanse themselves of the stains of their sins, they cannot be saved” (MD, n. 77; as cited by Fr. Hardon, The Blessed Sacrament, p. 66).
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(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolis-based monthly publication. He and his wife are the parents of seven children. Fier is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. He is doing research for writing a definitive biography of Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)