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On the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ 2004, the pope announced a Year of the Eucharist. Eucharist: Jesus With Us examines the function of the prayers and actions of the Mass, provides a fresh look at the Eucharist and explores the ways Catholics understand and talk about this central mystery of the Catholic faith.

Eucharist: Jesus With Us

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The Lord’s Supper

by Father Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M., S.T.D.

Is the Mass a sacrifice or is it a meal? That question carries a lot of baggage for some Catholics. The better question is: How are our celebration and understanding of the Eucharist related to the foundational events of our faith: Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday? This is both an important and a very difficult question. It is this question that we are exploring in this series of monthly newsletters.

But why do I not want to ask: Is the Mass a sacrifice or a meal? First, and most importantly, because it is not a case of either/or but both/and. But also, I do not want to ask this question because for some Catholics it evokes issues that are not central to these newsletters, for example, the relationship between faith and good works, indulgences and Catholic identity.


Revisiting the iceberg

In the first issue of Eucharist: Jesus With Us I spoke of the iceberg metaphor. When we see an iceberg, we are really seeing only a small portion of it. Most of its mass lies unseen, below the surface of the water. When we speak of the Eucharist and use the words sacrifice or meal or Real Presence we engage not only the dictionary definitions of those words (comparable to the visible part of the iceberg) but also unspoken meanings and issues (comparable to the large, unseen part of the iceberg) that are attached to these words.

At the time of the Council of Trent (1545-1563), in reaction to perhaps overexuberant preaching on indulgences, there were those who insisted that Christians do not “buy” salvation. Salvation is a gift, freely given, and we do not need to add anything to Christ’s sacrifice. Some thought that to call the Mass a sacrifice devalued the once-and-for-all sacrifice of Christ, and so they preferred to call the Eucharist the Lord’s Supper. To make a long story short, sacrifice became identified with Catholic identity, and to speak of Mass as meal was identified by some as heresy.

What’s the big deal?

The “meal or sacrifice” question may sound strange to younger readers—those formed in the faith during the years following the Second Vatican Council. But for us older Catholics, it was a very important question because the answer was linked to our Catholic identity.

Catholics like me who learned our catechism in the years before Vatican II remember that the answer to “What is the Mass?” was “The Mass is the sacrifice of the New Law.…” To speak of the Mass as “the Lord’s Supper” would have sounded foreign to my young Catholic ears.

The key to the mystery

I am convinced that the key to understanding the mystery of the Eucharist lies in understanding its relation to the events of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday. I use these three events as metaphors for the theological concepts of “meal” (Holy Thursday), “sacrifice” (Good Friday) and “presence” of the risen Lord (Easter Sunday).

The first words of the Second Vatican Council regarding the Eucharist join these three mysteries: “At the Last Supper [Holy Thursday]…our Savior instituted the eucharistic sacrifice [Good Friday]…a memorial of his death and resurrection [Easter Sunday]” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, #47).

Future issues of this newsletter will address “The Sacrifice of Good Friday” and “Presence of the Risen Lord.” Here we will look at the meal shape of the Eucharist (Holy Thursday).

Meal and sacrifice

Calling the Mass a meal does not in any way deny that the Mass is a sacrifice. But how can we integrate these two seemingly different ideas? If I told you, “I just bought a new refrigerator and, oh, by the way, it is also a great vacuum cleaner,” I am sure you would think this a bit strange. Refrigerators and vacuum cleaners are two completely different appliances.

For some Christians, sacrifice and meal are two separate, different ways of understanding the Eucharist. The challenge is to put the two together. One way of integrating meal and sacrifice is to see the Eucharist as the sacrament of Christ’s sacrifice.

Usually when we hear the word sacrifice we think of “giving something up” like giving up coffee for Lent. Or we think of sacrificing an animal as in the Old Testament. And of course we think of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. But here our attention must be directed beyond the blood and suffering aspects of Good Friday to look more deeply into the meaning of this event. Jesus gave himself for us. He held nothing back. He let nothing stand between his will and God’s will. Here we see the ultimate purpose of sacrifice: union with God, indeed joyful union with God.

Today we become present to Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary in a real yet mystical way when we join together in that sacred meal that he left us on the night before he suffered. At that meal, we eat his flesh and drink his blood and we enter into joyful union with God. In our meal sharing, our Holy Communion (co-union, union with) we become one with Christ and one another.

We need not ask whether the Mass is a meal or a sacrifice. It is not a question of either/or. It is both/and. The meal is the sacramental sign of the sacrifice. Each sacrament is a visible sign of invisible grace. At the Eucharist the visible sign is the gathered community sharing a sacred meal, eating and drinking the body and blood of the Lord and fulfilling his command to “do this in memory of me.”

A Thanksgiving analogy

As the meal is the sacramental sign of the sacrifice, in order to understand the Eucharist it is important to know something about meals. Meals involve much more than merely eating food. Let’s consider what happens at a traditional Thanksgiving dinner.

First of all, the extended family gathers at the appointed time and place. We greet our relatives and friends and spend some time in conversation, sharing our stories. We catch up on the lives of those relatives we haven’t seen in a while and we listen as Uncle Otto once again tells his favorite stories about our parents when they were young.

Eventually, it is time to share the meal. We move to the dining room, and the food is brought from the kitchen and placed on the table. Amid the wonderful smells and the anticipation of the taste of the traditional foods, the head of the family invites us to pray and to give thanks to God for this meal and for all of God’s blessings. Then the food is passed and the wine poured, and we eat and drink. After another period of conversation, we return home, happy and overfed, already anticipating next year’s Thanksgiving dinner.

When I use this example to explain the Eucharist, I point out that the Thanksgiving meal has four parts or movements: We 1) gather; 2) tell our stories; 3) share our meal and 4) return home. The Eucharist has a similar fourfold structure: 1) gathering, 2) storytelling, 3) meal sharing and 4) commissioning.

A biblical example

I like to think that this is the same fourfold structure that St. Luke had in mind when he described the Eucharist with the two disciples from Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). As they walk along, the stranger gathers with them. They tell their story and recall the Scriptures. They invite the stranger in and, in sharing their meal, they “recognize him in the breaking of the bread.” Filled with joy and strength from the experience of the risen Lord, they dash back to Jerusalem to tell the other apostles the Good News. Again we see: gathering, storytelling, meal sharing and commissioning.

In the previous two issues of this newsletter, we have examined the Gathering Rites in “The Community Gathers” and storytelling in “Do This in Memory of Me” (Liturgy of the Word). This brings us to part three of the Eucharist: meal sharing.

At Thanksgiving dinner, meal sharing has three movements: 1) food is brought to the table, 2) we say grace and 3) we pass the food and eat and drink. These same three movements are found at the eucharistic banquet: 1) we set the table (the Preparation of the Gifts), 2) we say grace (the Eucharistic Prayer) and 3) we eat and drink (the Communion Rite). Let us begin by examining the first of these three movements: setting the table.

Preparation of the gifts

The three key elements in the Preparation of the Gifts are 1) bringing the bread and wine from the assembly, 2) placing them on the altar/table and 3) praying over the gifts. The mixing of water in the wine and the washing of hands are actions which Jews perform at every ritual meal and which Jesus, no doubt, performed at the Last Supper. These rituals remind us of the meal dimension of the Eucharist.

In the days before money became the ordinary means of exchange, the procession to bring forward the bread and wine to set the table for the Lord’s Supper was also the occasion when people brought forward bread and wine, oil and cheese, and other items to sustain the church ministers, the poor and the imprisoned.

Today, this procession is the time when we also offer our monetary gifts. In sharing the fruits of our labor, we each in our own way participate in the mission of the Church to announce to the ends of the earth the Good News that we have been saved by the cross of Christ and to fulfill the Lord’s command to feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty.

This offering of our gifts and the gesture of the priest lifting up the bread and wine are the reasons we formerly called this part of the Mass the Offertory. Today our prayer of offering takes place during the Eucharistic Prayer; the preferred name for this part of the Mass is now Preparation of the Gifts.

The Preparation of the Gifts concludes with the priest inviting us to pray that our sacrifice be acceptable to God. The priest then recites the Prayer Over the Gifts. Note that each of the major parts of the Mass concludes with a prayer proclaimed by the presiding priest. The priest leads these prayers, but he always prays in the first person plural. The priest is praying in our name, praying the prayer of the Church. And we are to make that prayer our own and give our assent, our “so be it,” our “Amen.”

A holy exchange

Early Church authors delighted in explaining the mysterious exchange of gifts that takes place at Mass. We come forward in procession to offer our gifts of bread and wine to God. In turn, God takes our gifts and transforms them into his gift, the Body and Blood of his Son. And we come forward later in a second procession, the Communion procession, to receive a gift, God’s gift. Frequently the prayers of the Mass refer to this “holy exchange of gifts.”

We have prepared our gifts and “set the table.” This brings us to the very heart of the Mass: the Eucharistic Prayer—the subject of our next newsletter.

Next: Our Greatest and Best Prayer


Question Corner

• Were you taught to think of the Eucharist as a meal, a sacrifice or both?

• Balancing Holy Thursday (meal), Good Friday (sacrifice) and Easter Sunday (presence of the risen Lord) leads to greater understanding of the Eucharist. Which of these three events do you need to grow to appreciate more?

• What more can you do to offer your gifts of time, talent and treasure in support of the Church’s mission of spreading the Good News and serving the poor?




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