Each issue carries an imprimatur from
the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Reprinting prohibited
The Lords Supper
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 Christs 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 Lords 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.
Whats 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 Lords 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
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
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
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
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 Gods will. Here we see the ultimate
purpose of sacrifice: union with God, indeed joyful union with God.
Today we become present to Christs 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. Lets 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 havent 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 Gods 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 years
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
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 Lords 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 Lords 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, Gods 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 Prayerthe subject of our next
Next: Our Greatest and Best Prayer
Were you taught to think of the Eucharist as a meal, a sacrifice
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 Churchs mission of spreading the Good News and
serving the poor?
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