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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 Sacrifice of Good Friday

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

Often when I give talks on the Eucharist I ask, “What is the Mass?” There are always some older people in the audience who respond spontaneously: “The Mass is the sacrifice of the New Law in which Christ, through the ministry of the priest, offers Himself to God in an unbloody manner under the appearances of bread and wine.” This answer from the Baltimore Catechism that I memorized in grade school has had a lasting influence on the way many Catholics understand the Eucharist as a sacrifice.

Defining sacrifice

And what is a sacrifice? Sacrifice was defined in that same catechism as “the offering of a victim by a priest to God alone, and the destruction of it [the victim] in some way to acknowledge that He is the Creator of all things” (1953 Baltimore Catechism, #358).

And when does this destruction of the victim happen? Not all of the authors agreed on the answer to this question. Some said it happens “when the bread is eaten.” Others said it is “when the priest breaks the host.” But the most common explanation was that the sign of Jesus’ death is found in the twofold Consecration. The bread (Christ’s Body) is on the paten (the small round bread plate) and the wine (Christ’s Blood) is in the chalice. This separation of his Body and his Blood is the sign of Jesus’ death, the “immolation” of the sacrifice.

The prayer book I used as a child explained: “How does Jesus die again and renew His Sacrifice? On Calvary He died ‘physically’ by the separation of His Body from His Blood. On the altar He dies ‘mystically,’ since the words of Consecration are like a sword, ‘mystically’ separating the Body from the Blood by the two separate Consecrations” (Father Stedman’s Sunday Missal, 1938, page 5).


Tying up loose ends

This understanding of the sacrifice of the Mass served me well for many years. There were some “loose ends” if I pushed the explanation too far. But one might expect some loose ends when trying to explain the unexplainable.

However, in recent years I have begun to work out a slightly different synthesis based on things I have learned about the history of the Mass and the meaning of “remembering” and “sacrifice” in sacred Scripture. I want to present the basic outline of this synthesis and invite you to examine your own understanding of the Mass to see if it might enrich your appreciation of the Eucharist: the sacrifice of Good Friday.

Puzzle Pieces

Pretend for a moment that you have never seen a jigsaw puzzle, and you have in your possession a small, strangely shaped piece of cardboard with a beautiful picture on it. You treasure this object because it was given to you by your parents and had been handed down from their parents.

Then one day you learn about jigsaw puzzles and find other objects similar to the one you possess. You discover that your object is actually a piece of something much larger and even more beautiful. In the context of the total puzzle, your “piece” takes on new significance and meaning. A similar process has taken place regarding the way we think of the words of Consecration at Mass.

Time to rethink

Recent discoveries regarding the shape and function of the Eucharistic Prayer have led us to rethink the function of the words of Consecration. Formerly the words of Jesus at the Last Supper—“This is my body...This is my blood...”—were, in my mind at least, the only really significant part of the Mass. (And I believe I was not alone in this perception. I have seen books that describe the Mass as “the words of Consecration with prayers before and after.”)

The Consecration was the moment when it all happened. The altar boy rang the bells. The singing stopped. We halted whatever prayers we were saying. The priest elevated the host. Christ had come down from heaven onto the altar.

One piece of a whole

As wonderful and important as this is, today we see that the “institution narrative” or words of Consecration are one piece of a larger picture: the Eucharistic Prayer. In an earlier issue of this newsletter we examined the berakah (blessing) “shape” of the Eucharistic Prayer and said that it consists of three parts: (1) naming, (2) thankful remembering and (3) petition through the Holy Spirit.

To help my students remember this berakah shape of the prayer I sometimes use the example of the teenager talking to his dad. (1) “Dad, you’re the best father a guy could ever have.” (2) “You work hard for us all week to put food on the table. I bet you’re tired and want to stay home tonight and watch television.” (3) “Can I have the keys to the car?”

Grateful remembering

In the Eucharistic Prayer, the words of Consecration are seen in the context of the “grateful remembering.” At each Eucharist we remember God’s wonderful and mysterious plan for our salvation which culminated in the Incarnation and life of Jesus of Nazareth, the Last Supper with his disciples, his death on the cross, his Resurrection and Ascension into heaven.

God the Father freely offers the human race a share in his own divine life by sending his Son among us. Filled with God’s Spirit, Jesus passed through suffering and death to return to the Father’s side. At each Eucharist we gratefully remember this divine offering by recalling the events of the Pascal Mystery. But we remember these events in the biblical sense of remembering.

More than simply recalling

Biblical remembering is not simply recalling an event that happened once, long ago, in the past. Anamnesis (the biblical notion of memorial) is a remembering that makes present: “Remember me when you come into your kingdom....Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Lk 23:42-43; italics added).

The anamnesis or “grateful remembering” of the Eucharistic Prayer lifts us out of our past/present/future kind of earthly time (chronos in Greek), and we enter into God’s time, God’s eternal now, the time of salvation (kairos in Greek). We do not repeat the Last Supper or Christ’s death or his Resurrection, but we—in some mysterious way—become present to these “once and for all” events so that we “are enabled to lay hold upon them and become filled with saving grace” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, #102).

At the Eucharist we become present to the great events of the Paschal Mystery. We are there with the apostles at the Last Supper. We stand at the foot of the cross. We witness the Resurrection and Ascension. The Eucharist is called “the Holy Sacrifice because it makes present the one sacrifice of Christ the Savior” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1330).

Goal of joyful union

Biblical scholars have helped us see beyond the “death of the animal” in understanding the nature of a sacrifice. It is not the suffering and death of the animal that is the key to the meaning of sacrifice. Sacrifice is a ritual action that has as its aim joyful union with God.

For example, on the Day of Atonement—the holiest day on the Old Testament calendar—the high priest took the blood of the animal (that is, its very life) and sprinkled it on the altar in the holy of holies (the dwelling of God on earth). He then sprinkled it on the people to indicate that God’s life flows through them, that they are united in the same blood and in the same life. Their sins are forgiven because they are “at one” with God’s life: at-one-ment. “Since the life of a living body is in its blood, I have made you put it on the altar, so that atonement may thereby be made for your own lives” (Lv 17:11).

This same union of life is exemplified in Jesus of Nazareth. He let nothing stand in the way of his union with the Father. Throughout his life he could pray, “Behold, I come to do your will, O God” (Heb 10:7). He emptied himself of all pride and self-will and everything that could impede this joyful union with his Father. He “humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8). At the Eucharist we stand in the presence of this mystery of sacrificial union.

We stand in the presence of the Paschal Mystery and open ourselves to the work of the Holy Spirit to receive the Father’s offering of divine love in his Son. And when in Holy Communion we receive Christ’s Body and drink the Blood of the new covenant, we are consumed by that Divine Love and become Christ’s Body here on earth. We thus achieve the end, the purpose of sacrifice: joyful union with God.

To be transformed

Our transformation into Christ is the principal petition (epiclesis/ invocation) at every Eucharist. In Eucharistic Prayer IV, for example, we ask that the Holy Spirit “gather all who share this one Bread and one Cup into the one Body of Christ, a living sacrifice of praise.” Thus the sacred meal becomes the sacramental sign of the sacrifice of Christ.

In summary, we can say that at the Eucharist we gather as the baptized, the Body of Christ. We read the Scriptures and hear the story of God’s wonderful plan for our salvation. We give thanks for these memories, and in the grateful remembering we become present to the Paschal Mystery.

We ask God to send the Holy Spirit to transform our bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ so that we who dine at that sacred table might be transformed into that very Body. And in Holy Communion we receive a foretaste of that heavenly banquet where we will be one in Christ, and Christ one with God, “so that God may be all in all” (1 Cor 15:28). Thus God’s eternal plan for creation comes to its fulfillment.

A growing tradition

I believe that these insights into (1) the structure of the Eucharistic Prayer, (2) the remembering that makes present and (3) sacrifice as joyful union with God can help us come to a deeper appreciation of the Eucharist: the sacrifice of Good Friday.

In trying to incorporate these ideas into our understanding of sacrifice I am not rejecting the understanding of the faith I received from my parents and the teachers of my youth. Rather I hope that I am walking in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, which reminds us in the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation that the tradition that comes to us from the apostles continues to grow and develop with the help of the Holy Spirit. “For as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her” (#8).

I invite you to see if the ideas presented in this newsletter can help you on your journey toward the “fullness of divine truth.”

Sacrifice and real presence are the key elements of our Catholic understanding of the Eucharist. We have just examined the Eucharist as sacrifice, but the Eucharist is also the real presence of Christ. That will be the subject of our next newsletter.

Next: Presence of the Risen Lord


Question Corner

• Father Tom states that the real thrill of the Christian life is in the journey, the mission to share the Good News. Recall an experience when getting involved enlivened your faith.

• Does the Mass sometimes feel like an oasis along your life’s path? Do you leave Mass recommitted to the journey?

• We must recognize Christ not only in the Bread and Wine but also in his Body, the Church. Christ especially identifies with the poor. “The Eucharist commits us to the poor” (CCC, #1397). What more can you do for the poor?




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