Each issue carries an imprimatur from
the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Reprinting prohibited
The Sacrifice of Good Friday
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.
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
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.
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?”
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,
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
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”
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
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 lifes
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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