The Holy Eucharist is both a sacrament and a sacrifice. Until recent years Catholics were familiar with the expression “the Sacrifice of the Mass.” Nowadays, however, that expression seems less popular. Not only is the word “sacrifice” seldom heard in reference to the Mass, but the Mass itself is referred to by many simply as the “Liturgy.”
Perhaps this part of a present-day misconception that sees the Mass mainly as a meal, with little attention given to it as a sacrifice. It is a meal, indeed, and we will treat of that in our next issue; but the Mass is preeminently a sacrifice which is the source of the fruitfulness of the sacramental meal.
The Last Supper was not just a religious meal commemorating the Jewish Passover, although it was that too. Within that meal Jesus instituted a rite of sacrifice, offering to the Father His Body that was soon to be cruelly tortured, and His Blood that would be shed on the Cross in the hours that were soon to follow. Christ instituted this sacrificial rite in order that the sacrifice He was to offer the following day on Calvary could be renewed again and again in a sacramental form, in such a way that the members of His Mystical Body could unite with Him in that renewal. In giving us this infinite gift to offer to the Father, His sacrifice became our sacrifice.
That sacrificial rite on the night before He died was the first Mass, and was essentially the same as the Mass of today. It was while instituting that rite, that He gave Himself to His apostles to be their food and drink.
As we pointed out above, The Eucharist is both a sacrament and a sacrifice; and these two are complementary aspects of the same mystery. They cannot be separated, for the fruitfulness of receiving the Eucharistic meal depends on our oneness with Christ, the Priest and Victim of the eucharistic sacrifice; and the Mass can be understood as a sacrifice only in the sacramental order, as a sign that contains what it signifies.
Only when the Mass is seen in this light can we see how there can be a permanent and abiding sacrifice identical in substance with the sacrifice of the Cross, a sacrifice in which the crucified Christ - now in His glory - becomes present on the altar of today, offering Himself to the Father for the infinite glory of the Divine Trinity and for the salvation of the world.
Christ renews this Eucharistic sacrifice through the ministry of His priests on behalf of the Church, so that “through Him, with Him, in Him” she might share abundantly in the fruits of his redeeming passion and death. Thus the Mass occupies a central place in the life of the Church, just as the sacrifice of Calvary does in the redemption of mankind.
In order to show in what sense the sacrifice of the Mass is one with the immolation of Christ on Calvary, we will examine how the two have the same Priest, the same Victim, the same oblation, and the same effects.
1) The Same Priest:
During His whole life on earth Christ acted as priest in all He did. St. Paul confirms this in his epistle to the Hebrews:
In one initial act of infinite love the Divine Word Incarnate offered His human life to the Father for the salvation of the world - both as priest and victim; yet it was not until Calvary that He exercised His priesthood in all its fullness.
The priest we see at the altar is only an instrument of the divine invisible Priest. The priest we see offers the sacrifice of the Mass, consecrating the sacred species, not in His own name, but in the name and person of Christ, as the words of the consecration indicate. The priest does not say “This is the Body of Christ,“ but “This is My Body”; and it becomes the body, not of the visible priest, but the Body of Christ. He is merely an instrument of the changing (by Christ) of the substance of the bread and wine into the substance of the Body and Blood of Our Savior.
Yet, he is a necessary instrument, for only by the power of priestly ordination can that change be effected, thus bringing about the sacramental presence of Christ who offers the sacrifice of the altar in union with that oblation He is offering without cease in Heaven. “The interior oblation which is ever actual in the Heart of Christ,” says Fr. M. M. Philipon, O.P., “constitutes the very soul of the mystery of the Mass, the hidden source of its infinite value.“ (The Sacraments in the Christian Life, p. 139)
2) The Same Victim:
In each Mass our Divine Savior, now in Heaven in glory, offers to the Father His Sacred Body so tortured at the hands of the Roman soldiers, His Precious Blood shed for the redemption of mankind, the insults and humiliations at the hands of the Jewish leaders, His obedience unto death, etc. “It is one and the same victim,“says the Council of Trent, “He who now makes the offering through the ministry of His priests, and He who then offered Himself on the Cross; the only difference is the manner of the offering.” (n. 749)
This divine Victim is now offered daily in the sacrifice of the Mass, in obedience to the Lord’s command: “Do this in memory of Me.” (Lk. 22:20)
3) The Same Oblation:
Even though the Priest and Victim are the same in the Eucharistic sacrifice and on Calvary, how can it be the same oblation ... the same sacrifice, since there is not the shedding of blood that took place on Calvary? We must keep in mind that we are dealing with a “mysterium fide)” (mystery of faith), and that both the oblation and the immolation of the Eucharistic sacrifice take place on the sacramental level.
We are dealing with signs established by the Lord, but signs which effect what they signify. Just as the water of baptism both signifies and effects a cleansing, and the bread of the Eucharist both signifies and effects a nourishing, so the separate consecration of the bread and wine in the Mass “both signifies and effects the sacramental separation of the Body and Blood of Christ, which constitutes the whole essence of the Eucharistic sacrifice.” (M. Philipon, O.P., ibid. p. 130)
In the Mass there is no new dying, no new shedding of blood. “Christ, having risen from the dead, now dies no more. “ (Rom. 6:19). Yet the crucified Christ offers Himself in His glorified Body as an immolated Victim, obedient unto death to repair for the disobedience of men. The separate consecration of bread and wine is not a real separation of the Body and Blood of Christ, but a sacramental separation, and therefore it contains what it signifies. “It signifies and contains the whole reality of the sacrifice of the Cross.” (M. J. Nicolas, O.P. A New Look at the Eucharist, p. 60)
The Mass then is a renewal of Calvary in the sense that it makes present that bloody sacrifice in a sacramental way. In each Mass our Divine Savior, having undergone the suffering and death of the Cross, and now clothed with the merits and glory that His human nature possesses as the fruit of His sacrifice, offers Himself to the Father on our behalf. Fr. Philipon summarizes the above as follows:
4) The Same Effects:
On Calvary Christ made reparation for the sins of the whole world, and merited sufficient grace for the salvation of the whole of mankind. With His death on the Cross, however, His time of meriting and of expiating came to an end. The action of Christ in the Eucharist does not add to the merits He gained, nor to the atonement He made; but rather applies to the members of His Mystical Body those merits and that atonement. “Its salutary strength,” says the Council of Trent speaking of the Mass, “is applied to the remission of the sins that we daily commit. “ (n. 747)
In the sacrifice of the Mass Christ offers to the Father the same adoration and thanksgiving and praise that He offers without cease in Heaven. At the same time the members of His Mystical Body on earth unite with Him in that oblation, so that - in union with the divine Priest and Victim - the Church on earth offers the same adoration and praise and thanks as the Church in heaven.
The true Christian does not pray for his own needs alone. Like the prayer of Christ, his too will be all- inclusive. The mind of the Church, as expressed in the Eucharistic Prayers of the Mass, is that he unite with Christ: - in offering glory to the Father, - in offering atonement not only for his own sins but those of the whole world, - and in beseeching from heaven the grace of salvation not only for himself and those dear to him, but for the whole of mankind. And he does this with confidence, for he knows that the Mass is a continuation of the sacrifice of Calvary, with all its infinite value for the glory of God and the salvation of souls.
Since the Mass is the renewal of the sacrifice of Calvary, it fulfills the same four-fold purpose of adoration, reparation, petition and thanksgiving, having the same infinite value before God. However, our sharing in the fruits of Christ’s sacrifice will depend on our interior disposition. It becomes “our sacrifice” in the measure that we are one with Christ in total self-surrender to the will of the Father. We will briefly consider these four ends of the Mass.
Our Blessed Lord is the only member of the human race who can offer to the Father an adoration that is entirely adequate - for it is infinite. Even the human limitations of the visible priest do not prevent this, for the principal celebrant is Christ. One Mass, theologians tell us, gives more glory to God than do all the angels and saints in Heaven, for in it there is presented to the blessed Trinity the divine Word made flesh, immolated on our behalf in obedience to the will of the Father.
In return, God showers down His blessings on those who are offering it in union with His Son, and in the measure of their oneness with the Divine Victim. This indicates that routine participation could lessen the fruits of the Mass.
Because we are all sinners, we have an obligation of making reparation for our offenses against God. And here too, the reparatory value of the Mass is infinite, because Christ is again offering to the Father the infinite reparation of Calvary. The world is indeed deluged with sin, but also heaven is being stormed with reparation by the countless Masses celebrated throughout the world to appease Gods wrath, and to keep back His chastising hand.
Yet, as with adoration, so too the reparatory value of the Mass is not applied to us in all its fullness, but rather in a limited way, according to the degree of our union with the divine Priest and Victim. In practice this might be equivalent to the measure of our willingness to do whatever true repentance requires.
We are constantly in need of God’s gifts, both in the order of nature and of grace. When we offer our prayers of petition to the Father through Christ, who is renewing His redeeming sacrifice, and offering again the infinite merits and love and suffering of His Passion, the power of that prayer over the Heart of God is great.. Yet, to be truly united with Christ in the prayer of petition, our prayer must be one with His: “Father . . .not my will, but yours be done.“ (Lk. 22:42)
Such prayer (Christ’s and ours) moves God to grant the graces and favors we need (not necessarily what we ask). But here too, those graces will be granted in the measure that we do not place obstacles in the way, by clinging to our will, to creature satisfactions, etc.
We are so indebted to God for His benefits - both in the natural and supernatural order: e.g. a sharing in His own divine life through grace, the Holy Eucharist, the indwelling of the Divine Persons, the countless times He has forgiven our offenses, the gift of Mary as Our Mother, etc. If it depended on ourselves alone, the whole of eternity would not be sufficient to pay our debt of gratitude. In the Mass, however, we can completely satisfy that debt, because in that sacrifice Christ offers thanks to the Father in our place - adding our prayers of thanks to His. In fact, the very word “Eucharist” is a Greek word meaning “thanksgiving.” There is no more perfect way of saying “thanks” to God than through the Mass; and the more grateful we are to Him, the more He continues to bestow His gifts.
As Christ continues to offer the sacrifice of the Mass through the ministry of His priests, He wishes its fruits to extend to every member of the Mystical Body in need the world over. And every soul that is open to His grace in some measure is benefited by each Mass.
In the Old Testament the Prophet Malachi foretold that from the rising of the sun to the setting a sacrifice, a pure offering would be offered in the Lord’s name. (Mal.1:11) That prophecy is certainly fulfilled in the Sacrifice of the Cross - extended through the Mass. Every minute of every day and night that sacrifice is being offered somewhere in the world, bringing the fruits of Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary, to all souls who are disposed to receive them.
As the heart continually pumps life-giving blood to all members of the human body, so each Mass is like a heartbeat sending life-giving grace of the Divine Head to all members of His Mystical Body who do not place obstacles in the way of His gifts.
St. Paul speaks of Christ in Heaven always making intercession for us before the Father. “Because He continues forever, He has an everlasting priesthood. Therefore He is able at all times to save those who come to God through Him, since He lives always to make intercession for them.” (Heb. 7:25)
That must be understood in the sense that the time will come, at the end of the world, when Christ will hand over His kingdom to the Father. That will be the end of the application of the fruits of His passion, and the last of His intercession for the souls of men; for then the great mystery of the redemption will have been consummated. Then the elect, the Church triumphant, in union with Christ, will offer that oblation of adoration and praise and thanksgiving for all eternity.
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