October 29, 2012 | Volume 87, Number 26
Part 4: SERIES ON THE SACRAMENTS
The Eucharist: A sacrifice we offer, a sacrifice we receive
The account of the Last Supper in Matthew, Mark, and Luke states that Christ took the bread, said the blessing, and gave it to his disciples etc.
The version in John, however, is different. The Fourth Gospel narrates the washing of feet, which is itself a poignant description of the Eucharist. By stooping low, the Son of God anticipates his Crucifixion; he also leaves behind a permanent sign of that loving sacrifice, a love “to the end” (13:1).
The action at the Last Supper fulfills Christ’s earlier teaching on the Eucharist, which is found in the sixth chapter of John. We heard this splendid “Bread of Life Discourse” proclaimed at Sunday Mass throughout the summer.
There, Christ declares: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” (6:51).
But the Lord’s teaching results in “murmuring” and in quarrels among the crowds. There is even division among his disciples, because some of them do not believe: “As a result of this, many [of] his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.”
This passage shows that, fundamentally, the Eucharist is a way of life. The Eucharist lies at the heart of Christian discipleship because it is Jesus Christ himself — his whole person, and all of his saving work.
Since the Eucharist is Christ, its meaning is inexhaustible. Nevertheless, through the ages the Church has come to a more profound understanding of the Eucharist. To grasp its basic features, we can use the handy frame that the doctrinal tradition has crafted: The Eucharist is both a sacrifice and a sacrament.
The Eucharist is a sacrifice because its liturgical celebration makes present the Death and Resurrection of Christ. The terms “Holy Sacrifice” and “Mass” designate this aspect of the Eucharist.
According to the Council of Trent (1545–1563), the sacrifice of the Eucharist is the same sacrifice as offered once on the Cross. Thus, the Mass brings about a renewal — although never a repetition — of Calvary.
Vatican Council II (1962–1965) developed this teaching by extending the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist to include daily life. In the Mass, the laity offer their entire lives — marriage, family, work, and recreation — with and through the priest. This reflects St. Paul’s exhortation: “I urge you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1).
The Eucharist is also a sacrament because it is the Real Presence of Christ, contained in the consecrated bread and wine that are his Body and Blood. The term “Holy Communion” refers to the sacrament when it is received; the term “Blessed Sacrament” designates the Eucharist when it is reserved in the tabernacle.
According to a classic formulation, the Council of Trent taught that, “Immediately after the consecration the true body and the true blood of our Lord, together with his soul and divinity, exist under the form of bread and wine.”
This means that all of Christ — not just a part of him — is present in either the smallest particle of the consecrated bread or in the tiniest drop of the consecrated wine.
The same Council used the term “transubstantiation” to explain the change of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, since the very substance of the elements is altered.
The two basic dimensions of the Eucharist that we have discussed converge in the Mass. There, sacrifice leads to sacrament: that which is offered on the altar is subsequently received as Holy Communion.
This movement finds a notable expression in Eucharistic Prayer III: “Look, we pray, upon the oblation of your Church and, recognizing the sacrificial Victim by whose death you willed to reconcile us to yourself, grant that we, who are nourished by the Body and Blood of your Son and filled with his Holy Spirit, may become one body, one spirit in Christ.”
The Eucharist, with all of its power, is meant for us: “Take this, all of you, and eat of it...” Filled with Christ himself, we can live like him.
In this regard, it is significant that the common name for the Eucharistic Celebration — the “Mass” (in Latin: Missa) — should be derived from its brief ending. The concluding formula, in Latin, is Ite missa est: literally, “Go forth; you are sent.”
These words indicate that the Dismissal is no mere announcement that the liturgical celebration has ended. Rather, it is a sending forth: Jesus Christ commissions us as he did the Apostles. The Lord, who is present among us at the Mass, sends us into the world to testify to his saving work.
The additional forms of the Dismissal highlight our task: “Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord” or, “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life.”