The Eucharist: The Sacrifice of the Church

Bread and Fish, Catacomb of St. Callixtus, Rome.

In our last entry, we observed that the Most Holy Eucharist is the re-presentation of the one, glorious sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the Bridegroom who saves us from the clutches of final death. It is in the Eucharist that the real presence of this sacrifice echoes throughout all of history; this sacrament opens the way for people of every age to participate in the fruits of Jesus’s sacrifice: truly, “he who eats this bread will live forever” (John 6:58).

Any discussion of the Eucharist as sacrifice would be incomplete without speaking about the role of the Church: the Church is both the one who offers the sacrifice (through the priest, who stands in persona Christi [in the person of Christ]) and the one who is offered. As the Second Vatican Council observed, “taking part in the Eucharistic sacrifice, which is the source and summit of the whole Christian life, [the faithful] offer the Divine Victim to God, and offer themselves along with It” (Lumen Gentium, §11).

The bread and wine brought forward to the Altar during the Offertory have a great part to play in this offering. Alexander Schmemann, an Orthodox theologian, reminds us: “this offering to God of bread and wine, of the food that we must eat in order to live, is our offering Him of ourselves, of our life and of the whole world” (For the Life of the World, 35). But a question arises: what is the significance of our offering to God, when Jesus has made the ultimately significant sacrifice that opened up the way to new life?

From one perspective, it must be said that the offering of ourselves bears the utmost significance. As Schmemann says, “it is the movement that Adam failed to perform, and that in Christ has become the very life of man: a movement of adoration and praise in which all joy and suffering, all beauty and all frustration, all hunger and all satisfaction are referred to their ultimate End and become finally meaningful” (ibid.). Here we offer what Adam did not, joining our sacrifice to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and entering into the newness of life he has won for us. There is no more significant act for a person to make with regard to his own destiny: the offering of one’s entire self to God in Jesus Christ is the secret to happiness, because it is the purpose for which we were made.

From another perspective, without the sacrifice of Christ, our own offering would be forever blemished by the presence of sin and brokenness. Like the Israelites before us, we can only look to the horizon for the coming of our Savior. There he appeared, born of Mary in Bethlehem, true God and true man, yet without sin: “he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself…. We have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews, 9:26, 10:10). As Schmemann concludes, “we offer the world and ourselves to God. But we do it in Christ and in remembrance of Him. We do it in Christ because He has already offered all that is to be offered to God. He has performed once and for all this Eucharist…” (For the Life of the World, 35).

May we approach the Altar, ready to offer ourselves to God, in and through the great offering of Jesus Christ: “with him, [the Church] herself is offered whole and entire” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1368).

Posted in Year of the Eucharist

The Eucharist: The Most Holy Sacrifice

“[I]t is an extraordinary privilege for us to participate in the Eucharistic sacrifice, the resplendent manifestation and heart of our redemption in Christ.” – Bishop Matano

Basilica of Sts. Cosmas and Damian, Rome (7th Century) – Agnus Dei (Lamb of God)

When speaking about the Eucharist in the context of the Mass, Bishop Matano often describes it as the “holy sacrifice.” Similarly, in the most ancient of the Eucharist Prayers said by the priest during the Mass (Eucharistic Prayer #1, the Roman Canon), we hear the following words: “we offer to you, God of glory and majesty, this holy and perfect sacrifice: the bread of life and the cup of eternal salvation.”

What does it mean when Bishop Matano and the Roman Canon describe the Eucharist as a “holy sacrifice”?

From the moment of his conception in Mary’s womb to his triumph over death in the resurrection, Jesus’s entire existence was characterized by a mission. Sent by the Father, through the Holy Spirit, Jesus was like a Bridegroom in search of his Bride, seeking to rescue her from the darkness of sin and death. The Church, the Bride, cries out in wonder and awe: “the voice of my beloved! Behold, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills” (Song of Songs 2:8). The final mountain he climbed – in order to leap over death itself – was Calvary. Here he showed the Bride the astonishing greatness of his love: “greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

Jesus’s sacrificial death on the Cross was not only an illustration of his loving desire to rescue his Bride, but was itself the very fulfillment of this desire. Jesus’s death and resurrection was the culmination of his mission and the very liberation, the very redemption, of his Bride. While the sacrifices in the Old Testament were powerless to free us from our slavery to sin, Jesus’s sacrifice brings about this glorious freedom: the sacrifice of the Lamb of God “is unique; it completes and surpasses all other sacrifices” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, §614). Here it was not the life of an animal that was offered to God, but rather “the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:19). The very Son of God, retaining the fullness of his divinity, became man and suffered the effects of sin for our sake, as an offering of love that satisfied the Father’s deep thirst for love from mankind. As Pope St. John Paul II wrote in Redemptor Hominis, “Jesus and Jesus alone…satisfied that fatherhood of God and that love which man in a way rejected by breaking the first Covenant and the later covenants that God ‘again and again offered to man’” (§9).

The Eucharistic sacrifice is “the resplendent manifestation and heart of our redemption in Christ” (Bishop Matano) because it is the sacrifice of Christ encountered in the Church. John Paul II put this memorably: “the Eucharist is indelibly marked by the event of the Lord’s passion and death, of which it is not only a reminder but the sacramental re-presentation. It is the sacrifice of the Cross perpetuated down the ages” (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, §11). In the Eucharist, then, we encounter the real presence of Christ the redeemer, who tramples down death by death for the liberation of mankind from sin. May the Church, the Bride, listen in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for the Bridegroom’s call:

“Arise, my love, my fair one, 
             and come away;
for lo, the winter is past, 
            the rain is over and gone. 
The flowers appear on the earth, 
           the time of singing has come”
(Song of Songs 2:10-12)

Posted in Year of the Eucharist

Source and Summit

Early in his Pastoral Letter, Bishop Matano affirms that the Sacrament of the Most Holy Eucharist “is the source and summit of the Christian life.” This famous phrase is taken from Lumen Gentium, the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, promulgated in 1964.

As a way of discussing the meaning of this statement, it is worth pointing out that the phrase “source and summit” is somewhat unusual. Source usually indicates a jumping-off point, a beginning from which things proceed. Summit typically means a culmination, a high point to which things proceed. To take an obvious example: if you’re climbing Mount Everest, the base camp from which you proceed (your source) is very different from where you’re going (the summit). The whole drama of this daring feat – the whole promise of success and the dangers of failure – occurs between your source and the summit!

The unusual claim that the Most Holy Eucharist is both the source and the summit of Christian life is made deliberately. The Council Fathers are expressing in words the ineffable mystery – and the inestimable gift – of this sacrament: the Eucharist is precisely the beginning from which our Christian life proceeds, and it is also the high point to which our Christian life is ordered.

Jesus himself established the Eucharist as the source of Christian life: “as the living Father sent me, so I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me” (Jn 6:57). Christian life, with all of its struggles, its demands, and its unfathomable dignity, flows from our partaking of Christ’s own life, which occurs principally through the Eucharist. By nourishing our communion with Christ, the Eucharist gives us “the motivation and strength to live as a true Christian” (Pope St. John Paul II, General Audience, April 8, 1992). It also cleanses us from venial sins and preserves us from future mortal sins: it is the “medicine of immortality” (St. Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Ephesians, 20:2).

 Jesus also confirmed that the Eucharist is the summit of Christian life: “he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (Jn 6:54). The Eucharist accomplishes the goal of every other dimension of Christian life, which to be united body and soul to Jesus Christ. While the greatness of the mystery is often not yet outwardly visible, “by the Eucharistic celebration we…anticipate eternal life, when God will be all in all” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1326).

The whole drama of our own daring feat – to be saints of God in the midst of all trials and tribulations – also occurs between source and summit: the Eucharist serves as our commissioning and our culmination in faith, hope, and love. May we run from Eucharist to Eucharist, Mass to Mass, receiving all strength and all healing from the sacrament, setting the world on fire with divine love on our way.

Raphael – Mond Crucifixion

Posted in Year of the Eucharist

Why Celebrate our Anniversary with a Year of the Eucharist?

“It is my prayer and firm conviction that we make the Most Holy Eucharist, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the heart and center of our Sesquicentennial Celebration. Indeed, this august sacrament, the Real Presence of Christ among us, has sustained us over these many years and has been the driving force for our Diocese’s pastoral, apostolic, and charitable works, ever mindful of the motto of Bishop Bernard J. McQuaid, our first Bishop: “Salus Animarum, Lex Suprema” (“The Salvation of Souls is the Supreme Law”). – Bishop Matano


Fra Angelico – Institution of the Eucharist

Why does it make sense for Bishop Matano to pray that “we make the Most Holy Eucharist, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the heart and center of our Sesquicentennial Celebration”?  

Simply put, the Most Holy Eucharist is at the heart and center of our Diocesan anniversary because it is at the heart and center of the Church! This is true for us today in the Diocese of Rochester and it was true in the early Church as well, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles: “they held steadfastly to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers” (2:42).

The most significant reason for the centrality of the Eucharist in the Church is mentioned in a passage of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, quoted by Bishop Matano in his Letter: “in the blessed Eucharist is contained the whole spiritual good of the Church, namely Christ Himself” (§1324). The Holy Eucharist is at the heart and center of the Church because the Eucharist is the real, self-giving presence of Jesus Christ, the Church’s true treasure and glory!

The Church cannot exist apart from the personal presence of Jesus Christ. How could the Body of Christ exist apart from its Head? How could the flock know the way to safe and verdant pastures in the absence of its Shepherd? The glory of the Church is found in this: that it is the place where all people may encounter the personal presence of our Savior, Jesus who reveals the loving heart of the Father in the Holy Spirit. Pope Francis put it like this: “the Church brings Jesus: this is the center of the Church, to carry Jesus! If, as a hypothesis, the Church were not to bring Jesus, she would be a dead Church. The Church must bring Jesus, the love of Jesus, the charity of Jesus” (General Audience, October 13, 2013).

The Eucharist, then, is the real presence of Jesus Christ in the very heart of the Church. It is the place where the Church most powerfully mediates His very life and love. Here all people are invited in a particularly powerful way to turn away from sin, to encounter Jesus Christ, and to receive newness of life! Remarkably, this real presence also is the glorious fulfillment of Jesus’s promise, that he would be with his Church “always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

May this Year of the Eucharist help us recognize that “the Eucharist, as Christ’s saving presence in the community of the faithful and its spiritual food, is the most precious possession which the Church can have in her journey through history” (Pope St. John Paul II, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, §9).

 

Posted in Year of the Eucharist

Welcome to the Year of the Eucharist!

Welcome and greetings in the Lord! The Diocese of Rochester’s Office of Evangelization and Catechesis is thrilled to offer this blog as a means of celebrating and commemorating the Year of the Eucharist, declared by Bishop Salvatore Matano in conjunction with the 150th Anniversary of our Diocese. The Office hopes that these reflections will help us all take advantage of this unique opportunity to renew our Eucharistic love and devotion. The blog posts will provide brief meditations that will unpack and explore the Church’s theology of the Eucharist contained and communicated in Bishop Matano’s Pastoral Letter.

As the author of this blog, I do not intend these reflections to replace a direct reading of the Letter. Bishop Matano’s thoughts are so rich, and they are filled with the authority of a Successor to the Apostles – please read his Letter first, if you have not already! Although I am not speaking directly for the Bishop in what I write, my aim is to provide a commentary that honors, magnifies, and closely reflects all that is contained in Bishop Matano’s Letter. The Eucharistic teaching of the Church, as it comes to us so beautifully and so personally in Bishop Matano’s Letter, is a great gift to each of us – may we savor it continually throughout this Year!

 

Posted in Year of the Eucharist

About the Author

Dr. Matthew Kuhner is the Director of Catechesis for the Diocese of Rochester and Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry. Matthew earned dual Bachelor’s degrees in Theology and Philosophy at DeSales University in Pennsylvania in 2010 and his Masters in Theological Studies at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family in Washington, DC in 2013. He recently defended his dissertation at Ave Maria University. Matthew is married to his college sweetheart, Michelle, and they have the joy of sharing their lives with their two-year-old daughter, Catherine Grace.

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