“[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)