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).