IS THE EUCHARIST A TRUE SACRIFICE?
The year before the death of the Holy Father Pope John Paul II he announced a special year set aside in dedication to the Most Holy Eucharist, and he urged Catholics world-wide to reflect on the centrality of the Eucharist in every aspect of the life of the Church. In his announcement of setting aside that year during the celebration of the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, the Pope stated "In it [the Eucharist] Christ offers himself to the Father for us, involving us in his sacrifice...." However, many Catholics sadly do not understand that the Eucharist is indeed a true sacrifice.
The celebration of the Eucharist stands at the center of the Church's life and is expressed in its deepest mystery in the Mass of the Holy Catholic Church. The Church has always taught, down through the centuries, that the celebration of Holy Eucharist is a true and holy sacrifice to God. In their writings the disciples of the Apostles, the apostolic "Fathers of the Church", testified to this truth, and when this belief came under attack during the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century AD the Council of Trent affirmed the teaching of the Eucharist as the true and perfect sacrifice of the Lamb of God for the sins of mankind. The Council proclaimed that the sacrifice of Christ at Calvary and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice with the "substance" of Christ being the same but with the "manner" of the offering of Christ being different: "The victim is one and the same [...] who then offered himself on the cross; only the manner of offering is different. [..] In this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass, the same Christ who offered himself once in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross is contained and is offered in an unbloody manner." [Council of Trent (1562) DS 1743].
Those who do not believe in the re-presentation of Christ's sacrifice in the Eucharist argue that another sacrifice would detract from the unique sacrifice of Christ that was offered on the cross at Calvary. Their point is that Jesus' sacrifice was complete and sufficient so why would we need an additional sacrifice if Jesus Christ is "the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world" [John 1:29]? Isn't saying that the Eucharist is a real sacrifice saying that Jesus' sacrifice on the cross wasn't enough? But the Church has always agreed that Jesus' sacrifice was sufficient and complete, never to be repeated. His sacrifice on the cross was the full and complete sacrifice to which every Old Covenant animal of sacrifice prefigured as St. John announced in the Gospel of John 1:29 and 36: The next day, he saw Jesus coming towards him and said, "Look, there is the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world and Jesus went past and John looked towards him and said, "Look, there is the Lamb of God."
Under the Old Covenant the only means of atoning for the sins of believers was through the sacrifice of animals: For the life of the creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you for performing the rite of expiation on the altar for you lives, for blood is what expiates for a life [Leviticus 17:11]. In fact, all over the world throughout the dark ages of humanity the blood of animals [and occasionally humans] as a sacrifice has been a practice of mankind in the essence of religious worship. But no animal, no ordinary human being, for that matter, could be a perfect enough sacrifice to fully atone for the sins of man. Those imperfect sacrifices had to be offered repeatedly. As the inspired author of the New Testament Book of Hebrews writes Every priest stands at his duties every day, offering over and over again the same sacrifices which are quite incapable of taking away sins. He [Christ] on the other hand, has offered one single sacrifice for sins, and then taken his seat for ever, at the right hand of God.. [Hebrews 10:11-12]. It was God's plan for the redemption of man that Jesus' sacrifice on the cross " completes and surpasses all the sacrifices of the Old Covenant." [#1330 Catechism of the Catholic Church].
This is the crucial difference between the sacrifices of the Old Covenant and the New Covenant sacrifice of Jesus the Messiah. The sacrifice at Cavalry was the definitive sacrifice of Jesus Christ, our high priest, who offered the final, true sacrifice that alone could make atonement for the sins of man. The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms this teaching in # 1364: In the New Testament, the memorial takes on new meaning. When the Church celebrates the Eucharist, she commemorates Christ's Passover, and it is made present: the sacrifice Christ offered once for all on the cross remains ever present. As often as the sacrifice of the cross by which "Christ our Pasch has been sacrificed" is celebrated on the altar, the work of our redemption is carried out. And in #1365 the Catechism also teaches that because it is the memorial of Christ's Passover, the Eucharist is also a sacrifice.... That is why we say that the Eucharist is the very same sacrifice as the sacrifice Jesus' presented on the cross. However, each and every Mass is not a "new" sacrifice of Christ; it is instead the on-going sacrifice of the one perfect sacrifice that was offered by Jesus almost 2,000 years ago, the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice [CCC#1367]. But, didn't He redeem us by His death on the cross? Yes, redemption was accomplished at the cross but the application of His redemption goes on [CCC#1366]. When Jesus died on the cross salvation was offered to all mankind, but not all mankind will accept that gift of salvation. The death of Jesus must be applied to each individual person by faith down through time, across nations and generations.
It is the application of His sacrificial death that must be carried out in the world through time if all men are to receive the possibility of that precious gift of salvation. The sacrifice of the Eucharist is the principal means, established by God, for the application of forgiveness to take place. Just as we repeat what Jesus did in the Upper Room in obedience to His command, "Do this in memory of me"; it is in the Last Supper of the Eucharist that we unite with Him in the sacrifice which began that night when He separated His body from His blood in the sacrificial meal of the Old Covenant Passover supper in the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Jesus doesn't die again but His death is present again and again in the celebration of the Eucharist. If the Church was claiming that Jesus dies again in the Mass then the sacrifice would have to be a "bloody" sacrifice because "without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness" [Hebrews 9:22]. But the sacrifice of the Eucharist is instead an unbloody sacrifice of the glorified Christ who continues to offer Himself for the sins of mankind. This is the sacrifice St. John witnessed in the book of Revelation, the last book of the New Testament. It is on a Sunday, "the Lord's Day" [Revelation 1:10] when in St. John's vision he sees Jesus the "Lamb of God", standing before God's throne offering Himself as the perfect sacrifice: "Then, between the throne with the four living creatures and the elders, I saw a Lamb standing, a Lamb that had been slain." [Revelation 5:6]. John's vision occurred years after Calvary, anywhere from 38-50 years after Christ's resurrection! John's vision presents Christ in heaven standing before the throne of God as both the victim and the High Priest of the New Covenant people of God, offering His glorified body and blood to God the Father in an on-going sacrifice for our sins [see Hebrews 9:12-14 and 10:19]. His on-going, perpetual sacrifice before the Father becomes present in the Holy Eucharist of the Mass through the miracle of the Holy Spirit. The Church has given the word "transubstantiation" to this miracle when our gifts of bread and wine are miraculously transformed into the very Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of the risen Savior. The word "transubstantiation" is our feeble and inarticulate attempt to explain the profound mystery of Christ's real presence on the altar in what only continues to have the appearance of bread and wine but which, through the power of the Holy Spirit, has become what Jesus promised in the Gospel of John 6:55 For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in that person. And finally, the sacrifice of Most Holy Eucharist is also the sacrifice of the Church as the Body of Christ in which the Church unites herself to Christ's intercession with the Father for all mankind: "In the Eucharist the sacrifice of Christ becomes also the sacrifice of the members of His Body" [CCC#1368]. It is Jesus' sacrifice present on the altar that makes it possible for all generations of believers to be united with His offering of Himself for our salvation and for the salvation of the whole world.
Christ died only once to forgive sins and His sacrificial death was fully accomplished on the cross, but God has given the gift of the Eucharist as the tangible means of applying His Son's forgiveness. Christ's forgiveness is applied through the Eucharist because the substance of the Eucharist is Jesus Christ and everyone one must have that substance to receive the gift of eternal life. Jesus established the Eucharistic meal for that very reason-to apply healing and forgiveness to those who in faith receive Him in the Eucharist. The bread and wine are transformed just as the bread and wine were transformed in the hands of Jesus at the Last Supper to become all of Christ: Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. It is the amazing gift of God to His children on their journey to the Promised Land that the sacrifice of Christ at Calvary is present in the Eucharist, the bread from heaven He promised us in John 6:34, 47-58, and it is through His healing power of the Bread of Life that we who unite ourselves to His sacrifice are all transformed and made One with Him.
For additional information please see:
Michal E. Hunt, June 2004, on the Feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ