Editor’s note: This is part 24 of a series, “The Kingdom of Grace.” Part 23 can be found here.
The wonders of the Eucharist are so many and so marvelous that no one could ever tell them all, but one marvel is how the Eucharist is the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Whoever participates in the celebration of the Eucharist joins the eternal Son in offering his sacrifice to the Father in the Spirit, and the more lovingly one participates in his sacrifice the more fruitful it is for the spiritual life.
The Law of Sacrifice
It might come as a surprise to many contemporary westerners, but human beings naturally desire to give their hearts to God. The fall of the first human beings and the fact of sin have obscured this desire in many ways, but they have not destroyed it. Furthermore, human beings also desire to give a sign or expression of the gift of their hearts to God. Such is the meaning of sacrifice in the sense we are using the term here. A sacrifice is primarily an inward gift of one’s heart to God, but it is also an outward gesture or sign of the gift of one’s heart to God. The inward the gift of one’s heart to God is sometimes called the spiritual sacrifice. The outward sign or gesture by which one expresses the inward spiritual sacrifice is sometimes called the outward act of sacrifice, and in the outward act of sacrifice there is also a thing offered, e.g. a lamb of sacrifice in the old testament.
Down through the centuries, in many lands throughout the world, human beings have offered sacrifice of various kinds. It is a common human phenomenon. The many pagan systems of sacrifice, for example, testify that human beings have a deep and common instinct for sacrifice. Pagan sacrifices, of course, are based on ignorance and confusion about the one true God, and are offerings misdirected to false “gods,” but the phenomenon of pagan sacrifice shows nonetheless that God has written into human nature a desire to offer him sacrifice. The desire is natural and good even though, like other natural desires, it is susceptible to distortion. One can even go so far as to say that all human beings live under the law of sacrifice. We are bound to offer sacrifice to God in some way or another and we naturally know it. The big question is how. What form of sacrifice is the one that the living and true God really wants from us?
Human beings do not know how to answer the question by our own lights. Reason can teach us such things as mathematical truths and basic moral truths and even the truth of the existence of God, but reason cannot tell us what form of sacrifice really pleases God. Rather, God alone can reveal it to us. It was for this purpose, in order to teach human beings of the one true God and how to worship him aright, that God called the patriarchs of old, established the covenants with them, and laid down the law of Moses with its sacrificial rites. God’s course of instruction in how to worship him was gradual and took place over centuries. He taught the people of Israel to offer him sacrifice and specifically how to do so. The process served to heal to some extent the wholesome and good desire of human beings to offer sacrifice to God as well as liberate it from the misdirected sacrifices of paganism. The sacrifices of the old law were also a preparation and prefiguration of the one form of sacrifice that would in the end truly please God.
God’s course of instruction on sacrifice came to fulfillment in the person of Jesus Christ, and the final lesson was most astonishing. What the Lord Jesus revealed is that the one form of sacrifice truly pleasing to God is not any of those we can discover by our own lights as the pagans try to do, nor any of the sacrifices laid down by Moses in the old law, but the one that he himself would offer personally to the Father. The true sacrifice was revealed when Jesus offered himself to the Father through the Spirit on calvary (Heb. 9:15). His was a voluntary acceptance of death and a death of love for the Father. It is the one and only sacrifice that truly pleases God and makes reparation for the sins of mankind.
The Sacrifice of Jesus Christ
Jesus Christ is the great High Priest (Heb. 4:14-5), and every priest is appointed by God to offer sacrifice (Heb. 5:1). In Jesus Christ’s sacrifice, like all sacrifices, there was an inward spiritual sacrifice, an outward act of sacrifice, and a thing offered to the Father. His spiritual sacrifice was a special act of his heart. It was an interior act of love and obedience to the Father who had called him to lay down his life out of love (Jn. 10:18). The Lord Jesus freely chose out of love to heed the will of the Father (Mk. 14:36). On account of this special call, unlike the priests of the old law who offered external things in sacrifice such as lambs, in Jesus Christ’s sacrifice the outward act of sacrifice was to offer himself—his own body, blood, soul, and divinity—to the Father. The sacrifice of Jesus, therefore, is unique. He is both the High Priest who offers the sacrifice and the very thing he offered in sacrifice. “Behold the Lamb of God,” John the Baptist had said pointing to Jesus (Jn. 1:36).
Now, the essence of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ is simply the offering of himself out of love and obedience to the Father, but the manner in which he offers himself and the conditions under which he does so vary. At one very special point in time, the eternal High priest offered himself to the Father under a certain specific set of conditions on calvary. Yet, he offers himself still even now under quite a different set of conditions in glory.
On Good Friday, the Lord offered himself to the Father under conditions of rigor. His body was pierced, his was blood poured out, his thirst was ineffable, his mother wept at his feet. He commended his spirit to the Father, he breathed his last, and he died on the cross. In enduring all of this freely out of love, in the depths of his heart Jesus offered a singular and unique spiritual sacrifice to the Father. The spiritual sacrifice of the Lord was his heart’s devotion to the Father in love even unto death on a cross (Phil. 2:8). At that point, on Good Friday, his outward act of sacrifice took place in a bloody manner. Throughout it all he offered himself up as the sacrificial Lamb, yet on that day—up to the point he actually expired—he was the Lamb in the process of being slain. The moment he gave up his spirit and died on the cross, however, Jesus became once and for all the Lamb Once Slain.
Good Friday does not need to be repeated and it never shall be. The bloody conditions under which he once offered himself have passed away. The torments of Good Friday have given way to the joy of Easter Sunday, and the joy of Easter Sunday abides forever. From the moment he rose from the dead, in addition to being the Lamb Once Slain, Jesus also became the Living One (Rev. 1:18). Though his outward conditions have changed radically since Good Friday, the Lord Jesus has never taken back his heart’s inward spiritual sacrifice. In the depths of his heart, he has never taken back the love, the obedience, and the gift of himself he once offered to the Father on the cross. Even after he died, all through his journey into the great abyss, the heart of Jesus remained fixed in a state of love, obedience, devotion, and offering of himself to the Father. The same inward and heartfelt sacrifice continued through the events of the resurrection, the appearances to the disciples, and the course of his ascension. Even until now, the Lord Jesus never ceases to offer himself from his heart to the Father in love. But he does so now in the eternal sanctuary under quite a different set of outward conditions than on Good Friday.
For the High Priest lives now and forevermore under conditions of glory in the heavenly places. His heart of love and devotion to the Father persists in eternity. His spiritual sacrifice goes on, yet he shows his spiritual sacrifice outwardly in a new and different manner than on Good Friday. Now and forevermore, he shows the Father his glorified wounds, the trophies of his victory over sin and death, and he never ceases to intercede on our behalf for the outpouring of the Spirit. Instead of a weeping mother at the foot of his cross, he has now the Virgin of the Assumption at his side in her glorified body. Instead of being surrounded by mockers, he is surrounded by the souls of the Saints who praise him. The eternal High Priest still offers himself outwardly to the Father, but now in an unbloody manner. He offers to the Father not the Lamb in the process of being slain, but the Lamb Once Slain. His offering of the Lamb Once Slain takes place now under conditions proper to the paradise of Light and the place of radiant joy. Yet, in essence, the sacrifice is the same. Whether his worship be under the conditions of calvary or heaven, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8).
The Eucharistic Sacrifice
Now what stupefies the mind with wonder beyond compare is that while he was still on earth Jesus Christ established a specific, concrete, and practical way for people of all future times and places to take part in his sacrifice to the Father. For on the night before he died, Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and said: “this is my body…take this all of you and eat of it.” He also took wine, blessed it, and said: “this is my blood…take this all of you and drink of it.” The Church has always taken these words literally. In the sacred banquet of the Eucharist, after the words of consecration, what looks like bread is not bread and what tastes like wine is not wine, but is actually the body and blood of Christ. In the same words at the last supper, Jesus also commanded us to eat his body and drink blood. For in John 6:41-69, the Lord told us repeatedly that to eat his flesh and drink his blood is truly necessary for our salvation. At the last supper, he set up a way for all of us actually to do so. He commanded the twelve: “do this.” In these words, Jesus essentially ordained them priests of the new covenant.
When the Lord Jesus ordained the twelve as priests of the new covenant, he bid them to celebrate this sacred banquet so that all who would believe in Jesus, would be baptized in him, and would repent of their sins might have a way to partake in his sacrifice. The priests of the new covenant provide the way. For in the ordination of a priest, God marks a man’s soul with a special and indelible seal. Thanks to the seal of the priesthood on his soul, the priest on earth is connected to the Eternal High Priest in the heavenly places in a special and supernatural way. Thanks to the seal of the priesthood, when the priest on earth speaks the words “this is my body” over the bread and “this is my blood” over the wine, the bread and wine on the altar are changed into the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ himself. Thanks to this change, called transubstantiation, he who is now the Lamb Once Slain and the Living One is present both in heaven and on earth – present in the eternal sanctuary on high and present in our sanctuaries on the earth. Heaven and earth meet on our altars.
The specific, concrete, practical way the Lord Jesus himself has provided for you and I to take part in his sacrifice is simply to go to Mass (or the Divine Liturgy as it is called in the Christian East). From one point of view, we can say that in the Eucharistic liturgy Jesus Christ himself—body, blood, soul, and divinity—is present in our midst on the earth. He is present in the sacrament of the altar. From another point of view, we can say that his Church on earth—the baptized faithful taking part in the celebration of the liturgy—are in his midst in heaven as he worships the Father and offers himself as the Lamb Once Slain. It takes faith to believe both. It takes faith to believe that what looks like bread and tastes like wine are actually the body and blood of Jesus Christ. It takes faith to believe that the ritual words and gestures of the liturgy are really our participation in Jesus Christ’s own heavenly offering of himself to the Father. Yet so it is. The Eucharistic sacrifice calls for us to “walk by faith and not by sight” in the very act of worship itself (2 Cor. 5:7). The truth is, however, that when you and I participate in the celebration of the Eucharist, we actually take part in the Lord Jesus Christ’s own sacrifice of love to the Father and we do so in several ways.
In one way, in the liturgy we join in the spiritual sacrifice now taking place in the heart of Jesus Christ our High Priest. For thanks to baptism our hearts have been joined to his heart in the sanctuary on high in the heavenly places. We have received The Grace to Be Jesus on earth. By grace we share in his relation to the Father, and our prayer is The Filial Prayer of Jesus Christ himself. Having been united with him in baptism, we too are called to lay down our lives by living, loving, and suffering on earth in a manner worthy of our calling as Christians. The love and obedience of our hearts is a spiritual sacrifice, yet the spiritual sacrifice of our hearts is united to the spiritual sacrifice of Jesus Christ himself. In the Eucharistic liturgy, together with Jesus we offer all that we have, all that we are, all that we love, and all that we suffer to the Father of lights. For we have received all from the Father, every good and perfect gift, every gift of nature and grace, every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places (Jas.1:17; Eph. 1:3). The only appropriate response to our Father is to worship him. How to do so, how to live in the liturgy the union of hearts with Jesus Christ in offering sacrifice to the Father, is the topic of the next article in our series.
In addition to spiritual sacrifice, in the liturgy we also join the eternal High Priest in offering his outward sacrifice to the Father. We offer the outward sacrifice not in the bloody manner in which it once took place on calvary, but in an unbloody manner as it now takes place sacramentally in our sanctuaries. Thanks to seal of the priesthood and the ministry of priests, we now have the very body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ himself on our altars on earth. Consequently, like our eternal High Priest in the heavenly places and together with him, we too can now offer up to the Father in an unbloody manner from our altars on earth the Lamb Once Slain. Jesus Christ offered himself once in a bloody manner on Good Friday, he now offers himself in an unbloody manner in the heavenly places, and at the same time he also offers himself in a sacramental manner on our altars here on earth though the ministry of priests. It is all one and the same sacrifice taking place in different manners.
Finally, in the liturgy we partake of the sacrifice in the sense of eating the thing offered – our paschal Lamb. Under the old law, in certain rites the priests would eat the lamb of sacrifice after it was slaughtered. Yet, those rites were merely a prefiguration of greater things yet to come. When Jesus Christ appeared as a High Priest of the good things that have now come to us, he not only became the Lamb Once Slain, but left himself on our altars so that we too—his priestly people—might eat of the Lamb Once Slain. Yet, unlike the priests of the old law, we do not eat a dead lamb but the Living One. The body, blood, soul, and divinity we consume in holy communion is the flesh and blood of the living Jesus Christ in glory. The sacrificial Lamb we now eat is Life itself. The effects of doing so are more than words can tell, and a later article in our series shall spell out some of the fruits of receiving holy communion.
Father James Dominic Brent, O.P. is a Dominican Friar who lives and teaches at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC. Several of his homilies, spiritual conferences, interviews, and radio spots can be found on his personal Soundcloud site. He frequently lectures for the Thomistic Institute and appears on Aquinas 101.
Image: altar from St. Martins cathedral, Bratislava, DepositPhotos