Reclaiming the sacrificial dimension of the holy Eucharist

Holy Thursday and Good Friday; the Upper Room and the Hill of Calvary; the Passover Meal and a Sacrificial Death; the Last Supper and the Crucifixion: Each one of these sets and all of them taken together form the context or backdrop for what we are celebrating this weekend: the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ - what we also call "Corpus Christi."

What the Lord Jesus did in the evening of what we now call Holy Thursday in the Upper Room, sharing a Passover Meal with His apostles, He fulfilled the next day on what we now call Good Friday, on the Hill of Calvary, in His Sacrificial Death on the Cross. The Last Supper and the Crucifixion: These together are one reality, the saving action of Jesus Christ by which He frees us from sin and eternal death and enables us to live a new life - His Life - here and then forever in His Presence.

So, as we celebrate this Solemnity of Corpus Christi, we are not only reflecting more deeply on the meaning of the Last Supper and Christ's Crucifixion but also, and more importantly, these saving mysteries are being made present in our midst here and now.

To say this in a different way is to say that this Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ focuses our attention on the Holy Eucharist as we actually take part in this sacramental celebration.

In the years following the Second Vatican Council, much emphasis was placed on the Holy Eucharist as a Sacred Meal or Sacred Banquet. And, indeed, it is, because during its celebration, Jesus Christ shares with us his Body and Blood under the form of bread and wine. However, in emphasizing the aspect of sacred meal, the other equally essential aspect of the Holy Eucharist was often forgotten or given minimal attention. This aspect is sacrifice. As the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults teaches, "the Mass (the Eucharist) is a sacrifice in the sense that when it takes place, Jesus Christ, through the bishop or priest celebrating the Mass, makes present sacramentally His saving sacrificial death on the Cross by which He redeemed us from our sins. This Eucharistic Sacrifice is the memorial of Christ's redeeming death. The term memorial in this context is not simply a remembrance of past events; it is a making present in a sacramental manner the sacrifice of the Cross of Christ and His victory. … In this divine sacrifice which is made present in the Mass, especially in the Eucharistic Prayer, the same Christ who offered Himself once in a bloody manner on the altar of the Cross offers Himself in an unbloody manner," (pp. 220-221).

Of course, sacrifice is not a word used often in our culture. The word usually implies pain, or at the very least, something uncomfortable and to be avoided. However, sacrifice is an essential aspect of prayer and worship in religions worldwide from the beginning of human history. Sacrifice is offered to adore God, to thank Him for His unfailing help, to pray for all our needs and to gain pardon for our sins.

If sacrifice is misunderstood today, so too is covenant. A covenant is the extension of kinship by oath. It is taking a non-family member into one's family. It is a very strong unifying action. Sacrifice and covenant are very much a part of our Judeo-Christian tradition. So also is blood. The sacrifice of animals as peace-offerings or sin-offerings entailed the spilling of blood. Blood has at least two symbolisms. One is kinship: two people share the same blood. We say, for example: "He or she is my blood-relative," or we say, "Blood is thicker than water." The second symbolism of blood is death.

So, sacrifice, covenant and blood: How do these relate to our understanding of what Jesus did at the Last Supper and fulfilled in His Crucifixion? Just as Moses inaugurated a covenant between God and the Chosen People, sacrificing two young bulls, splashing their blood on the altar and sprinkling it on the people, so the Lord Jesus inaugurated the New and Eternal Covenant between God and all people by sacrificing His life on the Cross and shedding His blood.

As today's Gospel account reminds us, the Lord Jesus, during the Passover Meal on Holy Thursday night, took bread, broke it and said, "Take it; this is my body." And then He took a cup and said: "This is the blood of the covenant, which will be shed for many."

Then, on the Cross, the Lord Jesus fulfilled what He said at the Last Supper. He sacrificed His life, so Jesus is both Victim and Priest of the sacrifice, shedding His Blood, thereby sealing the New Covenant wherein God and His People become one.

So, reflecting on the sacrifice aspect of the Mass, let me propose several applications for our growth in deepening our union with the Lord Jesus Christ.

We need to be more aware and grateful for what Christ's Sacrifice on the Cross has won for us: the forgiveness of our sins, uniquely celebrated when we receive the Sacrament of Penance; restoration to new life - Christ's life in us, so that we can live more faithfully as His disciples; and strength to persevere, never giving up, but turning back to Jesus when we fall and sin. Also, we need each day to offer to the Lord Jesus the joys and sorrows, the successes and failures, the monotony, the ordinary - all we are and have and do, so that when we take part in the Mass, we can bring all those sacrifices to the altar and unite them with the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Moreover, we need to accept the crosses that come to us every day, making of them our sacrificial offering to God in adoration, thanksgiving, petition and reparation.

Yes, this Solemnity of Corpus Christi focuses our attention on the Holy Eucharist, both Sacrament and Sacrifice, a sacred meal wherein Christ nourishes us with His very own Self and a sacrificial reality wherein Christ unites us in the New Covenant redeeming us by shedding His Blood. Let us intentionally weave into our daily lives the sacrificial dimension of the Holy Eucharist, offering our lives to Christ and, with Him and like Him, giving our lives in self-sacrificing love to others. In this way, we live in daily life the Eucharistic Sacrifice in which we have taken part in sacred ritual.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015