Aquinas and John Paul II on Sacrifice and Communion (Part 1)

Matthew Levering on 2 Views of the Eucharist

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry

YPSILANTI, Michigan, SEPT. 9, 2003 ( The writings of John Paul II and St. Thomas Aquinas reveal that they have similar ideas on the Eucharist as primarily sacrifice.

So said Matthew Levering, co-founder and professor of Ave Maria College’s Aquinas Center for Theological Renewal, in a speech delivered last month at the «John Paul II and the Renewal of Thomistic Theology» conference at Ave Maria. Part 2 of this adapted text will appear Wednesday.

* * *

In numerous writings marking the turn of the millennium, including his recent encyclical encyclical «Ecclesia de Eucharistia» Pope John Paul II has exhorted humankind «to contemplate the face of Christ.»

In «Ecclesia in Eucharistia,» John Paul II calls particularly for contemplation of «the ‘Eucharistic face’ of Christ.» Such contemplation enables believers to discern, in the Eucharist, the links between Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and the unity or communion of the Church.

In order to show how the communion brought about by the Eucharist depends upon the Eucharist’s character as a sacrifice, we will examine the principles which form the basis of Aquinas’ theology of the Eucharist in the «Summa Theologiae» and John Paul II’s «Ecclesia de Eucharistia.»

We will focus upon three central aspects of their eucharistic theology: the sacrificial character of the Eucharist, sacramental representation, and the participation of believers in Christ’s sacrifice by means of the Eucharist.

The Eucharist as sacrifice

What does it mean to call Christ’s death a «sacrifice»? According to Aquinas, a «sacrifice properly so called is something done for that honor which is properly due to God, in order to appease him.» Why would God be appeased by Christ’s bloody death? The answer is that the Creator-creature relationship involves, on the side of the creature, an «order of justice.»

The order of justice is another name for the right relationship of the creature to the Creator. The creature owes honor and love to the Creator, as the Creator’s due in return for the gift of creation. The sin of Adam and Eve violated this order of justice.

Instead of loving the Creator above all things, Adam and Eve chose self-aggrandizement — pride — rather than self-gift. In violating the order of justice, Adam and Eve also violated the order of being. Not only were their wills disordered, but also their very being was disordered.

Having turned away from the divine Giver of being, they — and all humankind with them — lost being. Their corruption of soul caused bodily corruption, ultimately death. By violating the order of justice, they brought down upon themselves the just penalty of death.

Let us return to Aquinas’ definition of «sacrifice»: «something done for that honor which is properly due to God, in order to appease him.»

Because of his supreme love for God and for human beings in relation to God, Christ on the cross undergoes the penalty of suffering and death and thereby restores the order of justice — the right relationship with God the Creator — that human rebellion had violated.

As such, Christ’s sacrifice is pleasing to God, because it shares in the goodness of justice. Elsewhere, Aquinas points out that a «sacrifice, properly speaking, requires that something be done to the thing which is offered to God, for instance animals were slain and burnt, the bread is broken, eaten, blessed.»

This is so because a sacrifice is an outward sign of inward gift of self to God, and the outward sign must convey the radical nature of the gift. Not merely the cross, but also the sacrament of the Eucharist is a sacrifice in this sense, because something is done to the bread and wine.

In answer to an objection that Christ has been sacrificed once and for all and thus is not sacrificed in the celebration of the Eucharist, Aquinas states, «As Ambrose says [commenting on Hebrews 10:1], there is but one victim, namely that which Christ offered, and which we offer, and not many victims, because Christ was offered but once: And this latter sacrifice is the pattern of the former.»

Christ is sacrificed only once, on the cross. Yet his one sacrifice becomes the Church’s sacrifice also, when the Church offers up the one sacrifice. Aquinas notes, «This sacrament is both a sacrifice and a sacrament; it has the nature of a sacrifice inasmuch as it is offered up; and it has the nature of a sacrament inasmuch as it is received.»

In the celebration of the sacrament of the Eucharist, through the ministerial priesthood, the whole Church offers sacramentally the sacrifice of Christ to the Father in the Holy Spirit. The whole Church receives his sacrifice as a sacrament. As both a sacrament and a sacrifice, the Eucharist enables the Church to offer up and share in Christ’s sacrifice.

As a sacrifice to God, the sacrament of the Eucharist possesses the spiritual sweetness of divine justice. Aquinas affirms that «the soul is spiritually nourished through the power of this sacrament, by being spiritually gladdened, and as it were inebriated with the sweetness of the Divine goodness, according to Cant. v. 1: Eat, O friends, and drink, and be inebriated, my dearly beloved.»

Indeed, Aquinas suggests that Christ himself experienced this inebriation or delight in receiving the sacrament.

Describing a «delectation of spiritual sweetness» over and above the increase of habitual grace — which Christ did not need — he proposes that «although grace was not increased in Christ through his receiving this sacrament, yet he had a certain spiritual delectation from the new institution of this sacrament.»

Hence he himself said (Luke 22:15): With desire I have desired to eat this Pasch with you.» The «delectation» comes from the joy found in offering oneself to God in self-giving love. Aquinas quotes Ephesians 5:2, «He delivered himself for us, an oblation and a sacrifice to God for an odor of sweetness.»

As a sacrifice — the Church’s offering of Christ’s sacrifice — the Eucharist enables us to share sacrificially in Christ’s expiation for sins; yet since the Eucharist remains ultimately Christ’s work, we can enjoy «spiritual sweetness» with Christ rather than despairing over our inadequacy.

As a sharing in Christ’s sacrifice, the Eucharist conveys the life of grace, «spiritual refreshment, and charity,» and nourishes the union in charity that is the «union between Christ and his members,» the Mystical Body of Christ.

In «Ecclesia de Eucharistia,» regarding the Eucharist’s sacrificial character, John Paul II turns first to Luke 22:19-20, in which we find Christ’s words of institution.

Against those who would deny the cultic character of Christ’s sacrifice for sins, the Pope notes that Christ «did not merely say: ‘This is my body,’ ‘this is my blood,’ but went on to add: ‘which is given for you,’ ‘which is poured out for you.’ … Jesus did not simply state that what he was giving them to eat and drink was his body and his blood; he also expressed its sacrificial meaning and made sacramentally present his sacrifice which would soon be offered on the Cross for the salvation of all.»

The Eucharist is not merely an offering of thanksgiving and praise, let alone a Christian reversal of ancient cultic sacrificial practices. Rather, the Eucharist manifests the sacrificial character of Christ’s cross, his pouring out of his blood as a sin offering to God for the redemption of the world.

Christ’s cross is, according to the Pope, primarily a gift of self to the Father: a sacrifice offered, as is required by the nature of liturgical sacrifice, to God.

The Pope explains, «Certainly it is a gift given for our sake, and indeed that of all humanity (cf. Matthew 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20; John 10:15), yet it is
first and foremost a gift to the Father: ‘a sacrifice that the Father accepted, giving, in return for this total self-giving by his Son, who «became obedient unto death» (Philippians 2:8), his own paternal gift, that is to say the grant of new immortal life in the resurrection.'»

It follows that the Eucharist, in which the Church offers up Christ’s sacrifice in sacramental mode, is «a sacrifice in the strict sense, and not only in a general way, as if it were simply a matter of Christ’s offering himself to the faithful as their spiritual food.»

John Paul II thus makes clear that the meaning of «sacrifice,» as regards both Christ’s cross and the Eucharist, is cultic in the sense of a sin offering to God, not metaphorical in the sense of thanksgiving and praise.

Sacramental representation

In the sacrament of the Eucharist, the Church’s offering of Christ’s sacrifice — her liturgical sharing in Christ’s sacrificial act — occurs through sacramental representation. Aquinas affirms that «the celebration of the sacrament is an image representing Christ’s passion, which is his true sacrifice.» A sacrament is a sign. In the sacrament of the Eucharist, what is sacramentally represented is Christ on the cross, that is, the sacrificial separation of Christ’s blood from his body.

Since a sacrament causes, by God’s power, what it signifies, the sacrament causes the change of the bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood.

In so doing, the sacrament retains its sign-character: In sacramental representation Christ becomes present not in his natural or «proper» mode of being — in which he is over 5 feet tall and so forth — but in his sacramental mode of being — in which he exists under the sacramental sign or species.

All aspects of the Church’s sacramental sign are therefore important. Aquinas affirms that the altar represents the cross upon which Christ was sacrificed in his natural mode of being; the sacrifice of the Eucharist offers up Christ in his sacramental mode of being on the altar.

Likewise, «the priest also bears Christ’s image, in whose person and by whose power he pronounces the words of consecration. … And so, in a measure, the priest and the victim are one and the same.» The priest offers up, «in persona Christi,» Christ’s sacrifice for the people.

The people by their prayers join in the sacramental offering of Christ’s sacrifice: the whole Mystical Body, united to Christ by the Holy Spirit, offers up Christ’s sacrifice to the Father.

Indeed, the sacrament signifies both Christ and Christ’s mystical body: in the offering up of Christ’s sacrifice, the Church (mystical body) is built up in the image of Christ’s self-giving charity.

As Aquinas explains, «there is a twofold reality [res] of this sacrament …: one which is signified and contained, namely, Christ himself; while the other is signified but not contained, namely, Christ’s mystical body, which is the fellowship of the saints.»

Although John Paul II does not undertake the lengthy analysis of sacramental representation that one finds in the «Summa Theologiae,» nonetheless he affirms the same tenets throughout.

He states that the Eucharist is «not only a reminder but the sacramental representation» of Christ’s passion and death, and he affirms the substantial change of the bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood — transubstantiation — as well as the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

By holding that the Last Supper is already the celebration of the Eucharist — Christ’s body and blood in sacramental mode are consumed by Christ and the disciples — John Paul II further underscores the importance of reflection upon Christ’s mode of being in the Eucharist, namely by sacramental representation under the species of bread and wine.

At the Last Supper, Christ can consume his own body and blood only if his eucharistic body and blood are present through sacramental representation. Christ is present at the Last Supper in two modes, his natural mode and his sacramental mode.

[On Wednesday: Union with Christ’s sacrifice]

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry


Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a donation