Aquinas and John Paul II on the Eucharist (Part 2)

Matthew Levering on the Sacrificial Character of the Blessed Sacrament

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YPSILANTI, Michigan, SEPT. 10, 2003 ( An Ave Maria College professor says that John Paul II’s «Ecclesia de Eucharistia» invites a theological renewal of the Thomistic doctrine of the Eucharist.

Matthew Levering, co-founder and professor of the college’s Aquinas Center for Theological Renewal, delivered that message last month in an address he gave at the «John Paul II and the Renewal of Thomistic Theology» conference here. The first part of this adapted text appeared Tuesday.

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Participation of believers in Christ’s sacrifice

When treating of the Eucharist as a sacrifice, Aquinas notes that the discussion has two aspects: «in the celebration of this mystery, we must take into consideration the representation of our Lord’s passion, and the participation of its fruits.»

The «representation of our Lord’s passion» is the sacrifice, and the «participation of its fruits» is our communion in charity with Christ and each other.

As the theme of «participation» makes clear, communion with God, and each other, in Christ through the Holy Spirit cannot be separated from Christ’s sacrifice. It is our offering of Christ’s sacrifice that enables, in the sacrament of the Eucharist, our sharing in its fruits of ecclesial unity and communion.

The Church’s offering of Christ’s sacrifice, her sharing in Christ’s holy sacrificial act, culminates in her reception of, or communion in, the sacrifice.

Arguing that the priest who consecrates the sacrament of the Eucharist must also receive the sacrament, Aquinas states, «Now whoever offers sacrifice must be a sharer in the sacrifice, because the outward sacrifice he offers is a sign of the inner sacrifice whereby he offers himself to God, as Augustine says» («De Civitate Dei,» x).

Indeed, Aquinas goes on to say that «it is by partaking of the sacrifice that he has a share in it, as the Apostle says» (1 Corinthians 10:18).

When the Church sacramentally represents Christ’s sacrifice, she receives what she has sacramentally represented. Our stature as «participators in his sacrifice» is fully attained when «through the Eucharist we eat Christ.»

In the celebration of the Eucharist we do not only represent Christ and his mystical body; by communing in the sacrificial meal, we are transformed into the Christic image that we have taken on by our sacramental act of representation.

Aquinas explains that «the Eucharist is the sacrament of Christ’s passion according as a man is made perfect in union with Christ who suffered.» Note that the union accomplished by the sacrament of the Eucharist is not simply with «Christ,» but with «Christ who suffered.»

Our union with Christ is found in union with Christ’s sacrifice: «Spiritual food changes man into itself, according to that saying of Augustine (‘Confessiones,’ vii), that he heard the voice of Christ as it were saying to him: Nor shalt thou change me into thyself, as food of thy flesh, but thou shalt be changed into me.»

In this union with Christ who suffered, a union that can occur through either sacramental or spiritual eating, the believer is «changed into Christ» and «incorporated in him.»

What does it mean to be united to Christ by being «changed into Christ»? It means to come to share, through his sacrifice, in his relationship to the Father in the Holy Spirit. The Eucharist presses us forward in the imitation of Christ’s love.

Recalling John Damascene’s comparison of the Eucharist to Isaiah’s burning coal (Isaiah 6) and Gregory the Great’s observation that God’s love is continually working great things, Aquinas argues that «through this sacrament, as far as its power is concerned, not only is the habit of grace and of virtue bestowed, but it is furthermore aroused to act, according to 2 Corinthians 5:14: The charity of Christ presseth us.»

In the sacrament of the Eucharist, we are conformed to Christ both externally, through sacramental representation, and internally, through charity aroused to act — active self-giving love.

This active self-giving love, restoring the relationship of justice between humankind and God, makes Christ’s sacrificial death pleasing before God. As Aquinas notes, Christ’s «voluntary enduring of the passion was most acceptable to God, as coming from charity.»

In «Ecclesia de Eucharistia,» Pope John Paul II emphasizes the connection between sacrifice and communion: The communion meal of the Last Supper is already a sacrificial meal.

Quoting the Catechism of the Catholic Church, he states: «‘The Mass is at the same time, and inseparably, the sacrificial memorial in which the sacrifice of the Cross is perpetuated and the sacred banquet of communion with the Lord’s body and blood.'»

Our communion flows from our sharing in Christ’s sacrifice. This sharing is not merely subjective, as if by our thanksgiving and praise we succeeded in sharing in the consciousness of thanksgiving that Christ experienced on the cross.

On the contrary, God makes sacramentally present Christ’s cultic sacrifice to us in the Eucharist, and thereby enables us to receive the fruits of Christ’s sacrifice.

John Paul II remarks, «The Church constantly draws her life from the redeeming sacrifice; she approaches it not only through faith-filled remembrance, but also through a real contact, since this sacrifice is made present ever anew, sacramentally perpetuated, in every community which offers it at the hands of the consecrated minister. The Eucharist thus applies to men and women today the reconciliation won once for all by Christ for mankind in every age.» In the sacrament of the Eucharist, the Church offers the one and only sacrifice of Christ.

Christ offered himself for our sins at Calvary; the Church daily offers sacramentally this once-and-for-all offering on the altars throughout the world, so that humankind may be one in the communion of his risen life.

Thus, the Church’s sacramental offering of Christ’s sacrifice is her mode, given her by Christ, of sharing spiritually in Christ’s self-offering and thereby being conformed to his image in the unity of his body.

As the Pope puts it, «In giving his sacrifice to the Church, Christ has also made his own the spiritual sacrifice of the Church, which is called to offer herself in union with the sacrifice of Christ.»

Here the Pope quotes «Lumen Gentium»: «‘Taking part in the Eucharistic Sacrifice, which is the source and summit of the whole Christian life, they offer the divine victim to God, and offer themselves along with it.»

In affirming the sacrificial character of Christ’s cross and of the Eucharist, however, the Pope is careful not to cut off the Eucharist from the resurrection. Christ’s self-giving sacrifice bridges the sinful alienation between self-aggrandizing humankind and the self-giving God of love, and thereby opens the path of eternal life.

The Pope states, «The Eucharistic Sacrifice makes present not only the mystery of the Savior’s passion and death, but also the mystery of the resurrection which crowned his sacrifice.» As the risen Lord, Christ offers himself to us in the Eucharist truly as the «bread of life» (John 6:35,48) in whom we find eternal life.

The celebration of the Eucharist thus unites the sacrificial aspect of the cross with the triumphant aspect of the Resurrection.

As John Paul II emphasizes, however, the «life» of communion is found only through Christ’s sacrifice, because through Christ’s sacrifice God restores the relationship between human beings and himself and invites us into the «communion» of divine self-giving love, in the life of the risen Lord.

For Aquinas, in short, our communion or «abiding in Christ» comes about through our sacramental representation of, and thus sharing in, Christ’s
cultic sacrifice — a sharing that conforms us to Christ’s image by enabling and including our gift of self within his sacrificial self-offering to God.

In other words, Aquinas approaches the Eucharist in terms of sacrifice, sacramental representation and the participation of believers in Christ’s sacrifice. The same three aspects characterize John Paul II’s encyclical «Ecclesia de Eucharistia» as well.

John Paul II writes, «The Eucharist is indelibly marked by the event of the Lord’s passion and death, of which it is not only a reminder but the sacramental representation. It is the sacrifice of the cross perpetuated down the ages.»

As regards these three aspects, the Pope strongly affirms Aquinas’s approach against the approach of the great majority of contemporary sacramental theologians. Indeed, «Ecclesia de Eucharistia» invites a theological renewal of the Thomistic doctrine of the Eucharist.

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