The Oneness of the Christian Sacrifice – Abbott Vonier

June 4, 2012

Completed in 1955 after nine months of work, Salvador Dalí’s painting The Sacrament of the Last Supper has remained one of his most popular compositions. Since its arrival at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in 1955, it replaced Renoir’s A Girl with a Watering Can as the most popular piece in the museum. The combination of a classic Christian theme with the jarring techniques of Surrealism captures the eye, as Dali was able to do repeatedly with such works as The Temptation of St. Anthony, Christ of Saint John of the Cross, Crucifixion or Corpus Hypercubus, The Madonna of Port Lligat, Nuclear cross, and The Ecumenical Council, among others. The composition was laid out using the Golden Ratio, just like Michelangelo’s classic.

It is well known that the most constant reproach of Protestantism against the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharistic sacrifice is this, that the Catholic Church, by teaching the need of a second sacrifice, virtually denies the all-sufficiency of the sacrifice on Calvary. Yet the Church has never ceased protesting that her Eucharistic sacrifice is by no means a derogation of the natural sacrifice of Christ on the Cross; it is, on the contrary, an additional honor to that great act by which Christ redeemed us.

The sacrifice of the Christian altar and the Sacrifice of Calvary are one and the same. At the same time the Church maintains that the Mass is a sacrifice in the true sense of the word, an act which is new every day, though the sacrifice be not new. We have, then, in this matter unity and duality of a very peculiar nature. It is my conviction that unless we cling firmly to the sacramental concept of the Eucharistic sacrifice we cannot meet the Protestant difficulty. But if once we grasp the meaning of the sacrament, the Protestant difficulty vanishes, and the fundamental oneness of the Christian sacrifice becomes apparent.

If the Eucharistic sacrifice were in any way a natural sacrifice it would be simply impossible to avoid the conclusion that there are two different sacrifices, and the question: Why two sacrifices? would be justifiable. The circumstance that the second sacrifice would take place under entirely different conditions would not save us from such a conclusion; if it were a sacrifice in natura, however much disguised, it would be really another sacrifice, not the same sacrifice. But let the sacrifice be a sacrament in the full sense of the word, then it cannot be a new sacrifice, but it must be the representation, pure and simple, of the historic or natural sacrifice.

If there were in the Mass an immolation, or a mactation, or a death, or an heroic deed, not already contained in the sacrifice of the Cross, the Eucharist would at once become sacrifice number two, because in that case something new would have happened in the world of grace which did not happen on the Cross.

It is the genius and very nature of the Christian sacrament to be an act which may be repeated indefinitely, though the content, or, if you like, the object of the act, be immutable. This is the representative role of the Christian sacrament. Such a thing cannot happen anywhere outside the sacramental sphere. Is not the sacrament precisely this mystery of never ceasing repetition or representation of something in itself immutable? If Christ came to us in His natural state and were thus offered up, this new coming and this new offering would be events forming new chapters in the historic career of the Son of God.

But the sacramental presence and the sacramental offering of Christ are not historic events in His career; they do not form new chapters in the book of His life. Of course, the acts by which He instituted the Eucharist and offered Himself up for the first time are most tremendous deeds in His historic career; but to be offered up in the sacrament does not belong to the historic life of the Son of God. If there is repetition of acts, those repetitions are not on the part of Christ, they are on the part of the Church living here on earth. “As the thing which is offered up everywhere is one Body and not many bodies, so there is one sacrifice everywhere.” [Summa, III, q 73,a.3, ad3]

It is such a pity to see how often an initial misconception in these high matters leads to profound divergences of thought, nay, even to dangerous presentments of Catholic truth. To save the oneness of the Christian sacrifice the strange hypothesis has been put forward in our own days that the Eucharistic sacrifice is not so much a representation of the sacrifice of the Cross as an integral portion of the sacrifice of the Cross. The Eucharistic sacrifices, both at the Last Supper and now, are being considered as so many stages in the one great all-embracing sacrifice whose culminating act was on the Cross.

It is not my mission here to criticize theological opinions. It is certain, however, that to consider the Eucharistic sacrifice as being in any way a portion of the universal sacrifice is a profound reversal of the traditional role of the sacrament. A sacrament is not an act in the drama, however great that drama may be; a sacrament is essentially the representation of the whole drama. The historic drama must be complete before sacraments are possible.

Sacraments are the monuments of the finished thing, not the introductory scenes or the last acts of some great historic deed. If the Eucharistic sacrifice were in any way a portion of the universal sacrifice it would represent nothing except itself; it would contain nothing except itself; it would not apply to us anything except such grace as would belong to it in its partial role; it would not contain more immolation than would be warranted by its essentially limited place in a greater mystery.

Now the Christian sacrament, and above all, the sacrament-sacrifice, is a representation, an application, an immolation, and a containing of the whole immensity of the universal sacrifice. We must, if we are to save the dignity of the Catholic Mass, make it a thing by itself, not merely the first or last act of another thing, however divine and powerful.

I can understand the temptation that comes to anyone who lets go his grasp of the sacramental view in general, and more particularly of the sacramental view of the Eucharistic sacrifice. He finds himself confronted with an awkward duality, which he hopes to reconcile by making Mass a part of the Christian sacrifice. He thus invokes what might be called a oneness of organism, as when we call “one” the various members of the same body. In the theory I allude to, Mass is only a member, it is not the whole thing.

But in the traditional view Mass is the whole thing; it contains the whole Christ with the kind of totality described earlier. Is not one of the basic principles of the Eucharistic sacrifice to be found in the very completeness and finality of the sacrifice of the Cross? If Mass gave anything to the Cross it would cease to be a sacrament, as it would cease to be a representation. Mass is the memory or the monument of Christ’s passion. Is it not the very purpose of a monument to stand for the complete victory, the final triumph? We do not erect monuments to deeds incomplete or half-achieved, however heroic they may be.

To take away something from the completeness of the sacrifice of the Cross on the one hand, and on the other hand from the completeness of the sacrifice of the Mass, is not to join them into one organism; it is to maim them both. In this matter you cannot make a whole with two halves, because sacrament and nature are totally different. But they become one through that very difference, as I have already said, because the one is the total representation of the other’s totality of reality. The traditional view of the Church, as I shall prove by-and-by, is that the sacrifice of Calvary was complete and perfect of its kind; the Eucharist adds nothing to it, but it is truly “the brightness of its glory and the figure of its substance.”

To come back to the Protestant, we may say to him that his position is in a way comprehensible if he denies the whole sacramental system, root and branch, making of faith alone his approach to Christ; but if a man admits sacraments at all there is no more reason for him to reject the sacrament-sacrifice than to reject the sacrament-regeneration — i.e., Baptism. In both we have nothing else than a representation — in the technical sense of the word — of Christ’s death and its application to the individual soul.

If Baptism is no derogation to Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary, but is, on the contrary, the sign of Christ’s victory, why should the Eucharistic sacrifice be such a derogation? Are we not dealing in both instances with modes of contact between the individual soul and the historic Christ? The Eucharistic sacrifice may be a more vivid representation, or, if you like, a more burning contact, having more of activity than of passivity, containing a divine substance; but when all is said there is no radical difference in strict theological thought between Baptism and the Eucharist, considered in its true sacramental functions of sacrifice and spiritual nutriment.

This seems a fitting place for the examination of a difficulty which may sometimes bewilder even careful thinkers in theological matters. The Eucharistic sacrifice was offered up first at the Last Supper, before the natural sacrifice on the Cross took place. Would not this point to the conclusion that in some way the Eucharistic sacrifice is truly the beginning of the whole sacrificial drama of Christ? Did He not, when He offered Himself in sacrifice in the supper room, perform the first act of that priesthood which reached its consummation on Calvary?

Here, again, one must admit that it would be difficult, not to say impossible, to fit the Last Supper into the act of redemption if we gave to the Eucharistic sacrifice the meaning and the value of a natural sacrifice. If it were a natural sacrifice, we could not avoid the conclusion that the world was redeemed before Christ shed His first drop of Blood, as the Last Supper would have had infinite value as sacrifice in its own right.

The other alternative would be, of course, the one adopted by some recent theologians whose views have already been mentioned, who consider the Last Supper to have been merely the first act of the one universal sacrifice, and who make the sacramental reality and the natural reality complement each other. But if once the sacramental view of the Eucharistic sacrifice is admitted, the difficulty no longer exists. As the sacrament is essentially a representation, it could be instituted at any moment by Christ, provided He existed bodily in the reality of the Incarnation, and not only in the hope of the believer.

That great act of Redemption, the immolation of Christ on the Cross, could be represented before, as well as after, His crucifixion; and though the sacrament derives all its truth and value from the death of Christ, its institution, or even its celebration or use, may precede that event. The celebration of the Eucharistic sacrifice by Christ no more superseded His role on Calvary than did the first breaking of bread of the Christian Church after the coming of the Holy Spirit. Sacraments, and sacraments only, possess that aloofness from the historical sequence of events.

Speaking of Baptism, Saint Thomas gives us in very succinct phrases the theology of those wonderful anticipations by Christ. Taking it for granted that men may have received Christian Baptism before Christ died on the Cross, he says: “Even before Christ’s passion Baptism received its efficacy from Christ’s passion, as it was its figure; but it prefigured differently from the sacraments of the Old Law, as these were mere figures; but Baptism derived the power of justifying from that very Christ by whose virtue the passion itself was to become salutary.” [Summa, III, q 66,a.2, ad1]

Applying this doctrine to the Eucharistic sacrifice of the Last Supper, we may say that it prefigured the sacrifice of the Cross; and the Christ who was to give His own natural Flesh and Blood that power of redeeming mankind, gave to bread and wine the power of representing sacramentally that same Flesh and Blood. We need not even consider the Eucharistic sacrifice of the Last Supper as being a final vow of the Son of God to undergo death, a theme beloved of more than one preacher. The traditional view of the Last Supper is much more sacramental in tenor: Christ, on the eve of leaving this world, gave us the memory or monument of Himself, and nothing in the nature of that great monument obliged Christ to wait until after the event for this.

The monument is such that He could erect it before the event, it being a sacrament. The institution of the Eucharistic sacrament at the Last Supper, then, was not so much Christ’s vow to die, as His anticipated triumph in His death.

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  1. Wonderful.

    Some parts remind me of Charles Journet. His way of talking about re-presentation and time (as well as his friend Jacques Maritain’s) has been very good for me.

  2. Wow!!!
    Your explanation is the Catholic
    presentation of the “Eternal Now.”

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