By Ella Johnson
Eucharistic Revival Column
“Sacrifice” is a difficult word to ponder. Its associations with self-deprivation and suffering are things most of us want to avoid thinking about. We don’t want to suffer, we don’t want our loved ones to suffer and we certainly don’t want anyone who is oppressed to suffer even more.
At the same time, the word “sacrifice” is emphasized in eucharistic theology. We often hear the phrase “the most holy sacrifice of the Mass.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church #1330 states that the sacrament is called the “holy sacrifice” because it “makes present the one sacrifice of Christ the Savior and includes the Church’s offering. The terms holy sacrifice of the Mass, ‘sacrifice of praise,’ spiritual sacrifice, pure and holy sacrifice are also used (Heb 13:15; cf. 1 Pet 2:5; Ps 116:13, 17; Mal 1:11).” The Second Vatican Council also stresses a sacrificial understanding of the Eucharist, which highlights our own participation in this sacrifice. The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) #10 asserts, “Taking part in the Eucharistic sacrifice, which is the fount and apex of the whole Christian life, [the faithful] offer the Divine Victim to God, and offer themselves along with it.”
What exactly is being asked of the faithful here? Didn’t Jesus suffer so that we don’t have to? Why would we want ourselves, our loved ones and especially the oppressed, to suffer more? Luther and other reformers were concerned about this connection between Jesus’ sacrifice to our own self-offering (which existed long before the Vatican II). Doesn’t this connection take something away from the unique, one-for-all sacrifice of Christ for our redemption?
In his “Models of the Eucharist,” Kevin Irwin points us to a definition of sacrifice that helps us to address these important questions. He says, “‘Sacrifice’ comes from combining two Latin words meaning ‘to make holy’ (sacrum facere). Even this brief, literal definition invites us to see in the term sacrifice a key to our appropriating the very holiness of God. In and through the Eucharist we desire to share in the mystery of God’s very being and from this participation we desire both to experience for ourselves the very holiness of God and to reflect it to others.”
In this understanding, sacrifice isn’t about seeking out or encouraging suffering and self-deprivation and it certainly doesn’t diminish Christ’s redemptive suffering. In fact, the call to participate in Christ’s sacrifice means quite the opposite. It’s a call to receive the effects of his redemptive suffering in order to be made holy.
How does this happen? Examples from the liturgy provide a description. The first preface of the Eucharist prayer, used on the Easter Vigil and throughout the Octave of Easter, states:
“For his is the true Lamb
who has taken away the sins of the world;
by dying he has destroyed our death,
and by rising, restored our life.”
This prayer exemplifies the ideas that the Lamb of God is active in the here and now, accomplishing what he did once for all — that is, to take away our sins and to make us holy, in and through our eucharistic participation in Christ’s sacrifice.
Similarly, the Eucharistic Prayer I (the Roman Canon) includes the prayer:
“so that all of us, who through this participation at the altar
receive the most holy Body and Blood of your Son,
may be filled with every grace and heavenly blessing.”
By sharing in the sacred covenant meal, our relationship with God is reconciled once again and we are united with the dying and rising of Christ.
This union with the Paschal mystery is important. It’s the key to being made holy. The Eucharist presents us with an opportunity to unite our suffering and joy to Jesus’ dying and rising. The Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy states that the faithful “should be instructed by God’s word, and be nourished at the table of the Lord’s body…. Offering the immaculate victim, not only through the hands of the priest but also together with him, they should learn to offer themselves” (no. 48; my emphasis).
We can go to Mass weekly — even daily — and miss this opportunity (I certainly have). Jesus doesn’t force himself on us; he’s far too humble and gentle for that. Instead, he asks us to make a voluntary offering of self, a sacrifice. This sacrifice isn’t one that entails self-hatred, self-deprivation or suffering for its own sake. Rather, it’s an act of honest and humble self-offering — an act of entrusting ourselves to the redemptive power of Christ’s once-and-for-all sacrifice so that we can be redeemed and transformed. We join with him, who alone can transform our suffering, making us holy.
Ultimately, this self-offering or sacrifice leads to liberating self-transcendence and service to others. The emphasis of liturgical theology on sacrifice does not encourage those who are suffering or oppressed to suffer more. Instead, it obliges us to relieve the sufferings of others. As the Catechism states, “The Eucharist commits us to the poor. To receive in truth the Body and Blood of Christ, given us for us, we must recognize Christ in the poorest” (#1397).
While the emphasis on sacrifice in liturgical theology is challenging to ponder, it provides us with an important reminder: we are made holy in and through our self-offering to God, which leads us to participate in his self-offering to others.
(Ella Johnson, PhD, is an associate professor in the theology department of St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)