Is the Eucharist a Sacrifice or a Meal?

Is the Eucharist a Sacrifice or a Meal? February 25, 2011

Prior to Vatican II, or so I’m told, the primary emphasis in the Church’s celebration of the Eucharist was on its sacrificial aspect – The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Then, for a few decades after the council, people were much more comfortable talking about the Eucharist as a meal of fellowship. We talked more about tables than altars, about presiders than priests.

Now, it seems to me, the pendulum is beginning to swing back the other way. Many people are not satisfied with an articulation of the Eucharist that is meal focused. What does this have to do, they wonder, with my eternal salvation won by Christ on Calvary?

I am happy to see the sacrificial aspect of the Eucharist re-asserted in the contemporary Church, but I hope this re-assertion is done in conjunction with the meal motif rather than in opposition to it. It is my conviction that neither sacrifice nor meal can stand alone in our attempts to articulate our Eucharistic faith.

This dual character started right at the beginning, of course. Jesus inaugurated the Eucharist at a sacrificial meal, the Jewish Passover, the night before he himself was to be sacrificed on the cross. In so doing, he gave the apostles the interpretive key for understanding what was to happen the next day.

Most movements whose leaders are executed by the state don’t last long. But Jesus imbued his execution with a meaning that gave it sticking power.  On the night before he died he placed himself, very consciously, into the line of salvation history familiar to the Jews so that, after the shock of Friday’s events and the beginning of the resurrection appearances, the disciples started piecing things together.  (For a great Eucharistic story that highlights their growth in understanding, read Luke 24, the road to Emmaus.)

Not only did Jesus give us his interpretation of the cross during the Passover, a feast absolutely formative of Jewish identity, but Jesus also referenced Isaiah and Jeremiah in the institution narratives, just as he had a few days earlier when he cleansed the temple. The references to these prophets at both the Last Supper and the scene at the temple tell us that Jesus is about to sacrifice in a new way, transcending the temple and the Passover. There is to be a new covenant (Jeremiah) sealed by the suffering servant (Isaiah).

But what is a covenant? We could go into a lot of sociological detail, but what is necessary to understand here is that it is a binding relationship between God and God’s people. It is the foundation for communion. Every culture and every person, if they just think about it for a minute, knows that communion is impossible without sacrifice. Living with one another is hard. We must get over ourselves. We must forgo our claims to justice. We must learn to forgive. Here we have the central dynamic that plays out not only on the cross, but in the Eucharist.  If we want to live in communion, with God and humanity, we must sacrifice.

The meal aspect of the Eucharist is to signify the communion we seek and which we already have to a certain degree.  It really is a family meal.  We have been brought together by God, from all the races and social strata of the world, to be his family on earth.  Moreover, Scripture’s favorite image for our final destiny is that of a banquet, a wedding feast!  At weddings people become family.  If Catholics are serious about calling the Mass “heaven on earth” there can be no doing away with the meal motif.  And, of course, if any non-Catholics were to stumble across us gathering to eat and drink, they would be entirely baffled by someone insisting that “meal” was not an appropriate category to describe what was going on.

Meal must not be dismissed.  The Eucharist cannot be understood without it.  But the Eucharist is a special kind of meal.  It is a sacrificial meal.  We can note, first of all, that all meals are sacrificial.  We take something that used to be alive and we eat it.  Something has given up its life that we might live.  More than that, any social gathering takes sacrifice.  Organizing and planning, cooking and cleaning.  Bringing friends together takes a lot of work.

But what about bringing together enemies?

Make no mistake, this is the heart of our faith:  those estranged from one another and therefore from God (this can be read in either direction) must be reconciled.  Jesus died to save us from sin and hell, but what that really means, practically speaking, is that we are to be reconciled.  Sin divides.  Hell is the name for division frozen into eternity.  That is why sin leads there.

To overcome this takes great sacrifice, sacrifice of which we are not ourselves capable.  This is what Jesus offered on the cross. And this is what undergirds the hope that we will be able to share, yes even a family meal, with our greatest enemies.  The Eucharist is not a meal among those who are naturally inclined to eat together but a meal to which every single human person is invited.  If that is to be achieved (and it will only be finally achieved in the eschaton) it requires not only a perfect sacrifice to ground it, but the participation of all and sundry in that sacrifice so that, little by little, they can die to self and learn to break bread with their mortal enemies.

The sacrificial aspect of the Eucharist is not in opposition to the meal aspect, but supportive of it.  The meal, the communion we seek, the communion that is our final good, is made possible only by our participation in Christ’s sacrifice.  The vertical relationship is a support for the horizontal.  Take away the upright beam of the cross and the crossbeam fails, collapsing to the earth and splintering on the rock of human pride.

Brett Salkeld is a doctoral student in theology at Regis College in Toronto. He is a father of two (so far) and husband of one.

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