For us Catholics, we are dogmatic that the Holy Mass involves the real presence of our Lord’s Body and Precious Blood, and that a real propitiatory sacrifice takes place in the celebration of the Eucharist. But what is the nature of the sacrifice? Does Christ undergo a new transition from being a heart-pulsing human body & soul, to losing all the oxygen in his heart and lungs through asphyxiation, all over again and again as we celebrate the Last Supper? Though I doubt anyone would assert this openly, and while the title of this article was meant to catch attention, some of us still have a difficult time explaining just how the Mass brings into the present moment the veritable death of our Lord. Curious minds care to know!
I know there are many books written on this subject which are well worth exploring, perhaps none better than the former Benedictine Abbot Anscar Vonier’s book A Key To The Doctrine Of The Eucharist, but I came across a wonderful short explanation for our subject while I was reading through the Oxfordian Edward B. Pusey’s second letter to his contemporary partner in dialogue Cardinal John Henry Newman entitled “Is Healthful Reunion Impossible?”. In this letter, which is quite lengthily stretched to 354 pages in my own reprinted hard-copy, Pusey covers the dispute between Anglicans and Lutherans concerning the Sacrifice of the Holy Eucharist. In particular, he goes into fine detail of the letter exchanges between Lutheran theologian and Abbot of Loccum, Gerhard Wolter Molanus (1633-1722), and a contemporary French-Catholic Bishop and
Theologian, Jacques-Bénigne Lignel Bossuet (1627-1704). Amazingly, there was much clarified on both sides concerning various matters. I am sure you could obtain some of Bossuet’s original French material in his 9th-volume Oeuvres complètes de Bossuet, evèque de Meaux, with the material on Reunion with the Protestants “Projects De Reunion De Protestants” beginning on page 772 (which the former link brings you directly). Sadly, I don’t have any access to Molanus’s writings save for what is inserted into Pusey’s letter. Now, I don’t speak or read French, so I am relying solely on Pusey’s translations; whether he had one from himself or whether he got it from someone else, I simply do not know. His notes indicate he translated it himself. I will only be citing what appears to be a response by Bossuet to Molanus.
Here Bossuet steps up to the batters box and explains very well just what a theology of death exists in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and how his explanation, not least being veritably true, also should resolve some of the tensions which our Anglican and Lutheran interlocutors have had in the past over the Tridentine dogmas concerning the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.
“The essence of the sacrifice of the Eucharist consists precisely in the consecration [of the Mass], whereby, in virtue of the words of Jesus Christ, His body and precious blood are placed really on the holy Table, mystically separated under the species of bread and wine. By this action taken precisely [i.e. the separation of body & blood], and without any thing added by the Priest, Jesus Christ is really offered to His Father, inasmuch as His body and His blood are placed before Him, actually clothed with the signs [or symbols] representing His death. As this consecration is done in the Name, in the Person, and through the words of Jesus Christ, it is He in truth who both consecrates and offers, and the priests are only simple ministers. The prayer which accompanies the consecration, whereby the Church declares that she offers Jesus Christ to God by those words ‘offerimus’ and the like, does not belong to the essence of the Sacrifice, which can absolutely subsist without that prayer. The Church only explains, by this prayer, that she unites herself to Jesus Christ, Who continues to offer Himself for her, and that she offers herself to God, with Him; and herein the priest does nothing especial, which the whole people does not do conjointly; with this only difference, that the Priest does it as public minister, and in the name of the whole Church.
This being well understood, it appears that this real oblation of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ is a consequence of the doctrine of the Real Presence [la realite], and that the Church is not to be asked to produce any other commission to ‘offer’ than that which is given her to consecrate, since the oblation in its essence consists in the consecration itself.
“I say no more of the relation of this oblation to that of the Cross, because I think that I have sufficiently explained it in my former writing. Only it is necessary to avoid any ambiguity as to the word ‘offer’, as was remarked, and to be quite assured that one cannot depart more from the intention of the Church, than by believing that she seeks in the Sacrifice of the Eucharist anything to supplement any defect in the Sacrifice of the Cross, which she knows to be of an infinite merit perfection and virtue, so that all which is done subsequently tends only to apply it to us.
“When the Catholic Church uses these words, ‘we offer’, and the like, in her liturgy, and by these words offers Jesus Christ, present on the holy Table, to His Father, she does not mean by this oblation to present to God, or to make to Him a new payment of the price of her salvation, but only to employ the merits and intercession of Jesus Christ with Him, and the Price which He has once paid for us on the Cross…
“We believe that, by the words ‘This is My body; This is My blood’ not only does Jesus Christ place Himself actually on the holy Table, but that He places Himself, clothed with signs representative of His death. This shows us that His intention was to place Himself there as slain; and it is on this ground we say that this table is also an altar.
“We believe that this action, whereby the Son of God is placed upon the holy Table under signs representative of His death, viz., the consecration, carries with it the recognition of the high sovereignty of God, in that Jesus Christ, present, renews in them the memory of His obedience even to the death of the Cross, and in some sort perpetuates it.
“We believe also , that this same action makes God propitious to us , because it sets before H is Eyes the voluntary death of His Son for sinners, or Father, His Son, clothed, as was said, with the signs representative of that Death whereby He has been appeased.
“On this ground we say that Jesus Christ still offers Himself in the Eucharist; for having once given Himself for us to be our Victim, He does not cease to present Himself to His Father, as the Apostle says that ‘He appears before God for us’.
“There should be no dispute about the word. If by ‘offer’ is meant the oblation made through the death of the Victim, it is true that Jesus Christ offers Himself no more. But He offers Himself in that He appears for us, presents Himself for us to God, sets before His Eyes His death and obedience, as is here explained.
“We believe, then, that His presence on the holy Altar, in this figure [or symbol] of His death, is a continual oblation which He makes of Himself, of His death and His merits, for the human race. We unite ourselves to Him in this condition, and we offer Him as He offers Himself, protesting that we have nothing to present to God but His Son and His merits. So that, seeing Him by faith present on the altar, we present Him to God as our only propitiation through His blood; and at the same time we offer ourselves with Him, as living sacrifices, to the Divine Majesty. It is not good reasoning to say, that the oblation of the Cross is not sufficient, supposing that Jesus Christ still offers Himself in the Eucharist, any more than it would be to say that, because He continues to intercede for us in heaven, His intercession on the Cross was imperfect and insufficient for our salvation.
“All this , then, does not prevent its being very true, that Jesus Christ offered Himself once only; because, although as the Apostle says, when He came into the world He offered Himself to be a sacrifice for us, although we believe that He ceases not to present Himself for us to God, not only in Heaven, but also no the holy Table, still all refers to that great oblation, whereby He offered Himself once upon the cross, to be put in our place, and to suffer the death which was due to us. And we know that the whole merit of our redemption is in such wise attached to this great sacrifice of the Cross, that there is nothing left for us to do in that of the Eucharist, than to celebrate its memory and to apply to us its virtue.
“Moreover, let us not think that the Victim, which we present in the Eucharist, is to be there in truth anew destroyed; because the Son of God has once most abundantly satisfied this obligation by the sacrifice of the Cross, as St. Paul the Apostle proves divinely in his Epistle to the Hebrews. In such wise that, the sacrifice of the Eucharist being established in commemoration, we ought to seek therein only a mystical death and destruction, wherein the effectual death, which the Son of God once suffered for us, is represented.
“Such is the sacrifice of the Church, a spiritual sacrifice, where the blood is shed in mystery only, where death intervenes only in mystery; still a very true sacrifice, in that Jesus Christ, who is the Victim, is really contained there under this figure of death; but a commemorative sacrifice, which subsists only through its relation to the [one] sacrifice of the Cross, and derives therein all its virtue”