Matthew Levering on 2 Views of the Eucharist
YPSILANTI, Michigan, 9 SEPT. 2003 (ZENIT).
The writings of John Paul II and St. Thomas Aquinas
reveal that they have similar ideas on the Eucharist as primarily
So said Matthew Levering, co-founder and professor of Ave Maria
College's Aquinas Center for Theological Renewal, in a speech delivered
last month at the "John Paul II and the Renewal of Thomistic
Theology" conference at Ave Maria....
* * *
In numerous writings marking the turn of the
millennium, including his recent encyclical "Ecclesia
de Eucharistia" Pope John Paul II has exhorted humankind
"to contemplate the face of Christ."
In "Ecclesia in Eucharistia," John Paul II calls particularly
for contemplation of "the 'Eucharistic face' of Christ." Such
contemplation enables believers to discern, in the Eucharist, the links
between Christ's sacrifice on the cross and the unity or communion of
In order to show how the communion brought about by the Eucharist
depends upon the Eucharist's character as a sacrifice, we will examine
the principles which form the basis of Aquinas' theology of the
Eucharist in the "Summa Theologiae" and John Paul II's
"Ecclesia de Eucharistia."
We will focus upon three central aspects of their eucharistic theology:
the sacrificial character of the Eucharist, sacramental representation,
and the participation of believers in Christ's sacrifice by means of the
The Eucharist as sacrifice
What does it mean to call Christ's death a "sacrifice"?
According to Aquinas, a "sacrifice properly so called is something
done for that honor which is properly due to God, in order to appease
him." Why would God be appeased by Christ's bloody death? The
answer is that the Creator-creature relationship involves, on the side
of the creature, an "order of justice."
The order of justice is another name for the right relationship of the
creature to the Creator. The creature owes honor and love to the
Creator, as the Creator's due in return for the gift of creation. The
sin of Adam and Eve violated this order of justice.
Instead of loving the Creator above all things, Adam and Eve chose
self-aggrandizement pride rather than self-gift. In violating
the order of justice, Adam and Eve also violated the order of being. Not
only were their wills disordered, but also their very being was
Having turned away from the divine Giver of being, they and all
humankind with them lost being. Their corruption of soul caused
bodily corruption, ultimately death. By violating the order of justice,
they brought down upon themselves the just penalty of death.
Let us return to Aquinas' definition of "sacrifice":
"something done for that honor which is properly due to God, in
order to appease him."
Because of his supreme love for God and for human beings in relation to
God, Christ on the cross undergoes the penalty of suffering and death
and thereby restores the order of justice the right relationship
with God the Creator that human rebellion had violated.
As such, Christ's sacrifice is pleasing to God, because it shares in the
goodness of justice. Elsewhere, Aquinas points out that a
"sacrifice, properly speaking, requires that something be done to
the thing which is offered to God, for instance animals were slain and
burnt, the bread is broken, eaten, blessed."
This is so because a sacrifice is an outward sign of inward gift of self
to God, and the outward sign must convey the radical nature of the gift.
Not merely the cross, but also the sacrament of the Eucharist is a
sacrifice in this sense, because something is done to the bread and
In answer to an objection that Christ has been sacrificed once and for
all and thus is not sacrificed in the celebration of the Eucharist,
Aquinas states, "As Ambrose says [commenting on Hebrews 10:1],
there is but one victim, namely that which Christ offered, and which we
offer, and not many victims, because Christ was offered but once: And
this latter sacrifice is the pattern of the former."
Christ is sacrificed only once, on the cross. Yet his one sacrifice
becomes the Church's sacrifice also, when the Church offers up the one
sacrifice. Aquinas notes, "This sacrament is both a sacrifice and a
sacrament; it has the nature of a sacrifice inasmuch as it is offered
up; and it has the nature of a sacrament inasmuch as it is
In the celebration of the sacrament of the Eucharist, through the
ministerial priesthood, the whole Church offers sacramentally the
sacrifice of Christ to the Father in the Holy Spirit. The whole Church
receives his sacrifice as a sacrament. As both a sacrament and a
sacrifice, the Eucharist enables the Church to offer up and share in
As a sacrifice to God, the sacrament of the Eucharist possesses the
spiritual sweetness of divine justice. Aquinas affirms that "the
soul is spiritually nourished through the power of this sacrament, by
being spiritually gladdened, and as it were inebriated with the
sweetness of the Divine goodness, according to Cant. v. 1: Eat, O
friends, and drink, and be inebriated, my dearly beloved."
Indeed, Aquinas suggests that Christ himself experienced this
inebriation or delight in receiving the sacrament.
Describing a "delectation of spiritual sweetness" over and
above the increase of habitual grace which Christ did not need
he proposes that "although grace was not increased in Christ
through his receiving this sacrament, yet he had a certain spiritual
delectation from the new institution of this sacrament."
Hence he himself said (Luke 22:15): With desire I have desired to eat
this Pasch with you." The "delectation" comes from the
joy found in offering oneself to God in self-giving love. Aquinas quotes
Ephesians 5:2, "He delivered himself for us, an oblation and a
sacrifice to God for an odor of sweetness."
As a sacrifice the Church's offering of Christ's sacrifice the
Eucharist enables us to share sacrificially in Christ's expiation for
sins; yet since the Eucharist remains ultimately Christ's work, we can
enjoy "spiritual sweetness" with Christ rather than despairing
over our inadequacy.
As a sharing in Christ's sacrifice, the Eucharist conveys the life of
grace, "spiritual refreshment, and charity," and nourishes the
union in charity that is the "union between Christ and his
members," the Mystical Body of Christ.
In "Ecclesia de Eucharistia," regarding the Eucharist's
sacrificial character, John Paul II turns first to Luke 22:19-20, in
which we find Christ's words of institution.
Against those who would deny the cultic character of Christ's sacrifice
for sins, the Pope notes that Christ "did not merely say: 'This is
my body,' 'this is my blood,' but went on to add: 'which is given for
you,' 'which is poured out for you.' ... Jesus did not simply state that
what he was giving them to eat and drink was his body and his blood; he
also expressed its sacrificial meaning and made sacramentally present
his sacrifice which would soon be offered on the Cross for the salvation
The Eucharist is not merely an offering of thanksgiving and praise, let
alone a Christian reversal of ancient cultic sacrificial practices.
Rather, the Eucharist manifests the sacrificial character of Christ's
cross, his pouring out of his blood as a sin offering to God for the
redemption of the world.
Christ's cross is, according to the Pope, primarily a gift of self to
the Father: a sacrifice offered, as is required by the nature of
liturgical sacrifice, to God.
The Pope explains, "Certainly it is a gift given for our sake, and
indeed that of all humanity (cf. Matthew 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20;
John 10:15), yet it is first and foremost a gift to the Father: 'a
sacrifice that the Father accepted, giving, in return for this total
self-giving by his Son, who "became obedient unto death"
(Philippians 2:8), his own paternal gift, that is to say the grant of
new immortal life in the resurrection.'"
It follows that the Eucharist, in which the Church offers up Christ's
sacrifice in sacramental mode, is "a sacrifice in the strict sense,
and not only in a general way, as if it were simply a matter of Christ's
offering himself to the faithful as their spiritual food."
John Paul II thus makes clear that the meaning of "sacrifice,"
as regards both Christ's cross and the Eucharist, is cultic in the sense
of a sin offering to God, not metaphorical in the sense of thanksgiving
In the sacrament of the Eucharist, the Church's offering of Christ's
sacrifice her liturgical sharing in Christ's sacrificial act
occurs through sacramental representation. Aquinas affirms that
"the celebration of the sacrament is an image representing Christ's
passion, which is his true sacrifice." A sacrament is a sign. In
the sacrament of the Eucharist, what is sacramentally represented is
Christ on the cross, that is, the sacrificial separation of Christ's
blood from his body.
Since a sacrament causes, by God's power, what it signifies, the
sacrament causes the change of the bread and wine into Christ's body and
In so doing, the sacrament retains its sign-character: In sacramental
representation Christ becomes present not in his natural or
"proper" mode of being in which he is over 5 feet tall and
so forth but in his sacramental mode of being in which he exists
under the sacramental sign or species.
All aspects of the Church's sacramental sign are therefore important.
Aquinas affirms that the altar represents the cross upon which Christ
was sacrificed in his natural mode of being; the sacrifice of the
Eucharist offers up Christ in his sacramental mode of being on the
Likewise, "the priest also bears Christ's image, in whose person
and by whose power he pronounces the words of consecration. ... And so,
in a measure, the priest and the victim are one and the same." The
priest offers up, "in persona Christi," Christ's sacrifice for
The people by their prayers join in the sacramental offering of Christ's
sacrifice: the whole Mystical Body, united to Christ by the Holy Spirit,
offers up Christ's sacrifice to the Father.
Indeed, the sacrament signifies both Christ and Christ's mystical body:
in the offering up of Christ's sacrifice, the Church (mystical body) is
built up in the image of Christ's self-giving charity.
As Aquinas explains, "there is a twofold reality [res] of this
sacrament ...: one which is signified and contained, namely, Christ
himself; while the other is signified but not contained, namely,
Christ's mystical body, which is the fellowship of the saints."
Although John Paul II does not undertake the lengthy analysis of
sacramental representation that one finds in the "Summa Theologiae,"
nonetheless he affirms the same tenets throughout.
He states that the Eucharist is "not only a reminder but the
sacramental representation" of Christ's passion and death, and he
affirms the substantial change of the bread and wine into Christ's body
and blood transubstantiation as well as the real presence of
Christ in the Eucharist.
By holding that the Last Supper is already the celebration of the
Eucharist Christ's body and blood in sacramental mode are consumed
by Christ and the disciples John Paul II further underscores the
importance of reflection upon Christ's mode of being in the Eucharist,
namely by sacramental representation under the species of bread and
At the Last Supper, Christ can consume his own body and blood only if
his eucharistic body and blood are present through sacramental
representation. Christ is present at the Last Supper in two modes, his
natural mode and his sacramental mode. ZE03090922
2: Matthew Levering on the Sacrificial Character of the
YPSILANTI, Michigan, 10 SEPT. 2003 (ZENIT).
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....
* * *
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,
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,"
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
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
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
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
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
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