CHAPTER XV — THE UNDYING VICTIM
MORE is necessary than a full, flowing stream if we are to get a pail of water; at least we need an empty pail. More than a generous heart is necessary if we are to help others; yet, even emptiness on the part of the one we are trying to help and willingness to help on our side are not enough. Concrete proof of this statement is had from the floods of knowledge that pour from the lips of teachers day after day in America, rushing over the empty heads of thousands and thousands of children; when the flood is stopped at the end of the day, many a pupil emerges unscathed. Surely, an empty-headed pupil and a learned teacher do not complete the recipe for successful communication of knowledge.
Limitations of help: The fact and bases of limitation in general
Nor is this peculiar to the art of teaching. A superior soon recognizes the difficulty of giving correction to a proud man; a parent quickly sees the futility of much of the advice he gives to the young; while the flatterer is constantly balked and bewildered in his attempts to inflate a humble man. This is a peculiarity of man which is the basis of his social life and of the possibility of the negation of that social life. He can communicate with others, giving and receiving; but he can also refuse to communicate. He has the unique privilege of saying “no.”
In fact, man can go much further than a brusque refusal; he can argue himself into the most untenable positions, and hold them. He can, for instance, blind and deafen himself to the point where he does not, positively cannot, see his need for help. This is the foundation upon which most of the helpless who will not be helped build their strange fortresses. Ultimately, no doubt, the whole thing must be traced back to exaggerated self-sufficiency; at least, the acceptance of help is a humble, and often humiliating, business.
Prerequisites of help
There is a clear expression of the prerequisites of help in the charming and familiar story of the prodigal son; finally casting aside the husks of swine which were his only food, he resumed to his father’s house protesting his unworthiness, and was feted with music, dancing, and the fatted calf. It is to be noticed that he first came to a realization of his starvation; then went on to an acknowledgment of his unworthiness and rebellion against the rule of his father’s house. There would have been no prodigal son had he so accommodated himself to the diet of swine as to be blind to his own starvation; or if he had forgotten his father’s house and had remained unconvinced of his own unworthiness. Even with all these, the story would never have been told had there been no return and subjection to his father.
Help of the undying Victim: Need of a victim
Christ, the undying Victim, hanging on the cross or renewing that sublime sacrifice in the Mass, brings infinite help to men; but not if they are blind to their need of a victim. The Living Bread that came down from heaven offers rich nourishment to the souls of men; but vainly if they are unaware of their starvation. Well, the modern objects, why should we need a victim? We have got along some three hundred years without sacrifice. Why should we need food? We have been doing well enough without it.
You see, men can blind themselves, particularly when they stare into the hypnotic eyes of pride. Man needs a victim because he is not God; because he has superiors above him as well as inferiors beneath him; because the Supreme Superior is the almighty Lord of all things. In the name of the truth of his own nature and of the divine nature, man must recognize divine sovereignty; or, what amounts to the same thing, he must recognize his own position in the universe. Moreover, that recognition must come in an expression harmonious with his nature and significative of the supreme dominion of God. In a word, sacrifice must offer to God a sensible offering in whose consumption or destruction is publicly declared God’s supreme dominion.
He would need a victim, this man, even had he remained totally innocent of sin and on a purely natural level; for he would still be man, and God would still be God. Since he has been raised to a divine plane, invited to live the life of God, an acknowledgment of that divine supremacy is even more pressingly necessary; it should be more readily seen and more easily given. When we add the fact that man has rebelled against truth by sinning, we have noted the added necessity of reconciliation to truth’s proclamation.
Need of food
Anemic rebels and rebels in starvation
Why does man need food? Again, because he is not God but man. He needs food for his soul as well as for his body because he is a man and not merely an animal. He cannot live on himself, for his life is not from himself; he cannot live on things beneath him, because a part of him is not ennobled or enlivened, but degraded and sickened by feeding on the things of earth. We might say that a Catholic is an anemic creature spiritually who needs a victim and food; a Catholic sinner is still more anemic and in need of food and a victim both for nourishment and reconciliation; while the modern pagan is a rebel in starvation who denies his rebellion and smiles away his starvation.
Need of a victim and food really means the need of truth, peace, and plenty. Without a victim, man can never have truth or peace, for the denial of God’s sovereignty is a declaration of war on the First Truth. Without food for the soul, there can never be that plenty in man’s life which is the fullness of life, of love, of union with God. The modern pagan surrenders hope for peace and plenty, yet, strangely, talks unceasingly of security. He has officially joined the bank of the helpless who will not be helped.
Though its uniqueness is sufficient title to a place in history, that is not exactly the point of my mentioning here that once upon a time a procurator served Camembert cheese in an American Dominican refectory. The cheese went solemnly untouched past the uplifted nose of student after student; finally arriving in the professors’ territory, it was immediately demolished by unanimously cooperative action due, no doubt, to the fact that an unlooked-for fruit of European training is the proper evaluation of cheese and wine as staples of life. This is not merely a matter of history; rather, it is a rough parallel of the Old Testament story of the Israelites whose souls were nauseated by the light food God had sent them in the form of manna. If we add just a touch more of disgust, we can grasp a not uncommon opinion of the sacred food of the Eucharist; it is the same reaction that greeted Christ’s first promise of it: “These are hard words, and who can hear them?” Hard words, indeed, that man should live by the flesh of God.
The bread of life: Relative to those receiving it:
Its direct contributions to life: Grace, sanctifying and sacramental
Let us look at that food more closely. In previous volumes of this work, and more than once in this volume, we have seen that sanctifying grace is the supernatural life of the soul. Where one finds a sensible sign containing and producing grace and its effects, there is a sacrament feeding the soul of man. In this sacrament, the Lord Jesus Christ Himself is really contained, His passion is here represented and renewed, a renewal of the fountainhead of all grace. As a consequence, this sacrament is a rich banquet which refreshes the spiritual life of the soul, sustaining it, increasing it, repairing the ravishes of daily life, flooding the soul with delight. It is food fit for a king.
That this is true becomes clearer as we focus our attention on the sacramental grace of the Eucharist, the special titles to graces necessary to attain the particular end of the sacrament. The precise object of the Eucharist is charity or the union of love between the members of Christ’s Mystical Body and their Head. Just as the sacramental grace of Matrimony gives title to the helps necessary to meet the difficulties and emergencies of the long years of married life, so the Eucharist gives men a right to the actual graces necessary to make acts of love of God, every act increasing, deepening, adding power in action to that common life we share with God.
The full implications of this truth are too often passed over; yet, they are plain enough and of profound significance. It will be remembered that in the preceding volume, it was said that the basis of friendship is a common ground. On the human level, an increase in friendship is a matter of increasing or deepening that common ground within ourselves, hoping that our friend will keep pace with us or, at least, keep that common ground alive; though there is nothing we can do about its dying out in him. If we realize that the supernatural life of the soul is precisely that common ground of divine life, sanctifying grace, and that it does not grow greater or less in God, to Whom it belongs essentially, but only in us, then we begin to see something of the full meaning of the special end of the Eucharist. It is to make fuller the life of God within us, to increase Hie friendship, not only at that instant in which we receive the sacrament, but for the future, giving us rights to the graces necessary constantly to increase that divine friendship by acts of charity. Once this is really understood, we can see the wisdom of Pius X in insisting on early Communion and appreciate, to some little extent, the torrent of divine love that overflowed the heart of the child Imelda on her reception of her first — and last — communion.
This food is indeed the food of angels; yet, it is only a promise of what is prepared for us by this sacrament, a taste snatched in the kitchen before the heavenly banquet. It gives us Him Who has thrown open the gates of heaven, sowing the seed of eternal glory, sanctifying grace, with a complete assurance of strong, quick growth; it is, truly, a solemn pledge of the full bloom of that eternal glory. If grace is glory in embryo, as it is, then the Eucharist gives both the means and the promise of development of that embryo in giving us the right to the graces necessary for acts of charity.
Food is an engrossing subject, but only among healthy, hungry men. It is rare that it is discussed over the cigars and liqueurs. A thumping headache takes all the reasonableness out of breakfast; a sick stomach makes us wonder how people can talk of anything so disgusting as food. With a little fever, food is out of the question; if we are really sick, then it is time for the cook to take her vacation and for the druggist’s wife to price fur coats. All this is in the natural order; in the supernatural and spiritual order, things are quite reversed. This food creates a hunger for more of it; an overstuffed angel dozing in the afternoon sun is no less inconceivable than a human soul that has had too much to eat. It just cannot happen, for spiritual food enlarges our capacity rather than exhausts it.
As for illness, that is what this food is for; there are no spiritual drugstores. A slight spiritual indisposition — headache, stomach ache, a little fever — all these are grouped together under the name of venial sin; and they are directly destroyed by the food from this angelic banquet table. For the proper effect of the Eucharist — acts of charity — directly remits venial sin by the displeasure at sin which is contained in charity. Charity, you see, is always whole-hearted protestation of love of God, with no conditions attached; it simply cannot permit a treasured collection of snapshots of former lovers, beribboned bundles of correspondence, or regretful sighs at loving memories.
To look at it in another way, the wear and tear of daily life on our souls is not caused by the exercise of virtue; for virtue is not exhausting, it is invigorating. The tired business man in the supernatural order is a man who has been about the wrong business, the business of sin. The burning up of energy by activity in the natural order can be paralleled in the supernatural order only by the heat of passion and other venial sins which diminish the fervor of charity. Just as food and rest restore the energy burned up by physical activity, so the Bread of Life restores the brightness and alertness of charity and repairs the damage done by venial sin.
Not even a chef, acknowledged as supreme by his most jealous fellows, feels insulted when a dead man looks coldly upon his confections. A dead man has no use for food so, in an eminently practical way, he has nothing whatever to do with it; food ministers to life. This supernatural food, the body of Christ, is not for dead men, for men in mortal sin. To serve it to the dead and have them consume it would be a desecration of a sacred food; indeed, this reception of the sign of unity, when unity has been broken by mortal sin, would be a living lie, a mockery of the whole signification of the sacramental sign.
Its indirect contributions to life: Remission of sin
Such is the wonder of the divine order, however, that if a dead man, not realizing he is dead, approaches this sacrament, he is brought to life. For this sacrament contains Christ Himself, the source of all remission of sin; unquestionably He can make clean the foulest soul. It is true that the sacrament was limited, by Christ’s own institution, to nourishment of the living; yet, it infallibly produces grace where the subject does not place an impediment and the mortal sinner who is unconscious of his sin has placed no obstacle to the sacrament. To put this in practical terms, there is no place for fear in approaching Holy Communion: we do not have to fear venial sin, for the sacrament forgives it; we do not have to worry that we might have forgotten some mortal sin, or that there is serious sin unforgiven through some accident or imperfection of our past confessions, for in all these circumstances, the sacrament brings us life.
Preservation from sin
Just as natural food builds up our strength and gives us resistance to disease, so the Eucharist, as food of the soul, is also medicine of the soul. It builds up the strength by which we can throw off the attacks of sin; indeed, it goes further and assures a constant weakening of the attacks of sin. For the acts of charity, which are its direct effect, flow from and increase the appetite for the things of God; automatically, then, it decreases the concupiscence of the flesh, the appetite for the things contrary to God. These two appetites are nicely balanced against one another: as one increases, the other decreases; as one is plentifully fed, the other languishes; the starvation of one is the best diet for the well-being of the other.
Of course, the attacks of sin are not going to be annihilated; there will always be some fighting, even though it be no more than annoying guerrilla warfare by insignificant detachments behind the lines. We cannot organize a huge campaign against sin, crush it, and then embark on a program of disarmament; we must resign ourselves to a perpetual state of organized defense to meet the constancy of these attacks. This sacrament arms us with the weapon that makes all hell tremble, the weapon of the cross; for the sacrament is, in itself, a symbol of the passion of Christ, a last souvenir of friendship and suffering, a renewal of the story of Calvary. By it, God makes a living sign of the cross on the soul of a man; and that stark symbol is one Satan can never understand but has feared from that first moment when the cross stood against a darkened sky.
Remission of punishment
As food, this sacrament is not ordered to undoing the ravages of disease; the after effects of sin, that is, punishments, are not dealt with directly by the Eucharist as a sacrament. Nevertheless, its invigorating strength indirectly reaches out to destroy even this unhappy memory of evil days; for the sacrament produces acts of charity and the punishment due to sin is not fireproof against the white heat of charity’s fervor.
Relative to those assisting at its accomplishment
The Eucharist as a sacrifice is another matter. Like that of the cross, the sacrifice of the Mass is offered to God directly in satisfaction for sin; to this end it produces its definite effect. In itself, this sacrifice, with the Son of God as the Victim and High Priest, is more than enough to remit all punishment due for all sins, for it is of infinite worth. Its effect has been limited (by the institution of Christ) to finite proportions from the side of the Church, the offering priest, and those for whom it is offered. Christ has made no limitation whatsoever on those who benefit by this sacrifice. He died for all men, and this is a renewal of His sacrifice; the prayers of the Canon of the Mass, then, which reach out their arms to embrace all the living and the dead are an integral part of that divine compassion that stretched the arms of the Son of Mary wide on the cross. No one is excluded; but, of course, those who actually assist at the sacrifice can profit more by it, and still more if they actually partake of the heavenly food.
On this point, there has been a good deal of cavilling recently on the more or less consecrated phrase, “offering up a Communion.” If we are to insist on the utmost technical rigor, we may argue that this term is inaccurate: we offer up the Mass, for it is a sacrifice; but Holy Communion is food, a gift, a privilege, something not offered but enjoyed. But as the phrase is ordinarily understood by Catholics, it is a handy expression of a fact that is both a little too complicated for ordinary language and much too sublime to be perfectly mirrored in words. We share a privilege; by reason of food’s nourishment, we are stronger to do for others; an increase in friendship brings us closer to our friend and puts us in a more favorable position to demand much more for others. This is what happens in the intimate union with our divine Friend in the Eucharist. Perhaps, “I will remember you in my Communion,” would be better than “I will offer up my Communion for you.” At any rate, what we do is make a promise, and by that promise the thing is secured, that at the sacred moment when Christ is within us, we will plead the cause of others.
In this particular case, since our Friend is divine, a long list of desired favors drawn up beforehand carries no threat of weariness or displeasure to this intimate meeting of friends. On the contrary, it is an authentic confession of our need of Him — a profound consolation to any friend — and a clear proof of the wide embrace of our love of neighbor. From another angle, there is great generosity on our part in giving even a little of this divine colloquy to others. It is so completely ours, so intimately personal, and so completely effective for ourselves.
Impediments to its effects
Indeed, nothing short of mortal sin can stop the primary effects of this sacrament in our souls; unless that impassable barrier blocks the path of God’s generosity, we infallibly receive sanctifying grace and charity. Past venial sins, however numerous they may be, do not hold up these gifts; not even venial sins actually being committed during the reception of the sacrament deter the divine Friend from completing the embrace of His love. For these divine effects, we need no more than the state of grace and the right intention.
We do pay a high price for tying strings to our heart at this time, playing with the trinkets of venial sin instead of entertaining the divine Guest; for actual venial sins do take our minds off this gesture of friendship, destroying our devotion, and robbing us of much, if not all, of the spiritual sweetness and consolation that might have been ours. From our side, it becomes an absent-minded kiss; but, because God has a part in it and His love is always creative, it has profound effects in our souls. As a penalty for our absent-mindedness, we hardly taste its sweetness.
Every man will take his food, even his supernatural food, in his own way; and with surprisingly different results. Shivering in sub-zero cold, a man can drink whiskey with no more effect than if it were water. In the heat of argument, a man can dash down a glass of wine and never know he has taken it; a man in love gets all the heady effects of wine without bothering to draw the cork; while the tired French peasant, in the leisurely quiet of the evening, takes his wine with slow, deep appreciation, reaping a richer harvest than nourishment. In the supernatural order, an infidel can eat the Bread of Life with no more effect than a sheep or a horse munching grass, even though this be a very chic infidel. On the other hand, infants, the perpetually insane, and half-wits who have been baptized all receive both the sacred sign and the grace and charity it signifies because of the spiritual power given them by Baptism. While a Catholic in mortal sin receives the sacred sign, but to his own damnation.
In other words, the Eucharist can be received only sacramentally, as in the case of infidels or Catholics in mortal sin. It can be received only spiritually, as in a spiritual communion or a communion of desire. Or it can be received both sacramentally and spiritually, that is, both as regards its outer signification and its inner effects; this is what happens when a person in the state of grace approaches the Communion rail. These last alone are the invited guests, wearing the required wedding garments, though they come from the highways, byways, and dark alleys of the world.
A Catholic recoils in horror from the idea of an unworthy Communion. Nor is this revulsion explained fully by the fact that this is the gravest of all sacrileges, that, next to the sins against divinity itself and the humanity of Christ, it is the gravest of all sins. There is in the back of the Catholic’s mind the memory of another false gesture of friendship, another kiss given in betrayal; and the threatening darkness of Gethsemane seems to gather in his heart at the thought of it. Fortunately for our peace of mind, since we all know our deep-seated unworthiness so well, an unworthy communion is not an easy thing to accomplish. It is never the result of an accident, of forgetfulness, or of inattention; it has to be done deliberately, on purpose. There can be no doubt about it. Even when it does so happen, it is often due in no small degree to human respect, shame, a bit of cowardice that has much more resemblance to the weakness of Pilate than to the baseness of Judas.
Still, if these uninvited guests approach the divine banquet table publicly, Christ is not one to cover them with confusion by refusing to give them the Bread they dare to ask; Judas, too, drank of the sacred cup. If the individual in question is a public sinner, one who by an unreformed life that s public knowledge has already gone well beyond the reach of confusion, then it is a different matter. If the priest knows there has been no repentance, he can and should refuse Communion; but that knowledge is so extremely hard to come by as to be almost impossible. The priest must know, know beyond all chance of doubt; for the arms of Christ have ever been wide enough to embrace any and all sinners on the one condition of repentance.
If the approach to Communion is a private one, then both the public sinner and the secret sinner, whose sins are known to the priest, are to be refused the sacrament. But, again, the priest must know. Even though he has that difficult knowledge, the priest is not to refuse the sacrament if the approach to it is public; then the royal Guest is ushered into the disorderly house of that soul by His own priest. A day will come when judgment will be passed on this violation of a sacred thing; for the present, let the sinner learn the depths of divine love for him by the length of the patience of God.
The banquet table: Manner of receiving the food
The Church insists on a fast from midnight before the reception of this sacrament. The reasonableness of the command as a protection against drunkenness and gluttony is evident; this, after all, is not the place for a saturated champion of his own appetites. But we have missed much of the meaning of the fast if we stop at that purely negative purpose. It is a little gesture of reverence, this mortification of ours, a gesture by which we brush all the things of the world aside, even necessary things, that we might be utterly alone with Christ; we plug the doorbell, cut off the telephone, and lock the doors by way of assuring Him we want nothing to intrude on His visit. Indeed, that fast is a symbol of the perfection of the food we are to receive: the Bread of Life upon which we can live alone, live forever, and know only a hunger for still more of this same Bread.
There are cases, of course, when the fast from midnight is dispensed with. Obviously, it should be set aside if, otherwise, a man might go hungry for the nourishment of his soul or when, by this little gesture of reverence, a very great irreverence may be visited on the sacrament. Thus, a priest who is not fasting may complete the Mass of another who has taken sick. The faithful may touch the sacred Species and consume them, lest they be profaned by the enemies of Christ. Sometimes the broken fast must be disregarded to avoid public scandal, or to receive Viaticum, a companion for the last few steps of the road home. Adults who have tasted salt in their baptismal ceremony may yet receive Communion immediately after. Finally, the sick, who have little hope of quick recovery, may receive Communion once or twice a week after taking medicine or some liquid nourishment. The Church, you see, has reaped no little harvest of wisdom and common sense in two thousand years of caring for men.
Guests of the banquet: In general — invited and uninvited guests
There might seem to be two extremes relative to the use of this sacrament, that is, not to receive it at all or to receive it every day. Actually, these are not extremes at all. One is absolutely forbidden in its complete denial of the use of the sacrament; we must receive it at least once a year. There is, in other words, a positive law against spiritual hunger-strikes. The other is urgently advised; we should receive Communion frequently, even daily and, while this latter is often a matter of a confessor’s advice, it is not necessarily so. The reason for the counsel is obvious. We cannot get too close to God; there is no danger of too intimate a friendship with Him. We have nothing to fear, nothing to lose, and everything to gain; even a foretaste of the joys of heaven.
At the first banquet — the Last Supper
This was a last gesture of friendship. It is bread, not poison. The sacrifice of the Mass and the distribution of Holy Communion were introduced into the world as the one note of gladness in that last sad meal of the little company of Christ on Holy Thursday. On that night, Christ Himself said the Mass and gave His body and blood to His disciples, first receiving them Himself; as in all else, He observed what He commanded. Since that time, the priest has always received Communion under both the species of bread and of wine, thus completing the sacrifice; because of the danger of spilling the wine in attributing it to the faithful, this was early abandoned as a risk that was totally unnecessary since Christ is whole and entire under both species.
It is the opinion of St. Thomas that Christ Himself gave Holy Communion to His false friend, Judas, thus setting an example for the treatment of secret sinners at the Communion rail; their judgment is for later. If this is true, it is not in the least surprising or puzzling to us who know something of the kind heart of Christ. What may well be puzzling about that Last Supper and first Mass, is the condition of the body which Christ Himself received; it must be puzzling, for it wears the intangible garments of mystery.
Consecrating that night, Christ said: “This is my body.” Then, as now, the effect of those words was to change the substance of the bread into that of the true body of Christ, that is, the body which this Man, Christ, here and now possesses. At that first sacrifice, then, Christ and His apostles received a body capable of suffering, not a glorified body; for that was the condition of the true body of Christ. If a particle of that consecrated bread had been preserved through the hours of Calvary, though it could not have been spit upon, beaten or scourged, the body of Christ it contained would have died in the sacrament; during the days of Christ’s burial, the body in the sacrament would have been a dead body. On Easter morning, it would have been a glorified body united to the soul of Christ.
All this is saying no more than that the Eucharist contains Christ Himself; not a sign of Christ, not a symbol of Him, not a memory of His body. The form of the sacrament, the words of consecration, has no power other than to produce the body and blood of Christ in the condition in which they exist at the time of consecration. Once produced, body and blood are real and, of course, in no different a condition in the sacrament from their condition outside of it; for they are one and the same body and blood.
Servants of the table: Of the accomplishment of the sacrament
In instituting the sacrament and sacrifice, Christ said to His apostles: “Do this in commemoration of me.” He spoke to them alone; they and their successors have the power to consecrate bread and wine, and no one else. However faithfully others may imitate the rites of consecration, the effect of transubstantiation is not produced. It is only through the act of the spiritual power given in the sacrament of Holy Orders that this wonder of God’s generosity can be worked. It is the principal and exclusive work of priests. They accomplish the sacrament in the consecration of the Mass, not in the distribution of Communion to the faithful, though they are the ordinary ministers of Communion. In case of necessity, and by a special delegation, a deacon may distribute Communion; indeed, to give Viaticum even a layman may distribute Communion. For the consecration, however, no exception can be made; only one who has received the indelible character of Holy Orders has this power.
Of its distribution
Once had, it cannot be lost. The priest may be in a state of sin, he may be a schismatic, a heretic, an apostate; the character remains indelible, the spiritual power at the root of effective consecration is not destroyed, weakened, diluted. A priest in such a condition evidently does not do himself any good by consecrating; the point is that, in spite of the damage of sin done to the priest himself, the sacrament remains intact. The Masses of such priests, and the official prayers they say in connection with it, are no less inherently effective than those of St. Thomas Aquinas, the poet of the Blessed Sacrament.
There are some few circumstances which justify the faithful in seeking the sacraments from unworthy priests; but, normally, the procedure is rightly indicated by the Catholic’s instinct to shun the spiritual touch of such as these, as he would shun the touch of a leper. The sheep still know the voice of the shepherd and shy away from the voice of a stranger. Surely, nothing a priest does is so intimately connected with the care of the flock of Christ as his offering of sacrifice for them. Indeed, it is because of this that there is a solemn obligation on every pastor to offer Mass for his people on Sundays and holydays of obligation.
Beyond that, and short of some obligation of justice such as a stipend, a benefice, and so on, Mass is a privilege for the priest, not an obligation. Theologians agree that a priest must say Mass several times within the year. But this is hardly a thing to which a man need be driven, especially a man to whom this must be the very center of life; a man does not need to be beaten to his own hearth, unless he has long since forgotten it is his. Then he is a homeless man making a gesture of home life that has no more truth in it than a forced smile or a handshake from an enemy.
For the priest is at home on the altar, and not much of anywhere else. He belongs there, and it is terribly important to the people that he be there; for they need the Victim and the sacrifice as an acknowledgment of the fundamental truth of God’s dominion. They need the priest because man cannot subsist on a lie. It is not without significance that the Catholic Church, alone of all Christian churches, still has the Victim and the sacrifice at a time when the Christian world is losing its hold on the truth of God, the truth of man, and the truth of the universe.
The undying Victim: The substance of the sacrifice
Earlier in this book, we treated the notion of sacrifice in dealing with the death of Christ. Here, we must at least recall the definition of sacrifice as the destruction or immolation of a sensible thing by a legitimate minister, made to God alone in testimony of His supreme dominion. The destruction of the victim signifies God’s mastery of life and death; its offering by a legitimate minister makes it an official act of the community; that it be a sensible thing is demanded because it is a human thing and a community thing, and it is only by sensible signs that men communicate with one another. In the New Testament, that sacrifice is Calvary and its renewal in the Mass. Our sacrifice, then, is a representation and renewal of the sacrifice of the cross: by it, Christ is offered and mystically immolated. Or destroyed, in an unbloody sacrifice under the accidents of bread and wine. It is sacrifice offered by a priest in acknowledgment of the supreme dominion of God and for the application to us of the satisfaction and merits of Christ.
Those who deny that Calvary was a sacrifice must, of course, deny the sacrifice of the Mass. Those who question the presence of Christ in the Eucharist cannot admit the Mass as a sacrifice, for they have denied the Victim. From the beginning, the doctrine of faith on the true sacrifice involved in the Mass was clearly understood and jealously cherished; it seemed so obvious in spite of accidental differences. Men saw, of course, that on the cross the sacrifice was bloody, while here it is unbloody; that there, Christ offered Himself immediately, here He offers Himself through the ministry of the priest; there, He paid the price of redemption, here He applies it. There is the same type of substantial unity and accidental difference between the Mass and the Last Supper. There, Christ Himself offered the sacrifice, here He offers it through the hands of the priest; there, He looked forward to Calvary, here He looks back to Calvary. But all three are substantially the same, indeed, they are specifically the same. From the side of the Victim and the principal Priest, they are numerically the same. They differ only from the side of the action of the priest offering the sacrifice.
It never occurred to the thinkers of the Church seriously to defend the sacrifice of the Mass because it was not seriously challenged. There is no such exhaustive examination made of the Mass as there is of many other truths of faith. It was only after the attack of the Protestant Reformers in the sixteenth century that theologians plunged into a detailed examination of the essence of the Mass and the formal reason of sacrifice in it. Today, it is generally agreed by theologians that the action of the sacrifice consists in the consecration alone, with relation, of course, to the consuming of the species as an integral part of the sacrifice.
There is, however, a wide variety of opinion as to what makes up the formal notion of sacrifice in the Mass. All admit that there is a mystical immolation or destruction. Some see this immolation in the lowering of Christ to the state of food and drink. Others place it in the mystical killing of Christ by the sacramental separation of body and blood which thus gives Christ the external garments of death. Perhaps the most tangible of these opinions is that which places the formal reason of sacrifice in the sacramental separation of the body and blood by the words of consecration, in so far as they, of themselves, virtually kill the victim; the words of consecration, producing only what they signify, produce first the body and then, by the words of consecration of the wine, the blood. Thus virtually, or considering the proper power of the words, body is separated from blood; normally, this is certain death. This action, death-producing in itself, is impeded by what the theologians call “natural concomitance”; that is, the body produced by the words also has all that is naturally joined to it, namely, blood, soul and divinity, and the blood produced by the words also has all that is naturally joined to it, namely, body, soul and divinity.
This is not too difficult if we remember the difference between physical and mystical immolation. The former is a true immolation with the physical change or destruction of the victim; the latter is no less real and true an immolation, but without the physical change. Mystical immolation, then, is present when the sacrificial action — in itself and its reception by the victim fatally destructive — is impeded by some other disposition of the victim. In other words, the sacrificial action virtually, considering its own power, produces the effect of destruction.
Let us look at it in the concrete. John the Evangelist was thrown into boiling oil; by a miracle he emerged unharmed. The immolation was real, but mystical. It is true that such a sacrificial action, received in a person or thing existing under their proper accidents, can be prevented only by a miracle. But where the person or thing does not exist under its proper accidents, as is the case in the Eucharist, the sacrificial action falls, not on the accidents, but directly on the substance.
The immolation of John, though mystical, was real and sensible. The immolation of Christ in the Mass is mystical, real, but sensible only in so far as the words of the form and the immediate object, not through its own accidents but those of bread and wine, are sensible. It must always, of course, remain the mystery of the Mass, as Calvary must always remain the mysterious offering of the death of God. In fact, the Mass is not nearly so mysterious in its manner of accomplishment as in the solemn fact that the Victim of this real sacrifice is God Himself; Only God could have thought of it; only God could have found ways to accomplish it; the ways of the Incarnation and the consecration. Only the generosity of God could have gone through with the incredible act of love; only men could doubt the gift of God they held in their hands.
The accidents of the sacrifice: Its time and place
Because of the august character of the mystery, the general law of the Church demands that it be celebrated only in sacred places; that is, in blessed churches and oratories which have not been profaned or polluted. For the same reason, sacred vessels, specially blessed, must be used; and only altars that have been consecrated. As for the time of the celebration, though customs have varied down through the ages, the common law today permits the saying of Mass from one hour before dawn to an hour after mid-day.
Wherever and whenever it is said, the Mass is always the perfectly constructed drama. It is not mere representation, but the drama of the death of God, written by God, with God as the central figure. God is a very good playwright. Every word, every gesture is packed with meaning. A total stranger to the faith, assisting at Mass, is mightily impressed; a wholly ignorant Catholic is lifted out of himself; while the Catholic who has familiarized himself with the detailed meaning of the liturgy finds the Mass an absorbing story, an earnest prayer, a high romance, as well as a supreme sacrifice.
The words of its celebration
In two articles, St. Thomas gives a detailed treatment of the words and acts of this drama; on the same topic, whole volumes have been written. Manifestly, it is impossible to go into great detail here. In a quick, free-hand sketch that just catches the outlines, we may notice here that Thomas, in the words of the Mass, distinguishes several steps. A period of intense preparation stretches from the beginning to the completion of the proper prayer of the Mass. A period of instruction extends from the epistle and includes the Credo. The very heart of the Mass includes an offering or offertory; the consecration, extending from the Preface to the Lord’s Prayer; the preparation for Communion, from the Lord’s prayer to the Communion. Finally there is a short but intense thanksgiving.
The acts of its celebration
The acts of the Mass can be roughly divided into those that commemorate the passion of Christ and those that pertain either to devotion or reverence. In the first group are the signs of the cross, the mystic number of times they are used, the outstretched arms of the priest after the consecration, and so on. In the second, are all such acts as the upraised hands of the priest in saying the prayers; while the third includes such as the inclinations made by the priest, the washing of the hands, the taking of wine and water after Communion, and so on.
Dangers and their remedy
Deficiencies at one time or another in the offering of the Mass are rendered certain by the fact that the minister of the Mass is a man. The priest may get sick, he may die, the church may be bombed; the material used may be imperfect, the priest may forget this or that part of the Mass, or not be sure he has said this or that word. And so on and on to the thousands of things that perpetually furnish young priests with ample material for worry. Every care is taken in advance that nothing will interrupt the sacrifice, nothing work to invalidate it; every possible situation is foreseen and provided for. If, in spite of this, some defects occur, there is legislation covering the situation either by way of supplying the defects or administering punishment to a negligent priest. It would be hard to ask more in the way of solicitude for the Mass.
Conclusion: Two forms of unity: Of absorption
In the beginning, God remarked, almost in an off-hand fashion, that it was nor good for man to be alone. He might have made that much stronger by saying that man refuses to live alone. He must unite himself with others who are his equals or inferiors, he must attach himself to some superior being. He has admitted the truth of his loneliness in all his social activities from the beginning. He has insisted upon unity, even though, at times, he paid much too high a price for quite the wrong kind of unity.
The wisdom of the East advocated a unity of absorption; by it, a man was united to the absolute, but to the complete destruction of his own individuality and personality. The program was thoroughly oriental in its whole outlook and genius; yet, from time to time, it seems to have had a subtle, reptilian fascination for small groups of men of the West. It is only in very recent times that it has dared, by an open appearance, to risk the wrath of men nourished on Christianity. Such a thing cannot be tolerated for an instant where there is an appreciation of the humanity of man. Its success in winning millions to the ideal of absorption into a process, a state, a group, or a race, is itself an evidence of how thoroughly man had been calumniated by his champions of the last three centuries.
The unity which has been the characteristic aim of the West insists upon a rigid safeguarding of the individuality and personality of man; its claim has been, not to a destruction of man which might delight the heart of a coward, but to a perfection of man that would challenge the great heart of a saint. In the concrete, this unity is one of order and of friendship, rather than one of physical absorption. The unity of order is accomplished by truth, a unity of intellect in the recognition of man’s place in the universe; this recognition is adequately expressed by sacrifice which is a statement of man’s dependence and God’s superiority, bringing out at the same time, man’s superiority to the material world in which he lives. The unity of friendship is accomplished by that unity of wills that lies at the root of unselfish love.
The bonds of the unions
Obviously, the unity of absorption ties men together by slavish bonds that destroy the men themselves; the bonds of order and friendship, tying men to all the universe and the Creator of that universe by truth and love, are altogether unintelligible without the enduring sovereignty of the individual mind and will. The supernatural medium of this latter unity is the Eucharist, both as a sacrament and a sacrifice; Augustine’s description of it as “the bond of unity,” understood in this sense of unity, states the very nature, the beauty, and the immeasurable value of the Eucharist to men.
The Victim and the victims
In this sacrifice and sacrament, all the world partakes of the body of the Victim, as in the Old Testament the priest lived by the bodies of the victims of sacrifice. But here the food is not consumed to its destruction; nor does the adored object of sacrifice consume the men who worship it; rather the food, the sacrifice, and the men are eternally enduring, men lifted up to the heights of the God before Whom they bow. Here is man’s road to peace and plenty: to the peace of order and the plenty of the fullness of love. Here, in this sacrifice, the Victim is God, an undying Victim Who gives His life but does not lose it. What we have overlooked in our own times is the profound truth that for unity either God or man must be the victim; and only God can be the undying, indestructible Victim by whom men are saved.