One of the great advantages that the early Christians had over those “who have not seen and yet believed” is that they questioned many of the things that we merely accept as givens. This might explain why they were able to endure great persecution; it allowed them to more fully assimilate the Christian message. If we are to share their deep faith, then we can benefit greatly from questioning our assumptions. One such assumption that seems foundational is the habit of speaking Our Lord’s action on the Cross as a sacrifice. Yet, a disinterested observer (either Jew or Gentile) would have seen it merely as an execution carried out in the cruelest manner possible. How then did the early Christians (and how do we) know it was a sacrifice?
In a culture that is removed from the idea of animal sacrifice, it is first necessary to say a few words about sacrifices in general. It must be viewed as more than worship owed to God by offering something precious to Him through its death or destruction. If we use the example given to us in the Old Testament we find that the sacrifices are not some arbitrary slaughtering of the herd, but a pre-arranged transaction between God and man. Only certain types of sacrifices are pleasing to God and it is not just because of the “heart” of the person offering the sacrifice. God seems to control nearly all the rubrics of man’s sacrifices. This is not because He is the Divine control-freak, but because all the ancient sacrificial rites were meant to point and prepare for the definitive sacrifice. Each sacrifice prescribed in the Old Testament is meant to serve as a type of this definitive sacrifice. Therefore each of these types of sacrifices served to add clarity to and more fully reveal the definitive sacrifice when it occurs.
What this means specifically is that unless Christ’s death on the Cross was done in a ritualistic manner, then no one would say it was a sacrifice at all. It is not enough for it to have obvious parallels to the Passover sacrifice such as none of His bones being broken, the time of His death being the same time the Passover lamb was slaughtered, and the blood and water after His death flowing out of His side as it did from the side of the Temple after the Passover sacrifice. Any number of circumstances can always be explained away, especially when so much is at stake. What makes it recognizable as the Sacrifice is the Institution of the Eucharist the night before. It is God who institutes each of the covenantal sacrifices and gives them their meaning. He is the One who appoints the priest, the victim and the manner of sacrifice.
Therefore it is the Eucharist that gives the sacrifice on the Cross its meaning and the sacrifice on the Cross gives the Eucharist its power. The two are intrinsically linked and if we reject one, then we are apt to reject the other. Herein lies the reason why Protestantism is necessarily false in all its forms—it rejects the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Catholics bear some responsibility for this rejection because we do not adequately understand this connection nor explain it accurately.
To understand the link, we must begin by making a very important distinction. Within visible creation, God has created two orders—the natural and the Sacramental. While they operate in parallel, they do not follow the same set of laws. The natural realm consists of those things that our ordinary powers may operate upon. The Sacramental realm operates on the level of signification. But they are not like “natural” signs pointing to a thing but are instead perfect signs in that they contain and bring about the thing that they signify.
This principle is helpful because it allows us to add clarity to the notion of the “unbloody” Sacrifice of the Mass. The essence of a sacrifice consists in the separation of the blood from the body the victim by the priest. Experience tells us what this looks like in the natural realm. But in the Sacramental realm it “looks” different and can only be seen through the eyes of faith. Namely, the element of destruction that is found in natural sacrifices is absent. Still the essence of the total separation of body and blood of the victim remains the same.
Operating in the Sacramental realm, the Body of Christ is really present through the words of consecration. So too the Blood of Christ is made present. And yet because they appear under two separated elements, one can rightly call it a sacrifice. Recall that in the Sacramental realm the signs contain the thing they signify so that the Body of Christ is truly present separate from the Blood. The sacrifice that occurs then also contains the historical event in which the natural Body and Blood were separated, namely the death on the Cross. His sacrificial death is the separation of His Body and Blood and no less than this happens on the Altar during Mass. But it happens in the Sacramental Realm so that it would be incorrect to say that Christ’s natural Body and Blood were separated again and that He is somehow sacrificed anew. This Sacramental Sacrifice re-presents Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, but does not cause it to occur again.
There is a danger in all that I have said to think that the belief in the Real Presence is something of an add-on, but it too follows from grasping the difference in the natural and Sacramental realms and calling to mind the Hypostatic Union. As human creatures, we have complete human natures and at the moment of creation we become persons. This is not the case with the Incarnation. The Eternal Son of God who was already a Person, took a complete human nature to Himself. In that way He is a Divine Person with two natures, human and divine. Related to the matter at hand, when Christ died on the Cross, His soul separated from His body. Yet, both of these parts of His human nature remained united to Him. When His soul descended to the Hades, it was the Person Who performed the action. While His Body lay in the tomb, it was still united to Him and He is said to have rested in the tomb. What this means for our investigation is that when Christ’s Body is made sacramentally present, the Person is made present along with it. They cannot be separated. So too with the Blood. This means that the Person of the Son is really present in the Eucharist under both kinds. But He does not appear as in his natural state with a body, but instead in His Sacramental state under the appearance of bread and wine. Still, and this bears repeating, His Presence is just as real as when He was with God in the Beginning, walked the face of the earth, rose from the dead, etc.
Seeing the Eucharist as simultaneously Sacrament and sacrifice has a direct bearing on the current debate regarding Remarried and the Eucharist. By looking at it only as a Sacrament, there appears to be little benefit to those in irregular marriages. However when we emphasize its sacrificial character we realize it is a benefit not only to the one receiving but to all present (more specifically in the Church). This is why protecting its sacred character helps not just those receiving but all those in the Church.
In conclusion, it seems that there is a greater need to preach the link between Calvary and the Mass not just for apologetical purposes, but also because it has a great effect on personal devotion. The Eucharist is the “source and summit of our faith” because the Cross too is the source and summit.