The Eucharist is a Sacrifice of the Whole Mass

Nov 22, 2022

Rev. Harrison Ayre

Louis Bouyer, in his book Liturgical Piety, brings out an impressive historical overview of the connection between the liturgy and the Eucharist, especially in the last 500 years. What is remarkable is the disconnect that occurred in the Romantic period between the Eucharist and the Mass, whereby adoration even began to be seen as more important than the Mass itself. This is an error in piety that gained hold but has no real root in tradition.

This error was one of the reasons Vatican II worked on Sacrosanctum Concilium and really attempted to re-insert the Eucharist as not just a fruit of the action of the Mass, but as the word that summarizes the whole liturgical action. This is clear already in the second paragraph: “For the liturgy, ‘through which the work of our redemption is accomplished,’ most of all in the divine sacrifice of the Eucharist, is the outstanding means whereby the faithful may express their lives, and manifest to others, the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church” (SC 2). That sacrifice is not just isolated in the words of consecration, but is, in fact, the essence of the whole liturgy of the Mass. The actions, the structure, and readings are all part of the sacrifice, of Christ offering His Church to the Father through the power of the Holy Spirit. Thus the readings, the rites, the structure, the whole liturgical act is one sacrifice of the Word in His Church and thus cannot be reduced to what is most definitely the high point of the liturgy: the Actio or, more popularly known, the words of consecration. To separate the Eucharist from the liturgy of the Mass is, then, to lose the essential sacrificial character of the liturgy.

There is, then, a certain logic to all this: the isolating of the Eucharistic host from the liturgy contributed to an isolation of devotion whereby the personal character of the Christian faith, which is only personal insofar as it is also social and ecclesial, became individualistic. Thus there grew with it a need to receive the Eucharist apart from the Mass, because the Mass is merely a function, a tool to create the Eucharist so that it can appease my own spiritual needs.

In all this, the Eucharist comes under the purview of increasingly modern categories—individualistic and materialistic—thereby separating us more and more from the integral unity that the Eucharist is meant to build up: the Church. We stop seeing the Eucharist as symbolic in its proper sense—to make present something that I cannot see directly and that unites me to this greater reality—and thereby reduce the Eucharist into a talisman rather than as the Real Presence that unites me to Christ in His Body, the Church.

This separation of the Eucharist from the liturgy that Bouyer so astutely observed has led to further errors that find the same root in Eucharistic piety today. If the Eucharist becomes separated from the liturgical action, then the sacrificial element of the Mass becomes secondary. This weakening of the sense of sacrament, while aided by unguided notions of the primacy of the Eucharistic liturgy as a meal,[1] was also aided by this separation of the Eucharist from liturgy, undermining the whole which gives the real value and meaning to its parts. When the Eucharist can be had and devoted to excessively outside the Mass, then it is more about ‘receiving grace’ that is separated from both the act and the Person who is the grace itself: Jesus Christ.

Yet the Second Vatican Council attempted to heal these issues. Its desire for liturgical renewal was not first and primarily in the realm of the form of the Mass. This is exemplified by the fact that the Council first begins with the essence of what liturgy is. Only when we have the right sense and orientation of the essence of liturgy, can the particular forms and parts be put in the right light. The fact that the battles around the Conciliar reforms is first and foremost around form to the neglect of the preceding essence is a sign that we have still not understood what the Council was trying to get across to us. Only when we recover the essence of liturgy can the form of liturgy be properly discussed, critiqued, and implemented.

And what is the essence of the liturgy? It is the Mystery: Christ in His Person dying and rising for the redemption of the world that is made present through liturgy to save us today. This is, in fact, one of the principle reasons behind the Second Vatican Council: to rediscover the sacramental worldview. That to be Christian, nay, to be human is to be sacramental. The liturgy is the most fundamental expression of the sacramental worldview both in its essence and form. And the fruit of the sacraments and the liturgies whereby the sacraments are received is the Church. We can say that the Council is attempting to contradict the 19th century’s emerging materialism whereby matter does not have any meaning, but can be manipulated at will to be whatever we want it to be. Rather, the Council says, matter is imbued with meaning because it comes from a Creator who gives it its place and purpose in creation.

Thus matter is never an end in itself, but it signifies—points upwards—towards the God Who created it. He created it through His Logos, and thereby it has a place, a purpose, and therefore a meaning. The sacramental worldview is nothing more than a rediscovery of the doctrine of Creation that Christ lifts up and perfects in Himself and makes accessible through His Church primarily in the life of the Liturgy.

Thus if we are to have a proper sacramental vision of the Eucharist, we must rediscover the unity that Christ brings. It is not a unity that destroys particularity, but puts things in their right order. In this way, the order of the Mass is meant to teach us the order of our lives: to turn towards the Father in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. By receiving the Eucharist, I am united to His sacrifice and am invited to live His sacrifice concretely in my life, whereby I am mysteriously present to His Death and Resurrection daily. I lift up all this through Him to the Father at Mass, and by receiving the Eucharist and giving my “Amen,” I am thereby uniting my whole life to Christ so that He can redeem it.

The matter of my life, of the lives of others, of the world, is mysteriously united to Him so that He can imbue it with His presence and thus offer it as Eucharist to the Father too. This is the integral unity and vision of the Council’s view of liturgy, whereby my whole life is most manifestly a participation of the life of Christ, which the Eucharistic liturgy is most perfectly a sign of. Only by rediscovering this properly sacramental vision can we see the Eucharist and the Mass anew as a complete whole: a sacrifice to the Father that unites the sacrifice of my life to Him thus bringing me into Communion with Him in the Church.

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[1] There is most definitely a meal element to the Eucharistic liturgy, but it is most properly a meal that is first and foremost sacrifice, as signified by Jesus giving the sacrificial interpretation of the Cross through the words of institution at the Last Supper.

Fr. Harrison is a priest in Nanaimo, British Columbia. Currently, he is a Ph.D. candidate in Systematic Theology at the Maryvale Institute and co-hosts the podcast, Clerically Speaking. Recently, his book Mysterion: The Revelatory Power of the Sacramental Worldview was published by Pauline Press.