The Eucharist (photocopy)

Introduction: The Eucharist

Hans Urs von Balthasar

The mystery of the eucharist to which this issue is devoted is variously referred to by the most recent Council as the "source and climax of the entire life of the Church," as "the source and climax of evangelization," as the sacrament "whose solemnization completes the Church" in a way that "continuously sustains the Church." Already these quotations illustrate that we are dealing here with an issue that is so central that we could not possibly cover it in a single issue. We can only deal with it in a fragmentary fashion. Let us emphasize in this brief introduction a few essential aspects which must not be challenged and from which will be derived a series of questions.

The following truths agree with church tradition:

1) There exists a universal "surrender" of the Son of God in fulfillment of the command by the trinitarian God which begins with the incarnation in the narrower sense and culminates in the passion when Jesus Christ steps obediently before God the Father, holding the sins of the world in order to thus "reconcile heaven and earth." The church is peculiarly included in this act which affects the entire world through the Holy Supper and she is entrusted with Jesus' very own "surrender."

2) That is why the celebration of the eucharist remains essentially oriented toward the "surrender" on the cross. St. Paul remarks: ". . . every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you are proclaiming his death" (1 Cor. 11:26-27). This intimate connection does not indicate a new sacrifice or something in addition to Christ's own "surrender," indeed, the disciples were already included in his suffering during the Last Supper; but one speak of a "realization" (Vergegenwartigung). This is the true meaning of memoria and anamnesis.

3) Undoubtedly, this realization remains an inscrutable mystery which, in the words of the Council of Trent, can be expressed "in perfectly adequate form" by the term "transubstantiation" of bread and wine into the living body of Christ, i.e. "flesh and blood," as both man and God. We may leave undecided here if there is a term which would approximate the mystery in a clearer and more encompassing fashion.

We need not make any special mention of the remaining aspects of the celebration: reconciliation of the congregation through a confession of sins through the listening to the Word, through the offering of one's self, together with the gifts of bread and wine, through the inclusion in Christ's "surrender," and through the complete union with him during communion. Assuming these truths are not disputed, we may turn immediately to a few important questions which remain unanswered despite what has already been said.

First, we have refrained from using the term "sacrifice" and used "surrender" instead. One surely cannot proceed from the concept of sacrifice as attested to by all religious people who carry out sacrifices to their gods when, for instance, a human being (Iphigenia and others) is sacrificed in place of the people or when human beings sacrifice their lives (such as Roman heroes or soldiers in general) for the fatherland, and subsume all these under Christ's sacrifice. We cannot even proceed from the Old Testament food and animal sacrifices in order to draw nearer to the cross. This is expressly forbidden by the letter to the Hebrews. Furthermore, we cannot equate Jesus' self-surrender with a man's renunciation of an amenity or a good for moral (or other) reasons, even though it may benefit another human being. Jesus' "sacrifice" is entirely unique and cannot be equated with anything, not even with Mary's "sacrifice" under the cross, with that of the holy women or the apostles or other saints, and not even with the sacrifice of a St. Paul who can say: "It makes me happy to suffer for you, as I am suffering now, and in my own body to do what I can to make up all that has still to be undergone by Christ for the sake of his mystical body, the church" (Col. 1:24-25). In so far as these things are the suffering of Christ they lack nothing; they are complete and more than sufficient. It is only by cirtue of his grace that there remains a place for his mystical body, the Church, to participate in his suffering, since Christ and the Church are the "head" and "body" of Christ (the "body" owes its existence and everything else to the "head"). It is not forbidden to speak of the eucharistic sacrifice, but one must keep in mind the analogous nature of the term.

Another question is, which internal structure does the eucharistic "sacrifice" possess? "Do this in memory of me" is a phrase spoken by Jesus to his disciples and not directly to the multitude of believers who will participate in the eucharist. If the priest is ordained especially to perform this "act," does he then also share in a special way in the "sacrifice"? Why is it written: "Pray my brothers and sisters that my sacrifice and yours..."? Why the differentiation? Surely what is meant is the special way in which the priest surrenders his life to the service of Christ. But others, too, try to do the same. Does this involve another motive? The question is still open.

Finally, all celebrants, the faithful and the priest, pray that they may be incorporated in Jesus Christ's sacrifice: they offer themselves, they surrender themselves but God himself must complete this incorporation. The faithful speak of their lives which certainly include the ones outside of the celebration, too. Thus we must say that the eucharist possesses a dimension which extends beyond the actual celebration. This is particularly true if we consider on the one hand that Christ did not die exclusively "for the church" but for the world, that the celebrating church does not pray, and not even primarily, for herself, but for "all our brothers and sisters who are still far from you" and for all those departed "whose faith nobody knows but you." And, yet, the act which was intended by Christ—just as the cross—is not diffused all over the world; rather it constitutes a definite sacramental act which is so central to the church that the church can admit only those who fully believe in Christ.

The above is merely a sampling of questions that suggest themselves. To try to answer them fully is not the intention of the following contributions.