Sep 15, 2013

The Eucharist: Heart of the Church

Online Edition:
September 2013
Vol. XIX, No. 6

The Eucharist: Heart of the Church

The Wellspring of Life from the Side of the Lord, Opened in Loving Sacrifice

by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI

Editor’s Note: In Chapter 3 of his 2003 book God is Near Us, Cardinal Ratzinger reflects on the essential nature of the Eucharist as sacrifice. “God gives that we may give. This is the essence of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ,” he writes. His profound insights on the sacrificial meaning of the Eucharist provide an invaluable source for study and reflection.  This chapter appears here with the kind permission of Ignatius Press.


John the Evangelist has set his account of the Passion of Jesus Christ between two marvelous pictures, providing a kind of framework in which, in each case, he portrays the whole meaning of Jesus’ life and suffering, so that he can then expound the origin of the Christian life, the origin and meaning of the sacraments. At the beginning of the Passion story stands the account of washing the disciples’ feet; at the end, the solemn and moving account of the opening of Jesus’ side (Jn 19:30-37).

In constructing his narrative thus, John takes great care to establish which day it was that Jesus died.1 It is clear in his Gospel that Jesus died at exactly the time when the paschal lambs were being sacrificed in the Temple for the feast of Passover. Thus, through the exact time of His death it becomes clear that He is the true Paschal Lamb, that the business with the lambs is finished, because the Lamb is come. For the side of Jesus, when it is pierced, John has chosen exactly the same word as is used in the creation story to tell of the creation of Eve, where we normally translate it as Adam’s “rib.”2

In this fashion John makes it clear that Jesus is the New Adam, who goes down into the darkness of death’s sleep and opens within it the beginning of a new humanity. From His side, that side which has been opened up in loving sacrifice, comes a spring of water that brings to fruition the whole of history. From the ultimate self-sacrifice of Jesus spring forth blood and water, Eucharist and baptism, as the source of a new community.

The Lord’s opened side is the source from which spring forth both the Church and the sacraments that build up the Church. Thus what we were trying to comprehend in our first meditation is once more portrayed in this picture offered to us by the evangelist. The Last Supper alone is not sufficient for the institution of the Eucharist. For the words that Jesus spoke then are an anticipation of His death, a transformation of His death into an event of love, a transformation of what is meaningless into something that is significant, significant for us.

But that also means that these words carry weight and have creative power for all time only in that they did not remain mere words but were given content by His actual death. And then again, this death would remain empty of meaning, His words would remain mere empty claims and unredeemed promises, were it not shown to be true that His love is stronger than death, that meaning is stronger than meaninglessness. The death would remain empty of meaning, and would also render the words meaningless, if the Resurrection had not come about, whereby it is made clear that these words were spoken with divine authority, that His love is indeed strong enough to reach out beyond death.

Thus the three belong together: the word, the death, and the Resurrection. And this trinity of word, death, and Resurrection, which gives us an inkling of the mystery of the triune God Himself, this is what Christian tradition calls the “Paschal Mystery,” the mystery of Easter. Only the three together make up a whole, only these three together constitute a veritable reality, and this single mystery of Easter is the source and origin of the Eucharist.

But that means that the Eucharist is far more than just a meal; it has cost a death to provide it, and the majesty of death is present in it. Whenever we hold it, we should be filled with reverence in the face of this mystery, with awe in the face of this mysterious death that becomes a present reality in our midst. Certainly, the overcoming of this death in the Resurrection is present at the same time, and we can therefore celebrate this death as the feast of life, as the transformation of the world.

In all ages, and among all peoples, the ultimate aim of men in their festivals has been to open the door of death. For as long as it does not touch on this question, a festival remains superficial, mere entertainment to anesthetize oneself. Death is the ultimate question, and wherever it is bracketed out there can be no real answer. Only when this question is answered can men truly celebrate and be free. The Christian feast, the Eucharist, plumbs the very depths of death. It is not just a matter of pious discourse and entertainment, of some kind of religious beautification, spreading a pious gloss on the world; it plumbs the very depths of existence, which it calls death, and strikes out an upward path to life, the life that overcomes death. And in this way the meaning of what we are trying to reflect on, in this meditation, becomes clear, what the tradition sums up in this sentence: The Eucharist is a sacrifice, the presentation of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross.

Whenever we hear these words, inhibitions arise within us, and in all ages it has always been so. The question arises: When we talk about sacrifice, do we not do so on the basis of an unworthy picture of God, or at least a naive one? Does this not assume that we men should and could give something to God? Does this not show that we think of ourselves as equal partners with God, so to speak, who could barter one thing for another with Him: we give Him something so that He will give us something? Is this not to misapprehend the greatness of God, who has no need of our gifts, because He Himself is the giver of all gifts?

But, on the other hand, the question certainly does remain: Are we not all of us in debt to God, indeed, not merely debtors to Him but offenders against Him, since we are no longer simply in the position of owing Him our life and our existence but have now become guilty of offenses against Him? We cannot give Him anything, and in spite of that we cannot even simply assume that He will regard our guilt as being of no weight, that He will not take it seriously, that He will look on man as just a game, a toy.

It is to this very question that the Eucharist offers us an answer.

First of all, it says this to us: God Himself gives to us, that we may give in turn. The initiative in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ comes from God. In the first place it is He Himself who comes down to us: “God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son” (Jn 3:16). Christ is not in the first instance a gift we men bring to an angry God; rather, the fact that He is there at all, living, suffering, loving, is the work of God’s love. He is the condescension of merciful love, who bows down to us; for us the Lord becomes a slave, as we saw in the previous meditation.

It is in this sense that, in the Second Letter to the Corinthians, we find the words in which grace calls out to us: “Be reconciled to God” (II Cor 5:20). Although we started the quarrel, although it is not God who owes us anything, but we Him, He comes to meet us, and in Christ He begs, as it were, for reconciliation. He brings to be in reality what the Lord is talking about in the story of the gifts in the Temple, where He says: “If you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Mt 5:23f). God, in Christ, has trodden this path before us; He has set out to meet us, His unreconciled children — He has left the temple of His glory and has gone out to reconcile us.

Yet we can already see the same thing if we look back to the beginning of the history of faith. Abraham, in the end, does not sacrifice anything he has prepared himself but offers the ram (the lamb) that has been offered to him by God. Thus, through this original sacrifice of Abraham a perspective opens up down the millennia; this lamb in the brambles that God gives him, so that he may offer it, is the first herald of that Lamb, Jesus Christ, who carries the crown of thorns of our guilt, who has come into the thorn bush of world history in order to give us something that we may give.

Anyone who correctly comprehends the story of Abraham cannot come to the same conclusion as Tilman Moser in his strange and dreadful book Poisoned by God; Moser reads here the evidence for a God who is as dreadful as poison, making our whole life bitter.3

Even when Abraham was still on his way, and as yet knew nothing of the mystery of the ram, he was able to say to Isaac, with trust in his heart: Deus providebit — God will take care of us. Because he knew this God, therefore, even in the dark night of his incomprehension he knew that He is a loving God; therefore, even then, when he found he could understand nothing, he could put his trust in Him and could know that the very one who seemed to be oppressing him truly loved him even then.

Only in thus going onward, so that his heart was opened up, so that he entered the abyss of trust and, in the dark night of the uncomprehended God, dared keep company with him, did he thereby become capable of accepting the ram, of understanding the God who gives to us that we may give. This Abraham, in any case, has something to say to all of us.

If we are only looking on from outside, if we only let God’s action wash over us from without and only insofar as it is directed toward us, then we will soon come to see God as a tyrant who plays about with the world. But the more we keep Him company, the more we trust in Him in the dark night of the uncomprehended God, the more we will become aware that that very God who seems to be tormenting us is the one who truly loves us, the one we can trust without reserve. The deeper we go down into the dark night of the uncomprehended God and trust in Him, the more we will discover Him and will find the love and the freedom that will carry us through any and every night.

God gives that we may give. This is the essence of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ; from the earliest times, the Roman Canon has expressed it thus: “De tuis donis ac datis offerimus tibi” — from your gifts and offerings we offer you.

Even the second element — we offer — is absolutely true, not a mere fiction. So we must now ask: How can this come about — that, on the one hand, since we have nothing to give, God gives to us and that, on the other hand, we are not thereby reduced to mere passive objects of His action, who can only stand there in shame, but are on the contrary genuinely permitted to give Him something? In order to understand that, we have to turn back again to the history of the people of Israel, whose faithful members engaged in a profound and passionate debate about what really constitutes a sacrifice and how it can be performed in a manner appropriate to God and to man. Out of this debate an insight gradually emerged, developed and consolidated in the religion of the prophets and of the psalmists, which might be expressed roughly in these words: A contrite spirit is the true sacrifice to offer you. May our prayers ascend to you like the smoke of incense. May our prayers to you carry more weight than the sacrifice of thousands of fat rams.

Israel was beginning to grasp that the sacrifice pleasing to God is a man pleasing to God and that prayer, the grateful praise of God, is thus the true sacrifice in which we give ourselves back to Him, thereby renewing ourselves and the world. The heart of Israel’s worship had always been what we express in the Latin word memoriale: remembrance.

Whenever the Passover is celebrated, before the lamb is eaten, the head of the household recites the Passover Haggadah, that is to say, an account praising the great works God has done for Israel. The head of the house gives praise for the history God has made with His people, so that the next generation may hear it. But he does not recount this like mere past history; rather, he gives praise for the presence of God who supports us and who leads us, whose activity is thus present for us and in us.

In the period in which Jesus lived, there was a growing consciousness of the Passover Haggadah as being at the real heart of Israel’s worship, as being the true offering to God. The religion of Israel was at one here with the new religious outlook of the pagan world, in which the idea was emerging that the true sacrifice was the word or, rather, the man who in thanksgiving gave a spiritual dimension both to things and to himself, purified them, and thereby rendered them fit for God.

Now, it was into the texture of the Passover Haggadah, this thanksgiving prayer, that Jesus wove His sayings at the Last Supper, and it thereby acquired, over and above the shape it had developed in Israel, a new heart and center. It had hitherto remained merely verbal, in danger of turning into a mere form of words; it remained a verbal assertion in the midst of a history in which the victory of God is far from obvious, despite all His great works. Jesus Christ now gave to this prayer a heart that opens the locked door; this heart is His love, in which God is victorious and conquers death.

The Canon of the Roman Mass developed directly from these Jewish prayers of thanksgiving; it is the direct descendant and continuation of this prayer of Jesus at the Last Supper and is thereby the heart of the Eucharist. It is the genuine vehicle of the sacrifice, since thereby Jesus Christ transformed His death into verbal form — into a prayer — and, in so doing, changed the world.4 As a result, this death is able to be present for us, because it continues to live in the prayer, and the prayer runs right down through the centuries.

A further consequence is that we can share in this death, because we can participate in this transforming prayer, can join in praying it. This, then, is the new sacrifice He has given us, in which He includes us all: Because He turned death into a proclamation of thanksgiving and love, He is now able to be present down through all ages as the wellspring of life, and we can enter into Him by praying with Him. He gathers up, so to speak, the pitiful fragments of our suffering, our loving, our hoping, and our waiting into this prayer, into a great flood in which it shares in His life, so that thereby we truly share in the sacrifice.

Christ does not stand facing us alone. It was alone that He died, as the grain of wheat, but He does not arise alone, but as a whole ear of corn, taking with Him the communion of the saints. Since the Resurrection, Christ no longer stands alone but is — as the Church Fathers say — always caput et corpus: head and body, open to us all. Thus He makes His word come true: “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (Jn 12:32).

That is why we do not need to harbor the fear that motivated Luther to protest against the Catholic idea of the Mass as sacrifice, that thereby the glory of Christ might be diminished, or that the “sacrifice of the Mass” is founded on the idea that Christ’s sacrifice was not enough and that we ought to, or could, add something to it. Such mistaken ideas may well have been current, but they have nothing to do with the real meaning of the concept of the sacrificial character of the Mass.

The magnitude of Christ’s achievement consists precisely in His not remaining someone else, over and against us, who might thus relegate us once more to a merely passive role; He does not merely bear with us; rather, He bears us up; He identifies Himself with us to such an extent that our sins belong to Him and His being to us: He truly accepts us and takes us up, so that we ourselves become active with His support and alongside Him, so that we ourselves cooperate and join in the sacrifice with Him, participating in the mystery ourselves. Thus our own life and suffering, our own hoping and loving, can also become fruitful, in the new heart He has given us.

Let us summarize what we have said so far. As a continuation of the Passover Haggadah, the Canon, as eucharistia (that is, as the transformation of existence into thanksgiving), is the true heart of the Mass. The Liturgy itself calls it rationabile obsequium, an offering in verbal form. It presupposes in the first place the spiritual struggle of the prophets, of the suffering men of righteousness in Israel, but equally the mature religion of the Hellenistic world, which was increasingly close to Judaism. But above all it shows an awareness that human words can become true worship and sacrifice only if they are given substance by the life and suffering of Him who is Himself the Word.

The transforming of death into love, which is achieved in His word of almighty power, thereby combines human words with the Word of eternal love, which is what the Son is, as He ceaselessly gives Himself up in love to the Father. That is why this word can do what human love merely longs to do: open the door, in death, to resurrection. Thus the Canon, the “true sacrifice,” is the word of the Word; in it speaks the one who, as Word, is life. By putting these words into our mouths, letting us pronounce them with Him, He permits us and enables us to make the offering with Him: His words become our words, His worship our worship, His sacrifice our sacrifice.

Following this farther, we now have to look at the structure of the Canon. In doing so we should note that the new Eucharistic Prayers share the same structure as the traditional Roman Canon; so that our reflections in respect of this one instance are relevant in essentials to the others. So, when we look at the so-called Roman Canon, we notice first of all something quite remarkable: It does not talk only about God and about Christ, His death and His Resurrection. It mentions people by name: Sixtus, Clement, Cyprian; it allows us to insert names, the names of people we have loved and who have gone before us into the other world; the names of people whom we would like to thank or whose burden we would like to be able to share.

Indeed, the Canon goes beyond this to speak of the whole creation, for when it says at the close: “Through Him you bless all these good gifts,” then it is envisaging everything we have received from God’s good hands; every one of our meals is, as it were, offered up in this new feast that is Christ’s gift to us and bears within it something of the new feast’s thanksgiving to God the Creator.

We ought — I would add — to renew our awareness of this fact that all our meals are alive with the goodness of God the Creator, and all thereby point toward this greatest feast of all, in which we receive no longer just earthly things, but the incarnate act of God’s mercy. We should resolve to make our meals once more holy times, to open and to close them with prayer. Doing this will introduce a new atmosphere into our homes; wherever we pray together, where we receive God’s gifts with thankfulness, a new heart comes into being, which also changes us ourselves.

We were saying that people are mentioned in the Canon; there is a very simple reason for this. There is only one Christ. Wherever the Eucharist is celebrated, He is wholly and fully present. Because of that, even in the most humble village church, when the Eucharist is celebrated, the whole mystery of the Church, her living heart, the Lord, is present. But this Christ, fully present, is yet at the same time one. That is why we can only receive Him together with everyone else. He is the same, here or in Rome, in America or in Australia or in Africa. Because He is one, we can only receive Him in unity.

If ever we were opposed to unity, we would be unable to meet with Him. For that reason, every celebration of the Eucharist has the structure we find in the Communicantes, that of communion not only with the Lord but also with creation and with men of all places and all times. This, too, is something we ought to take to heart anew, that we cannot have communion with the Lord if we are not in communion with each other; that when we go to meet Him in the Mass, we necessarily go to meet each other, to be at one with each other.

Therefore the mentioning of the bishop and the pope by name, in the celebration of the Eucharist, is not merely an external matter, but an inner necessity of that celebration. For the celebration of the Eucharist is not just a meeting of heaven and earth; rather, it is also a meeting of the Church then and now and a meeting of the Church here and there; it assumes that we visibly enter into a visible unity, one that can be described. The names of the bishop and the pope stand for the fact that we are truly celebrating the one Eucharist of Jesus Christ, which we can receive only in the one Church.

Thus a final point becomes evident: at the heart of the Canon is the narrative of the evening before Jesus’ Passion. When this is spoken, then the priest is not recounting the story of something that is past, just recalling what happened then, but something is taking place in the present. “This is my Body” is what is said now, today. But these words are the words of Jesus Christ. No man can pronounce them for himself. No one can, for his own part, declare his body to be the Body of Christ, declare this bread to be his Body, speaking in the first person, the “I” of Jesus Christ. This saying in the first person — “my Body” — only He Himself can say. If anyone were to dare to say, on his own behalf, that he saw himself as the self of Christ, this would surely be blasphemy.

No one can endow himself with such authority; no one else can give it to him; no congregation or community can give it to him. It can only be the gift of the Church as a whole, the one whole Church, to whom the Lord has communicated Himself. For this reason the Mass needs the person who does not speak in his own name, who does not come on his own authority, but who represents the whole Church, the Church of all places and all ages, which has passed on to him what was communicated to her.

The fact that the celebration of the Eucharist is tied to ordination as a priest is not, as we sometimes hear, something that the Church has invented, by means of which she arrogates to herself all kinds of privileges and restricts the activity of the Spirit. It follows from the essential significance of these words, which no one has the right to pronounce on his own behalf; it follows that these words can pronounced only in the sacrament of the Church as a whole, with the authority that she alone, in her unity and her fullness, possesses. Being entrusted with the mission that the whole Church in her unity has herself received is what we call ordination to the priesthood. On the basis of all this we ought to try to discover a new reverence for the eucharistic mystery.

Something is happening there that is greater than anything we can do. The magnitude of what is happening is not dependent on the way we perform it, but all our efforts to perform it aright can always be only at the service of the great act that precedes our own and that we cannot achieve for ourselves. We should learn anew that the Eucharist is never merely what a congregation does, but that we receive from the Lord what He has granted to the entirety of the Church.

I am always moved by those stories of what happened in concentration camps or Russian prison camps, where people had to do without the Eucharist for a period of weeks or months and yet did not turn to the arbitrary action of celebrating it themselves; rather, they made a eucharistic celebration of their longing, waiting with yearning upon the Lord, who alone can give of Himself. In such a Eucharist of longing and yearning they were made ready for His gift in a new way, and they received it as something new, when somewhere or other a priest found a bit of bread and some wine.

On this basis, we should likewise accept the question of intercommunion with appropriate humility and patience. It is not for us to act as if there were unity where this is not the case. The Eucharist is never the means we can use to any end; it is the gift of the Lord, the heart of the Church herself, and not within our control. It is not a matter of personal friendship here, of the strength of subjective faith, which in any case we have no means of measuring, but of standing within the unity of the one Church and of our humbly waiting for God to grant this unity Himself. Instead of conducting experiments in this area and robbing the mystery of its greatness and degrading it to an instrument in our hands, we too should learn to celebrate a Eucharist of longing and yearning and in shared prayer and shared hope to walk together with the Lord toward new ways of finding unity.

Saint John’s account of the Lord’s death closes with the words: “They shall look on Him whom they have pierced” (Jn 19:37 = Zech 12:10). He begins his Revelation with these words, which in that place constitute the opening of the Day of Judgment, that day on which the one who was pierced will rise over the world as its judgment and its life. But He commands us to look upon Him now, so that the judgment may be turned to salvation. “They shall look on Him whom they have pierced.”

This might be a description of the inner direction of our Christian life, our learning ever more truly to look upon Him, to keep the eyes of our heart turned upon Him, to see Him, and thereby to grow more humble; to recognize our sins, to recognize how we have struck Him, how we have wounded our brethren and thereby wounded Him; to look upon Him and, at the same time, to take hope, because He whom we have wounded is He who loves us; to look upon Him and to receive the way of life. Lord, grant to us to look upon you and, in so doing, to find true life! 


1 We do not intend to reopen here the dispute about the historical accuracy of the synoptic or the Johannine chronology of the Passion; cf. on this point R. Pesch, Das Markusevangelium, vol. 2 (Freiburg, 1977), pp. 323-28.

2 Cf. on this point H. Rahner, Symbole der Kirche: Ekklesiologie der Väter (Salzburg, 1964), pp. 177-205; and on the Jewish background, A. Tossato, Il matrimonio nel Giudaismo Antico e nel Nuovo Testamento (Rome, 1976), pp. 49-80.

3 Cf., on the subject of T. Moser, the lovely contribution by O. H. Steck, “Ist Gott grausam?” [Is God cruel?] in W. Böhme, ed., Ist Gott grausam? Eine Stellungnahme zu T. Mosers “Gottesvergiftung” [Is God Cruel? Reactions to T. Moser’s “Poisoned by God”] (Stuttgart, 1977), pp. 75-95.

4 I have given a more complete account of the relations between these various elements in the article “Gestalt und Gehalt der eucharistischen Feier” [Form and content in the eucharistic celebration], which I contributed to the Internationale katholische Zeitschrift Communio 6 (I 9121: 385-96; reprinted, with two appendices, in J. Ratzinger, Das Fest des Glaubens: Versuche zur Theologie des Gottesdienstes, 3d ed. (Einsiedeln, I993), pp. 31-54 [English trans., The Feast of Faith, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), pp. 33-60].



The Editors