Saint Paul twice speaks of handing on to others things which he himself had received. One of these things was the truth concerning the Death and Resurrection of Christ (I Cor. 15:3-4); the other was the mystery of the Holy Eucharist (I Cor. 11:23ff). This passing on of something received is called “tradition.” It is by tradition that the Church receives her doctrines, her scriptures, and her sacraments. Having received this infallible and indefectible tradition, she makes them present to the faithful in every age.
In the Church’s liturgy, and especially in her sacramental rites, she makes the significant events of salvation history, along with their grace-producing efficacy, present here and now. In so many of our great feast days (Christmas, the Circumcision, Epiphany, Easter, the Ascension, Pentecost, etc.), the Church uses the word hodie (today) in her liturgy, signifying this making present again a reality of eternal weight.
In the liturgical act — especially the Mass, but also all sacramental rites, which efficaciously make God’s grace present to us — we enter into the eternal now of God. Eastern Christians signify this linguistically by employing two different words for “time” in Greek: Chronos (time that is measured, successive, whence comes chronological), and Kairos (a fixed moment of special importance: the “acceptable time” [καιρὸς εὐπρόσδεκτος] of II Cor. 6:2). Kairos is an image of God’s eternity and our participation in it. When, at the beginning of the Byzantine Divine Liturgy, the deacon tells the priest “Καιρός του ποιήσαι τω Κυρίω” (“It is time [kairos] for the Lord to act”), he indicates that, in the Holy Mass, our time is intersecting with God’s eternity.
And so it is in every sacrament. God enters our time and acts in us. He effects grace here and now, a grace which flows from the infinite merits of Christ’s Passion.
But unique among the sacraments, because it contains not only the power of Christ but Christ Himself, is the Blessed Eucharist. Having recently celebrated the feast of Corpus Christi — and being still in the remnants of its old liturgical Octave, we are now especially reminded of this. Indeed, the passage from Saint Paul to the Corinthians about the Eucharist, cited above, is the Epistle that the Church uses for the Feast.
In order to savor and appreciate the marvels of this great mystery without writing something too long, I will give the rest of this space to excerpts from the Summa Theologiae of Saint Thomas. The following are passages which I have freely excerpted from the wonderful short article, “The Holy Eucharist in St Thomas Aquinas,” by Father Inos Biffi, priest of the diocese of Milan, emeritus professor of theology at the Theological Faculty of Northern Italy, and director of the Institute of the History of Theology in Lugano, Switzerland. The words not in quotes are Don Biffi’s, except the bracketed text, which is my own. I will make only one brief comment to conclude.
- “Through the sacraments of the New Law man is incorporated with Christ” (Summa, III, 62, 1, 3m).
- “The sacraments… flow from Christ himself, and have a certain likeness to him” (Summa, III 60, 6, 3m). Indeed, “the sacraments… obtain their effect through the power of Christ’s Passion; and Christ’s Passion is, so to say, applied to man (applicatur) through the sacraments” (Summa, III, 61, 1, 3m).
- “The sacraments of the Church derive their power specially from Christ’s Passion, the virtue of which is in a manner united to us (nobis copulatur) by our receiving the sacraments” (Summa, II, 62, 5, 1); “the power of Christ’s Passion is united to us by faith and the sacraments”, so that its “continuation” (continuatio) will result (Summa, II, 62, 6, c.). He was also to explain, in treating Baptism, that it “derives its efficacy from Christ’s Passion and from the Holy Ghost” (Summa, III, 66, 12, c.).
- “A sacrament is a sign that is both a reminder of the past, that is, the Passion of Christ; and an indication of that which is effected in us by Christ’s Passion, that is, grace; and a prognostic (precognosticum), that is, a foretelling (praenuntiativum) of future glory” (Summa, III, 60, 3, c.).
- “This sacrament [specifically, the Eucharist] has a threefold significance: one with regard to the past, inasmuch as it is commemorative of our Lord’s Passion, which was a true sacrifice, as stated above, and in this respect it is called a Sacrifice.
- “With regard to the present it has another meaning, namely, that of ecclesiastical unity, in which men are aggregated through this sacrament; and in this respect it is called Communion….
- “With regard to the future it has a third meaning, inasmuch as this sacrament foreshadows the Divine fruition which shall come to pass in heaven; and according to this it is called Viaticum, because it supplies the way of winning thither” (Summa, III, 73, 4, c.).
- The reason for this [for the Eucharist being “the consummation of the spiritual life, and the end of all the sacraments”], St Thomas explains, lies in the fact that whereas the energy — “vis” or “virtus” — of the Passion of Christ is active in the other sacraments, the Eucharist contains “Christ’s own Body” (Summa, III, 73, 1, 3m); in Scholastic language, Christ is present as “the common spiritual good of the whole Church… contained substantially in the sacrament itself of the Eucharist” (Summa, III, 65, 3, 1), in order to bring man to full communion with Christ in the Passion (cf. Summa, III, 73, 2, 3m).
- In other words, if every sacrament is rooted in Christ’s Passion, the Eucharist is the perfect sign of this. As the Angelic Doctor wrote: The Eucharist “is perfective of all the other sacraments, in which Christ’s virtue is participated” (Summa, III, 75, 1, c.).
- “The sacrifices of the Old Law contained only in figure that true sacrifice of Christ’s Passion”, whereas, “it was necessary that the sacrifice of the New Law instituted by Christ should have something more, namely, that it should contain Christ himself crucified, not merely in signification or figure, but also in very truth” (Summa, III, 75, 1, c.).
- “Hence, Chrysostom says”, commenting on the words of John, “‘Immediately there came out blood and water (19:34). Since the sacred mysteries derive their origin from thence, when you draw nigh to the awe-inspiring chalice, so approach as if you were going to drink from Christ’s own side”‘ (Summa, III, 79, 1, c.).
- “There is but one victim, namely, that which Christ offered, and which we offer” (Summa, III, 83, 1, 1m); and this explains the reason that “by this sacrament, we are made partakers of the fruit of our Lord’s Passion”.
- “Hence, in one of the Sunday Secrets [ninth Sunday after Pentecost] we say: ‘Whenever the commemoration of this sacrifice is celebrated, the work of our redemption is enacted'” (Summa, III, 83, 1, c.); thus, “it is proper to this sacrament for Christ to be sacrificed in its celebration”, for the Old Testament contains only figures of his sacrifice (Summa, III, 83, 1, c.).
What Saint Thomas says above in his wise prose about the past, present, and future aspects of the Eucharist is arguably better expressed in his sublime liturgical poetry, for he is the author of the O Sacrum Convivum (O Sacred Banquet), whose name I stole for the title of this piece.