The Word Among Us

June 2023 Issue

A Living Sacrifice in Christ

Offering Our Lives as a Gift of Love

By: Cardinal Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap

A Living Sacrifice in Christ: Offering Our Lives as a Gift of Love by Cardinal Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap

Concepción Cabrera de Armida, also known as “Conchita,” was an early twentieth-century Mexican mystic. In a letter to her son who was about to be ordained, she wrote, “Remember, when you hold in your hands the Holy Host, you will not say, ‘Behold the Body of Jesus and Behold His Blood,’ but you will say, ‘This is my Body, This is my Blood.’ That is, there must be worked in you a total transformation, you must lose yourself in Him, to be ‘another Jesus.’”

This is true not just for bishops and priests but for all the baptized. Every one of us is called to “lose ourselves” in Christ. Every one of us is called to become “another Jesus.” A famous text of the Second Vatican Council puts it this way:

The faithful, in virtue of their royal priesthood, join in the offering of the Eucharist. . . . Taking part in the Eucharistic sacrifice, . . . they offer the Divine Victim to God, and offer themselves along with it. (Lumen Gentium, 10, 11, emphasis added)

So there are two bodies of Christ on the altar: there is his real body (the body “born of the Virgin Mary,” dead, risen and ascended to heaven), and there is his mystical body, which is the Church. Well, his real body is really present on the altar, and his mystical body is mystically present, where “mystically” means by virtue of his inseparable union with the Head. There is no confusion between the two presences, which are distinct but inseparable.

Since there are two “offerings” and two “gifts” on the altar—the one that is to become the Body and Blood of Christ (the bread and the wine), and the one that is to become the mystical body of Christ—there are also two epicleses in the Mass, that is, two invocations of the Holy Spirit. In the first, it is said, “We humbly implore you: by the same Spirit graciously make holy these gifts we have brought to you for consecration, that they may become the Body and Blood of Your Son Our Lord Jesus Christ.” In the second, which is recited after the consecration, it is said, “Grant in your loving kindness to all who partake of this one Bread and one Chalice that, gathered into one body by the Holy Spirit, they may truly become a living sacrifice in Christ.”

This means that the Eucharist is not only the source or the cause of the holiness of the Church; it is also its model for holiness. The holiness of the Christian must be a Eucharistic holiness, the giving of ourselves over to the Lord and to our brothers and sisters. The Christian cannot limit himself to celebrating the Eucharist; he must become a Eucharist with Jesus.

The Body and the Blood. Now we can draw the practical consequences of this doctrine for our daily lives. If we are hearing, “Take, eat: this is my body. Take and drink: this is my blood,” we must know what “body” and “blood” mean, to know what Jesus is offering and what he is asking of us.

The word “body” does not indicate, in the Bible, merely a component or a part of man which, combined with the other components that are the soul and the spirit, forms the complete human being. In biblical language, and therefore in that of Jesus and Paul, “body” indicates the whole of a person, insofar as he or she lives his or her life in a body, in a corporeal and mortal condition. “Body,” therefore, indicates the whole of life. By instituting the Eucharist, Jesus left us his whole life as a gift, from the first instant of the Incarnation to the last moment, with everything that concretely filled that life: silence, sweat, toil, prayer, struggles, and humiliations.

Then Jesus says, “This is my blood.” What does he add with the word “blood” if he has already given us his whole life in his body? He adds death! After giving us life, he also gives us the most precious part of it, his death. In fact, the term “blood” in the Bible does not indicate a part of the body, that is, a part of a person; it indicates an event: death. If blood is the seat of life (so it was thought then), its “pouring” is the sign of death. The Eucharist is the mystery of the Lord’s body and blood, that is, of the Lord’s life and death!

Now, coming to us, what are we offering when we offer our body and our blood, together with Jesus, in the Mass? We, too, offer what Jesus offered: life and death. With the word “body,” we give everything that concretely constitutes the life we lead in this world: time, health, energy, skills, affection, maybe just a smile. With the word “blood,” we, too, express the offer of our death. Not necessarily definitive death, martyrdom for Christ or for the brothers and sisters. We offer all that is in us, right now, all that prepares and anticipates death: humiliations, failures, diseases that immobilize, limitations due to age, health—all that, in a word, “mortifies” us.

Offering All of Our Lives. All this requires, however, that as soon as we come out of Mass, we do our best to realize what we have said. It requires that we really strive, with all our limitations, to offer to our brothers and sisters our “body,” that is, time, energy, attention—in a word, our life. It is therefore necessary that, after having heard “Take, eat,” we really let ourselves “be eaten,” and let ourselves be eaten above all by those who do not do it with all the delicacy and grace that we would expect.

St. Ignatius of Antioch, going to Rome to die there as a martyr, wrote, “I am Christ’s wheat: may I be ground from the teeth of the beasts, to become pure bread for the Lord.” Each of us, if you look carefully around, has these sharp teeth that grind: they are criticisms, contrasts, hidden or open oppositions, differences of views with those around us, diversity of character.

Let’s try to imagine what would happen if we celebrated Mass with this personal participation—if we all really said, at the moment of consecration, some aloud and some silently, according to the ministry of each one, “Take, eat.” A parish priest celebrates his Mass in this way, then goes: he prays, preaches, confesses, receives people, visits the sick, listens, teaches. His day is also a Eucharist. A great French spiritual teacher, Pierre Olivaint (1816–1871), used to say, “In the morning, at Mass, I am the priest and Jesus the victim; throughout the day, Jesus is the priest and I the victim.” Whether or not we are ordained, for all the baptized, our days can also be a Eucharist.

Our Signature on the Gift. I would like to summarize, with the help of a human example, what happens in the Eucharistic celebration. Let’s think of a large family in which there is a son, the firstborn, who admires and loves his father beyond measure. For the father’s birthday, the son wants to give him a precious gift. Before presenting it to him, however, he secretly asks all his brothers and sisters to put their signature on the gift. This, therefore, arrives in the hands of the father as a sign of the love of all his children, without distinction, even if, in reality, only one has paid the price for it.

This is what happens in the Eucharistic sacrifice. Jesus admires and loves the heavenly Father endlessly. He wants to give him, every day until the end of the world, the most precious gift that one can think of, that of his own life. In the Mass, he invites all his brothers and sisters to put their signature on the gift, so that it reaches God the Father as the indistinct gift of all his children, even if only one has paid the price for this gift. And what a price!

The signature of all is the solemn “Amen,” which the assembly pronounces, or sings, at the end of the doxology: “Through him, and with him, and in him, O God, almighty Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is yours, forever and ever.” “AMEN!”

We know that those who have signed a commitment then have the duty to honor their “signature.” This means that, leaving Mass, we, too, must make our lives a gift of love to the Father for the good of our brothers and sisters. We, I repeat, are not only called to celebrate the Eucharist, but also to make ourselves a Eucharist. May God help us with this!

Cardinal Cantalamessa, a renowned theologian, Scripture scholar, and author, has served as Preacher to the Papal Household since 1980.