Eucharist: The Sacrificial Life

seven-sacraments-rogier-van-der-weyden-bigEach of the sacraments provides a way to think of the whole Christian life. In the past two weeks, we have seen how Baptism helps us think of “the life of rebirth” and Confirmation “the apostolic life.” The Eucharist, greatest of the sacraments, actually gives us two central images, according to the two things we do with the Eucharist: sacrifice and communion. (Technically, the Eucharist gives us an exterior act, sacrifice, because Christ becomes present on the altar, and not only in our souls.) These two aspects of the Eucharist, like all of the sacraments and all of the Christian life, are inextricably entwined. But we can talk about them one by one: sacrifice this week, communion next week.


There is some confusion about what “sacrifice” means. In modern English, sacrifice means something like pain for a higher good. If we work hard to go to college, we call that sacrifice.

But when the Church calls the Eucharist a sacrifice, that just isn’t the way we are using the word. (It’s unfortunate that we have to do this – to give a Catholic definition of words that is different from the “normal” definition. But we live in a culture that doesn’t understand worship, so there are going to be problems of language.)

The Catholic definition of sacrifice differs from the normal English one in two ways. First, sacrifice is not for just any good. By sacrifice we mean “only for God.” Sacrifice is what you only do for God. In that sense, “sacrificing for college” is just a contradiction.

Second, pain isn’t the point. For God is the point. Sacrifice does not always involve pain. In the Bible, some sacrifices are holocausts – up in smoke – but some are feasts, the very opposite of pain. The sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, because it involves both death and resurrection, is actually both: both pain and celebration. But what makes something a sacrifice, in the Bible, in Augustine, in Thomas Aquinas, in the Catholic understanding, is that we do it for God.

The sacrificial life is a life ordered to God.


The heart of sacrifice is thanksgiving – which is why the most important name for the Eucharist is not “communion,” but “Eucharist,” the Greek word for thanksgiving. At Mass we give thanks to God: for his goodness that we read about in the Bible, for all of creation, for our lives (both the nice things and the hard things), and above all for the grace he pours out on us in Jesus.

Jesus left us a “memorial” of his passion: he left us a way, a concrete practice, of giving thanks. The heart of the Eucharist is simply to recall what he has done, and do the thing, the sacrifice, that he gave us as the perfect way of calling to mind and giving thanks for his goodness to us.


Sacrifice is not about pain. It is about justice – “it is right and just.” It is about doing what is right, what we ought to do. “Make justice your sacrifice,” says the Psalm (4:5), and the refrain runs throughout the Bible, in a thousand ways. When we do what is right, purely because it is the right thing to do, we make justice our sacrifice. We give thanks to God by embracing the life and the duties he has given us. (We deny thanks to God by refusing the duties he has given us.)

This is where pain is relevant to sacrifice. Often our duties, the right thing, is not what we feel like doing. A right sense of mortification focuses not on how we can hurt ourselves – which is hardly part of an attitude of thanksgiving – but on doing the right thing even when it hurts. It is good, and right, to rejoice at the suffering when we know that it is because we are doing what is right. The pain – even the little pains, like getting up to help when we’ve just put our feet up – are a reminder, not of the goodness of pain (pain is not good in itself!), but of the goodness of doing what is right and just.

We could make our life thanksgiving, make our life Eucharistic, just by adopting that line from the Mass, “It is right and just!”


Thanksgiving longs for expression. The tradition calls the most important part “interior sacrifice”: truly being thankful. But we physical beings need to express that through “exterior sacrifices”: acts of thanksgiving.

How do you give thanks in your day? How do you make your life a sacrifice of praise?

Now for Something Kooky: The Meaning of Olive Oil

olive Oil 3A postscript to yesterday’s thoughts on Confirmation:

Olive oil plays a key role in several of the sacraments: Confirmation, Baptism (where it anticipates Confirmation), Anointing of the Sick, and Holy Orders, as well as the fabulous rite of blessing a new church or altar. The symbolism is a bit obscure.

But it’s important to appreciate that the symbols are key to the sacraments. We know what the sacraments mean when they evoke bathing, eating, and marriage. The symbolism of Confession – saying you are sorry for your sins – is so strikingly obvious as to be almost hard to notice. And it’s even pretty easy to understand what laying on hands means: if you can ever attend an Ordination, you will find that act beautifully evocative. The sacraments are not “just” symbols, but they work through symbols, and the symbolism is important to fully appreciating them.

But what about anointing? What the heck is the Bishop doing when he puts oil on people’s heads?


For the Psalmist, this is a powerful symbol. It is not just a random sign of choosing, but a sign of richness and blessing:

“You prepare a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: you anoint my head with oil; my cup runs over” (Ps. 23:5).

“God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness above your fellows” (Ps. 45:7).

“I shall be anointed with fresh oil” (Ps. 92:10).

“Let the righteous strike me; it shall be a kindness: and let him reprove me; it shall be an excellent oil, which shall not damage my face” (Ps. 141:5).

It seeps deep into the body:

“As he clothed himself with cursing as with his garment, so let it come into his bowels like water, and like oil into his bones” (Ps. 109:18).

“The words of his mouth were smoother than butter, but war was in his heart: his words were softer than oil, yet they were drawn swords” (Ps. 55:21).

And, my personal favorite, it makes your face shine:

“He causes the grass to grow for the cattle, and herb for the service of man: that he may bring forth food out of the earth; And wine that maketh glad the heart of man, and oil to make his face to shine, and bread which strengthens man’s heart” (Ps. 104:14-15).


Olive oil was the cosmetic of the ancient world, as important to hygiene as it was to cooking. In fact, there is a movement now to rediscover it: as a face cleanser, a moisturizer, and a lubricant for shaving. Clean oil actually does a remarkable job, on the one hand, washing away dirty oils, and on the other, seeping into the skin to nurture it.

If that sounds totally weird to you, maybe you should try it. Try it precisely because it is unfortunate if the symbolism of the sacraments creeps you out. If you think wine is poison (instead of it “gladdening your heart,” as in Psalm 104 above), it is hard to appreciate the joy of the Eucharist; if you hate baths and showers, Baptism loses its luster. But so too you miss out on the rich symbolism of several sacraments if you’ve never experienced the healthy “shine” (Ps. 104) and “seeping in” (Ps. 109) of olive oil.

Put it this way: on your death bed, God willing, you will be anointed with olive oil: hopefully the most powerful sacramental experience of your whole life. Wouldn’t it be nice if you were ready to appreciate that experience?

Try a little, just on your hands . . . .


By the way: it’s worth noticing, in passing, what anointing with olive oil can teach us about cosmetics. In short, the difference is both subtle and vast between a paint meant to make you look like something you’re not, and things like olive oil that bring out the radiance of your own beauty: the difference between truth and falsehood.

The Sacrament of Confirmation: The Apostolic Life

seven-sacraments-rogier-van-der-weyden-bigThough the Church’s teaching on Confirmation is remarkably scant, we can find in it an entire spirituality.

(Scroll down to the three canons here to see the entire magisterial teaching. A current school of thought, led by Josef Ratzinger, would like to minimize this teaching even further, in the name of ecumenical outreach. But I will present the medieval development of the doctrine, which I think you will find a lovely complement to Vatican II.)


The central act of Confirmation has the Bishop (or his representative) mark the confirmand’s forehead with scented oil, or chrism. Both the Bishop and the act of anointing suggest a commissioning, a task. The Latin name “confirmation,” more specific than the older Greek name “chrismation,” says that this oil (this chrism) is there to strengthen (“confirm”) us for the mission.

The Bishop traditionally anoints the confirmand with the sign of the cross. He now carries the cross on his forehead, wherever he goes. The medieval crusaders wore a cross on their back – the English called them “crouchbacks,” “crouch” being a variant of “cross” – to mark them as soldiers for Christ. Confirmation is one of the sacraments that you can only receive once: once a crouchback, always a crouchback; the cross marks your forehead forever, to your glory or to your shame.

The medievals saw this as the sacrament of evangelization. You are sent to represent Christ and his Church to the world. It is thus appropriate, though not necessary, that the confirmand be approaching adulthood: now you go out into the world.

But the cross on your forehead symbolizes what kind of witness you are to make: principally a silent witness. You are not anointed to be a big talker, but to show people what a Christian is. Like the crouchback, you wear it on your back, not on your big mouth: they see what you do, not what you say.

The oil used is scented, usually with balsam. The medieval tradition likes this even better. You are not supposed to talk like a Christian – you are supposed to smell like one! There should be a certain something, something that permeates who you are. Romano Guardini, I think, said, they should be able to tell you are a Christian from the way you climb a tree. I think we’re supposed to laugh . . .but the point is, Confirmation commissions you to be a witness by everything you do.

Some of the new closing blessings at Mass are, in my opinion, kind of hokey, maybe a bit reductive, but it is worth pointing out somehow that the Mass ends with (and, in fact, in the West is named by) the word “sent”: ite, missa est can be translated simply, “go, you are sent” (or more literally: “this is the sending”).


Most important, though, Confirmation is a sacrament. It is not a mission we take on ourselves, and not one we are sent out to do by our own power. As the oil seeps into our skin (see my post on this tomorrow), so confirmation strengthens us. We are meant to rely on his power, the power of Christ.

We are marked with the sign of the Cross, both because we bear witness to Christ, and because it is Christ who gives us the strength to do it. The strength he gives is the strength of the Cross. The principal witnesses are the martyrs, who did not impose the faith, but suffered for it – and who were willing to face the end of their strength in the knowledge that Jesus is stronger even than death.


Confirmation is, in one sense, a filling out of our Baptism. We can practice devotion to Confirmation by literally wearing a Baptismal garment: a cross, a metal, a scapular. But perhaps we would express the true meaning of Confirmation better by wearing our garment hidden under our clothes: a reminder that our witness is to be far more profound than a bumper sticker.

In another sense, since Confirmation strengthens us when we are tempted to hide the light of Christ, it is like Confession. And so, like Confession, we can practice devotion to Confirmation through little acts of penance: in this case, little reminders to ourselves that we need to be tough, willing to suffer for the truth of the Gospel.

Always we can make the sign of the Cross, and pray “come, Holy Spirit,” to enlighten and strengthen us for witness.

Then we can be as Jesus:

“Gird thy sword upon thy thigh, O most mighty, with thy glory and thy majesty. And in thy majesty ride prosperously because of truth and meekness and righteousness” (Ps. 45:3-4).


How do you keep alive your call to be an apostolic witness?

The Baptismal Life

seven-sacraments-rogier-van-der-weyden-bigWe would do much to rediscover the true Christian spirituality if we thought of all of our life as a living out of our Baptism. Indeed, this is probably the “anointing” – in Greek, the christening, or Christ-ian-ing – that John talks about:

“The anointing which you have received from him abides in you, and you have no need that any man teach you: but as the same anointing teaches you of all things, and is truth, and is no lie, and even as it has taught you, you shall abide in him. And now, little children, abide in him; that, when he shall appear, we may have confidence, and not be ashamed before him at his coming” (1 John 2:27-28).

This is the same Apostle John, of course, who gives us this exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus: “Amen, amen, I say to you, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God . . . . Amen, amen, I say to you, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:3, 5).

But how do we “abide in this anointing”? How do we actually live according to this most bizarre claim that we are “born again” by Baptism ?


In fact, the Church gives us a wonderful frequent devotion to Baptism so common that we almost overlook it: the sign of the Cross. A whole spirituality is carried in this simple little devotion.

The main place of the sign of the Cross is at the holy water stoup, as we enter the Church. Notice, in fact, that the little prayer we say as we make the sign of the Cross is simply the Baptismal formula: “Go you therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” These words are meant to call to mind our baptism, which is why they are attached to the holy water: nothing more nor less than a sacramental reminder of the waters of Baptism.

(Thomas Aquinas, in fact, says that all the power attached to the sacramentals is in their devotional power in reminding us of the real Seven Sacraments. The power of holy water is devotion to Baptism.)


Baptism is our entrance into the Church. Yes, it “washes away sin” – though the point of the John the Baptist stories is to remind us that first, Baptism was a sign of repentance, of beginning anew. The difference between John’s Baptism and the Baptism of Jesus is that Christian Baptism gives us the spiritual power to truly begin anew. That means leaving behind our former ways – and thus “washing away sin” – but more powerfully, it means entering into Christ: the anointing, and plunging into Christ.

Baptism only “washes away” by “pouring in” divine life.

It means, above all, entering into the sacramental life of Christ’s Church. Baptism gives us access to the sacraments. It is the beginning of the sacramental life. That’s why we remind ourselves of our Baptism when we enter the Church: it’s a delightfully literal symbol that Baptism is the way we “enter” the Church of Jesus.

(It is also nice, in light of the Great Commission we quoted above, to make the sign of the Cross as we leave Church: we are sent to “teach all nations” and draw them to Baptism, to life in the Church. Our life outside of the Church is about preparing ourselves and others to enter the life of the Church.)


The physical sign we use, along with water, is a cross, drawn on our own body. (We can remind ourselves of this by making this cross actually look like a cross, not a sloppy hand wave.) The sign of the Cross reminds us that we are united to Christ. In Baptism we have died and risen with him. Our sufferings are united to his sufferings – and we are reminded that the divine love will include real suffering. But union with his suffering also means resurrection, the power of God that draws us through and beyond suffering. To mark Christ’s cross on our own body is no small thing!

But the prayer we say, along with recalling our Baptism, recalls the spiritual heights to which we are called, the reason the Cross is worth it. We are called through the Cross into the very life and love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Abide in that anointing. Live your Baptism.


What does the sign of the Cross mean to you?

The Sacramental Life: Keeping Our Eyes on God

seven-sacraments-rogier-van-der-weyden-bigIn recent weeks we considered several names for the spiritual life as it relates to various persons of the Trinity, and then we considered St. Louis de Montfort’s four different names for the spiritual life as it relates to Mary. Today we begin a series that will consider how the sacraments can serve as names for the spiritual life. All of these things name the same basic reality: our incorporation in Christ, our sharing in the life of God.

But they highlight it in different ways. This is important because in fact it is easy for us to lose track of what the spiritual life is really about.


The two basic poles of the spiritual life are God as our destination and God as our means of reaching that destination. “Charity,” or divine love, is the theological name for loving God as the ultimate good toward which everything is aimed. Grace is the theological word for the transformation of the person by contact with God: the work God does in us.

Our constant temptation is to sink into ourselves. We replace charity with love of self when we focus on experience, as if the real point of the spiritual life was to have visions, or warm fuzzy feelings – or no feelings: spiritual dryness can be idolized too. In fact, I fear that there’s a certain kind of pseudo-mysticism about where people feel like if they space out, especially in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, that emptying of the mind is the presence of God. Liberal Catholics call this “centering prayer,” and conservative Catholics know it must be bad. But I think a lot of conservative, or quasi-orthodox Catholics, also think silence itself is prayer: a dangerous incursion of Buddhism, a loss of the fire of charity.

But so too can be the fad of journaling. Now, Mother Teresa herself, a real model of divine charity, seems to have liked both silence and journaling. But what are we journaling about? Are we gazing at ourselves in the mirror? Or are we creating a God in our own image, describing the God we love in our own terms, rather than his?

To love truly, we have to keep our eyes on God. Scripture can be a helpful way to do that, which is why the tradition is so in love with the Psalms and various kinds of lectio divina. But in any case, the point is, Catholicism urges us to look beyond ourselves. The true Christian spiritual life maintains charity by thinking about the various names for the spiritual life we have been considering.


The same is true of grace. The constant temptation is to think either that we do it all by our own power (or by the human power of our community) or that we cannot do it – despair is just another angle on trusting in our own powers. When we lose a clear sense that the spiritual life is the work of the divine Trinity, or of the Lord, incarnate in Mary’s womb, true spirituality is replaced.

On the one hand, we focus on our own strength, and begin to exalt in what we do for ourselves instead of what God does for us. But on the other hand, since our own strength can’t get us very far, we begin to set our sights too low, as if the things we can do on our own are the only possibilities of the spiritual life. The spiritual life without an intense emphasis on divine grace becomes hardly any spiritual life at all.


In the next several weeks we will go through the seven sacraments, considering the richness of naming the spiritual life by reference to Baptism, or Confirmation, or the Eucharist (either sacrifice or communion), or Penance, or the Anointing of the Sick, or the Priesthood, or Marriage. In fact, each of these sacraments provides an excellent description of the spiritual life as a whole.

But first, briefly, what is a sacrament? Sacraments are signs that give what they signify. Baptism is a symbol of spiritual washing – and it does in fact spiritually wash us.

Sacraments provides an intense focus on grace. Just as touching the hem of Jesus’s robe made clear that grace came from him, not from our own power, so too with the sacraments. The sacramental life means trusting in his power.

And the sacraments make vivid that the spiritual life means coming out of ourselves in pursuit of the Good God. They are profound signs of the spiritual reality of Christianity.


How do you find nourishment through the sacraments?