March 26, 2004
vol 15, no. 86


The Sacrifice of Calvary and the Sacrifice of the Eucharist:
Reflections on 'The Passion of The Christ'

    "Were we there that night, and were we steeped in a 4,000 year-old Jewish tradition, we would see clearly what our modern minds do not see readily on the pages of Sacred Scripture: the entire ceremony of the Passover was charged with sacrificial overtones. Atonement, propitiation, immolation - these were in the forefront of the Jewish mind as he sat at table to eat the Passover sacrifice. This was certainly the frame of mind of the disciples, and this sacrificial context must be seen as enveloping the Gospel narratives of the Last Supper."

    When Mel Gibson released his magnum opus, 'The Passion of the Christ,' he accomplished something for the ecumenical movement (properly defined) that was of infinite value: he got Protestants, Catholics, and non-believers all over the world to meditate on the sufferings of the Redeemer.

    This devotion to the Passion of Our Lord has been an integral part of Catholic piety for many centuries: the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary, the Stations of the Cross, abstinence from eating meat on Fridays in honor of Our Lord's suffering, the Good Friday liturgies, and various other liturgical feasts (The Exaltation of the Cross, the Feast of St. Helena, the Feast of the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Mother, etc.) have all served the purpose of keeping the Passion of Christ before the eyes of the faithful on a regular basis.

    Perhaps the most effective method of cultivating Passion piety in the Catholic Church, however, is also the most easily missed. I speak, of course, of the Sacrifice of the Holy Mass.

    The Council of Trent spoke of the connection between the Sacrifice of the Holy Mass and the Sacrifice of Calvary:

    "… in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the mass, that same Christ is contained and immolated in an un-bloody manner, who once offered Himself in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross … this sacrifice is truly propitiatory and … by means thereof this is effected: that we obtain mercy, and find grace in seasonable aid [Heb. 4:16], if we draw nigh unto God, contrite and penitent, with a sincere heart and upright faith, with fear and reverence. … For the victim is one and the same, the same now offering by the ministry of priests, who then offered Himself on the cross, the manner alone of offering being different. The fruits indeed of … that bloody [oblation] are received most plentifully through this un-bloody one…" (Session XXII, On the Sacrifice of the Mass, Chapter II)

    The Council sets forth the relationship between Calvary and the Mass: it is the same sacrifice, because it is the same priest (Christ acting through the celebrating minister) and the same offering (the Body of Christ). The only difference is in the manner of the offering: Christ offered Himself on Calvary in a bloody manner, but He offers Himself in the Eucharist in an un-bloody manner.

    This slight variation in no way affects the fact that it is the same sacrifice, and thus, says the Council, the fruits that we receive are the same.

    Gibson demonstrated this link effectively in his movie through the use of flashbacks. It is St. John, standing at the foot of the cross, who sees Our Lord being stripped of His garments and recalls the unwrapping of the unleavened bread at Passover. He also sees Our Lord being raised up on the cross, and remembers the words of Our Lord at the Last Supper: "This [bread] is My body, take it and eat; this chalice is My blood, take it and drink."

    This raises the question: when did the Sacrifice of Christ begin? Gibson's movie sought to emphasize the point that Our Lord entered His passion even as early as His agony in the garden. The redemptive suffering of Christ and the efficacious spilling of His precious blood began long before the first nail was driven into His sacred hand. The cruel crown of thorns that pierced His brow caused Him to shed His blood; the awful scourging at the pillar, too, was equally part of His suffering and spilling of redemptive blood. It must be understood, then, that not even the least drop of blood that was poured out voluntarily by Our Lord was poured out in vain. Rather, every last drop was a necessary part of the price of redemption.

    If we look to the agony in the garden, we can see that even here Our Lord was in the process of redeeming the world: "And His sweat became as drops of blood, trickling down upon the ground" (Luke 22:44). There is great symbolism and significance in the fact that Our Lord's Passion included even the agony in the garden: was it not in a garden that the First Adam sinned and lost for his progeny the grace of Divine sonship? Was not sweat itself part of the curse (Gen. 3:19)? Taking it further, we may even see the stripping of Our Lord and the crown of thorns as a necessary part of reversing Adam's curse, for nakedness and thorns were part of Adam's punishment as well (Gen. 3:7, 18).

    Still, we must wind the clock back further if we are to find the true starting point of Our Lord's sacrifice. We must travel backwards in time, past the cross, past the scourging, past the trials, and past the garden, all the way back to the Upper Room. Here is where the true Passover Lamb began to be immolated for our redemption. Here is where we truly see the intimate link between the Most Holy Eucharist and the Sacrifice of Calvary, because the Passover liturgy - abruptly interrupted and left unfinished by Our Lord - was not concluded until He had consumed the sour wine (John 19:29) and proclaimed, consummatum est!

    Were we there that night, and were we steeped in a 4,000 year-old Jewish tradition, we would see clearly what our modern minds do not see readily on the pages of Sacred Scripture: the entire ceremony of the Passover was charged with sacrificial overtones. Atonement, propitiation, immolation - these were in the forefront of the Jewish mind as he sat at table to eat the Passover sacrifice. This was certainly the frame of mind of the disciples, and this sacrificial context must be seen as enveloping the Gospel narratives of the Last Supper.

    If we break apart the words that Our Lord spoke at the table that night, we see that everything He said was underscored with sacrificial terminology:

    1) He says that the chalice is "the new covenant in My blood," thus linking this ceremony with something Moses had said and done centuries before, sprinkling the people with sacrificial blood and saying, "Behold the blood of the covenant" (Ex. 24:8).

    2) He says that His blood, contained in the chalice, is "poured out for many." This links the Eucharist to the sacrifices of the Old Covenant - the blood offerings and the drink offerings, both of which were "poured out" before the Lord (Gen. 35:14; Lev. 4:12, 8:15, 9:9; 1 Sam. 7:6).

    3) He tells His disciples to "do this," using a Greek verb (poieo) that is used in the Old Testament in a sacrificial context: "Now this is what you shall offer [poieseis] upon the altar: two lambs a year old day by day continually" (Ex. 29:38); "Draw near to the altar, and offer [poieson] your sin offering" (Lev. 9:7); "I will make [poieso] an offering of bulls and goats" (Ps. 66:15).

    4) He says that this offering is to be repeated by them "in remembrance," using a Greek word (anamnesis) that is a sacrificially loaded term. Not only was "memorial" a specific kind of sacrifice in the Old Testament, but we see the word used in sacrificial contexts throughout the Old Testament: "And you shall put pure frankincense with each row, that it may go with the bread as a memorial [anamnesin] portion to be offered by fire to the LORD" (Lev. 24:7); "... you shall blow the trumpets over your burnt offerings and over the sacrifices of your peace offerings; they shall serve you for remembrance [anamnesis] before your God" (Num 10:10); "A Psalm of David, for the memorial [anamnesin] offering..." (Ps. 38:1; see also 70:1).

    With so many sacrificial terms being used, and that in the context of a liturgical sacrifice, it is hard to imagine that the disciples understood this first Eucharist as anything but a sacrifice. That they did so is obvious from what we find elsewhere in the New Testament.

    In 1 Cor. 10:16-21, St. Paul compares and contrasts the Eucharist with two other forms of sacrifice, pagan and Jewish. He concludes his comparison by exhorting the Corinthians to stay away from pagan sacrifices, saying, "You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons." The term "table of the Lord" is a reference to the altar of sacrifice, as is seen in Ezechial. 41:22, Mal. 1:7, and Mal. 1:12.

    Likewise, in Hebrews 13:10, St. Paul implies the sacrificial aspect of the Eucharist, saying, "We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat."

    All of this is very fitting, given the Old Testament prophecies regarding the perpetual sacrifice. The Lord had promised through Jeremiah that, "the Levitical priests shall never lack a man in my presence to offer burnt offerings, to burn cereal offerings, and to make sacrifices for ever" (Jer. 33:18). Similarly, He had told Isaiah that, in the New Covenant, He would not only redeem the Gentiles, but "some of them also I will take for priests and for Levites" (Is. 66:21).

    The prophet Malachi had been told that "a pure offering" would be offered up "in every place," not only in Jerusalem, but "among the nations" as well (c.f. Mal. 1:11). The Early Church Fathers unanimously understood this prophecy as referring to the Eucharist (c.f. St. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 41; The Lord's Teaching Through the Twelve Apostles to the Nations, 14).

    Thus, if we are to pin-point the moment at which Christ's sacrifice really began, we must look to that moment when He instituted the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. It was there that He first "poured out" His blood to effect redemption, and it was there that He offered His body as a "memorial" immolation.

    Some might object that Our Lord could not have transformed bread into His own body at the Last Supper, because that would require Him to be in two places at once. However, we are not "in the flesh," and so we do not measure the Sacred Scriptures against what our fleshly minds tell us is possible or impossible. St. Augustine comments:

"And was carried in His Own Hands: how carried in His Own Hands? Because when He commended His Own Body and Blood, He took into His Hands that which the faithful know; and in a manner carried Himself, when He said, This is My Body" (St. Augustine, Commentary on the Psalms, 34:1).

    Lastly, we must consider one very important objection to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Protestants interpret the book of Hebrews in such a way that it seems impossible to them that Our Lord could offer Himself continually upon the altar. What can we say about this? Did not Our Lord say, from the cross, "it is consummated"?

    It is a fact of God's omnipresence that He must be present, not only in space, but in time as well. He is here, now, present all over the world, not only today, but also yesterday and tomorrow. God is present, even now, in that sector of time that we call "March 25, 1910," or "March 25, 1960." If He is not present everywhen then He is not present everywhere. Effectively, this means that, in the eyes of God, the Sacrifice of Calvary is ever before Him. Indeed, the Sacrifice was always before Him, even from the beginning of time. Thus, St. John can speak of "the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world" (Rev. 13:8).

    In space and time, the bloody Passion of Christ took place in 33 AD. However, in eternity, in the mind of God, the Passion of Christ is present even now. The book of Hebrews confirms this for us:

"But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God" (Heb. 10:12; c.f. 1:3).

How are we to understand this verse? The Old Testament priests offered temporal sacrifices that had a beginning and an end. When the sacrifices ended, the priests would leave the sanctuary. Contrast this with Christ, Who goes into the sanctuary, not to leave it at some later time, but to sit down. He remains, as Hebrews 8:2 tells us, "a minister in the sanctuary." Incidentally, the Greek noun leitourgos ("minister"), from which we get our word "liturgy," is the same noun that St. Paul applies to himself when he says he is "a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly [hierourgeo] service of the gospel of God" (Rom. 15:16).

    So Our Lord remains as a High Priest in the Heavenly sanctuary, seated upon His royal throne. This speaks to us of Christ's dual office as priest and king, a motif that we find prefigured in the person of Melchizedech. That Christ "sat down" does not mean that His priestly work has ceased. Rather, it means that, as a priest "of the order of Melchizedech," He is also a royal king. His throne is not in a royal palace, like any ordinary king, but is located in the heart of the sanctuary, where He "always lives to make intercession" (Heb. 7:25).

    His continual intercession is effectual precisely because it is based on His continual offering of Himself. This is why St. John can speak in the future and present-tense when he says that "if any one does sin" - future tense - "we have an advocate with the Father," precisely because Jesus "is the propitiation for our sins," present tense (1 John 2:1-2).

    The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, then, is when we who are bound by time and space are allowed to peek behind the veil of eternity; what is eternal in the heavenly court (the continual self-offering of Christ) touches down to earth in the Holy Mass. Christ condescends to the spiritual children of Israel, giving us the true manna from Heaven so that we may be nourished and strengthened during our time in the wilderness of this life.

    Just as without our "daily bread" we would soon starve to death, so also, as Christ tells us, "unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you" (John 6:53). How unfortunate, then, is the poor soul who refuses, whether through doubt or malicious intent, to receive this most precious gift of the Holy Eucharist.

    Consider a brief dossier of testimony to the Holy Eucharist by the Early Church:

       Let no man deceive himself: if any one be not within the altar, he is deprived of the bread of God (St. Ignatius, to the Ephesians, 5).

       Stand fast, brethren ... in obedience to the bishop and the presbytery with an undivided mind, breaking one and the same bread, which is the medicine of immortality, and the antidote which prevents us from dying, but a cleansing remedy driving away evil (ibid., 20).

       But consider those who are of a different opinion ... how opposed they are to the will of God ... They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again (St. Ignatius, to the Smyrneans, 6-7).

       For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but ... have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh (St. Justin Martyr, First Apology, 66).

       But our opinion is in accordance with the Eucharist, and the Eucharist in turn establishes our opinion. For we offer to Him His own, announcing consistently the fellowship and union of the flesh and Spirit. For as the bread, which is produced from the earth, when it receives the invocation of God, is no longer common bread, but the Eucharist, consisting of two realities, earthly and heavenly; so also our bodies, when they receive the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, having the hope of the resurrection to eternity (St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 4:18:5).

       Accordingly, as wine is blended with water, so is the Spirit with man. And the one, the mixture of wine and water, nourishes to faith; while the other, the Spirit, conducts to immortality. And the mixture of both--of the water and of the Word--is called Eucharist, renowned and glorious grace; and they who by faith partake of it are sanctified both in body and soul (St. Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, 2).

       Having learned these things, and been fully assured that the seeming bread is not bread, though sensible to taste, but the Body of Christ; and that the seeming wine is not wine, though the taste will have it so, but the Blood of Christ ... (St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, 22:8).

       For He says Himself, My flesh is meat indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He that eateth My flesh and drinketh My blood abideth in Me, and I in him. As to the verity of the flesh and blood there is no room left for doubt ... it is verily flesh and verily blood. And these when eaten and drunk, bring it to pass that both we are in Christ and Christ in us (St. Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity, 8:14).

       Thus let us do in the mysteries also, not looking at the things set before us, but keeping in mind His sayings. For His word cannot deceive, but our senses are easily beguiled ... Since then the word saith, This is My body, let us both be persuaded and believe, and look at it with the eyes of the mind ... Lo! thou seest Him, Thou touchest Him, thou eatest Him ... He giveth Himself to thee not to see only, but also to touch and eat and receive within thee (St. John Chrysostom, Gospel of Matthew, Homily 82).

       So long as the prayers and invocations have not yet been made,it is mere bread and a mere cup. But when the great and wonderous prayers have been recited, then the bread becomes the body and the chalice the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ ... When the great prayers and holy supplications are sent up, the Word descends on the bread and the chalice, and it becomes His body (St. Athanasius, Sermon to the Newly Baptized).

    Who would wish to reject such a gift? Gibson's movie so poignantly set before the eyes of the world the immense suffering of Our Lord - who could refuse the fruits of so great a suffering, which are offered freely from the altar in Catholic Churches all around the world? Who in their right mind would secretly hope that what the Church teaches about the Holy Sacrifice is false?

    It is not false, and the truth of it is too well-attested by the Sacred Scriptures and the holy saints of the ancient Church. There is certainly enough evidence to convince even the most skeptical, provided that the skeptic is of good will.

    Mel Gibson has given us a gift, a great opportunity to deepen our devotion to Our Lord in the sacrament of the Most Holy Eucharist. Go, then, and see the movie several times - but do not neglect to also return again and again to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and let the fruits of the Passion be freely applied to your soul.

Jacob Michael

If you want to ask Jacob a question, you can e-mail him at and we encourage you to visit his site A Lumen Gentleman - Lumen Gentleman Apologetics.

    March 26, 2004
    vol 15, no. 86
    Quid Dicit Scriptura? - What Saith the Scriptures?