From the height of the Cross, I will draw all men to me.
By Original Sin, man imposed on God the violence of a divorce. He proclaimed himself to be self-sufficient and pretended to become his own God. In so doing, man cut himself off from his beginning and his end, and denied his own self. For what is a creature without its creator? What is man, separated from God? A world without God is always a world against man. After the Original Sin, our first parents did not have to wait long to see their sin rebound upon them. The world, which had been subject to them, became hostile: nature became difficult to domesticate; their own powers were shaken, their flesh seeking to dominate their spirit; relationships between men were changed, with the original domestic harmony lost and Adam and Eve’s children quarrelling to the point where Cain murdered Abel… The Old Testament shows the sad state of humanity under the reign of sin, a state of nature deposed, just as we experience it if we live a life cut off from the grace of God.
Far from reconciling Himself to this rupture, God, from the very beginning, conceived a plan of salvation for men. Man, of course was completely incapable by his own efforts of crossing the pit of sin in order to regain the divine friendship. God’s dignity is infinite, so the gravity of the offence against Him was likewise infinite. That meant that it was impossible for man to accomplish a reparation that would truly make satisfaction for his sin. His capacity for reparation was limited by his status as a creature. Even the best, the most heroic, human actions are limited, contingent; and they can only offer a finite response to the infinite disorder of sin. As St Thomas Aquinas affirms: ‘The satisfaction offered by a mere man cannot be sufficient, because all human nature was damaged by sin, and the good works of one person, or even several, could not compensate in an equivalent fashion for the damage wrought to the natural state of all men. Moreover, the sin committed against God acquires a certain infinity, because of the infinite divine majesty; for the gravity of an offense relates directly to the importance of the person offended.’
God’s plan of salvation is revealed from the start, proclaimed by the book of Genesis immediately after the account of the Fall; the promise of a saviour who is to be born of a woman and who will conquer Satan. The redemptive incarnation of the Son of God made man, born of the Virgin Mary is the fulfilment of that promise. St John’s Gospel proclaims that ‘God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that all men who believe in Him might not perish, but have eternal life.’ Christ entered the world to be that Saviour for whom generations had longed. He fulfilled the prophecies which had been made of Him in the Old Testament: Jesus is the awaited Messiah, whom St John the Baptist hailed as the Lamb of God, who had come to take away the Sin of the World. In this way, he recognised Jesus as the Suffering Servant foretold by Isaiah in his description of an innocent and spotless lamb, offered in sacrifice: ‘the punishment, the price of our peace, has fallen upon him, and by his bruises we have been healed.’
The New Testament demonstrates that the goal of the Incarnation, its profound purpose, is our redemption: ‘ The Son of Man is come to find and to save that which was lost,’ as St Luke’s Gospel proclaims; ‘Christ came into the world to save sinners,’ as St Paul put it in his first letter to Timothy.
St Augustine addresses the question of whether God could have saved us by any other means than the sacrifice of His Son: ‘God, to whose power all things are equally subject, had the possibility of using another means, but there was none so fitting for our misery and our healing.’
By offering Himself in Sacrifice, Christ has effectively shown the depths of His love for us. ‘Nothing was more important for the re-kindling of hope in us than showing us how much God loves us,’ St Augustine says. As Christ Himself said: ‘There is no greater love than to give your life for the one you love.’ From the height of the Cross, Jesus draws all men to Him. St Thomas Aquinas explains that ‘our charity is revealed at its maximum in this mystery,’ and he cites St Augustine: ‘If we have delayed in coming to love Him, let us not now delay in returning love for His love.’
The sacrifice of Christ is the perfect oblation which corrects the disorder of sin and re-establishes man in the divine friendship. The satisfaction brought by Christ in the offering of His sacrifice on the Cross is perfect because, on the one hand, He is truly man: Christ suffers in His humanity and offers Himself as a victim in the place of all us poor sinners; and on the other hand because He is truly God, this satisfaction has an infinite value; it has the power to make reparation for all the sins of man. Clearly, this is not a sacrifice limited by the status of being a created being, as any sacrifice we could offer would be. Rather, it is an oblation offered by the Son of God, endowed with the divine dignity of the One who offers it: Jesus Christ, only Son of the Father, second Person of the Blessed Trinity.
The power of the sacrifice of Christ is so great that its fruits can be applied to the souls of all men, in all places and in all times. That means that the just who were born before Christ entered this world are not saved by some other sacrifice, but are pulled up from Hell by Christ who opens the door of Heaven. Likewise, for us, who were born after Christ accomplished His sacrifice, His saving virtue flashes back on our souls, which are washed of their sins in the blood of Christ. Baptism plunges us into the bath of regeneration in the Passion of Christ, so that we are sanctified, and accomplish our Easter in Him: that is to say, our passage from death to life. Dead to sin, we are born into new life as children of God, destined for life in Heaven. The Sanctifying Grace that we receive at our Baptism is the germ of eternal life which prepares us for the glorious life in Heaven. This germ has a vocation to grow; grace taking root in our soul, increasing as our supernatural life grows. The sacraments, which are all founded on the Passion of Christ, have a decisive role here, as they increase sanctifying grace in our souls, assuring our growth in Christ, until we attain that sanctity which is God’s desire for us. Moreover, each of them has its own sacramental grace, which is proper to it.
Baptism, for example, causes us to be reborn as children of God. Confirmation ensures our growth, so that we may become adults, and making us capable, through the gifts of the Holy Spirit, to witness to our Faith, even to the extent of martyrdom.
Should we lose the divine friendship by committing a mortal sin, the sacrament of penance applies the fruits of Christ’s sacrifice to our soul, so as to heal us and restore us to the State of Grace. The sacrament of penance also washes away all our venial sins, and endows us with the specific graces necessary for spiritual combat.
The sacrament of the Eucharist is the substantial food that nourishes our soul and stops it from growing weak just as normal food is necessary to sustain our body. It is the way-bread, the food of pilgrims who pass through this world with their eyes fixed on their heavenly home.
The sacrament of Matrimony sanctifies human marriages, so that they may be filled with the presence of Christ, just as the marriage at Cana was. In this sacrament, a man and a woman are united indissolubly, and obtain the graces they need to fulfil their duties as spouses and as parents.
Extreme Unction, which is also called the sacrament of the sick, gives our soul the necessary support when we are so ill that we are near to death. This sacrament prepares us to die well, and may also, if such be the Divine Will, restore us to health, so that we may resume our pilgrimage here below for as long as God wants us to do so.
Finally, the sacrament of Holy Orders obtains for the Church bishops and priests who are called to act in Persona Christi (in the person of Christ) for the sanctification of the Christian people. Pope Pius XII explained this noble reality of the priesthood: ‘It is the same Priest, Jesus Christ, whose role the minister truly shares. If in truth the priest is assimilated into the Sovereign Priest, on account of his sacerdotal ordination, he thereby has the ability to act in the power of Christ Himself, whom he represents.’ St Thomas Aquinas makes it clear: ‘Christ is the source of all priesthood; since the priest of the Old Law is a figure of Christ and the priest of the New acts in the person of Christ.’
In particular, priests offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, which is the unbloody renewal of the Sacrament of the Cross on the Altar. It is the heart and the summit of their priesthood. In doing this, they are obeying the command given by Christ to His Apostles: ‘Do this in memory of me.’ Do this: it is not just a matter of remembering, but of accomplishing in the person of Christ, the same actions and words which on that Thursday evening Christ used in celebrating the first Mass. It is a matter of offering the bread and wine changed into His Body and Blood for the remission of sins. This change is called Transubstantiation, to signify that it is the entire substance of the bread which is changed into His Body, and the entire substance of the wine which is changed into His Blood.
Nothing remains of the bread and the wine, except their external appearances, which we observe via our senses. We call these the ‘accidents’ of bread and wine, to distinguish them from the substance that has given way to the Body and Blood of Christ. To describe this presence of Christ in the sacrament of the Eucharist, the Church uses the term Real Presence, so as to be quite clear that we are not talking of some symbolic presence, but of the presence of the Person of Christ, living and complete in the sacrament.
The Real Presence distinguishes the Eucharist from all of the other sacraments, for while they all obtain grace for us, only the Eucharist gives our souls the author of that grace, Our Lord Jesus Christ. That treasure is won for us by the celebration of the Mass, which was instituted by Our Lord Jesus Christ on the evening of Maundy Thursday, so as to make His sacrifice present to the end of time, and to give us the Bread of Life, the Real Presence of Our Lord among us, and the food of our souls.
The Mass allows each one of us to enter into a personal and immediate contact with the redeeming sacrifice, the source of our salvation.
The double consecration of the Body and the Blood manifests that Christ died on the Cross, immolated for our sins: His Body and His Blood were separated, for He poured out the very last drop of His Blood. One sole consecration would have sufficed to obtain the Real Presence of Our Lord, since Jesus is present, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity in each of the consecrated species. Nonetheless, there is a double consecration at every Mass, first the bread, and then the wine, so as to make clear in a mystical fashion the separation of the Body and the Blood which happened on the Cross: the immolation of Christ who died for our sins.
However, the Mass is not absolutely identical to Calvary. Yes, it is the same victim who is offered – Christ – and it is the same priest who offers it – Jesus Christ through the actions of the minister who is acting in His Person; but the manner of offering the Sacrifice differs: the Sacrifice of Calvary was bloody, and the Sacrifice of the Mass is unbloody. Christ does not suffer and die in the Mass: that is Catholic doctrine as affirmed by the Council of Trent. ‘In the divine sacrifice which is accomplished in the Mass, this same Christ who once offered Himself in a bloody manner on the altar of the Cross, is present and offers Himself in an unbloody fashion.’
In the Holy Eucharist, Jesus is living, in that glorified state which is His since the Resurrection. It is precisely because Jesus is living in the Eucharist that this sacrament is life-giving to our souls, and makes the life of Christ live in us, so that whoever receives Holy Communion can say, with St Paul: ‘It is no longer I who live, but Jesus Christ who lives in me.’