The Supreme Act of the Priesthood of Christ: The Sacrifice of the Cross

Source: FSSPX News

The study of the priesthood of Jesus Christ presented in a previous article naturally leads to contemplation of the supreme act of the High Priest of the New Law: the sacrifice of the Cross.

It is important taking into consideration the reactions to our review of the book co-written by former Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal Sarah. In that review, we maintain that Joseph Ratzinger relied on an erroneous conception of the priesthood and the mass because it is in contradiction with the teaching of the Council of Trent and Saint Thomas Aquinas.

What Is a Sacrifice?

Theologians commonly distinguish sacrifice in a broad sense and a literal sense.

- In the broad sense, sacrifice is any good work done out of reverence for God. It may be a purely internal act, in accordance with Psalm 50: “A sacrifice to God is an afflicted spirit,” or external, as when “he that doth mercy, offereth sacrifice” (Ecclus. 35:4).

- Sacrifice properly speaking is defined by St. Thomas as (1) the oblation of a sensible thing (2) made to God alone to attest to His supreme domination and our subjection, (3) that something be done to the thing offered, and (4) by a legitimate minister who is properly a priest (Summa Theologica, II-II, q.85, a.1-4).

The Various Elements of a Sacrifice

A sacrifice incorporates a number of elements, all of which are necessary to characterize what a sacrifice is in the proper sense.

First there must be an oblation

This element is common to any sacrifice, in the broad sense as well as in the proper or literal sense. As St. Thomas Aquinas remarks, certainly not every oblation is a sacrifice. Still, in a sacrifice, the internal oblation is more important than what is done externally, to the point that this external sign would be of no religious value if it were done without an internal oblation.

Oblation concerns a sensible thing

As St. Thomas teaches, “the mode befitting to man is that he should employ sensible signs in order to signify anything, because he derives his knowledge from sensibles. Hence it is a dictate of natural reason that man should use certain sensibles, by offering them to God in sign of the subjection and honor due to Him, like those who make certain offerings to their lord in recognition of his authority.” The sensible thing is therefore the material cause.

It follows that external sacrifice, as external, is a sign, since internal sacrifice is a moral action proceeding from the virtue of religion. St. Thomas repeats what St. Augustine says in The City of God: “Any visible sacrifice is the sacrament of an invisible sacrifice, that is, it is a sacred sign.” Thus the external sign is only valid insofar as it manifests or signifies the internal act. Otherwise, wanting to rely only on external signs would amount to Pharisaism, or an appearance of religion.

This sensible thing is offered to God alone

Sacrifice is an act of worship which is due to God alone. “Now the sacrifice that is offered outwardly represents the inward spiritual sacrifice, whereby the soul offers itself to God...the soul offers itself in sacrifice to God as its beginning by creation, and its end by beatification: and according to the true faith God alone is the creator of our souls, while in Him alone the beatitude of our soul consists. Wherefore just as to God alone ought we to offer spiritual sacrifice, so too ought we to offer outward sacrifices to Him alone” (St. Thomas, op. cit., Article 2).

A special honor of worship is due to the supreme excellence of God, and that is what sacrifice means. Therefore, sacrifice is eminently an act of religion, of which the ends expressed in a rite consist in:

- Manifesting the sovereign domain of God over all things;

- Manifesting the entire submission of man to God;

- Manifesting again that God does not need creatures (the holocaust in particular);

- Expressing the request for the expiation of sins.

There must be some change accomplished in the thing offered

St. Thomas uses general words since he speaks of all kinds of sacrifices, even non-bloody ones. To show that a sacrifice is a special act of the virtue of religion, distinct from a simple oblation, he says that, “a ‘sacrifice,’ properly speaking, requires that something be done to the thing which is offered to God, for instance animals were slain and burnt, the bread is broken, eaten, blessed. The very word signifies this, since ‘sacrifice’ is so called because a man does something sacred [facit sacrum]. On the other hand an ‘oblation’ is properly the offering of something to God even if nothing be done thereto, thus we speak of offering money or bread at the altar, and yet nothing is done to them. Hence every sacrifice is an oblation, but not conversely,” not every oblation is a sacrifice. The thing offered has to undergo a change, and it is this change that characterizes sacrificial worship.

The sacrifice must be made by a legitimate minister

Sacrifice is a special act of religion, not only internal and external, but public, that is, offered not only for the offeror but for the people. It must also be offered by a public minister, deputed to this office, who acts on behalf of all: “every high priest taken from among men, is ordained for men in the things that appertain to God, that he may offer up gifts and sacrifices for sins” (Heb 5:1). It is this external sacrifice that the faithful offer with the priest, by joining to it their own interior oblation.

The Sacrifice of Calvary

These concepts are found in the sacrifice of Christ in the Passion: an act of religion by the offeror, oblation, and immolation (these are the essential elements), consecration of the victim, reconciliation and union with God ... Sacrifice is all this under various aspects.

As an act of religion, the passion of Christ is the sacrifice par excellence

St. Thomas writes: “Now of all the gifts which God vouchsafed to mankind after they had fallen away by sin, the chief is that He gave His Son; wherefore it is written (John 3:16): ‘God so loved the world, as to give His only-begotten Son; that whosoever believeth in Him, may not perish, but may have life everlasting.’ Consequently the chief sacrifice is that whereby Christ Himself ‘delivered God for an odor of sweetness’” (Eph 5:2). (Summa, I-II, q.102, a.3).

The two essential elements of all sacrifice, offering and immolation, meet at Calvary

The offering first: “Christ…freely offered Himself to suffering. In this respect He is a victim,

(III, q.22, a.2, ad 2). The immolation then: As Saint Augustine says in The City of God (book X, chap. VI), ‘Christ offered Himself up for us in the Passion’: and this voluntary enduring of the Passion was most acceptable to God, as coming from charity. Therefore it is manifest that Christ’s Passion was a true sacrifice” (III, a.48, a.3).

A passage from the Compendium of Theology (Ch. 230) clearly explains the thinking of the holy Doctor. He forcefully affirms the voluntary character of the death of Christ. He specifies that “Christ did not die because of any necessity. He gave up His life by His power and His own will, as He Himself attested: ‘I have power to lay it [My life] down, and I have power to take it up again’” (Jn 10:18).

The reason is that “whatever was physical in Christ as regards His human nature, was completely subject to His will, because of the power of His divinity, to which all nature is subject. Therefore Christ had it in His power that so long as He willed, His soul would remain united to His body, and that the instant He willed, the soul would depart from the body” (Ibid.).

St. Thomas also says elsewhere: “Christ cannot be charged with suicide; because…if the soul has in its power to leave the body or to return to it when it wants, there would be no more fault in its leaving it, than there would be for an owner to leave the house in which he lives” (Quodlibet I).

Thus, the Cross is a true sacrifice. Found there is the High Priest, the divine Victim, and the ritual accomplishment of the sacrifice by the voluntary separation of the soul and the body of Christ. The sacrifice is therefore internal and external; it is public, accomplished by the one who is certified Priest by God. The Cross is truly a cult in the full sense of the term, it is even the cult of the New Testament, the Covenant concluded by Christ in His Blood.

The fact that the Roman executioners had no religious intention had no bearing on the matter. They played the role of instruments used by God to prepare the victim for His immolation, without accomplishing it. For it is by His own will that Christ separated His soul from His body, as St. Thomas and all of Tradition teaches. So, if the Cross is not an act of worship, as former Pope Benedict XVI writes, it is not a sacrifice in the full sense.

The end of the sacrifice of the Cross

What characterizes the sacrifice of Calvary is that the offeror is identical to the offering: Christ is both priest and victim, since it is He Himself who He offers to His Father. Christ plays both the role of victim for sin, because He has obtained for us the remission of our sins; a peaceful victim, because He gives us the grace that saves us; and holocaust, deserving of the glory, which consummates the perfect union of man with God (III, q.22, a.1 and 2; q.48, a.3).

The oblation of Christ at Calvary

It remains to be specified how the sensible and ritual oblation Christ accomplished as priest and which gave His immolation the value of sacrifice became manifest. The Jesuit father Maurice de la Taille looked for this sensible and ritual oblation in the Last Supper which, through the words of the consecration, represented in advance the immolation of the Cross, and constituted the real and present oblation of the victim of the following day. Consequently, the Last Supper and the immolation of Calvary would form only one sacrifice: at the Last Supper would be made the non-bloody oblation of the bloody immolation which would be accomplished at Calvary.

This interpretation not only clashes with the common opinion of theologians, but does not take sufficient account of the doctrine of the Council of Trent which applies the term of sacrifice to the Mass and to the immolation of Calvary: “If anyone says that blasphemy is cast upon the most holy sacrifice of Christ consummated on the Cross through the sacrifice of the Mass, or that by it He is disparaged: let him be anathema!” (Denzinger, no.951) The Council of Trent therefore clearly distinguishes two sacrifices. What’s more, it says that the Last Supper is also a true sacrifice.

In addition, the Council speaks of a double oblation, one on the altar of the Cross, the other at the time of the Last Supper (Denzinger, no.938-939). It is therefore not possible to unite the Last Supper and the Cross to form a single sacrifice.

And we must therefore maintain that at Calvary there was a true oblation: but how did this oblation, which must be sensible, manifest itself? Through the words of Christ during His Passion and through the circumstances that accompanied it. He Himself has said: “No man taketh [life] away from me: but I lay it down of myself” (Jn 10:18). Now, on the Cross, Christ cries out: “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit” (Lk 23:46); this cry is the expression of this oblation to which Christ bears witness throughout His Passion by voluntarily accepting the blows and the crucifixion.

Consequently, it is impossible to assert a causality of the Last Supper in relation to the Cross. The Last Supper is a representation of the Cross—it really means it—, anticipated, in the same way as the Mass is a subsequent representation of it. Now the Mass has no causality on the Cross! It must therefore be said that the Last Supper is a sacrifice in as much as the Cross is one, in the same way that the Mass is a sacrifice in as much as the Cross is one.

The Last Supper instituted the ritual framework for the perpetuation of the sacrifice of the Cross through the holy sacrifice of the Mass, a sacrifice which is offered by the priests constituted by Christ on Holy Thursday in order to fill this office.