The Eucharist in the Plan of Salvation, First Part

The following is the first part of a day of recollection that I preached recently on the theme of “The Eucharist in the Plan of Salvation.”  In the first part I give an outline of the plan of Salvation. In the second part (which I will post soon) I reflect on how the Eucharist contributes to that plan.

The Plan of Salvation

1 God’s Happiness

The first article of the Catechism of the Catholic Church summarizes the plan of salvation as follows:

God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life. For this reason, at every time and in every place, God draws close to man. He calls man to seek him, to know him, to love him with all his strength. He calls together all men, scattered and divided by sin, into the unity of his family, the Church. To accomplish this, when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son as Redeemer and Saviour. In his Son and through him, he invites men to become, in the Holy Spirit, his adopted children and thus heirs of his blessed life. (CCC 1)

God is infinitely perfect and therefore infinitely blessed, infinitely happy. He is happiness itself. There is nothing lacking in God. There is no division in Him, no distension of Him, no limit to Him. He is an infinite ocean of perfection, and He possesses it all at once in the eternal instant of His infinite life. There is no unrealized potential in God; He is pure act. God is therefore infinitely and completely good. And, possessing His infinite goodness consciously, God is happy. So infinitely happy that our minds cannot conceive of His happiness. God is always resting in the possession of His happiness, resting in the achievement of His end which is His own infinite goodness. God himself is the Sabbath, the rest of God, that resting which is the joy that flows from His happiness. His life is, as it were, a single instant of infinite joy. An instant that never ends.

God’s possession of His own goodness is His knowledge of it, the look of perfect comprehension by which He is fully conscious of the shoreless ocean of perfection that He is. This perfect knowledge He expresses in an interior Word, a Word of the heart, a Word that so perfectly expresses all that God is, that this Word is itself God. Not a second god, but the one and only God. God the Word, God the Son. And the Father and the Son love each other with an infinite love, since each sees in the other the infinite divine goodness. The Father sees in the son the His own goodness as conceived and begotten, the Son sees that goodness in the Father, as his own beginning, from whom He proceeds. The infinite love of the Father and the Son is breathed out in a great sigh of love, an expression of love, a kiss of love, a gift of love. So perfectly does this sigh, this kiss, this gift express the love of Father and Son, that this expression of their love is Himself God. Not another God, but the one and only God. He is God the Holy Spirit. Thus, God’s happiness is known expressed loved and given between three persons who are each the one God. This life of the Trinity, a life of perfect love and friendship in the possession of the shoreless ocean of goodness, is again God’s happiness and His joy. O lux beata Trinitas! O blessed, O infinitely happy light of the Trinity!

2 The Creation of Man

Because God is so good and so happy, He wants to share His goodness and happiness. God has no need of creation. No creature could give Him anything that He lacks, since He lacks nothing. Creation is an act of superabundant goodness. He makes creatures so that they can have a share in His goodness. Even the sub-rational creatures—the stars and planets, the mountains and oceans, the forests and meadows with all their flourishing plants, and all the animals that swim in the sea or crawl on the ground or fly in the air—all these things have some share in God’s goodness, insofar as their goodness and beauty bear some trace of the goodness and beauty of their Creator. But in all the visible creation (we have no time to speak of the invisible world of the angels) it is only man who can truly be said to share in God’s happiness. Only man is able through his spiritual faculties of reason and will to know God and enjoy Him consciously. Even the indirect knowledge and love of God that man can have through his natural faculties can be called happiness. But God wanted to give Him something better. He wanted to give man a participation in God’s own knowledge and love of Himself, which are His life: “in a plan of sheer goodness [God] freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life.” This is the secret. This is the “meaning of life,” the answer to the riddle of our existence, the purpose for which we find ourselves in this strange world. God made us to share His happiness with us. To be happy in God, to be happy with God, this is why we exist.

3 Sin

Unfortunately, the story of man is largely the story of his rejection of the divine gift, the story of sin. In the Gospel of Matthew our Lord tells a parable that explains the essence of sin:

The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a marriage feast for his son, and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the marriage feast; but they would not come. Again he sent other servants, saying, Tell those who are invited, Behold, I have made ready my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves are killed, and everything is ready; come to the marriage feast. But they made light of it and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them. (Mtt 22:2-6).

The wedding feast is the sharing of the divine life, it is the purpose for which we were made, it is the only thing that can satisfy our hearts. But the invited guests turn away from this feast. This is what sin is: Turning away from the great good that God wants to give us, rejecting the divine gift, for some pale substitute. In the parable, the sinners are guests at the wedding feast of the son. But the reality is even worse. For we are called to the wedding feast not merely as guests, but as the bride. We reject the infinite love of the one who wants to raise us out of our lowly estate to the dizzying heights of the most intimate union of love with him, the sharing of the His innermost life.

How is this turning away possible? How is it possible for creatures created good and for the good to turn away from that good for which they yearn from the depths of their being?

The answer is that they are proud. The Feast is a great common good, which they can only have by participating in it, and therefore by subordinating themselves to a greater whole. A great feast is a great joy, but it is a shared joy, a joy in which we are not self-sufficient. The guests turn away from the common happiness to private concerns such as a farm or a trade. To them it seems more desirable to be self-sufficient and free, to enjoy their own private goods apart from everything else, then to be dependent on others in a common feast. In this they seek a disordered likeness to God, who is entirely self-sufficient, dependent on no-one, and therefore entirely free in relation to creatures. As the serpent in the garden says to Eve: “you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:5). That is, not being dependent on anyone else for your good or evil. Determining yourself what seems good to you.

As St Thomas Aquinas puts it: “Turning away from God has the character of an end, insofar as it is sought for under the appearance of liberty, according to Jer. 2:20: For of old you broke your yoke, you tore apart your bands, and you said, I will not serve.”[1]

To sin is to turn away from that most universal common good which is God Himself, and turn to some lesser, creaturely good, which one can have on one’s own terms. Sin is a lack of love for God, that results from a disordered love of the creature. In every sin we implicitly say “no” to God. Implicitly, we say that we do not want God to be God, that we would prefer to be God ourselves.[2] As Blessed Columba Marmion says, in every sin the soul implicitly denies God’s authority as first principle, His worthiness to be honored, and His desirability as the last end. The soul sees God as an obstacle to its own freedom and self-actualization: “practically, if such a thing were not rendered impossible by the nature of the Divinity, this soul would work evil to the Infinite Majesty and Goodness; it would destroy God.”[3]

Sin implies violence against God, and it therefore also implies violence against ourselves, since we were made by and for God; when we sin we “suppress the truth” (cf. Rom 1:18) that God has written into our hearts.

The result of sin is misery. In every sin man seeks happiness by turning away from the one who is happiness, therefore he finds only misery. Man desired liberty, but in turning away from the one “whom to serve is to rule” he becomes enslaved to the most powerful tyrants, the devils, who delight man’s misery. The devils love to ensnare man to creatures lower than man himself, to make him worship the images of beasts: “And they changed the glory of the incorruptible God into the likeness of the image of a corruptible man, and of birds, and of fourfooted beasts, and of creeping things.” (Romans 1:23).

Having rebelled against what is higher than him, man begins to experience rebellion within his own nature: The lower passions, meant to be obedient to the spiritual faculty of reason, rebel against it. The human heart becomes a chaos of conflicting impulses, tossed about by lust, greed, fear, rage, and despair. The most natural instincts become twisted and perverted:

Their females changed their natural relations into what is against nature; and so likewise the males, forsaking the natural intercourse with the female, were inflamed with desire for each other, males for males, acting shamefully and receiving the retribution due them for their misguided ways. And as they did not see fit to keep God in mind, so God delivered them over to a state of mind that was unworthy, and to unbecoming conduct; being filled with every wrong, wickedness, greed, badness; stuffed with envy bloodthirstiness contentiousness treachery malignity; whisperers gossips god haters violent proud pretentious; devisers of evil, disobedient to parents; mindless faithless loveless pitiless. (Romans 1:26-31)

Man reaches out to grasp the things that he thinks will give him joy, but everything turns to dust in his hands. Having turned from God to himself, man can no longer endure himself. His darkened soul becomes an intolerable pain to him. He begins to flee from himself. As Blaise Pascal argues, man cannot abide to be quite, to be silent, because then he is left with his own misery, he must be constantly distracting and diverting himself from himself, so that he has no time to think about how miserable he is.[4] The American novelist David Foster Wallace, agreeing with Pascal, argues that there is a deep pain at the core of our being, which we spend “nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling.”[5] Unable to rest, man is constantly changing his mind and purpose, prying into the affairs of others, seeking to deaden his pain with drugs or alcohol or pseudo-righteous indignation. Miserable himself, he becomes envious of others and maliciously tries to make them miserable in turn.

4 Covenant and Sacrifice

God regards our misery with tender and profound mercy:

For this reason, at every time and in every place, God draws close to man. He calls man to seek him, to know him, to love him with all his strength. He calls together all men, scattered and divided by sin, into the unity of his family, the Church. (CCC 1).

God is close to every human person first through the natural law written into human hearts. God constantly calls man through the voice of conscience to obedience to that law (cf. Romans 2).

But God draws close to man in a special way through making covenants. He first chose a single man, Abraham, and made a covenant with him, calling him back to friendship with God. Through Abraham’s numerous descendants he plans to bless all nations. In the people of Israel he traces out a preview of salvation. In redeeming them through the blood of the pascal lambs, and leading them out of the slavery of Egypt and its false gods, into the desert where they can worship the true God, He points towards the redemption of man from the slavery of sin.

God helps man to turn to Himself, by an interior renewal of love of God as highest good and last end. He does this in ways fitting to man as a bodily creation, whose spiritual life is mediated through the bodily senses

One way of turning to God through sensible signs is through words, in which the thoughts of the heart are made express and explicit. Through words of praise, thanksgiving, man is enabled not only to give a sign of an interior turning to God, but also to strengthen that turning.

A second way of turning to God is through sacred music and sacred art. Through music the passions of the soul are aroused and ordered toward God. Cantare amantis est, as St Augustine says. And something similar is true of all the artistic beauty used in divine worship: incense, vestments, and finally sacred images. Images were forbidden under the old law, on account of the danger of idolatry, but became permissible after the invisible God appeared in visible form in the Incarnation.

A third way of turning to God is through the humbling of the body proskynesis, (adoratio, adoration).Proskynesis means “kissing-toward.” Falling down on the ground and kissing the ground, or one’s hand. Or simply genuflecting or bowing. Proskynesis expresses our smallness before the greatness of God. It expresses that we recognize that God is God and we are creatures. That we do not want to proudly reject Him, but rather to humbly accept Him: “Come let us adore and fall down, and bend the knee before the Lord that made us” (Psalm 94/95:6).

But the most important way of turning to God through sensible sings is sacrifice. Sacrifice has a number of related meanings. The first meaning of sacrifice is that we recognize that God is God, and that we are creatures totally dependent on Him. As Blessed Columba Marmion writes, “We can truly say that, in presence of God, our self-abasement ought to go as far as annihilation; that would be the supreme homage, although it could not testify with sufficient truth our condition of mere creatures, and the infinite transcendency of the Divine Being.”[6]

But, because God does not allow us to annihilate ourselves, we substitute some other creature for ourselves. This other creature is ritually given to God, by being laid on the altar, and (in a sacrifice in the strict sense) by having something done to it that takes it out of human use. Various things are given in sacrifice, often things necessary for human life, such as bread or wine. But the most vivid sacrifices are the sacrifice of animals. The animal’s blood, the sign of its life, is shed, as a sign that life is being given to God. In some sacrifices the animal is then completely destroyed, but more often a part of the sacrificed animal is eaten by those who offer it. This signifies that they identify themselves with the sacrificial victim. The life being given to God is their own life.

Sacrifice is thus a sign of love. Love means to give oneself to the beloved. In sacrifice we signify that we are giving our lives to God out of love. The external sign of the shedding of blood signifies the internal offering of our whole selves to God. Hence, St Augustine writes, “a true sacrifice is every work which is done that we may be united to God in holy fellowship.”[7] And he goes on to show that our lives become truly a sacrifice when that which we signify ritually is actualized in a life pleasing to God: “Thus man himself, consecrated in the name of God, and vowed to God, is a sacrifice in so far as he dies to the world that he may live to God.”[8]

Every sacrifice signifies a recognition of God’s greatness and our smallness, and our desire to give ourselves to God. But there are a number of other meanings that can be added to this basic meaning.

Sacrifice can express thanksgiving. We give back to God a part of what He has given to us, to express our gratitude for His gift.

Sacrifice can also express supplication. We give a sacrifice to God as a token of a turning of our hearts to God that makes us disposed to receive what He will give us. This does not mean (as the pagans thought) that by sacrifice we can change God’s mind, so that He wants to give us what He did not want to give us before. Rather, it means that we change our own hearts so that we are able to receive what He has always wanted to give us.

Sacrifice can also have the function of redemption. That is buying back something that no longer belongs to us. For example, the first born of all Egypt are given over to the destroying angel, they no longer belong to their parents, but the first born of the Israelites are redeemed, bought back, by the blood of the Pascal lambs. In commemoration of which, the Israelites offered to God the first-born of all their cattle, but their first-born sons they redeemed by a lamb:

And when the LORD brings you into the land of the Canaanites, as he swore to you and your fathers, and shall give it to you, you shall set apart to the LORD all that first opens the womb. All the firstlings of your cattle that are males shall be the LORD’s. […] Every first-born of man among your sons you shall redeem. And when in time to come your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall say to him, ‘By strength of hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, from the house of bondage.’ For when Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the LORD slew all the first-born in the land of Egypt, both the first-born of man and the first-born of cattle. Therefore I sacrifice to the LORD all the males that first open the womb; but all the first-born of my sons I redeem.’ (Exodus 13:11-16)

Sacrifices can also signify the sealing of a covenant, a pact between God and the people. Here they have a double-meaning. They signify both a blood relation that is established between God and the people, and also a curse on the people. The curse means: “If we ever break this covenant then our blood ought to be shed as the blood of these sacrificial victims.” Thus Moses after the covenant with God on Sinai offers sacrifices:

And he sent the lads of the Israelites and they offered up burnt offerings and sacrificed sacrifices and communion sacrifices, bulls to the LORD. And Moses took half the blood and put it in basins, and half the blood he threw upon the altar. And he took the book of the covenant and read it in the hearing of the people, and they said, ‘All that the LORD has spoken we will do and we will heed.’ And Moses took the blood and threw it upon the people, and he said, ‘Look, the blood of the covenant that the LORD has sealed with you over all these words.’ (Exodus 24:6-8)

Finally, and most importantly, sacrifice can signify atonement. Atonement is necessary when man has sinned. When he has turned away from God to some creature. And when he has broken a covenant with God. Sacrifice is the opposite of sin. In sin man turns away from God to a creature. In sacrifice man gives the creature over to God as a sign that He loves God more than anything else. Moreover, by a sacrifice of atonement the curse of the broken covenant is averted from the people and suffered vicariously by the sacrificial victim. The people ought to die, since they have broken the covenant, but in their stead the victim dies.

5 The Sacrifice of Christ

The true sacrifice, toward which all sacrifices pointed is the sacrifice of Christ. Christ took on a human nature and gave it back to God through willingly suffering death. He thus gave the strongest possible sign of His recognition of God as God. And the strongest possible sign of His love of God. As He said at the last supper: “I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father” (John 14:31).

Moreover, by giving back to God what God gave to Him, Jesus gives thanks to the Father for the gift of life.

The love shown by Jesus in His sacrifice is so great that it makes Him worthy to receive whatever He asks of the Father in supplication, both for Himself and for those united to Him. Indeed, those who love Him are loved by His father, and the Father grants their prayers directly: “In that day you will ask in my name; and I do not say to you that I shall pray the Father for you; for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from the Father.” (John 16:26-27).

Christ’s sacrifice is also redemption. He is the true paschal lamb who buys our lives back. As St peter puts it: “You know that you were redeemed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.” (1 Peter 1:18-19)

Christ’s sacrifice seals a new covenant by which we are taken up into God’s family. Hence at the last supper he says, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many” (Mark 11:25).

Above all, Christ’s sacrifice is atonement. In this sacrifice Christ bears the curses of all the previous covenants that we had broken: “Christ ransomed us from the curse of the law by becoming the thing accursed, for our sake” (Galatians 3:13). Christ’s sacrifice is the most complete opposite of sin. In sinning we implicitly say that we do not want God to be God, we put ourselves or some other creature in his place. But Christ “did not think to seize on the right to be equal to God, but stripped himself by taking the form of a slave” (Philippians 2:6-7). In his sacrifice he gave up everything, even his life, for God. Sin means loving God to little. In His sacrifice Jesus shows that He loves God all the way to the end.

Through this love, Christ atoned for sin. That is, He reconciled humankind to the God from whom we had separated ourselves by sin. Atonement, even between two human persons, can only take place by a change of the will, a renewal of love. Since the essence of sin was the turning of the will away from God toward some created thing, sin could only be overcome by a turning the will back to God, so that it would love Him perfectly. But since we were not capable of such a love, the Son of God became man in order to love for us. “So, coming into the world, Christ says… Behold, I come to do your will… By which will we are sanctified by the offering of the body of Jesus Christ” (Hebrews 10:5-10). This is the essence of the atonement: the perfect love that Jesus gives to God, the whole of His will entirely united to God as the final end and highest good (IIIa 48,2) And he did this for us by assuming our nature, and teaching it to love God: “even though he was the Son, he learned obedience from his sufferings; and, made perfect, he became for all who obey him the cause of everlasting salvation” (Hebrews 5:8).

This perfect love of God was shown through his sufferings. Love demands that the one who has fallen away, who has been unfaithful to love, somehow recognize the evil that they have done. This is done in the first place by the “contrition” of the heart, but it is done also by taking on a penance, by “suffering” what has been done in order to bear it away. As Fr. Norbert Hoffmann has argued, atonement is the bearing of sin as pain.[9] And this is what Christ does for all humanity in bearing his sufferings out of love. Only one who was at once man and God fully bear sin as suffering. Only in such a one could humanity bear its sin as what it truly is: an attack on God. As man Christ was able to suffer death. As God he was able to suffer it as the murder of God, as deicide.

The lie behind all sin is that God is our rival, who prevents us from having complete happiness, but in raising Jesus to from the dead and to his right hand God shows that he is pure generosity: “all that is mine is yours” (Luke 15:31). Christ offers His own body as the most direct and perfect sign of His own interior love. And He does it for us. He unites us to Himself, as members of His body, so that what he does merits life for us. He thus opens up again the possibility that we can achieve our end, share in the divine happiness. We return thus to the first article of the Catechism:

To accomplish this, when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son as Redeemer and Saviour. In his Son and through him, he invites men to become, in the Holy Spirit, his adopted children and thus heirs of his blessed life. (CCC 1)

[1] St Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, IIIa, q. 8. A. 7, c.

[2] Cf. Martin Luther, Disputation Against Scholastic Theology, proposition 17, in: Martin Luther’s Basic Theological writings, 14.

[3] Columba Marmion, Christ the Life of the Soul (London: Sands, 1922), 171.

[4] See: Blaise Pascal, Pensées, trans. A.J. Krailsheimer, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1995 [1966]), 208; L 622; B 131. L and B refer to the numbering of the Pensées in the Lafuma and Brunschvicg editions respectively: Blaise Pascal, Pensées, ed. Louis Lafuma (Paris: Éditions de Seuil, 1962); Blaise Pascal, Pensées, 3 vols., ed. Léon Brunschvicg, (Paris: Hachette, 1904).

[5] Wallace, The Pale King, 85.

[6] Marmion, Christ the Life of the Soul, 262.

[7] Civ. Dei X.6.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Norbert Hoffmann, “Atonement and the Ontological Coherence Between the Cross and the Trinity,” in: Toward a Civilization of Love, trans. Erasmo Leivo (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985) 213-66.


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