The Word Became Flesh: Eucharist as Presence and Sacrament in the Roman Rite

In the Roman Rite, it is common for Catholics to refer to the Eucharist in at least three distinct ways. When speaking of the Eucharistic celebration, we often refer to “the holy sacrifice of the Mass,” in the course of which we may receive “Holy Communion.” After Mass, we may return to make a visit to the “Blessed Sacrament,” the sacred species reserved in the tabernacle, in which we understand the Real Presence of Christ subsists substantially. These three names for the one sacrament—sacrifice, communion, and presence—disclose the three principal ends for which Christ instituted the Eucharist: “dwelling with the beloved [presence], giving oneself in sacrifice for the beloved, and the most intimate gift of self to the beloved [communion].”[1]  

All three ends are intrinsically interrelated, insofar as Christ willed them as such in the institution of this most august sacrament. In fact, the threefold intentionality of the Eucharist corresponds to the same three purposes of Christ’s Incarnation, since it is by means of this sacrament that Christ perpetuates His presence in the world and extends the effects of His sacrifice on Calvary, including communion with God, to the faithful of all generations. Just as the Incarnation had to precede the Passion and Resurrection, however, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist has a necessary priority over the ends of sacrifice and communion, for Christ must be really, substantially present in the Eucharist for the sacrificial or communicative ends of this sacrament to be either effective or coherent.

For the sake of concision, the present paper will focus on the ends of presence and sacrifice, leaving communion outside the scope of investigation. First, the intrinsic connection between presence and sacrifice in the Synoptic institution narratives must be explored. The correspondence between these two ends of the Eucharist and the ends of Christ’s Incarnation, based on St. Thomas Aquinas’ and St. Anselm’s arguments of fittingness, will then be shown. Finally, drawing upon the Thomistic distinction between the orders of execution and intention, we shall see that the end of presence has a logical priority over that of sacrifice in the Eucharist, although in fact the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist always remains a sacrificial presence: the Body of Christ crucified and risen. 

When Christ instituted the Most Holy Eucharist at the Last Supper, He clearly identified Himself with the bread and wine: “‘Take, eat; this is my body’ … ‘Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood’” (Mt 26:26-28 RSVCE).[2] St. Thomas argues that Christ instituted this sacrament on the night before He suffered so as to leave a memorial with His friends, “as the Emperor’s image is set up to be reverenced in his absence.”[3] That this sacrament is more than a mere image, however, is clear from the unambiguous sense of Christ’s words; unlike an image, which only represents its subject, the Lord “is Himself contained in the Eucharist sacramentally.”[4] By means of this sacrament, the parting words of Christ to the Twelve are proven true: “I am with you always, even unto the end of the age” (Mt 28:20). But the Eucharist does more than merely perpetuate Christ’s presence after His Passion, Resurrection and Ascension. The words of institution use sacrificial language which further specify the representation: “This is my body which is given for you” (Lk 22:19-20); “this is my blood … which is poured out for many” (Mk 14:24). The Eucharist, then, makes Christ present in “the very act by which He showed Himself as the Supreme Lover of our souls,”[5] his self-sacrifice on Calvary for the salvation of the world.

Presence and sacrifice are not only the ends of this sacrament, but of Christ’s Incarnation and mission. Among many other reasons, St. Thomas argues that it was fitting for the Son to become man in order “to show us how deeply God loved us … What could afford us a stronger proof of this than that the Son of God should become a partner with us of human nature?”[6] Love, which always “seeks to dwell with the beloved,”[7] impelled God to come in the fullness of time and dwell among us as a man among men: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14). Furthermore, Thomas writes, the Incarnation was most fitting “in order to free man from the thraldom of sin,”[8] which—if it was to be accomplished most perfectly—required Him to assume our human nature and unite it to His divinity in order to make of Himself a sacrifice to the Father equal to the debt of man’s sin: “none but God can make this satisfaction … but none but a man ought to do this … [so] it is necessary for the God-man to make it.”[9] The ends for which Christ became man, then, are the very same ends for which He becomes our food. The Eucharist perpetuates His presence with us and His sacrifice for us. It is, in effect, the “real and universal prolongation and extension of the mystery of the Incarnation”[10] and of Calvary.

These two intrinsically related ends of presence and sacrifice may be distinguished by their place in the orders of intention and execution, that is, which of them is intended first (as end) and which is done first (toward that end). The maxim of St. Thomas is that “the principle [first] in the intention is the last end; while the principle in execution is the first of the things which are ordained to the end.”[11] One may say that the end of the Incarnation (and therefore first in the order of Christ’s intention) is His self-sacrifice on the cross to make satisfaction for the sins of mankind; however, the first in the order of execution must be His conception by the Holy Spirit in the womb of Mary, since there could be no sacrifice offered if Christ were not first present in His humanity and divinity. Analogously, the end of the Eucharist (and therefore first in Christ’s intention at its institution) is the continuation of His Sacrifice; the first in execution, therefore, must be the Real Presence of Christ in the sacrament. This logical priority is reflected in the very words of institution: “This is my body [presence] which is given for you [sacrifice].” Of course, the order referred to here is logical, not chronological. There is no moment when Christ is present in the Eucharist and not sacrificed, since the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharistic species is precisely a sacrificial presence; the Body of Christ made present on the altar is the crucified and risen body. The thesis of this argument is simply that the real presence is necessary for the sacrifice to be offered.

The Most Holy Eucharist perpetuates Christ’s Incarnation, Passion, Resurrection and Ascension through all ages of the Church until the end of the world. In fact, this most Blessed Sacrament “contains the entire mystery of Christ,”[12] who is made substantially present to us in the very act by which He gave Himself up to the Father as the supreme sacrifice for our salvation. Christ’s words of institution show that these two ends, presence and sacrifice, are inseparably united in this sacrament. However, while the perpetuation of His sacrifice has priority in Christ’s intention, His Real Presence in the Eucharist has priority in the order of execution, just as Christ’s Incarnation had necessarily to precede His Passion. Further theological reflection on sacrifice and presence in the intentions of Christ might yield suggestions for the laity as to what should be foremost in their own intentions as they participate in the Eucharist, since they are to “offer the sacrifice with the priest … in the one and same offering of the victim.”[13]


[1] Lawrence Feingold, The Eucharist: Mystery of Presence, Sacrifice, and Communion (Steubenville: Emmaus Academic, 2018), 28.

[2] The Didache Bible, Ignatius Bible Edition (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2015). 

[3] Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, III, q. 73, a. 5, c, trans. Fr. Laurence Shapcote, at

[4] ST III, q. 73, a. 5, c.

[5] ST, III, q. 1, a. 2, c. 2.

[6] ST, III, q. 1, a. 2, c. 2.

[7] Feingold, Eucharist, 39.

[8] ST, III, q. 1, a. 2, c. 3.

[9] Anselm, Cur Deus homo, II, 6, trans. Sidney Norton Deane, at Internet Medieval Sourcebook,

[10] Matthias Joseph Scheeben, The Mysteries of Christianity, trans. Cyril Vollert (St. Louis, MO: B. Herder, 1951), 485.

[11] ST, I-II, q. 1, a. 4, c.

[12] Feingold, Eucharist, 58.

[13] Pius XII, Mediator Dei [On the Sacred Liturgy] (November 20, 1947), 93.

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