The Mass as Prayer

“Private prayer and public prayer are … two sides of the same coin.”

Schneider, “The Mass is Prayer,” pg. 13

To a Catechism Class

Dear children, today we are going to learn about prayer. Prayer is a conversation we have with God. How can we speak to God? 

God is a great king. He is the king of kings, and “his kingdom is ruling over all!” (Ps 103:19). When we go to speak to a king, we don’t just use any words or come to him however we want. We carefully choose our words and gestures to show that we respect him very much. We wear our best clothes. We kneel down. We bow our heads. We do all this not because we are afraid of him, but because we love him and we recognize how great he is. We want to give him the very best we can. 

God does not expect us to come up with beautiful words and gestures all on our own in order to speak with him. In fact, he teaches us how to worship him in the Holy Mass, the most perfect prayer of all. In the Mass, we use the very words and gestures which God Himself revealed in order to worship him with all the dignity, attention and devotion he deserves.

But you know, God is not only our king. He is also our father, and he wants us to speak with him the way we would speak with our own fathers and mothers, who love us very much. Since we know our parents we love us, we can be honest with them, can’t we? We can come to them just as we are and tell them whatever is on our minds. 

When we pray on our own at home, in our rooms, and so on, we speak to God as his little children. Yes, I speak to him this way, too! We come to him just as simply and honestly as we would to our parents or our best friend. We pour out our hearts to him. And in the Mass, we do the same, just not out loud. We do it quietly in the secret room of our own hearts. 

Our private, familiar prayer to our father and the public, formal prayer we offer to our king come together in the Mass: “they are two sides of the same coin” (pg. 15). All the very solemn words and gestures of the Mass are not just for show. What we do with our bodies and say with our lips has to match the quiet, inner prayer of our hearts. There is a saying: “If the heart does not pray, the lips move in vain.” 

When we sing the Kyrie, we quietly confess the things we’ve done wrong and ask him to forgive us. When we sing the Sanctus, we gaze at his majesty and tell him how much we adore him. When the priest lifts up the bread and wine, we thank God for all his gifts and offer everything back to him. And so, little by little, at every Mass, Jesus teaches us how to pray “so that our mind is in harmony with our voices” (RB 19:7). The Mass becomes a school of prayer. 

Mystic of Unity: St. Ignatius of Antioch on the Incarnation and Imitation of Christ

Among the Apostolic Fathers, Ignatius, the God-bearing Bishop of Antioch, shines with a rare intensity. His very name, Ignatius, “the fiery one,” befits a teacher who not only imparts sound doctrine, but in whose letters “the ardent love of a saint can be felt”;[1] moreover, the name by which he styled himself in all his letters, Theophoros, “the God-bearer,” hints at a key theme of his perennial doctrine. Ignatius refers not only to himself, but to all Christians as “God-bearers.”[2] For Ignatius, this “God-bearing” is the real participation of each Christian in Christ, effected by the sacraments and mediated through the Church. It is their unity with the Church, principally with the bishop—above all, in the liturgical unity of common Eucharistic worship—which maintains the individual Christian’s participation in Christ, “for there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup that leads to unity through his blood; there is one altar, just as there is one bishop.”[3]The Church of our day, divided as she is along partisan lines, is sorely in need of appropriating once again the teaching of this first-century “mystic of unity.”

This paper will examine the doctrine of St. Ignatius under three aspects. First, we shall examine his teaching on the Incarnation of Christ and its consequences for his ecclesiology and Eucharistic theology, in contrast to the heretical doctrines of the Gnostics. Having established his contributions to the patristic witness on these central issues, we will then focus on Ignatius’s most distinctive themes, namely, the Christian’s participatory union with Christ and the kind of imitation of Christ required to preserve the bond of unity, with reference to the roots of these themes in the Pauline and Johannine “spiritual ‘currents’”[4] of the first-century Church. Finally, two pastoral implications of his doctrine for preaching the Mystery of Christ and the spiritual fatherhood and leadership of priests today will be suggested.

St. Ignatius on the Incarnation 

Saint Ignatius was a true son of the Church of Antioch, the theological approach of which was known for its “pronounced Christological “realism” … more focused than ever on the Incarnation of the Son of God and on his true and concrete humanity.”[5] Behind this increased focus, no doubt, was the looming threat of Docetism, a pernicious aspect of the Gnostic heresy which denied that Christ assumed a truly human nature; rather, he only seemed [δοκειν] to be human. If the Lord did not have a true body, as the Gnostics taught, then the sufferings of his Passion were only an illusion. Ignatius writes against these heretics in numerous letters; his admonition to the Trallians is typical: “If, as some atheists (that is, unbelievers) say, he suffered in appearance only … I die for no reason; what is more, I am telling lies about the Lord. Flee, therefore, from these wicked offshoots that bear deadly fruit.”[6] Against the false teaching of the Gnostics, he carefully taught the true doctrine of the Incarnate Lord, “who was of the family of David, who was the son of Mary; who really was born, who both ate and drank; who really was persecuted under Pontius Pilate, who really was crucified and died … who, moreover, really was raised from the dead.”[7] However, this Christological realism in no way undermines Ignatius’s insistence on the divinity of Christ. In language echoing the Christology of St. John’s Gospel, he teaches that Christ is the “Word that came forth from silence,”[8] “the Eternal, the Invisible, who for our sake became visible; the Intangible, the Unsuffering, who for our sake suffered.”[9] He does not hesitate to refer to him as “Jesus Christ our God.”[10] Christ is, in short, “both flesh and spirit, born and unborn, God in man.[11]

In fact, all of Ignatius’s chief concerns are centered upon upholding the orthodoxy of the theandric Christ against the threat of Gnosticism to remove corporeality from the Christian faith. Thus, transposing the terms of the debate from Christology to ecclesiology, Ignatius insists in almost every letter upon the necessity of maintaining unity with the hierarchical leadership of the Church: “Be united with the bishop and with those who lead … As the Lord did nothing without the Father, either by himself or through the apostles (for he was united with him), so you must not do anything without the bishop and the presbyters.”[12] His letters attest unequivocally to the institution of a monarchical episcopate in the churches of the near East by the end of the first century. With the passing of the last of the apostles, the authority of those bishops whom they had appointed as their successors became essential to maintaining the apostolic tradition in its integrity. Against the Gnostics, then, who deemphasized this physical, visible element of the Church and especially the authority of the bishops in favor of the secret knowledge [γνῶσις] passed down by spiritual elites, Ignatius is absolutely clear: “Whoever does anything without the bishop and council of presbyters and deacons does not have a clear conscience”[13] and, indeed, “serves the devil.”[14] Within the tripartite hierarchy of the Church, the bishop always has the presiding and decisive role: “You must all follow the bishop as Jesus Christ followed the Father,”[15] he teaches, for “it is right … to give him all the respect due him in accordance with the power of God the Father, just as I know that the holy presbyters … defer to him as one who is wise in God; yet not really to him, but to the Father of Jesus Christ, the bishop of all.”[16]

This obedience to the bishop, the visible manifestation of one’s union with Christ and the Church, is expressed most essentially for St. Ignatius in partaking of one common Eucharistic worship. Once again, Ignatius is concerned to protect the corporeality of the Eucharist, the visible, tangible sign and cause of the Church’s communion, against “those who hold heretical opinions … They abstain from Eucharist and prayer because they refuse to acknowledge that the Eucharist is the flesh of our savior Jesus Christ.”[17] Therefore, immediately after exhorting them to remain in union with their bishop, Ignatius instructs the Philadelphians to “take care … to participate in one Eucharist, for there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup that leads to unity through his blood; there is one altar, just as there is one bishop, together with the council of presbyters and the deacons.”[18] Significantly, unity with the Church is the guarantee of the sacrament’s efficacy in uniting the believer with Christ, since “only the Eucharist which is under the authority of the bishop (or whomever he himself designates) is to be considered valid.”[19] One cannot be united with Christ on a purely private, individual basis, as the Gnostics claimed. For Ignatius, the bond of union with Christ is maintained only in unity with the Church, manifested in its public liturgical worship.

Indwelling, Union, and Imitation

In the words of Pope Benedict XVI, “no Church Father has expressed the longing for union with Christ and for lifein him with the intensity of Ignatius. In fact, two spiritual ‘currents’ converge in Ignatius, that of Paul, straining with all his might for union with Christ, and that of John, concentrated on life in him.”[20] We have remarked already on the significance of Ignatius’s chosen nom de plume, Theophoros, and his doctrine that Christ “dwells in us,” that Christians are “his temples” and Christ is “in us as our God.”[21] This is no innovation, but a strong affirmation of the teaching of St. Paul, who asked, “Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you?” (2 Cor 13:5) and who dared to proclaim, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20).[22] For Ignatius, as for Paul, Christ is alive and present in the human soul. “But Christ is not only in us,” as J. Quasten notes: “We are also one with Christ, hence all Christians are linked by a divine union.”[23] Here the Johannine influence comes to the fore. St. John, who alone among the evangelists records the Lord’s appeal to “abide in me, and I in you” (Jn 15:4), instructs the Church in his first epistle: “By this we may be sure that we are in him: he who says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (1 Jn 2:5-6), since “all who keep his commandments abide in him, and he in them” (3:24).  For Ignatius, as for John, remaining in and maintaining this union is the most essential duty of the Christian life. Therefore, “let us be found in Christ Jesus,”[24] “blameless in him,”[25] he continually exhorts the churches: “I pray that in them there may be a union of flesh and spirit … of faith and love … of Jesus and the Father.”[26]

These spiritual currents converge in St. Ignatius and produce his most distinctive development in the tradition: the imitation of Christ as the means of maintaining and deepening the bond of unity. “Let us be eager to be imitators of the Lord,” he exhorts the Ephesians, “that with complete purity and self-control you may abide in Christ Jesus physically and spiritually.”[27] This imitation is not a purely moral matter; it is a configuration of one’s whole life to Jesus, not only spiritual but physical, accomplished above all through obedience to the bishop and Eucharistic communion: “Be subject to the bishop and to one another, as Jesus Christ in the flesh was to the Father, and as the apostles were to Christ and to the Father, that there may be unity, both physical and spiritual.”[28] The Christian who imitates Christ’s obedience to the Father through obedience to his bishop and who partakes of the flesh of Christ, “the medicine of immortality,”[29] will be christified and “live forever in Jesus Christ.”[30] We cannot fail to mention here the ultimate imitation of Christ, that of martyrdom, which St. Ignatius joyfully accepted in order “to be an imitator of the suffering of my God.”[31] Although N. Russell considers that “even those who are inclined to maximize Ignatius’ mystical side do not consider him a proponent of deification,”[32] and certainly the Platonic categories of θέωσις found in later authors such as Clement of Alexandria are not to be found in the Bishop of Antioch, it is also true that “it will not be long before the Christian who is christified will be said to be deified.”[33] In Ignatius, although we do not have a fully developed doctrine of deification, universus est in semine.


 Space permits only two brief observations on the implications of Ignatius’ doctrine for the Church today. First, priests must take care to preach the Mystery of Christ in his true and concrete humanity; there can be no imitation of Christ if he is not “a man like us in all things but sin.”[34] Secondly, all the faithful, but particularly the priests, ought to imitate Christ in maintaining unity with the diocesan bishop. In this, the priest should be the first to lead the way, such that he can credibly say to his people the words of St. Paul: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1). The Church today must heed the counsels of the God-bearing Bishop of Antioch: “God does not dwell where there is division and anger. The Lord, however, forgives all who repent, if in repenting they return to the unity of God and the council of the bishop.”[35]


[1] Benedict XVI, “Saint Ignatius of Antioch” [General Audience] (14 March 2007).

[2] Ignatius of Antioch, “Letter to the Ephesians,” 9, 1, trans. Michael W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 190.

[3] Ignatius, “Letter to the Philadelphians,” 4, 1.

[4] Benedict XVI, “Ignatius of Antioch.”

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ignatius, “Letter to the Trallians,” 10-11, 1.

[7] “Trallians,” 9, 1.

[8] Ignatius, “Letter to the Magnesians,” 8, 2.

[9] Ignatius, “Letter to Polycarp,” 3, 2.

[10] Ignatius, “Letter to the Romans,” prologue.

[11] “Ephesians,” 7, 2. Emphasis added.

[12] “Magnesians,” 6, 2; 7, 1.

[13] “Trallians,” 7, 2. 

[14] Ignatius, “Letter to the Smyrnaeans,” 9, 1.

[15] “Smyrnaeans,” 8, 1.

[16] “Magnesians,” 3, 1.

[17] “Smyrnaeans” 6, 2.

[18] “Philadelphians,” 4, 1. 

[19] “Smyrnaeans,” 8, 1.

[20] Benedict XVI, “Ignatius of Antioch.”

[21] “Ephesians,” 15, 3.

[22] The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: The New Testament (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010).

[23] Johannes Quasten, Patrology, vol. 1 (Utrecht: Spectrum Publishers, 1950), 72.

[24] “Ephesians,” 11, 1.

[25] “Trallians,” 13, 3.

[26] “Magnesians,” 1, 2.

[27] “Ephesians,” 10, 3.

[28] “Magnesians,” 13, 2.

[29] “Ephesians,” 20, 2.

[30] Ibid.

[31] “Romans,” 6, 3.

[32] Norman Russell, The Doctrine of Deification in the Greek Patristic Tradition (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009), 92.

[33] Russell, Deification, 12.

[34] Roman Missal, Eucharistic Prayer IV.

[35] “Philadelphians,” 8, 1.

Representation and Participation in the Sacred Liturgy

“The concept of representation, of standing in for another, which affects all levels of religious reality and is thus also important in the liturgical assembly in particular, is one of the fundamental categories of Christian faith as a whole.”

Ratzinger, “The Regensburg Tradition and the Reform of the Liturgy,” pg. 473

To an Adult Faith Formation Class

We have spoken already in this class about the cosmic dimensions of the sacred liturgy. The liturgy is a transcendent and ongoing reality, one which exists before us and does not originate with us; it is, in fact, Christ’s own action in which we are privileged to participate. Furthermore, this action stretches beyond the boundaries of our particular congregation to incorporate the Church spread throughout the world, the Church of history, in all ages and places, and the Church in glory, united in adoration of the mystic Lamb. It even incorporates the rest of God’s creation, “heaven and earth and the seas and all that is in them”  (Ps 146:6), insofar as they are made to “declare the glory of God” (19:1) and do so when we lend them our voices.

This cosmic dimension of the liturgy introduces a very important concept: “the concept of representation, of standing in for another” (pg. 473) In the sacred liturgy, each of us has a role to play. We come before God as we are, but in the liturgical action, we also come to represent much more than ourselves. The priest, as you know, stands at the altar in persona Christi capitis, “in the person of Christ the head” of the Church. When I celebrate Mass and say the words of Christ, “this is my Body,” it is Christ who celebrates, Christ who speaks through my voice. 

Likewise, all of you have a representative role to play. The Byzantine Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom sings this profound hymn before the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer: “Let us, who mystically represent the cherubim and sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-giving trinity, lay aside all worldly cares, that we may receive the King of all, invisibly escorted by the angelic hosts. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”

Christ is offering Himself to the Father invisibly in the sacrifice of Holy Mass. Your part, like the cherubim, who surround the throne of God and chant his praises, is to adore and praise His majesty, singing the thrice-holy hymn, Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, in union with “all the hosts of heaven in whose acclamation the whole Church, redeemed mankind, can sing in unison because of Christ, who connects heaven and earth with each other” (pg. 475).

And what if you can’t sing? That’s why we have a choir, which “is itself part of the community and sings for it in the sense of legitimately represent it or standing in for it … Through its singing everyone can be led into the great liturgy of the communion of saints” (pg. 473). Whether you prefer to sing or listen at any given moment, then, you are doing the most essential thing: uniting your prayer with that of the priest, the people, the saints and angels, the one prayer of adoration of the thrice-Holy God. 

The Ontological Dimensions of the Sacred Liturgy

“The Church … the communio sanctorum of all places and all times, is the true subject of the liturgy.”

Ratzinger, “The Image of the World and of Man in the Liturgy,” pg. 450

To an Adult Faith Formation Class

Who celebrates the sacred liturgy? This seems like a question with a rather obvious answer: the bishop or the priest who stands at the altar celebrates. After all, he is called the “celebrant!” The Church, however, proposes a different answer in the Catechism: “Liturgy is an action of the whole Christ” (CCC 1136), the whole body of Christ, that is, the Church. In fact, every liturgy is an act of Christ Himself, the High Priest, who alone saves mankind by His eternal act of redemption. We who are “baptized into Christ” (Gal 3:27) and have “become one body, one spirit” in Him (Eucharistic Prayer III) now share in His work of redemption by offering ourselves through Him, with Him and in Him in the sacred liturgy.

It is Christ who celebrates: already the horizons of the liturgy expand far beyond the sanctuary of our little church to encompass Gethsemani, Calvary, Christ in glory. The liturgy has a dimension of mystery, known by faith, which transcends what we can see and hear. But there is even more than that. We know that the Church does not include only those of us who happen to be alive on earth now; it encompass all the believers of past ages and all those yet to be born, “from Abel, the just one, to the last of the elect” (CCC 769). Thus there is a historical dimension: the liturgy is not created anew; it is ever ongoing, handed on from generation to generation until the end of the ages. Finally, if we expand our vision even further to take in the earth, the seas, the heavens, which “proclaim the glory of God” (Ps 19:1), we see the whole created order coming together in the liturgy as its focal point. There is a cosmic dimension: we unite ourselves to Christ in self-offering, and all of creation is united in us, offered back to God. 

History, mystery, cosmos: these are “the three ontological dimensions in which the liturgy lives” (Ratzinger, pg. 451), and these three dimensions imply three basic attitudes we must take care to cultivate toward the liturgy. First, history implies development: the liturgy is a living thing, and “lives only by being developed further” (ibid). It is not static, but neither is it arbitrary, ahistorical, created out of whole cloth to suit what we imagine to be the needs of our time or group. The liturgy has a history, which we call tradition, and we must be grateful servants of that tradition if we are to celebrate the liturgy of Christ. Second, reflecting on the cosmic dimension of liturgy invites us to an attitude of participation in something far greater than us, individually or collectively. The liturgy is no one’s pet project: it is an awesome reality in which we are privileged to take part. Finally, the dimension of mystery demands an attitude of obedience, the obedience of faith. As we have seen, liturgy does not begin with our action; we are not its masters. Rather, our participation in liturgy is a grateful response to Christ’s action. If we cultivate in ourselves these three basic attitudes, we can be sure that we are celebrating the sacred liturgy of the whole Christ ad mentem ecclesiae, in union with the mind of the Church.

Sacred Music and the Nature of Man

“Faith becoming music is a part of the process of the Word becoming flesh.”

Ratzinger, “The Image of the World and of Man in the Liturgy,” pg. 454

To the Parish Choir

Time is short. Every day brings many more demands and possibilities than we can hope to fulfill. Therefore, we know the importance of remaining “on mission,” putting first things first, and giving due priority to what is essential, not merely urgent. What is the mission of the Church? The Lord gave us a clear mission statement at Jacob’s Well: to worship God “in spirit and truth” (Jn 4:24). St. Paul, the first theologian, instructed the Roman Church likewise: “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God; this is your spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1).

All of us who wish to serve the Church and worship God must then ask ourselves: What is essential to that mission? Naturally, we think first of the sacred liturgy, offered on all the altars of the world. But I am not the only one responsible for that work. Music is an essential part of the liturgy. This is the teaching of the Second Vatican Council: far from being “merely an addition and ornamentation,” a nice optional extra, music is essential: it is “itself liturgy” (Ratzinger, pg. 421) Therefore, the work you do here is essential to the mission of the Church.  

Liturgy is founded on the Incarnation: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14). The Church’s liturgy “is ordered to this line of movement,” the movement of God who comes down to dwell with man, who “from the Cross … draws everything to himself and carries the flesh—that is, mankind and the entire created world—into God’s eternity” (Ratzinger, 454). 

There have always been those who exalt the spiritual, interior dimension of worship, downplaying what is bodily and exterior. But the Church’s liturgy is full of matter: bread and wine, oil and water and salt, and, yes, human voices raised in song. 

This is no accident. The “spiritual worship” we owe to God is not bloodless, cold, intellectual, for “the incarnation of the Word” is “at the same time the spiritualization of the flesh” (Ratzinger, 455).  All the elements of creation are to be taken up and transformed, spiritualized, by their use in the Church’s liturgy, beginning with our own bodies, which we offer to God in “spiritual worship.”

Our liturgical music must spring from this truth if it is to be true and spiritual worship. As we sing to God, our bodies, our senses, must be spiritualized, lifted up along with our hearts and minds in one integral movement of praise. Liturgical music is not art music. It is not enough too have a good technical performance; we do not sing for applause. Rather, our motivation must be the Psalmist’s: “It is my joy, O God, to praise you with song,” for “only the lover sings.” May we love God more and more each day and so sing to Him with all our hearts, minds, and bodies. 

Veils and Coverings in “Conspiracy of Hearts”

Veils and coverings play several very important roles in Conspiracy of Hearts. First, both the Jews and the Catholics have a custom of covering their heads at prayer, although the custom differs as to which sex is to wear the covering. This sparks a humorous conversation during their preparations for the Yom Kippur liturgy, as one of the nuns says to her sister, “How very odd of them that the men should cover their heads in church and the women not. It should be just the reverse to be proper.”  The other sister replies, “They do it to be contrary. They’re a very contrary sect.”

Certainly this difference in custom highlights the difference between the religions. However, it seems to me that while the custom of whose heads are to be covered is “reversed” between the nuns and the children, the very fact that a custom of head-covering is held in common reveals a common conception of dignity as well. As Catholics, we veil what is most sacred. The nuns are veiled because each is consecrated, set apart, as Christ’s own bride. The sight of the German aide de camp ripping the veil off the head of the poor novice in the chapel in order to assault her strikes us as an outrageous sacrilege, not only because of the brutality of a man attacking a woman, but because the nun is set apart as a consecrated person. (As one of the sisters says at another point in the film to the same solider, when he tries to manhandle her: “My person is involate.”) Her veil is the outward sign of the inner, spiritual realiy of her consecration.

Similarly, the sight of the Jewish boys going one by one into the secret room in the convent, each of the boys wearing one of the hats that the nuns had made for them, is a powerful image of the restoration of their dignity, especially in contrast to the fearful and ragged state they had been in when they arrived. For the Jews, “every male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord” (Luke 2:23; cf. Exodus 13:2, 12-15). They are set apart as the Israel of God, His chosen and holy people, His “firstborn son” (Ex 4:22). What the nuns have done for them in providing what is needed for their liturgy, though the materials may be poor, is of incalculable value. These children who were called “Jew dogs” and told that God’s will is to wipe them off the face of the earth are now given back their dignity, in the form of paper hats and the chance to pray. 

Furthermore, there are numerous moments throughout the film when the children are covered—not only their heads, but their whole bodies. They are smuggled out of the camp under cover of darkness, under the veil covering the back of the sisters’ old truck, even under the tarp and garbage of the pig-farmer. On a literal level, the covering is simply a practical necessity; they must be hidden from the watchful eyes of the camp-guards. On a spiritual level, however, we may say that covering means the protection and favor of God. The Psalms speak often of the covering of God in this way: “He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge” (Ps 91:4); “You, Lord, bless the righteous; you cover them with favor like a shield” (5:12). The Mother Superior interprets the cover of darkness likewise at the beginning of the film; when Sister Gerta comments, “That’s the second time this week we’ve nearly been caught,” she replies, “Yes, Sister Gerta—the second time this week that we’ve been saved! God be praised!”

In fact, the most evocative of all these moments is when Sister Gerta, whose heart has been softened over the course of the story and who now is unafraid to risk her life, hides one of the children under her own habit. How can Catholic viewers fail to think of the Blessed Virgin Mary and our common prayer for her to hide us under her own mantle from the assaults of the evil one: “Sub tuum praesidium confugimus, Sancta Dei Genetrix!”

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.

Ecclesiological Assessment of the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon (2013-2021)

A Contemplative Church

When Father Alexander Sample was ordained to the episcopacy in 2006, he chose as his motto the words Vultum Christi contemplari, “to contemplate the face of Christ.” These words are taken directly from St. John Paul II’s final encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, which expresses the heart of the Holy Father’s conception of the Church’s life and mission: “To contemplate the face of Christ, and to contemplate it with Mary, is the ‘programme’ which I have set before the Church at the dawn of the third millennium, summoning her to put out into the deep on the sea of history with the enthusiasm of the new evangelization.”[1]

In 2013, when he was called to the Archdiocese of Portland, the newly installed Archbishop Sample made these same words the center of his first message to “God’s flock in western Oregon.”[2] Having first reminded us that “we must keep our eyes always fixed on Jesus,”[3] he explained that his episcopal motto “speaks clearly and directly of my vision for our work together here … In Novo millennio ineunte, [St.] John Paul II writes:

‘We wish to see Jesus’ (Jn. 12:21). This request, addressed to the Apostle Phillip by some Greeks who had made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover, echoes spiritually in our ears too … Like those pilgrims of two thousand years ago, the men and women of our own day—often perhaps unconsciously—ask believers not only to ‘speak’ of Christ, but in a certain sense to ‘show’ him to them. And is it not the Church’s task to reflect the light of Christ in every historical period, to make his face shine also before the generations of the new millennium?[4]

“Here are the key words,” Sample added. “‘Our witness, however, would be hopelessly inadequate if we ourselves had not first contemplated his face.’”[5]

In these quotes, Archbishop Sample makes clear that he is a proponent of St. John Paul II’s ecclesiology of revelation and encounter, which is both the necessary condition for bold evangelization and leads inexorably to it. In this ecclesiology, these two ecclesial movements, contemplation (ad intra) and evangelization (ad extra), are distinct but inseparable. Before she can go forth to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, the Church must first encounter her Lord, for which “a grace of ‘revelation’ is needed.”[6] Like the Samaritan woman drawing water from the well, the Church must return to the founts of revelation. Foremost among these founts are the Scriptures[7] and the sacred liturgy,[8] into which we must enter with a spirit of faith,[9] nourished by deep prayer in silence.[10] Implicit in this call to contemplation is the universal call to holiness: “Fortified by so many and such powerful means of salvation, all the faithful, whatever their condition or state, are called by the Lord, each in his own way, to that perfect holiness whereby the Father Himself is perfect.”[11] Only once Christ’s faithful have “beheld his glory” (John 1:14 RSV2CE)[12] will the Church “reflect the light of Christ”[13] in the splendor of holiness and proclaim His saving Gospel with conviction to the world.

A Eucharistic Church

In November 2017, the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council recommended a set of pastoral priorities “to help the people of western Oregon live in a manner worthy of their call in Jesus Christ … leading Catholics to a deeper faith and relationship with Christ and the Church so that we may become missionary disciples and compelling witnesses of the Gospel.”[14] The second of these six pastoral priorities, following catechesis and faith formation, was divine worship. In particular, the Pastoral Council called for the elevation of sacred music, better liturgical formation of ministers and laity, as well as a more consistent “Mass experience” across parishes to “ensure that it is in accord with the Church’s faithful celebration of the sacred liturgy.”[15]  

Concretely, this pastoral focus has borne fruit in the publication of the 2018 Archdiocesan Liturgical Handbook[16] and the Archbishop’s 2019 pastoral letter, “Sing to the Lord a New Song,”[17] both of which collected and presented Church teaching on the sacred liturgy and music in one resource and established particular norms for the Archdiocese. The Office of Divine Worship has been proactive in providing trainings across the archdiocese to explain and implement these resources, as well as producing new media, such as the monthly Source & Summit newsletter and videos like “How to Receive the Eucharist.”[18] The purpose of this ongoing process of liturgical reform and instruction is to allow the face of Christ to shine forth ever more clearly in the sacred liturgy and the sacraments, most of all in the Holy Eucharist, the premier locus of contemplative encounter with the Lord.

In teaching about and regulating the celebrations of the sacred liturgy, Archbishop Sample is exercising the threefold role of the bishop as “Teacher, Shepherd and High Priest.”[19]  As high priest, “every legitimate celebration of the Eucharist is regulated by the bishop”;[20] as teacher and shepherd, bishops are to lead their flock “by their counsel, exhortations, example, and even by their authority and sacred power.”[21] Therefore, Archbishop Sample reminded the Archdiocese in a recent pastoral letter that “we discover the full manifestation of Christ’s boundless love within the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.”[22] It is first and foremost at the Eucharist that “the gaze of the Church is constantly turned to her Lord,”[23] and it is from that “divine encounter with the living God”[24] that can she evangelize the world.

An Evangelizing Church

The Archdiocesan Pastoral Council’s 2017 recommendations made clear that all these “concrete pastoral initiatives should be seen in the context of the Church’s overall mission of evangelization.”[25] Indeed, at a recent Mass celebrating the 175th anniversary of the Archdiocese, Archbishop Sample asked, “Why does the Archdiocese of Portland exist? I would maintain that we exist to witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”[26] His words echo those of Pope St. Paul VI, who wrote that the Church as a whole “exists in order to evangelize.”[27] The model of the Church as herald is applicable, with the caveat that the one whom we must proclaim is the very one we have first contemplated: “His word engages us not only as hearers of divine revelation, but also as its heralds. The one whom the Father has sent to do his will draws us to himself and makes us part of his life and mission … to proclaim the word everywhere by the witness of our lives.”[28]

Concretely, in the Archdiocese of Portland, this means “we need to focus on our people first.”[29] This includes proclaiming the Gospel to the faithful and clergy and inviting all to join in the mission. The first stage of the new evangelization in western Oregon will begin, as the Archbishop has said, by “working with all of you, collaborating with all of you, leading you into a life-giving and transformative encounter with the person of Jesus Christ … so that you will see everything differently, and therefore be able to be those missionary disciples to others.”[30]


[1] John Paul II, Ecclesia de Eucharistia [On the Eucharist in its Relationship to the Church] (April 17, 2003), §6.

[2] Catholic Sentinel, “Archbishop Sample Installation,” YouTube video, 00:17. April 2, 2013,

[3] Catholic Sentinel, “Archbishop Sample Installation,” 04:03.

[4] John Paul II, Novo millennio ineuente [At the Close of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000] (January 6 2001)§16.

[5] Catholic Sentinel, “Archbishop Sample Installation,” 07:33–10:30.

[6] John Paul II, Novo millennio ineunte, §20.

[7] Ibid, §17, 39.

[8] Ibid, §35.

[9] Ibid, §19.

[10] Ibid, §20.

[11] Paul VI, Lumen gentium [Dogmatic Constitution on the Church] (November 21, 1964)§11.

[12] The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: The New Testament (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010).

[13] John Paul II, Novo millennio ineuente, §16.

[14] Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon, “2017-2019 Pastoral Initiatives” (November 2017), 1, at

[15] Ibid.

[16] Archdiocesan Liturgical Handbook (Portland, OR: Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon, 2018).

[17] Archbishop Alexander K. Sample, “Sing to the Lord a New Song,” January 25, 2019.

[18] Archdiocese of Portland, Oregon, “How to Receive the Eucharist,” Vimeo video. May 25, 2018,

[19] Paul VI, Lumen gentium, §21.

[20] Ibid, §26.

[21] Ibid, §27.

[22] Archbishop Alexander K. Sample, “The Church Draws Her Life from the Eucharist: Rescinding the General Dispensation,” June 30, 2021,

[23] John Paul II, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, §1.

[24] Archbishop Alexander Sample, “Homily on the 175th Anniversary of the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon,” Vimeo video, 08:34. October 24, 2021,

[25] Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon, “2017-2019 Pastoral Initiatives,” 1.

[26] Sample, “Homily on the 175th Anniversary,” 12:40–12:55.

[27] Paul VI, Evangelii nuntiandi (December 8, 1975), §14.

[28] Benedict XVI, Verbum Domini [On the Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church] (September 30, 2010) §91.

[29] Sample, “Homily on the 175th Anniversary,” 13:44–13:49.

[30] Sample, “Homily on the 175th Anniversary,” 14:32 – 15:12.

The Maniple of Tears

The ordinary vestments of the priest—alb, stole, cincture, chasuble—and the symbolism thereof are surely familiar to most readers of this blog. Less familiar, perhaps, may be the maniple, a vestment like a miniature stole which the priest traditionally wears upon his left forearm for the celebration of Holy Mass. Though it is enjoying a resurgence among some clergy in these happy days of restoration and recovery (one of the priests I live with uses it daily, for example), the maniple has been largely forgotten since the liturgical reforms of 1969.

I was asked the other day about the history and significance of this ancient vestment, and although I knew that it had something to do with work (it has irreverently been called the Roman “sweat rag,” used to wipe their brows in the heat of the day), I had to admit my ignorance about its origins and deeper meaning. My best guess was that it signified the labor of the priest as he offered the sacrifice of the Mass. Then I found the following illuminating passage:

This vestment … originated from the mappula, the linen handkerchief that the Roman nobility wore on their left arm to wipe away tears and sweat. It was used also to give the signal to begin the combat games in the Circus. ‘Merear, Domine, portare manipulum fletus et doloris; ut cum exsultatione recipiam mercedem laboris’, says the priest as he puts it on while vesting. ‘O Lord, may I be worthy to wear the maniple of tears and suffering, so that I may receive with joy the reward of my labors.’ And once again the battle begins against the world and its prince, in which mystically the priest sweats, cries, bleeds, and does battle in so far as he is on the Cross as the alter Christus.1

The liturgy, after all, is holy work, but it remains work. Not for nothing does St. Benedict call it the opus Dei, the work of God. This fact is reflected in the etymology of the word itself, λειτουργία (leitourgía),which can be traced to the words λαός (laós), “the people,” and ἔργον (érgon), “work.” A fitting definition of liturgy may be the work done by and on behalf of the whole people of God in adoration of their Creator and Lord.

Of course, it is Jesus Christ alone, “the high priest of our confession” (Hebrews 3:1),2 who offers truly fitting worship to God upon the altar of the Cross, where He himself is priest and victim. The ministerial priests of the New Covenant all participate in this one priesthood of Christ, offering in union with Him the one sacrifice pleasing to the Father, that is, the loving self-offering of the Son. The entire priestly people of God in turn unite their prayers and sacrifices, through and with their priest, to the eternal and infinitely meritorious prayer and sacrifice of the Risen Lord.3

What is key here is the notion of liturgy as sacrifice, namely, the self-sacrifice of the Son. We who have been baptized into Christ are one Body with Christ (cf. 1 Cor 12:13). In the liturgy, the members of the Body are mystically joined, across time and space, to the sacrifice of that Body to the Father. Each of the baptized participate “in its own special way”4 in this work—the ministerial priest as head (‘in persona Christi capitis’) and the rest of the baptized as the body (we might say ‘in persona Christi corporis’)—but all are called to unite themselves to the sacrifice, offering themselves back to the Father in union with the Son.

There is one central fact in this lofty discussion of sacrifice and labor of which we must not lose sight. As a professor of mine often reminds us seminarians, “We love only at our own cost.” This is especially true with regard to the sacred liturgy, the ultimate labor of love. Whether we speak of the priest or the people, to participate in the sacrifice requires self-offering, the truth of which must not be diminished but rather magnified by the fact that it is self-offering in union with Christ, the “pioneer of our salvation” who was made “perfect through suffering” (cf. Hebrews 2:10-11). Like the Lord, we must love at the cost of our lives, our bodies, all that we have and are. And although “in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the mass, that same Christ is contained and immolated in an unbloody manner, who once offered Himself in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross,”5 we must not therefore be deceived into thinking our participation can be bloodless, a merely mental assent. It is a labor of blood, sweat, and tears.

In conclusion, Gnocchi writes of the priest:

There needs to be that painful and manly interpenetration in the sacrifice, of which the maniple is the sign and instrument … If the memory of it has been lost willingly so that one can dedicate oneself to the festal banquet of a salvation lacking any sweat and toil, then there is no place for the signs of the battle to which one must consign one’s own body.”6

To that, I would add only that the “festal banquet … lacking any sweat and toil” of which he speaks (and which too many Masses since 1969 have scandalously resembled) becomes in symbol a merely ritual meal, a community celebration, stripped as it is of signs of sacrifice and therefore devoid of that inclination of priest and people alike toward God in loving self-offering, by which we glorify the Father and are transformed in Christ.

The recovery of the maniple is a small but significant step toward the sorely needed restoration of the authentic understanding of liturgy as sacrifice. Brothers, wear your maniples! Good people of God, encourage your priests to wear them, thank those who do, and let the “maniple of tears and suffering” be a reminder to unite yourselves to Christ in and with your priest in the Church’s great labor of love.


  1. Alessandro Gnocchi, “Traces of the Hegelian Guillotine in the Liturgical Reform,” Il Foglio, April 10, 2014, trans. Fr. Richard Cipolla, at Rorate Cæli.
  2. Revised Standard Version Bible, Ignatius Edition (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006).
  3. Paul VI, Lumen gentium [Dogmatic Constitution on the Church] (21 November 1964), §10.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Council of Trent, Session 22, “On the Sacrifice of the Mass,” ch. 2.
  6. Gnocchi, “Traces of the Hegelian Guillotine in the Liturgical Reform.”

The Bones of the Lamb

At a recent class on the Eucharist for our adult catechumens, I was teaching about the typological symbolism of the Paschal lamb. Like the sacrificial victim of the Passover, carefully chosen from among the flocks in accord with the Lord’s ritual commandments, Jesus is the true “lamb without blemish, a male” (Ex 12:5), who is sacrificed “in the evening” (v. 6) before the Sabbath, and whose “blood shall be a sign” (v. 13) marking those who are saved: “[God] shall see the blood … and not suffer the destroyer to come into your houses and to hurt you” (v. 23).

Significantly, the lamb was not only sacrificed, but totally consumed: “They shall eat the flesh that night roasted at the fire, and unleavened bread,” the Lord commanded Moses and Aaron. “Neither shall there remain any thing of it until morning. If there be any thing left, you shall burn it with fire” (vv. 8, 10).

This mitzvah of “the Passover of the Lord” (v. 11) is fulfilled at the Lord’s Last Supper, his final celebration of the Passover with his twelve most intimate friends, during which “our Savior instituted the Eucharistic sacrifice of his Body and Blood. This he did in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the cross throughout the ages until he should come again, and so to entrust to his beloved Spouse, the Church, a memorial of his death and resurrection: a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, a Paschal banquet ‘in which Christ is consumed”” (CCC 1323, emphasis added; cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium, 47).

The Eucharist, then, is the Paschal banquet of the New Covenant, in which Christ himself becomes our food! In place of the lamb of old, there is the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God, whose flesh and blood becomes “true food and true drink” (John 6:56) for us. As that lamb was roasted whole (cf. Ex 12:9), a prefiguration of the whole burnt offerings which the Lord would later command His people to offer Him upon the altar of the Temple in Jerusalem, so the Lord becomes a ‘holocaust-offering of love’ to the Father at Calvary, a ‘whole burnt offering’ in which He gives all that He has and is, holding nothing in remainder: “Jesus crying with a loud voice, said: Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit. And saying this, he gave up the ghost” (Luke 23:46).

As we were exploring this rich symbolism and its fulfillment in Christ, one student asked: “What about the bones of the lamb?” Since the lamb had to be eaten whole, he wondered whether the Jews were commanded to break open its bones and eat the marrow, and what significance this might hold for us.

In fact, the Lord explicitly forbids the breaking of the bones of the sacrificial lamb: “In one house shall it be eaten, neither shall you carry forth of the flesh thereof out of the house, neither shall you break a bone thereof” (Exodus 12:46). This becomes another significant prefiguration of the Lord which is fulfilled in St. John’s account of the Passion: “The Jews … besought Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. The soldiers therefore came; and they broke the legs of the first, and of the other that was crucified with him. But after they were come to Jesus, when they saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs” (John 19:31-33).

But why the prohibition? The rabbinical commentaries on this mitzvah give us some insight. The Hebrew word עצם (‛étsem, cf. BDB, 6292), translated ‘bone’ in the Exodus quotation given above, also bears the related meanings of ‘essence’ or ‘substance.’ It refers to the irreducible core of something, the sine qua non. (The bodily analogy is clear enough; after all, without bones, you wouldn’t have much of a body!)

According to the commentary of Rabbi Maimonides, as interpreted by the Orthodox Congregation B’nai Avraham in New York City:

The essence and core of a Jew is his or her emunah, faith in G-d. On the first Pesach, the Jewish people were endowed with perfect faith. Each Pesach, the strength of our faith is renewed … Therefore, the Torah tells us that we cannot break the bone, the etzem, of the Pascal offering – not only that we may not, but that we cannot, that the faith of a Jew can never truly be broken because it is our very core.

“Don’t Break Any Bones: The Deeper Meaning to the Paschal Offering” (Brooklyn, NY: Congregation B’nai Avraham, 2015)

If, as Maimonides suggests, the mystical meaning of the unbroken bones of the lamb is the unbroken faith of the people of Israel in the covenant with the Lord, then this too is ultimately fulfilled in Jesus, High Priest and Victim of the New Covenant (cf. Hebrews 3:1). The people of Israel, after all, were by and large unfaithful to the covenant promises. “They offered sacrifice upon the tops of the mountains, and burnt incense upon the hills: under the oak, and the poplar, and the turpentine tree” (Hosea 4:13).

Jesus alone, the New Israel Incarnate, remains faithful to his final breath, taking upon himself the people’s self-imposed separation and estrangement from God—the principal and most awful consequence of sin—and making atonement for all by his perfect, loving, filial fidelity to the Father.

His cry from the depths, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mk 14:34), as Pope Benedict XVI writes,

is no ordinary cry of abandonment. Jesus is praying the great psalm of suffering Israel, and so he is taking upon himself all the tribulations, not just of Israel, but of all those in this world who suffer from God’s concealment. He brings the world’s anguished cry at God’s absence before the heart of God himself. He identifies himself with all who suffer ‘under God’s darkness’; He takes their cry, their anguish upon himself – and in so doing transforms it.”

Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, Vol. 2, 214

How does he transform it? In the words of my dear professor of Trinitarian theology, Dr. Margaret Turek, “sin is ‘borne away’ in being transformed or converted into its opposite. If sin is to be transformed into its opposite, then that which is the opposite of sin – filial love for God – must enter into and bear sin away.”1 This ‘filial love,’ by the way, is the very substance of the Son of God: loving confidence, trust, and obedience in the Father.

Therefore, to quote another great scholar of the atonement, Fr. Norbert Hoffmann:

“The crucified Son … occupies the ‘place of sinners’ and allows God to be ‘Father’ there … as he stands in their sinful estrangement from the Father and endures it … Here sin is fashioned as in a furnace until all that is left is the Son’s [heartache], that is, that form of love-suffering that is the exact opposite of sinful rebellion, that converts and nullifies it.”

Hoffmann, “Atonement and the Spirituality of the Sacred Heart,” in Faith in Christ and the Worship of Christ (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 170

What does it mean for us that Jesus’ bones, his substance, was unbroken to the end? It means that his faith in the Father was unshaken, and that his filial love-suffering, by which He atoned for our sin and achieved our salvation, was a truly commensurate offering to atone for the sin of the world.


  1. Margaret Turek, “Atonement: Soundings in Biblical, Trinitarian, and Spiritual Theology,” draft copy (Menlo Park, CA: St. Patrick’s Seminary & University, 2019), 31.