How the Holy Eucharist is a Triple Sacrament

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Week 7
Reading 2 of 3

As we near the close of this retreat, we are focusing on the Eucharistic apostolate. And we know we cannot be apostles of the Eucharist until we ourselves understand the Church’s teaching on the Holy Eucharist.

This meditation will help deepen our understanding of how the one Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist has three dimensions by being a sacrament three times over: a Sacrament as Sacrifice, a Sacrament as Communion and a Sacrament as Christ’s Presence. Our approach here will be twofold. First we’ll look at how the one Holy Eucharist is a triple sacrament and then examine how the Real Presence is fundamental for the Sacrifice of the Mass and Holy Communion. We may say that a new catechesis has to be developed to train priests, religious and laity in the full understanding of the Holy Eucharist as a sacrament not only when Mass is offered, not only when Holy Communion is received, but all day and all night whenever and wherever the Real Presence is reserved or exposed for the veneration of the people of God.

Eucharist as Triple Sacrament

As we’ve seen, a sacrament is a visible rite instituted by Christ to confer a grace which is signified. Throughout the centuries, Catholic Christians have recognized the Eucharist as their primary source of grace. But the key to understanding how the Eucharist is a triple sacrament is to understand that Jesus is the unique channel of grace for the human race wherever He exists, in whatever way He is present, in whatever way He is offered.

Sacrifice Sacrament: At the Last Supper, Christ changed bread and wine into His own flesh and blood and did this by a double consecration. This double consecration was the visible anticipation of His separation of body and blood on the Cross. From the earliest days of the Church’s Liturgy, it was understood that, just as Christ did, the consecration of the bread and wine must be done separately.

The external sign of the Eucharist as Sacrifice Sacrament is the separate consecration, which signifies the separation of Christ’s Body and Blood on Calvary. Just as the separation of Christ’s Body and Blood on the Cross merited the treasury of graces for our redemption, so the separate consecration at the Mass is the Sacrament by which the graces won for us on Calvary are distributed to the world today. In other words, the double consecration is first of all a sacrifice. Christ really offers Himself to His Heavenly Father. But the double consecration is also a sacrament. It confers the graces of Calvary. That is why the Council of Trent was at such pains to define that the Mass is a propitiatory sacrifice. It effectively pleads with God for the remission of our sins.

“But I thought our sins were remitted?”

Only objectively. The graces for remission were obtained on Calvary, but they need to be communicated through the double consecration of the Mass. In other words, in every Mass, Jesus pleads effectively before the Divine Mercy for the remission of our sins. As a result of Christ’s pleas, we can obtain the graces He gained for us on Calvary.

Communion Sacrament: Again at the Last Supper, Christ made His body and blood present by His words of consecration and then gave His body and blood as food and drink, first to his apostles. From the earliest days of the Church’s Liturgy, it was further understood that just as Christ did, the giving of His body and blood in Communion was a powerful source of grace to the communicants.

In the early third century, St. Cyprian in Africa said, “we who are one in Christ, daily receive the Eucharist as food for our salvation.” And again, St. Ambrose in the fourth century told his people, “You should receive daily what is for your daily benefit, so live that you may deserve to communicate every day.”

Presence Sacrament: After Christ’s Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension into Heaven, the early Church continued doing what Christ had done at the Last Supper through the apostles and the bishops and priests whom they ordained. From the very outset, they reserved the consecrated Species and preserved them in sacred vessels—from the very beginning of Christianity in the first century. What was the immediate reason? To provide Holy Communion for the sick and especially for the many Christians in prison awaiting martyrdom.

But the apostolic Church believed Jesus Christ remains really present in the Holy Eucharist after the Sacrifice of the Mass has been offered and after the faithful have received Holy Communion. First, we must note that this was revealed in the apostolic Church in the first century when we believe divine revelation was still communicated to the world. Indeed, Divine revelation continued from the Ascension through the time of the writings of St. Paul and the other apostles up to the death of the last apostle, St. John.

Secondly, who in their right believing mind would question that Jesus, during His visible stay on earth, was a Sacrament, a channel of grace? He was the Living God, the Author of grace. Well, that same Living God who became man is on earth in the Eucharist. Thus, in the Presence Sacrament, He is not only a channel of grace; He is the source of grace.

As we study the evidence of the holy Eucharist as Sacrament on all three levels, already in the early Church, two things become clear. First, on each level, the Eucharist was assumed to be Jesus Christ—Jesus Christ offering the Sacrifice of the Mass, Jesus Christ giving Himself in Holy Communion, and Jesus Christ really present in the Eucharist after Mass and outside of Holy Communion. Second, it becomes clear that the faithful did not speculate on precisely how the Real Presence is a Sacrament, how Communion is a Sacrament, or how the Sacrifice of the Mass is a Sacrament. They took it for granted.

This is important to note. It is one thing to believe something is true and something else to be able to satisfy the challenged mind in explaining precisely how it is true—in this case, precisely how the Eucharist confers the grace which is signified.

The one common element in the early Church on all three levels of the Holy Eucharist was the presence of Christ on earth in the fullness of His human nature. This was taken for granted. The early Christians held the Real Presence to be an article of faith and did not question. Thus, there was little need for detailed explanations on how Christ is really present in the Eucharist.

Only later, when that presence of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist began to be questioned and then doubted, did the Church have to defend the Real Presence and explain the “how’s”—as far as can be done with a mystery of faith. But let’s keep in mind that throughout the centuries, the doubts in the Real Presence were never as widespread and as deep as they are today. Certainly, the greatest challenge of Christ’s Real Presence in the Holy Eucharist is in our day. Thus, we must understand why the Real Presence is absolutely fundamental for Mass and Holy Communion.

Real Presence Necessary for Mass and Communion

The purpose of this retreat has been to provide a deeper understanding of the Real Presence as the basis for practicing devotion through Jesus Christ present in the Blessed Sacrament after Mass is offered and after Holy Communion is received. Now we wish to see how the Real Presence is inseparable from either the Mass or Holy Communion. In fact, without the Real Presence, there is no Mass and there is no Holy Communion.

Today we hear a lot of talk about the “Liturgy” and all kinds of elaborate ceremonial and even theatrical elements of “worship”. And the crowds come to receive Holy Communion by the droves. Yet, as our Holy Father in his first pilgrimage to the United States told the bishops: “In God’s name make sure your people go to confession because I’m afraid so many of your people are receiving Holy Communion unworthily.” The point is there is no “Liturgy” (no matter how big you make the capital “L”) and there is not conferring of grace in Holy Communion unless the people who receive Communion believe that the Eucharist is Jesus Christ and that it is Christ who offers the Mass and gives Himself in Holy Communion.

There is no Mass or Holy Communion without the Real Presence. Why not? In the Mass, we believe we have the same Sacrifice as Christ made on Calvary. But on the Cross, Christ was in His humanity, body and soul, united with His divinity. How can the Mass be the same Calvary unless Jesus is there, really present, in the Mass with His humanity, body and soul, united with His divinity? On the Cross, His sacrifice was bloody. Christ visibly died. How can the Sacrifice of the Mass be a reenactment, a re-presentation of Calvary, unless it is the same Jesus who is offering Himself?

“But there’s no blood in the Mass.”

True. But the essence of sacrifice is not blood. The essence of sacrifice is that a human will surrenders itself to the divine will. That’s sacrifice! In the Mass, Christ better have a human will. There would be no Mass, there could be no Eucharistic Sacrifice unless it were the same Jesus, body and blood, with the same human will, offering Himself, surrendering His human will for our sins. And He does so not to merit the graces for our redemption—He did that already on Calvary—but to transmit those graces of Divine Mercy through the Sacrifice of the Mass.

The same is true with Holy Communion. AT the Last Supper, Jesus literally gave His body and blood to the apostles. He held Himself in His own hands, and the Apostles received the living (then mortal) Jesus Christ. As we know, the Jews were scandalized when Jesus foretold what He would do with His Body and Blood: “He claims He’s going to give us His body to eat and His blood to drink!” And they walked away. That walking away in Palestine has been a prelude for millions of people walking away ever since. But at the Last Supper, after giving His apostles His own living body and blood, Christ told them to “do this in commemoration of Me.” Having ordained the apostles priests, Christ gave them power to do what He had done and further power to transmit this priestly power on to the end of time.

It is the Real Presence of Christ in Holy Communion which makes Holy Communion a Sacrament of Christ’s love. In Holy Communion we receive the Living Jesus, who is Incarnate Love, to give us the grace to love—the grace to love Him and the grace to love even the most unlovable people God puts in our lives. Thus, Holy Communion is the indispensable nourishment for our spiritual life. But why? Because Jesus is really present in Holy Communion. That is the only, exclusive, absolute reason why. Either we receive Him or we’re not getting the grace. It is only because God, who is Love, is really present in the Holy Eucharist to provide us with the graces to grow in love for Christ and grow in our love for others out of love for Christ. But Christ better be there, otherwise we’re not receiving what only He can give: the power to love as God, who is love.

Closing Prayer

Dear Jesus, if we are to become the apostles of the Holy Eucharist, which You want us to be, help us, Dear Lord, to understand that the Real Presence is not some additive to the Sacrifice of the Mass and Holy Communion; that the Real Presence is not some afterthought to the Mass and Holy Communion. Help us to see, with the eyes of faith enlightened by Your grace, that the Sacrifice of the Mass and Holy Communion are the Real Presence.

Help us to see more clearly that You are really present, offering Yourself, surrendering Your human will to Your Heavenly Father, now in an unbloody way, even as You did on Calvary by shedding Your blood and that You are now giving Yourself, really present, in Holy Communion so that by receiving You, Incarnate Love, we might love You and love those whom You place into our lives in order to show how much we love You because only You, Divine Love, can provide us with the strength we need to love, love even unto death, as You have loved us. Amen.

Used with permission from Inter Mirifica.