Sacrifice is a particular kind of act of the virtue of religion. The fundamental purpose of all sacrifice offered to God is to return something to God to express the ordering of our souls to Him so as to enter into fellowship with Him. St. Augustine gave a classic definition of sacrifice in book 10 of The City of God. Speaking of pagan and Jewish animal sacrifices, he said: “We are to understand that the significance of those acts was precisely the same as that of those now performed amongst us—the intention of which is that we may cleave to God and seek the good of our neighbor for the same end. Thus the visible sacrifice is the sacrament, the sacred sign, of the invisible sacrifice.” In sacrifice we externally offer to God something that symbolically represents and accompanies the interior ordering of our heart to God in seeking to give Him His due and to repair for our offenses against Him.
Jesus instituted Eucharist for three fundamental ends. It is the sacrament of Christ’s presence among us, the sacrament of spiritual nourishment, and the “prolongation” of Christ’s expiatory sacrifice on Calvary continually re-presented to the Father by Christ and the Church in the sacrifice of the Mass. In this and the following talks we shall focus on the Eucharist as the Christian sacrifice.
In order to better understand this doctrine, defined by the Council of Trent, let us begin by looking at the notions of sacrifice and religion. The classical philosophers consider religion to be a moral virtue by which we give to God what is due to Him and thus “bind ourselves back” to Him, as the etymology of the word suggests. Religion is in fact the most exalted aspect of the moral virtue of justice, by which we give to each one his due.3 And what is due to God, our Creator, Lord, and Redeemer? Infinite praise, honor, gratitude, obedience to His commands, faith in what He reveals to us, hope in His aid, love above all things, readiness to do all that serves to manifest His glory and His love. And when we have sinned, reparation is due to God.
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