Let’s reinvent the wheel a little bit. By the end of this we will have come back around to a very common, very basic doctrine of the Catholic Church. In writing this I have in mind primarily my students, for whom connecting all the things we teach is usually very difficult.
We begin with justice, the repaying of debts that we owe. Among all the different kinds of justice-relations we can find ourselves in, the just person above all recognizes that there are some debts that can never be properly repaid. To be truly just is to attempt to repay those debts anyway, even knowing that it will never really be done.
By way of introductory example, consider the case of one person saving another person’s life. It doesn’t seem strange to imagine a person feeling that they could never repay their savior, but that they would in any event constantly strive to do so. Just because “thanks” or “a check for a million dollars” doesn’t seem to cover the debt doesn’t mean we should do nothing. It’s not hard to imagine the indebted party gladly doing good for their savior in a variety of ways, hoping that some day they could reciprocate in some genuine way. Anyone who shrugged and ceased to care about their debt because of the inadequacy of their efforts would be wicked.
So much for a particular case, where the parameters of repayment are unlikely, but not impossible, to be met. But there are also universal debts that we as humans owe which cannot be repaid even in principle. At the head of all these debts is the most profound and, strictly speaking, “most impossible” debt: the debt we owe to God for His greatness and for our creation.
By the simple fact that He exists God is due a praise and honor equal to his infinite nobility. By the fact that He creates the universe, and each of us individually, and sustains us all in being, and draws us toward Him as out ultimate end, He is due thanksgiving and gratitude beyond what any creature can give.
Quite apart from the drama of sin and salvation, we owe God an infinite debt which we cannot in principle repay. The Latin word for this debt is religio, whence our English word religion. Obviously we tend to use the term more as an artifact of sociology, identifying a group of people with common belief and practice oriented toward the divine or the transcendent, typically involving some kind of ritual and often some kind of corresponding ethic. But in its basic signification, religio is just the debt we owe God for what He is and what He has done: the debt of worship.
We owe God worship, and we know that we will never be able to repay this debt correctly because of His infinitude and our inadequacy, and yet we try all the same because to be indifferent to this greatest of debts is the very height of wickedness.
At the heart of this worship is sacrifice, a gift-giving marked by a kind of excess or extravagance meant to atone for the inadequacy of the gift. Sacrifice is not merely transactional, in the sense of acquiring benefit or relief in some particular earthly affair. The nobler heart of sacrifice is simply this casting off into the abyss in the certain knowledge that our gift will not be equal to God but that all the same we must do something or truly perish in the most essential way.
The Old Testament directly addresses the poverty of human sacrifice, which leaves us debtor all the same in spite of our wish that it be otherwise, by finding a deeper form of sacrifice beneath the burnt animals and grains: the sacrifice of obedience. Sure, none of the objects of the universe are equal to God–only God is equal to God, after all–but there is a way in which the sacrifice of the human will in obedience goes beyond the limitations of hoof and wing rising like smoke.
It is our prayers that rise like incense, and our heart like the evening offering, which do some kind of justice to God’s greatness: not the bleating of sheep and the smell of offal. This is the stinging rebuke that Samuel gives Saul when he tries to justify his disobedience regarding Agag and the Amalekites. This is the penitent insight of David in the Psalm Miserere.
The unity of sacrifice and obedience, or rather the perfection of obedience as the best sacrifice, finds its fullest expression in Abraham doing the will of God even when he did not understand it: consenting to sacrifice his son Isaac on Mt. Moriah. In the sacrifice of our will we sacrifice something at the core of ourselves, something at the ground of our being. In comparison to that, what is the possible relevance of a blood sacrifice, whether human or animal? They can only be the scaffolding of our sacrifice, a visible and material reinforcement of an interior act, the pedagogue of that act. We perform them because they are commanded, but they are commanded that we might obey.
And yet, no matter how great by comparison the human will may be to all those blood offerings, it is not truly infinite. The soul may be “in a way” all things, and it is indeed the best we have to offer, but it is in no way equal to God, the God beyond compare. Pour out your life even to death if you will; you have not yet begun to love God as much as He is to be loved or worship God as He is to be worshiped or honor God as much as He is to be honored. We cannot escape the poverty of our sacrifices even at our finest hour.
WE cannot escape our poverty, but for God all things are possible. By assuming a human nature and becoming one of us God’s own infinite power acts in and through human action. Jesus Christ is the first and only human to render to God all that God is due, because He offers Himself and He is God. Only God is equal to God, so God-With-Us, Immanuel, comes to do the work we cannot do and mystically unite us to Him so that we can do it with Him.
This is why we call Him both priest and victim: the one who offers the sacrifice is the sacrifice, and the sacrifice is God Himself born of the Virgin in the fullness of time. Christ becomes our sacrifice, Paschal and otherwise. He solves the problem of religio that confronts us even before we turn to the sources of revelation and learn of the sin of Adam and the need for a truer and more fundamental Pascha. That he also does so in fulfillment of the Old Testament is perhaps nowhere clearer than this: His sacrifice of Himself is always presented as an act of perfect obedience to His father.
This is why He is not only priest and victim but also the temple itself, and retires the need for the temple, and indeed gives us a prophecy that the temple will never be rebuilt, much less needed. The perfect act of sacrifice, the only worthy sacrifice, has finally been made not just in Jerusalem on a particular date at a particular time, but in the heavens, eternally.
But all that is not the wheel I wanted to reinvent. It is, after all, just the New Testament’s Letter to the Hebrews. No, I wanted to talk about the Eucharist.
Sacraments and Sacrifices
It’s easy when you study Catholic theology to see in the doctrine of transubstantiation a peculiar neo-Aristotelian bit of pedantry from an era obsessed with fine distinctions. But the practical significance of the doctrine is that, thanks to Jesus Christ, we can pay our debt of religio to God. Because the sacrifice of bread and wine we bring forward becomes Him, it becomes an act of worship equal to the greatness and the honor of God.
Without that change of substance, we could only “do this in memory of” Him in the same way that Abraham sacrificed Isaac or Jews sacrificed animals. It would be an act of obedience to divine command: surely good, but stuck in the same poverty worship as the Old Law.
In an older, forgotten Catholic piety you often hear that the Church is “true religion” or the Holy Mass is “true worship.” Whatever people may have heard when it was said or even intended when they said it, the true sense of those words is not a sociological triumphalism. Because of the mysterious change of substance in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, true worship–that is, worship equal to God, a genuine repayment of the debt we find at the ground of our being–becomes possible. Why do you think we call it the most holy Sacrament of the Altar? Without that mystery of transubstantiation, our sacrifices, our worships, are no more efficacious than the hopeful wishes of everyone who ever made sacrifice to the gods according to the best of their ignorance.
This is another way to see the good news of the Gospel. Because the Second Person of the Trinity assumed human nature and becomes present in the sacrament of the altar, our radical poverty of worship is remedied. The debt we could never pay but always wanted to pay can now, in fact, be paid. No amount of well-wishing on our part could ever make it so; the mercy of God is found not in the ridiculous act of telling us it (He!) doesn’t matter, but in His divine condescension so that we could do the thing that we need to do in order to be just. He justifies us. He mercifully justifies us through the mystery of transubstantiation.
When we make the sacrifice of obeying His words to “do this in memory of me” we offer up the true sacrifice of God to God. Through Him and with Him and in Him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is Yours, Almighty Father, forever and ever.