Monday, July 01, 2019

“The Application of the Lord’s Passion to Us” : St Thomas on the Blessed Sacrament

For St Thomas Aquinas, the Lord of glory present under the consecrated species of bread and wine is the Christ-who-suffered, Christus passus. In the Commentary on John, he writes,
Since this sacrament is of the Lord’s Passion, it contains within itself Christ who suffered. Hence whatever is an effect of the Lord’s Passion is wholly contained in this sacrament, for it is nothing else than the application of the Lord’s Passion to us. . . . Hence it is clear that the destruction of death, which Christ accomplished by His death, and the restoration of life, which He accomplished by His resurrection, are effects of this sacrament. (Super Ioan. 6.6)
This is significant for many reasons. One reason that might be overlooked is psychological. In being made to confront symbols of the death we inflicted on Christ — the crucifix, perhaps marked with the crimson channels of blood; the sculpted corpus with five open wounds; the host lying on the grave cloth of the corporal; the  chalice filled with the “blood of the grape” — we are brought face to face with the reality of our own malice, our moral weariness, our failure to solve the problems of human existence.

Christianity does not automatically rid people of sin and every stain of sin; sincere Christians are not necessarily better than their unbelieving neighbors, and they can at times be worse. [1] But, if they are truly practicing their faith, they are aware of two things: how wicked they are in turning away from the Lord, “every one to his own way” (Isa. 53, 6); how blessed they are in being His creatures, sprinkled in the Blood of the immolated Lamb. They seek forgiveness and healing, ultimately resurrection, from the very One they have killed, who has already died for them and only awaits their turning around to Him; one might say, they merely need to “turn themselves in.” It is this prevenient offering of the sinless for the sinner and its counterpart, the surrendering of guilty assailant to holy Victim, that the Cross symbolizes and the Mass makes present in a mirror and in an enigma (cf. ST III.83.1).

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648–1695) in her breathtaking play El Divino Narciso writes:
See, at the crystal rim
of the clear, bright fountain
the beautiful white flower
of which the lover said:
This is My Body and My Blood,
which I sacrificed for you
through many martyrdoms.
Do this in remembrance of my death.
St. Thomas is ever at pains to link the Eucharist with the Passion, presence, and charity. The cumulative messsage is this: the love of God is made manifest and communicated in the broken Body of Jesus, who gave His life on the Cross in order to give it ever anew in the sacrament of His love. For all ages, this sacrament — whether dimly and imperfectly anticipated in pre-Christian cults or realized completely in the Mass — is the pulsing heart of the world, the center of gravity toward which everybody is attracted. [2] J.R.R. Tolkien wrote to his son Michael in March of 1941:
Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament. . . . There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves upon earth, and more than that: Death: by the divine paradox, that which ends life, and demands the surrender of all, and yet by the taste (or foretaste) of which alone can what you seek in your earthly relationships (love, faithfulness, joy) be maintained, or take on that complexion of reality, of eternal endurance, which every man’s heart desires.
Borrowing the Apostle’s words, St. Thomas describes the highest of the three degrees of charity as a “longing to be dissolved and to be with Christ” (ST II-II.24.9). What the Lord seeks is the total gift of oneself. If nothing less will do for human lovers in their frenzied possessiveness, will Christ settle for a lukewarm exchange of goods and services? “I am come to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled!” (Luke 12, 49); “I have ardently longed to eat this Passover with you before I suffer” (Luke 22, 15). Unlike earthly spouses, Christ is able to effect a union of pure, total, permanent possession, in no way limited in its fullness, going to the abyss of one’s being, there where “the depths of God” (1 Cor. 2, 10) are darkly known and sweetly loved, are touched and savored.

No wonder we are bewildered. We are torn apart by a love that defies our logic, that multiplies our longings and frustrates our desires, which are always too few and too small. God would have it this way, for unless He rends us and remakes us, we cannot enter into His rest, be one with Him, be the temple of His glory, bear Him in our bodies, become His sons in our souls. This is the merciful cruelty of God, the blessed wounding spoken of by the mystics, and like its exemplar, the wise folly of the Cross, it belongs to the heart of the Christian experience. In essence, to be a mystic is to believe in the mystery Paul announces in Galatians 2, 20 (“I live, now not I, but Christ lives in me”), and to strive to live this holy communion day after day with the help of God’s grace — that and nothing else. [3] This is why Aquinas wept so often when celebrating Mass, and why he is a master and model for all of us. [4]

In his person no less than in his pages, the Angelic Doctor brings into sharp relief the primacy of contemplation, receptivity, timeless truth, over activism, performance, timely relevance. He demonstrates that no activity is more perfect than waiting on God, listening to Him, seeking His face; that no doing of mine is better than dying to my will, clinging to the Cross; that nothing can be more pertinent to man here and now, nothing more liberating for the world, than yielding in silent faith to the hidden God, the righteous God, “who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ: not by water only, but by water and blood” (1 John 5, 6).

To the cynical children of Adam, all this is completely counterintuitive, if not downright absurd. And yet, for all that, it is right; it has to look that way to fallen man (cf. 1 Cor. 1, 18–31), for his eye is bleary, his ear blocked, his desire narrow. “He who would search into the mysteries of Christ must go out, in a way, from himself and from fleshly ways,” states Thomas soberly (Super Ioan. 20.1). Jesus knew what was in the heart of man, and He came not only preaching, but healing infirmities; not only healing bodies, but divinizing souls. It was to make us His intimates that He instituted the sacraments of the new law, chief among them the sacrament of His own flesh-and-blood love, the feast of the New Covenant which is simply — and incomprehensibly — the gift of Himself.


[1] All the same, the truth and effectiveness of the Christian faith must, in fairness, be judged not by its lukewarm half-practitioners or its apostates (should one blame a medicine that was never taken for a sickness that was not thereby ameliorated?), but by its vast company of saints who have washed their robes white in the Blood of the Lamb. Moreover, it is all too easy to take for granted how Christianized our assumptions, mores, and institutions have become due to centuries of ecclesial presence. What is routinely attributed to secular reason, to an ethic of fairness or a noble humanism, is often enough the last sputter of Gospel influence. The popes of modern times, from Leo XIII onwards, have warned that if the Gospel is not welcomed as the animating principle of individuals and societies, the West will degenerate ever more rapidly into a kind of high-tech barbarism at the service of pride, greed, and lust, contemptuous of human dignity and rights. The papal prognosis has been correct, above all for the Western Europe of today — spiritually bankrupt, culturally exhausted, demographically dried up.

[2] See Charles Journet, Theology of the Church, trans. Victor Szczurek (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), 181–84.

[3] See Louis Bouyer’s beautiful work The Christian Mystery: From Pagan Myth to Christian Mysticism, trans. Illtyd Trethowan, O.S.B (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1990).

[4] See Martin Grabmann, The Interior Life of Thomas Aquinas, trans. Nicholas Ashenbrener, O.P. (Milwaukee: Bruce, 1951).

Photo courtesy of Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P.

Visit for events, articles, sacred music, and classics reprinted by Os Justi Press (e.g., Benson, Scheeben, Parsch, Guardini, Chaignon, Leen).

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: