The Holy Eucharist by St. Thomas Aquinas
Eucharist as the perfect sign of Christ’s Passion
The Eucharistic theology of Thomas Aquinas is remarkable for its clarity and perception. But Thomas was not only able to set it out masterfully; his contemplation of the Eucharist was so intense that it tapped a poetic vein and enabled him to imbue with lyrical tones a dogmatic language so perfect and refined as to produce sequences and hymns that we all know and still sing.
Moreover, a very deep devotion to the Body and Blood of Christ was part of the Angelic Doctor’s life, which was, as it were, sealed by passionate prayer to the Blessed Sacrament.
His biographer, William of Tocco, says that before receiving Viaticum in the guest room of the Cistercian Abbey of Fossanuova, where he had arrived exhausted and consumed by the effort of study and teaching, Thomas prayed: “I receive you, price of my soul’s redemption, I receive you, Viaticum of my pilgrimage: for love of you I have studied, watched and toiled”.
Passion for Blessed Sacrament combined with scientific rigour
It does not take long, however, for those who attentively study Thomas’ texts on the Eucharist and become familiar with them, to realize that the precision of his concepts and the rigour of his analysis not only do not quench his passionate feeling for the Blessed Sacrament but, on the contrary, express it and are a perceptive and eloquent sign of it.
If the theological context with its debates and problems multiplies even the most subtle and, in our view today, superfluous points, it can be noted that after their ramifications and discussions, they are finally led back to the heart of Catholic Eucharistic theology, which is “the memorial of Christ’s Passion” (cf. Summa Theologiae, III, 76, 2, 2m), just as they flowed from this heart.
In reviewing the writings of Thomas that are dedicated to this memorial and tracing its content, we realize that we have before us the most enlightening and complete synthesis of the Catholic faith concerning the mystery of the Eucharist.
We also see that there are no grounds for criticizing his prevalent reduction to philosophy, which was believed to impoverish Thomas’ Eucharistic thought by abstracting it from the concreteness and the promptings of Scripture, the liturgy and Patristic tradition.
For an understanding of the Eucharist in Thomas Aquinas, it is important first of all to indicate where it is situated by the ordo disciplinae, or where he places it in the theological plan of his Summa Theologica.
Obviously, St Thomas places Eucharist among the sacraments, which in turn are considered after Christology and, significantly, after the theology of the mysteries of Christ: indeed, the sacraments “derive their efficacy from the Word Incarnate himself” (Summa, III, 60, Introduction), which it is their task to incorporate.
“Through the sacraments of the New Law man is incorporated with Christ” (Summa, III, 62, 1, 3m).
“The sacraments… flow from Christ himself, and have a certain likeness to him” (Summa, III 60, 6, 3m). Indeed, “the sacraments… obtain their effect through the power of Christ’s Passion; and Christ’s Passion is, so to say, applied to man (applicatur) through the sacraments” (Summa, III, 61, 1, 3m).
Thomas continues by stating: “The sacraments of the Church derive their power specially from Christ’s Passion, the virtue of which is in a manner united to us (nobis copulatur) by our receiving the sacraments” (Summa, II, 62, 5, 1); “the power of Christ’s Passion is united to us by faith and the sacraments”, so that its “continuation” (continuatio) will result (Summa, II, 62, 6, c.).He was also to explain, in treating Baptism, that it “derives its efficacy from Christ’s Passion and from the Holy Ghost” (Summa, III, 66, 12, c.).
Sacrament of the Eucharist: threefold significance
This is what an interpretation of the whole of salvation history considers the most splendid of Thomas’ affirmations: “A sacrament is a sign that is both a reminder of the past, that is, the Passion of Christ; and an indication of that which is effected in us by Christ’s Passion, that is, grace; and a prognostic (precognosticum), that is, a foretelling (praenuntiativum) of future glory” (Summa, III, 60, 3, c.).
What Thomas says here of every sacrament he was to say, indeed to sing, for the Eucharist: “This sacrament has a threefold significance: one with regard to the past, inasmuch as it is commemorative of our Lord’s Passion, which was a true sacrifice, as stated above, and in this respect it is called a Sacrifice.
“With regard to the present it has another meaning, namely, that of ecclesiastical unity, in which men are aggregated through this sacrament; and in this respect it is called Communion….
“With regard to the future it has a third meaning, inasmuch as this sacrament foreshadows the Divine fruition which shall come to pass in heaven; and according to this it is called Viaticum, because it supplies the way of winning thither” (Summa, III, 73, 4, c.).
We find the Christian event fully present in the Eucharist, which is also the perfect initiation to it. The fact that in the treatment of the sacraments the Holy Eucharist follows Baptism and Confirmation does not prevent it from being “the sacrament” par excellence, the “summit” or “completion of the sacraments” and the one to which all the other sacraments relate.
The Eucharist is, as it were, “the consummation of the spiritual life, and the end of all the sacraments” (Summa, III, 73, 3, c.).
The reason for this, St Thomas explains, lies in the fact that whereas the energy — “vis” or “virtus” — of the Passion of Christ is active in the other sacraments, the Eucharist contains “Christ’s own Body” (Summa, III, 73, 1, 3m); in Scholastic language, Christ is present as “the common spiritual good of the whole Church… contained substantially in the sacrament itself of the Eucharist” (Summa, III, 65, 3, 1), in order to bring man to full communion with Christ in the Passion (cf. Summa, III, 73, 2, 3m).
The Eucharist, sign of supreme love and hope
In other words, if every sacrament is rooted in Christ’s Passion, the Eucharist is the perfect sign of this. As the Angelic Doctor wrote: The Eucharist “is perfective of all the other sacraments, in which Christ’s virtue is participated” (Summa, III, 75, 1, c.).
“When Christ was going to leave his disciples in his proper species, he left himself with them under the sacramental species”. Jesus instituted the sacrament so that “there should be at all times among men something to show forth our Lord’s Passion”, given that “without
faith in the Passion there could never be any salvation” (Summa, III, 73, 5, c.).
St Thomas also writes that “in our pilgrimage, [Christ] does not deprive us of his bodily presence, but unites us with himself in this sacrament through the truth of his Body and Blood” (Summa, III, 75, 1, c.), always seen in their sacrificial condition”.
“Hence, this sacrament is the sign of supreme charity, and the uplifter of our hope, from such familiar union of Christ with us” (Summa, III, 75, 1, c.).
Thomas often uses the terms “sacrament”, “representation” (repraesentatio) and representative (repraesentativus), “memory” or “memorial”. This is not to indicate a simple, transient reminder of a reality that in any case has passed, but the truth of a real, substantial presence of the Passion event in the person of Christ who suffered.
Theology, starting with Casel in particular, was to affirm that the Eucharist is the sacrament of the Passion “event”.
I believe that Thomas’ theology, in different language and exempt from the later explicit classification by theme, says the same thing; in other words, Thomas teaches that in the modality of the signs, by attaining and receiving “Christ who suffered”, we enter into real communion with that event.
“The sacrifices of the Old Law contained only in figure that true sacrifice of Christ’s Passion”, whereas, “it was necessary that the sacrifice of the New Law instituted by Christ should have something more, namely, that it should contain Christ himself crucified, not merely in signification or figure, but also in very truth” (Summa, III, 75, 1, c.).
The Eucharist represents the Passion of Christ
This is like saying that Christ’s sacrifice is truly and effectively active in the Eucharist. The value and efficacy of Christ’s Passion converge in the Eucharist on the basis of the presence, precisely, of “Christ who suffered”.
For Thomas, as we have seen, Christ’s Passion “comes alive” in every sacrament. This happens in the Eucharist because it is the Christ of the Passion in person or the Christ who suffered and is “available” to you, who institutes its actuality. The anti-Berengarian profile is clearly evoked by Thomas and, precisely in the language of “representation”, is realistically recapitulated in that of “representation”.
To emphasize further the realism of the presence of the Passion, Thomas writes: “What is represented by this sacrament… is Christ’s Passion (‘Quod repraesentatur est passio Christi’). And therefore this sacrament works in man the effect which Christ’s Passion wrought in the world.
“Hence, Chrysostom says”, commenting on the words of John, “‘Immediately there came out blood and water (19:34). Since the sacred mysteries derive their origin from thence, when you draw nigh to the awe-inspiring chalice, so approach as if you were going to drink from Christ’s own side”‘ (Summa, III, 79, 1, c.).
Thomas’ words, borrowed from the Greek Father, could not be more perceptive and moving as they are when he repeats: “There is but one victim, namely, that which Christ offered, and which we offer” (Summa, III, 83, 1, 1m); and this explains the reason that “by this sacrament, we are made partakers of the fruit of our Lord’s Passion”.
“Hence, in one of the Sunday Secrets we say: ‘Whenever the commemoration of this sacrifice is celebrated, the work of our redemption is enacted'” (Summa, III, 83, 1, c.); thus, “it is proper to this sacrament for Christ to be sacrificed in its celebration”, for the Old Testament contains only figures of his sacrifice (Summa, III, 83, 1, c.).
Today, we express this in the following: a real sacrifice which does not repeat that of Calvary but is the same in the modality of the sacrament.