This is an interesting question that some people pose. Where does this question come from though? It usually arises after a person hears for the first time that at every Mass we are witnessing the crucifixion of Our Lord. “What does that mean?” You might ask. It is important to realize that what one is really trying to understand here is what the Eucharist is. This question is not as difficult as it is ‘deep.’ A person asking this is trying to come to a deeper understanding of the mystery that surrounds the Eucharist; and with anything that is ‘deeper’ it can seem at first difficult to understand.
It is a little difficult to grasp because there is a tremendous reality at play in the Eucharist. If we really understood the smallest part of what the Eucharist is and what affect the Eucharist has in our lives then churches would be overflowing with people miles long. What does it mean to say that the Eucharist is the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ? Do we every think about that statement? All of our theology up until this point in history has not even scratched the surface of what that statement truly means. The point that I am making is that even with what we do know about the Eucharist; we don’t ever claim to have understood the Eucharist fully.
Is this to say we cannot know anything about the Eucharist? No; only that we cannot understand the Eucharist fully, and there always has to be room in our intellects to recognize our own limits in understanding.
So what does it mean to say that at each Eucharistic celebration we are present at the crucifixion, and does this mean that Christ is dying over and over again?
When we say that we are present at the crucifixion what we are really saying is that in the Eucharist we witness Christ’s Passover. The Passion of Our Lord, the salvific work of Christ on the cross, his glorious resurrection; are all made present in the Eucharist. Christ presents the entire reality of who he is in the Eucharist. All of his timeless acts are proclaimed in His very own Body. The Eucharist is Christ’s Body. When we see the Eucharist raised up by the priest at Mass we are witnessing Christ being raised up on the cross so that we could all be saved. When we receive His body, the Eucharist, at communion, we are receiving the glorified and crucified body of Jesus at the resurrection. This glorified and crucified body of the resurrection is the same body that suffered on the cross. When we receive the Eucharist we celebrate in Christ’s own resurrection; we participate in Christ’s resurrection and His resurrection becomes our resurrection. This is one of the meanings of the scripture verse, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” (John 6:53-56)
When we witness this reality at Mass, we are not witnessing Jesus dying over and over again. This was a onetime event. It is not recreated every time we attend Mass. What happens is that we are continually brought back to that singular event in history. That event is brought to the present moment every time we attend Mass. This is why we say that Christ’s entire passion and life is a timeless act. His actions go outside the bounds of time because he is God and God works outside of time. At a moment in time Jesus Christ, the God-man broke the boundaries of time and redeemed men and women of every time and place.
We were given this power to make this event present from Christ himself. When he says in the Last Supper narrative, “Do this is memory of me” he commands us to make his Passion and life present at the Mass in the Eucharist. How do we do this? We participate at this onetime event through remembrance.
The word that we use to describe this is ‘anamnesis.’ This ‘anamnesis’ is that particular moment in the Eucharistic prayer when the priest, who is acting with and on behalf of all the people, recalls the passion, death, and resurrection of Our Lord. This anamnesis, or remembrance, is not just a prayer whereby we remember what Jesus did; it is a prayer that actually makes the entire reality of what Jesus did present to us in the here and now. Through this ‘anamnesis’ we become present at the foot of the cross and witness Christ’s own Passion, death, and resurrection. Try thinking about that the next time you attend Mass; it really is a mindblowing reality.
What all of this ultimately points to his God’s tremendous love for us. That so great a being would come down and do all of this just to bring us back into right relation with Him is truly humbling. This is only the tip of the iceberg. We have only scratched the surface of what the Eucharist really is. This is why St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the Church’s greatest theologians, said at the end of his life that all that he had contributed to theology was straw. God’s love for us far exceeds our understanding of his love for us; all that he asks of us is that we love him in return and that we try to live and preach His message of love and forgiveness to one another.