“Do This in Remembrance of Me”

Do this in remembrance of Me-art for Swetnam article

The Most Holy Eucharist is the heart of Catholic Christianity. The reason for this is obvious: the Eucharist generates the Mystical Body of Christ and the Mystical Body of Christ is the Church (The Catechism of the Catholic Church {CCC} §1396). This should be a truth pondered always but especially during Holy Week and Eastertide that evokes the first Holy Week when the Eucharist was instituted, and that continues the Lord’s sacrificial presence on earth. The present study attempts to understand less imperfectly what happens when the priest celebrates the Eucharist as sacrifice—the Mass—in obedience to the Lord’s command, “Do this in memory of me” (Lk 22:19; cf. 1 Cor 11:24-25). In order to do this, an attempt will be made to clarify the types of causation—divine and human—at play in the Eucharist. That is to say, it attempts to clarify, respectively, the role of Jesus Christ, the divine and human high priest, along with the ordained minister, the human priest.

We begin with two basic presuppositions. The first presupposition is that what follows is tentative: the Eucharist is a mystery, and what follows is by no means an attempt to explain a mystery. But it is an attempt to understand, less imperfectly, the mystery that is the Eucharist: fides quaerens intellectum—“faith seeking understanding.” If, after further examination, the reasoning given here should prove defective, perhaps it will at least provide a basis for further investigation. The second presupposition is that the Eucharist is a part of Catholic life and worship, not only as sacrifice (the Mass), but as divine presence (the “real presence” in each and every tabernacle) (CCC §1407). This distinction does not imply a separation—that Christ is not really present in the Mass after the words of consecration, or that the Eucharist as divine presence is not the result of the words of consecration at the Mass. It is simply a question of emphasis. In the movement for perpetual adoration chapels in the United States, there is no question of Masses being celebrated perpetually in each of them but, as was stated above, of Christ’s real presence being perpetually maintained in them for the adoration of the faithful.

In Scripture, this distinction between the Eucharist as sacrifice, and the Eucharist as real presence, is clear in the different ways the Gospels present the Eucharist. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the Eucharist is looked on in connection with Christ’s death on the cross, i.e., as a sacrifice. In the Gospel of John, the Eucharist is looked on as divine presence, and divine nutriment, that brings to fulfillment respectively the symbolic role of the tent of meeting, and the manna that accompanied the generation in the Exodus from Egypt under Moses. The pairing in John of the Eucharist as divine presence, and Eucharist as divine nutriment, thus evokes the prefigurations of the tent of meeting, and the manna of the first Exodus.

The term, “prefigurations,” implies the following pattern involving the relation of Old Testament realities to New: similarity, dissimilarity, definitive fulfillment. That is, the New Testament reality presented in John’s Gospel. John, of course, is interested primarily in the Eucharist as presence, for of itself, presence can be directly applied to Jesus as divine. (The Eucharist as sacrifice—the Mass—is portrayed by Matthew, Mark, and Luke.) The Eucharist as presence, and the Eucharist as sacrifice, are not mutually exclusive, of course, any more than Jesus as divine, and Jesus as human, are mutually exclusive. All four evangelists believed Christ to be both human and divine, and presented the Eucharist accordingly. But they had different emphases.

There are two causal factors involved in the coming into being of the Eucharist at the Mass. The first is Jesus Christ, the high priest, and the second is the validly ordained human minister, the priest, who shares in the priesthood of Christ (CCC §1551). It should be clear that no human power transforms the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ as sacrificial victim. That is, there is always divine power involved in each Mass. And inasmuch as Jesus Christ instituted the Eucharist (the authorization of God the Father is presumed), he is the source, direct or indirect, of this divine power. Furthermore, it should also be clear that the priest has a unique role to play in each Mass (otherwise, he would not be given the power to say Mass), and that this power does not accrue to him naturally, but by reason of the ordination by a legitimate successor of the Apostles who have their authority from Christ.

But just what happens when the priest makes the Lord present through the celebration of Mass is the issue here. “Do this in memory of me.” Just what does the “this” in this injunction of the Lord consist of? In other words, let us attempt a solution to what is involved in carrying out the Lord’s injunction “Do this in memory of me” by focusing on Scripture and Tradition in the form of the New Testament and the Mass. Specifically, the argument that follows will be based on a contrast between the exercise of the priestly power in the Sacrament of Reconciliation as known from Scripture, and the priestly power in the celebration of the Mass as known from Tradition.

In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the priest is legitimate heir and sharer in the power given to the Apostles in Jn 20:19-23. Two factors are to be noted in this scene. The first is that Jesus, as portrayed by John, is clearly divine, as in the first twenty chapters of John’s Gospel. For when the Lord appears to his disciples after the resurrection, as in Chapter 20, he does so as the divine victim. That Jesus in John 20 appears as divine victim is indicated from the emphasis given in Chapter 20 to his wounds. But it is also clear from the message of the risen Jesus, given the disciples, through the message entrusted to Mary Magdalene (Jn 20:18). The main point of this message is that Jesus, after giving Mary Magdalene the message, and before she reaches the disciples, will have ascended to his Father. This message simply repeats what the text has said in Jn 20:17. Thus, when Jesus appears to his disciples in Jn 20:19, the reader of the Gospel knows, and the disciples infer, that it is as victim that he appears. The implication is that he has ascended to the Father as high priest.

Another major implication for the reader is that every mention of the Eucharistic presence of Jesus in John’s Gospel in the first twenty chapters is about Jesus as victim, inasmuch as John’s Gospel was obviously written after the events narrated in John 20 took place. The same is true of the disciples as they recalled Jesus’s speaking of the Eucharist. For example, in Chapter 6, when Jesus speaks of the Eucharist as presence and as nutriment (tent of meeting and manna, symbols in the Old Testament brought to fulfillment in the New), Christ as victim is being discussed. In turn, this implies that Christ in the Eucharist in John’s Gospel is understood as Christ as victim, and not as high priest.

The second factor to note in this scene is how John (20:19-23) depicts Christ giving the disciples the Holy Spirit, and the concomitant apostolic power to forgive sins. (The special purpose of Thomas in the chapter would seem to be the recognition of Jesus as divine.) He recognizes Jesus as divine precisely in his recognition of Jesus as victim.

The inference to be drawn from the giving of the Spirit in Jn 20:22-23 is that the priest has the divine power to forgive sins at all times, and he does so because of the forgiveness of sins that Jesus achieved by his death on the cross as man, and communicates as divine. That is to say, every time the priest forgives sins, he does it with the divine power of the Holy Spirit bestowed upon him by Christ, as well as his own priestly authority. That is, he does so without any new, additional giving of divine power by Christ, or the Spirit, or the Father: Christ does not exercise the power to forgive sins through the priest directly, only indirectly. The priest exercises the divine power on his own, so to speak. This does not mean that Christ is not involved causally in each absolution of sin by the priest; it means that this causality is indirect.

The above context would seem to make possible now a less imperfect understanding of what happens when the priest celebrates the Eucharist as sacrifice—the Mass—in obedience to the Lord’s command: “Do this in memory of me.” The first thing to be noted is that in contrast to the power to forgive sins, which seems to be in permanent custody of the priest, the priestly power to change the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ does not seem to be the same type of permanent possession of the priest. The reason for asserting this is contained in the Epiclesis of the Mass.

It is clear from the Epiclesis that the intervention of the Holy Spirit is needed to effect the bringing into being of the Body and Blood of Christ at each Mass. This is indicated by Tradition, for at each Mass the power of the Spirit is invoked to change the bread and wine into Christ’s Body and Blood: Consider, for example, the invocation of the Spirit at the very beginning of the Second Eucharistic Prayer:

You are indeed Holy, O Lord {i.e., God the Father}, the fount of all holiness. Make holy, therefore, these gifts, we pray, by sending down your Spirit upon them like the dewfall, so that they may become for us the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.

A further inference is thus possible: that Jesus did not impart the Spirit at the Last Supper for the reason that he did not “possess” him inasmuch as “possession” of the Spirit by Jesus was a result of Jesus’ rising from the dead; at the Last Supper, he was not yet risen from the dead, whereas in John 20 it was the risen Jesus who gave the Spirit. In addition, it is Jesus viewed as divine who figures in John 20 (the way John always looks on Jesus in the first twenty chapters of his Gospel), whereas it is Jesus as human who institutes the Eucharist at the Last Supper (the normal way in which Matthew, Mark, and Luke look on Jesus).

The result of the above considerations would seem to be the following: when the priest celebrates Mass in obedience to the command of the Lord to do what he did “in memory” of him, the act of Jesus at the Last Supper in instituting the Eucharist is repeated by the priest by the power of Holy Orders, conferred on him through the Apostles. The words of institution imply the passion and death of Jesus (cf. the “pouring out of blood”), words which are in the power of the priest to say. But the priest, by reason of his ordination, is also empowered to request the intervention of the Spirit. And this intervention is given in each Mass. It is the divine power necessary for the changing of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ.

This intervention of the Spirit in each Mass is the liturgical equivalent to God’s intervention in raising Christ from the dead as a consequence of the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. That is, they are parallel: the divine intervention at Mass being the symbolic re-enactment of the divine intervention at the Resurrection. Thus, what happens at each Mass is not the reproduction of a static scene, but the reproduction of a dynamic scene with a static outcome. This static outcome is the presence of Christ, human and divine, on the altar: the real presence, just as the divine intervention of God at the Resurrection resulted in the real presence of the risen Jesus, first in time, and then in eternity. Thus Jesus’ unique death and resurrection becomes liturgically multiple because of the multiple priests and species of bread and wine involved in each Mass.

Or so seems judging from the sources adduced from Scripture and Tradition as interpreted above.

But this is all about externals. To arrive at a complete account of what happens when the priest obeys the Lord’s injunction “Do this in memory of me,” another consideration is required. It would seem that we are able to discern what happened internally in Jesus at the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, and what would seem to be the appropriate internal comportment of the priest—and of all who participate in the Eucharist in faith.

As we turn to examine what is subjectively involved on the part of Christ, and what would seem to be the appropriate part of the human priest, and of the lay faithful, who are in attendance, we must return to the best Old Testament liturgical antecedent for the Mass. This liturgical antecedent would seem to be the zebach toda, or “sacrifice of praise.” It is frequently mentioned in the Old Testament, especially in the Psalms (both in the original Hebrew and in the Septuagint translation). In the Septuagint, zebach toda is translated thusia aineseõs. This Greek phrase is found in the New Testament only in the Epistle to the Heb 13:15, where the context suggests the zebach toda as the background for the Mass as understood by the Epistle’s author. This view of the usefulness of the zebach toda to understand the Mass is warranted by the way many Old Latin versions of the New Testament translate the thusia aineseõs of Heb 13:15: sacrificium laudis (“sacrifice of praise”). For this Latin phrase is found in the “Remembrance of the Living” in the Roman Canon of the First Eucharistic Prayer with the prefix hoc, “this”, That is to say, the Mass calls itself a “sacrifice of praise.”

So much for “that-ness”; now, for “what-ness.” What, then, is the Mass as “this sacrifice of praise”? The “sacrifice of praise is a cultic ceremony with its origins deep in the history of Israel. In Scripture, it is portrayed in rather confusing terms at Lev 7:11-15. (The confusion seems to be caused, in no small part, by the fact that the text of Leviticus presumes the active performance of the ceremony in connection with the Temple sacrifices. Once the Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D., the correlation between text and application became increasingly problematic as the centuries rolled by.)

This original “sacrifice of praise” had three external parts: (1) a holocaust offered on the Temple altar by a priest, (2) an accompanying meal of bread, and the drinking of celebratory wine, and (3) the accompanying hymns and prayers. The ceremony was performed at the initiative of the Israelite male in order to give thanks to God for some signal favor granted him (for example, safe return to family and friends from a war, preservation from death in a famine). Obviously such an attitude presumed a strong faith in divine providence. The physical ceremony seems to have been in practice down to the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D., though this, like much else in connection with the “sacrifice of praise,” is disputed. (One theory is that by New Testament times the ancient ceremony had been “spiritualized,” that is, reduced to a mere, non-physical allusion to the time when there was such a ceremony practiced in its original, physical, ceremonial terms.)

According to the view of the “non-spiritualized” Old Covenant the zebach toda given above, was what Jesus uses at the Last Supper in an adapted form this “sacrifice of praise” when he instituted the Eucharist. (Similarity, dissimilarity, definitive fulfillment.) Instead of many holocausts in the Temple, one for each “sacrifice of praise,” he centered all Christianized “sacrifices of praise” on his one unique bloody sacrifice on the cross. Jesus’ interior motive was his belief as human that he would somehow be saved from death after he had died. That is, his trust in his Father extended not only on a faith-inspired insight into God’s providential care in the past, but on a faith-inspired insight into God’s providential care in the future.

It should also be noted that in saying that the “sacrifice of praise” in Jewish life at the time of the New Testament is the most plausible background for the Christian Eucharist does not imply that the Christian Eucharist is limited to the fulfillment of the Old Testament “sacrifice of praise,” and confined to its categories. For the Christian Eucharist consists of infinitely more than that: God’s real presence on the altar, a reality that would have been, and is still, unthinkable for the Old Covenant believer. Given all of the above, the stage is prepared for a more profound discussion of the interior attitude of Jesus Christ at each celebration of the Mass.

What follows is based on the author’s understanding of the Epistle to the Hebrews, available on “Entry 31” on the author’s website “James Swetnam’s Close Readings” —www.jamesswetnamsclosereadings.com. Entry 31 consists of the present author’s view of the entire Epistle, “Hebrews—An Interpretation” and, as regards Christ’s interior motivation in his role as Eucharistic high priest and victim, on his view of Heb 2:5–3:6 contained in Chapter 4 of “Hebrews—An Interpretation.”

According to the view of the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews as seen in “Hebrews—An Interpretation,” there are two high priesthoods of Jesus Christ: the first based on his earthly body, and the second based on his heavenly body. The earthly body was taken on by the Son in obedience to the Father in order to enable the Son to shed his blood and die: otherwise he would not have been able to free mankind from its sins. (According to the Old Testament view, there was no remission of sin without the shedding of blood—cf. Heb 9:22.) With the resurrection, and the Son’s taking on of a heavenly body, his second and definitive high priesthood began. The taking on of a heavenly body enabled the Son to “re-enter” eternity, so to speak with a body that had subsumed the expiatory effects of his death in his earthly body, and so to make the results of his death as an earthly high priest applicable to all men and women of whatever age in time. The immediate purpose of Christ, the heavenly high priest, in each Mass is to proclaim the name of his Father in gratitude for what the Father did for the Son at the resurrection: make possible the redemption of all mankind by sending the Son to take on body and blood.

With this view of the two priesthoods of Jesus Christ as background, the following observation is crucial for the purpose of this paper: at Heb 2:13, the text says: “I shall be trusting in him.” From its placing in the structure of Heb 2:5-18, it is clear that this Old Testament text (Is 8:17) is being applied to Jesus in order to use Old Testament words to express a New Testament meaning (the normal way the Old Testament is used in Hebrews). Here, Jesus, as human, is said to be in a state (perfect tense) of trusting in God, both as earthly high priest, and as heavenly high priest. As earthly high priest, Jesus trusted that God would raise him from the dead, and did so in thanksgiving as though the resurrection had already taken place; as heavenly high priest, Jesus trusted that it was God who had raised him from the dead, and thanked him for doing so. This as regards Jesus.

The believer in the resurrection who attends Mass does so thanking God for raising Jesus from the dead. But the believer does so with the thankful trust that God will raise him or her from the dead. This view is presupposed in Heb 2:9, where we read that Jesus died so that he might “taste death” for all—that is, Jesus here reveals his role as victim, as the one who was rewarded by the Father for having trusted in him. And if Jesus’ trust was so rewarded, so will the trust of the believer be similarly rewarded. In this way, the believer imitates Jesus who was, and who is, in a constant state of filial trust. If the believer is in this constant state of trust as regards his or her being raised from the dead, he or she will consequently then be able to renew and deepen that trust with each Mass. For at this sacred banquet, they re-live subjectively the very experience of Jesus. For this is what they do if they participate in the objective liturgical re-enactment, the “remembering,” of his death and resurrection.

The way the Epistle to the Hebrews expresses this thanksgiving of Jesus for his Father’s raising him from the dead is by saying that he, Jesus, will proclaim God’s name to his brethren (Heb 2:12). This name is “Father,” for he showed in deed the result of trusting in him. Thus are involved all three Persons of the Trinity in each celebration of the Mass: Jesus who in praising his Father states implicitly that he is Son (and we who also gather together and pray to the same Father); the Father who, in raising Jesus from the dead, is present as ultimate Author of each Mass; the Holy Spirit who is the one who changes the bread and wine into Jesus’ body and blood.

But is this view of what the Mass is, and the correlative view of what the faithful can do to assist optimally at each Mass, actually in practice in the Church today? Obviously not. But this does not mean that the Mass as celebrated today throughout the world is invalid, or that the assistance of the faithful at any given Mass is fruitless. Many, if not most, of the faithful who assist at Mass do so with a special intention in mind. Whether they realize it or not, it would seem that this intention is linked intrinsically with the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection as outlined above (cf. the Remembrance of the Living of the First Eucharistic Prayer in which the indication “this sacrifice of praise” occurs, and note all the intentions mentioned there). And so it would be of great help to the faithful Christian if he or she would explicitly link this intention to the resurrection of Christ, which is the focus of all Christian trust. For faith is best lived together with a constant search for understanding.

We began this essay studying the words of Christ at the Last Supper, and repeated by St. Paul: “Do this in remembrance of Me” (Lk 22:19; 1 Cor 11:24-25), and concluded that at each Mass the priest, by reason of his ordination, is authorized to celebrate Mass, according to his own judgment, as to time and place, and, in addition, he is authorized to request the intervention of the Spirit. This divine intervention, given in each Mass, is God’s own power necessary for the changing of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. This divine act in each Mass is the symbolic equivalent of the historical raising of Christ from the dead, following the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper.

Thus, at each Mass is re-enacted, in a symbolic form in time, the original, unique event of the institution of the Eucharist, and its fulfillment in the death and resurrection. The abiding result of this action is the presence, in time, of Christ as victim. What occurs, then, at each Mass is not the re-production of a static scene, but the re-production of a dynamic scene—the death and resurrection of Jesus as man—with a static outcome—the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. But this static outcome—the real presence of Christ as victim—encapsulates the preceding dynamic process that produces it for those who have the faith and understanding of that faith. In this way, Jesus’ unique death and resurrection become multiple because of the multiple priests and species of bread and wine involved in each Mass, and thus becomes available to believers throughout time and space.

Fr. James Swetnam, SJ About Fr. James Swetnam, SJ

Fr. James Swetnam, SJ, entered the Society of Jesus in 1945. He was ordained in 1958 and spent 50 years in Rome at the Pontifical Biblical Institute. During his Jesuit training, he acquired licentiate degrees in philosophy, theology, and Scripture, and a doctorate in biblical studies from the University of Oxford. He maintains a website, www.jamesswetnamsclosereadings.com, and is now in residence at Jesuit Hall in St. Louis, Missouri.


  1. Avatar James Foley says:

    Wonderful insights. Thanks so much!

    • Thank you for the comment. But do you have any observations about how these insights could be deepened? James Swetnam, S.J.

      • Avatar James Foley says:

        The Covenant element in the Eucharist I also think is very important. The Eucharist is the visible and mystical sign of the New Covenant entered into by Jesus not with the burnt flesh and shed blood of animals as in the Old Covenant but with His own body and blood. We renew the Covenant and signify our membership in Christ’s Mystical Body by participating in the Mass and particularly by consuming the Eucharist.

      • Thank you, Mr. Foley. Yes, Covenant is very important in the theology of the Eucharist. Jesus in the Eucharist IS the New Covenant, as Scott Hahn says. This insight deserves an article in itself. – James Swetnam, S.J.

  2. Avatar James Foley says:

    Thank you Father for your words of encouragement. Coming from a scholar like you, this is certainly heartening!