To rediscover the Eucharistic wonder
The Liturgy of the Word
Among the many evils that the Covid pandemic is causing to humanity, there has been at least one positive effect from the point of view of faith. It made us aware of the need we have for the Eucharist and the emptiness that its lack creates; it helped us not to take it for granted. During the most acute period of the pandemic in 2020 I was strongly impressed – and with me I think many others – by what it meant to watch on television the Holy Mass celebrated by Pope Francis in Santa Marta every morning.
Some local and national churches have decided to dedicate the current year to a special catechesis on the Eucharist, in view of a desired Eucharistic revival in the Catholic Church. It seems to me an opportune decision and an example to follow, mentioning perhaps some less considered aspect of it. I therefore thought of making a small contribution to the project, dedicating the reflections of this Lent to a reflection on the Eucharistic mystery.
The Eucharist is at the center of every liturgical season, of Lent no less than of other times. It is what we celebrate every day. Every little progress in its understanding translates into progress in the spiritual life of the person and of the ecclesial community. However, it is also, unfortunately, the most exposed thing, due to its repetitiveness, to expire in routine, to be taken for granted. St. John Paul II, in the letter “Ecclesia de Eucharistia”, written in April 2003, says that Christians must rediscover and always keep alive “the Eucharistic amazement”. For this purpose our reflections would serve: to rediscover the Eucharistic wonder.
Speaking on the Eucharist in times of pandemic and now with the horrors of the war on our eyes doesn’t mean turning away our eyes from the dramatic reality we are experiencing, rather a help to look at it from a higher and less contingent point of view. The Eucharist is the presence in the history of the event that has forever reversed the roles between victors and victims. On the cross, Christ made the victim the real winner: “Victor quia victima”, Saint Augustine defines him: winner because victim. The Eucharist offers us the true key to interpretation of history. It assures us that Jesus is with us, not only intentionally, but “really” in this world of ours that seems to slip out of our hands at any moment. He repeats to us: “Have courage: I have conquered the world!” (Jn 16:33).
The Eucharist in the History of Salvation
What is the place the Eucharist has in the history of salvation? The answer is that it has no particular place – it is the whole thing. The Eucharist is coextensive with the history of salvation. Just as on a clear morning the whole sky is reflected in a dewdrop on a bush so the Eucharist reflects the whole of history of salvation.
The Eucharist, however, is present in the history of salvation in three different ways at distinct times, or stages: it is present in the Old Testament as a figure, in the New Testament as an event, and in our time, the time of the Church, as a sacrament. The figure anticipates and prepares the event; the sacrament on the other hand “prolongs” the event and actualizes it.
In the Old Testament, I said, the Eucharist is present as a “figure”. One of these figures was the Manna; another was the sacrifice of Melchizedech, yet another Isaac’s immolation. In the Hymn Lauda Sion composed by St. Thomas Aquinas for the feast of “Corpus Domini” we sing:
Shewn in Isaac’s dedication,
In the manna’s preparation:
In the Paschal immolation,
In old types pre-signified.
It was due to their function as figures of the Eucharist that St. Thomas called the rituals of the Old Testament “sacraments of the Old Law”.
With the coming of Christ and his mystery of death and resurrection, the Eucharist is no longer present as a figure, but as an event, as a reality. We call it an “event” because it is something that historically happened, a unique event in time and space, which took place only once (semel) and unrepeatable: Christ “once, in the fullness of time, appeared to cancel sin through the sacrifice of himself “(Heb 9:26).
Finally, in the time of the Church, the Eucharist, I said, is present as a sacrament, that is, in the sign of bread and wine, instituted by Christ. It is important that we understand well the difference between the event and the sacrament: in practice, the difference between history and the liturgy. We let Saint Augustine help us:
We know and believe with very certain faith that Christ died only once for us, the just one for sinners, the Lord for the servants. We know perfectly well that this has happened only once; and, nevertheless, the sacrament periodically renews it, as if what history proclaims to have happened only once were repeated over and over again. Yet event and sacrament are not in conflict with each other, as if the sacrament is fallacious and only the event is true. In fact, of what history claims to have happened, in reality, only once, of this the sacrament often renews (renovat) the celebration in the hearts of the faithful. History reveals what once happened and how it happened, the liturgy ensures that the past is not forgotten; not in the sense that it makes it happen again (non faciendo), but in the sense that it celebrates it (sed celebrando).
Specifying the link that exists between the single sacrifice of the cross and the Mass is a very delicate thing and has always been one of the points of greatest dissension between Catholics and Protestants. Augustine uses, as we have seen, two verbs: to renew and to celebrate, which are perfectly correct, provided that they are understood one in the light of the other: the Mass renews the event of the cross by celebrating it (not reiterating it!), and celebrates it by renewing it (not just recalling it!). The word, in which the greatest ecumenical consensus is achieved today, is perhaps the verb (also used by Paul VI, in the encyclical Mysterium fidei) to represent, understood in the strong sense of re-presenting, that is, to make present again . In this sense, we say that the Eucharist “represents” the cross.
According to history, there was, therefore, only one Eucharist, the one carried out by Jesus with his life and death; according to the liturgy, on the other hand, that is, thanks to the sacrament, there are as many Eucharists as have been celebrated and will be celebrated until the end of the world. The event took place only once (semel), the sacrament took place “every time” (quotiescumque). Thanks to the sacrament of the Eucharist we mysteriously become contemporaries of the event; the event is present to us and we at the event.
Our Lenten reflections will have as their object the Eucharist in its present stage, that is, as a sacrament. In the ancient Church there was a special catechesis, called mystagogic, which was reserved for the bishop and was given after, not before, baptism. Its purpose was to reveal to neophytes the meaning of the rites celebrated and the depths of the mysteries of faith: baptism, confirmation or anointing, and in particular the Eucharist. What we intend to do is a little mystagogical catechesis on the Eucharist. To remain anchored as much as possible to its sacramental and ritual nature, we will closely follow the development of the Mass in its three parts – Liturgy of the word, Eucharistic liturgy (the Canon, or Anaphora), and Communion -, adding at the end a reflection on Eucharistic worship outside the Mass.
The Liturgy of the Word
In the earliest days of the Church the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist were not celebrated in the same place and at the same time. The disciples participated in the worship services at the Temple. There they heard readings from the Bible and recited psalms and prayers together with other Jews, and afterward they went off to their homes where they gathered for “the breaking of bread,” that is, to celebrate the Eucharist (see Acts 2:46).
Soon, however, it became impossible for them to keep up this practice because they experienced hostility from the Jewish community, and because the Scriptures had taken on a new meaning for them that was entirely aligned with Christ. Therefore, they no longer went to the Temple or the Synagogue to read and listen to Scripture but instead introduced it into their own places of Christian worship, and so it became the Liturgy of the Word that leads into the Eucharistic Prayer.
In the second century, St. Justin wrote a description of the Liturgy of the Eucharist in which we already find all the essential elements of the present Mass. Not only was the Liturgy of the Word an integral part of it, but in addition to the readings from the Old Testament there were what St. Justin called “memoirs of the Apostles,” that is, the letters and the Gospels of the New Testament .
When we listen to biblical readings in the liturgy, they take on a meaning that’s new and stronger than they would have for us in some other context. When we read Scripture at home or study it in a course, it serves to help us know the Bible better. But when we read it in the Liturgy, it serves to help us know better the One who makes himself present in the breaking of bread, and each time it brings to light an aspect of the mystery we are about to receive.
This is what stands out in the very first Liturgy of the Word that took place with the risen Christ and the two disciples of Emmaus. As they listened to his explanation of the Scripture, their hearts began to soften in such a way that they were able to recognize him when he later broke the bread.
Not only are the words of the Bible spoken and its stories retold at Mass, they’re also relived in such a way that what’s remembered becomes real and present. Whatever it was that happened “at that time” is happening “at this time”—“today” (hodie), as the liturgy loves to say. We’re not only hearers of the word, passive recipients as it were, but we ourselves are the ones who are spoken to and who act. We’re called to put ourselves in the place of the people in the story.
Some examples will help us grasp this. When at Mass the first reading tells us how God spoke to Moses in the burning bush (see Ex 3), we realize that we are in fact the ones who are actually standing in the presence of the true burning bush. When we read about Isaiah whose lips were touched by a burning ember to purify him for his mission (see Is 6), a sudden awareness comes upon us: we are the ones who are about to receive on our lips the true burning ember, the One who came to set the earth on fire (see Lk 12:49). When we read how Ezekiel was told to eat the scroll and feed his stomach with it (Ez 2:8–3:3), a light strikes us: we are the ones who are about to eat the “scroll”, the Word-made-flesh and now made bread.
Moving from the Old Testament to the New, from the first reading to the Gospel passage, the point becomes even clearer. If the woman who suffered a hemorrhage was sure that she would be healed if only she would touch the hem of Jesus’ cloak, how much more is it the case for us who are about to touch much more than just the hem of his cloak?
I remember once hearing the Gospel story about Zacchaeus and suddenly it became so “real” for me. I was Zacchaeus. It was to me that Jesus was saying, “Today I must stay at your house”. And when I received communion I could say in utter truth, “He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner”, and Jesus, in turn, said to me, “Today salvation has come to this house” (see Lk 19:5-9).
The same is true every time the Gospel is proclaimed at Mass. How could we not help but identify with the paralytic to whom Jesus says, “Your sins are forgiven”, “Rise … and go home” (Mk 2: 5.11)? Or with Simeon who embraced the infant Jesus in his arms (Lk 2:27-28)? Or with Thomas who, trembling, reached out to touch his wounds (Jn 20:27-28)?
On the second Sunday of Ordinary Time of the current liturgical cycle there is the Gospel passage in which Jesus says to the man with the paralyzed hand: “Hold out your hand! He stretched it out and his hand was healed “(Mk 3,5). We do not have a paralyzed hand; however, we all have, some more or less, paralyzed souls, withered hearts. It is to the listener that Jesus says at that moment: “Stretch out your hand! Spread out your heart in front of me, with the faith and readiness of that man!
When proclaimed during the liturgy, Scripture acts in a way that is above and beyond any human explanation. It reflects how sacraments act. These divinely inspired texts have a healing power. Once the Gospel passage has been read, the Church invites the minister to kiss the book and say, “Through the words of the Gospel may our sins be wiped away.” (Per evangelica dicta deleantur nostra delicta).
Over the course of the history of the Church, some epoch-making events took place as a direct result of listening to the readings during Mass. One day a young man heard the Gospel passage where Jesus said to the rich man, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to [the] poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Mt 19:21). He sensed that this word was being addressed so personally to himself that he went home, sold everything he had, and withdrew into the desert. The man’s name was Anthony, and that’s how the monastic movement began in the Church.
Many centuries later, in Assisi, a newly-converted young man and his friend went to church. The Gospel for that day had Jesus saying to his disciples, “Take nothing for the journey, neither walking stick, nor sack, nor food, nor money, and let no one take a second tunic” (Lk 9:3). Immediately he turned to his companion and said, “Did you hear that? This is what the Lord wants us to do.” And thus began the Franciscan Movement.
The Liturgy of the Word is the best resource we have to make the Mass a new and engaging celebration each time we celebrate it, thereby avoiding the great danger of monotonous repetition that young people find especially boring. For this to happen, however, we have to invest more time and prayer in the preparation of the homily. The faithful should be able to see how the word of God addresses their real life situations and provides answers to their existential demands.
There are two ways of preparing a homily. You can sit down and, relying on your own knowledge and based on your personal preferences, you can choose the themes and craft the words. And then, once your talk is prepared, you can kneel down and ask God to give power to your words, to add his Spirit to your message. That’s a good method, but it isn’t prophetic. To be prophetic, you have to do just the reverse. First, kneel down and ask God for the word he wants to say. God has in his heart a special word for any and every occasion, and he never fails to reveal that word to the minister who asks him humbly and insistently. Initially, there’s nothing more than an almost imperceptible change of heart: a little light that flashes in your mind, a word from the Bible that catches your attention and sheds light on a situation. It may seem like only a tiny seed, but it contains everything we need.
Afterward, you sit at your table, open your books, consult your notes, gather your thoughts, and consult the Fathers of the Church, the teachers, the poets, but now it’s no longer the word of God at the service of your learning, but your learning at the service of the word of God. And only then does the word of God release all its power.
Through the work of the Holy Spirit
But one thing must be added: all the attention given to the word of God alone is not enough. “The power from on high ” must descend on it. In the Eucharist, the action of the Holy Spirit is not limited only to the moment of consecration, to the epiclesis that is recited before it. His presence is equally indispensable for the liturgy of the word and, as we will see, for communion.
The Holy Spirit continues, in the Church, the action of the Risen One who, after Easter, “opened the minds of the disciples to understanding the Scriptures” (cf. Lk 24:45). Scripture, says the Dei Verbum of the Second Vatican Council, “must be read and interpreted with the help of the same Spirit through which it was written” (DV, 12). In the liturgy of the word the action of the Holy Spirit is exercised through the spiritual anointing present in the speaker and listener.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring glad tidings to the poor. (Lk 4:18)
Thus Jesus indicated where the announced word draws its strength. It would be a mistake to rely only on the sacramental anointing that we have received once and for all in priestly or episcopal ordination. This enables us to perform certain sacred actions, such as governing, preaching, and administering the sacraments. It gives us, so to speak, the authorization to do certain things, not necessarily the authority to do them; it ensures apostolic succession, not necessarily apostolic success!
But if the anointing is given by the presence of the Spirit and it is his gift, what can we do to have it? We must first of all start from a certainty: “We have received the anointing from the Saint”, St John assures us (1 Jn 2:20). That is, thanks to baptism and confirmation – and, for some, priestly or episcopal ordination – we already have the anointing. Indeed, according to Catholic doctrine, it has imprinted on our soul an indelible character, like a mark or a seal: “It is God himself – writes the Apostle – who conferred the anointing on us, he imprinted the seal on us and has given the deposit of the Spirit in our hearts “(2 Cor 1, 21-22).
This anointing, however, is like a perfumed ointment enclosed in a jar: it remains inert and does not give off any perfume if it is not broken and the jar is not opened. This is what happened to the alabaster jar broken by the woman of the Gospel, whose perfume filled the whole house (Mk 14: 3). This is where our part about the anointing comes in. It does not depend on us to create it, but it depends on us to remove the obstacles that prevent its radiation. It is not difficult to understand what it means for us to break the alabaster vase. The vase is our humanity, our self, sometimes our arid intellectualism. Breaking it means putting yourself in a state of surrender to God and resistance to the world.
Fortunately for us, not everything is entrusted to ascetic effort. In this case, faith, prayer and humble imploration can do much. Therefore, ask for the anointing before setting out on a preaching or an important action in the service of the Kingdom. As we prepare for the reading of the gospel and the homily, the liturgy makes us ask the Lord to purify our hearts and our lips in order to be able to declare the gospel worthily. Why not say sometimes (or at least think within yourself): “Anoint my heart and my mind, Almighty God, that I may proclaim your word with the sweetness and power of the Spirit”?
The anointing is not only necessary for preachers to effectively proclaim the word, it is also necessary for listeners to welcome it. The evangelist John wrote to his community: “You have received the anointing from the Saint, and you all have the knowledge … The anointing you have received from him remains in you and you do not need anyone to instruct you” (1 Jn 2, 20.27).
Not that any human training is useless, but it isn’t enough “It is the interior teacher who truly instructs, it is Christ and his inspiration who instruct. When his inspiration and his anointing are lacking, external words only make a useless noise ”. Let us hope that even today Christ himself has instructed us with his interior inspiration and my talking has not been a “useless noise”.
1.Thomas Aquinas, S.Th. III, q. 60,a.2,2
2.Augustine, Sermo 112 (PL 38,643)
3.Paul VI, Mysterium fidei (AAS 57, 1965, p. 753 ss).
4.Justin, Apologia, 67, 3-4.