THE EUCHARISTIC MYSTERY
To rediscover the Eucharistic wonder
2022 Lenten Meditations (synthesis)
Ongoing Formation 5/2022
1. THE LITURGY OF THE WORD
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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 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.
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.”
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.
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. 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.
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. When his inspiration and his anointing are lacking, external words only make a useless noise ”.
2. EUCHARISTIC LITURGY
Take and eat: This is my body
The object of our mystagogical catechesis today is the central part of the Mass, the Eucharistic Prayer, or the Canon, which has consecration at its center. We make two types of consideration on it: one liturgical and ritual, the other theological and existential.
From a ritual and liturgical point of view, today we have a new resource that the Fathers of the Church and medieval doctors did not have. The new resource we have is the rapprochement between Christians and Jews. From the earliest days of the Church, various historical factors led to accentuate the difference between Christianity and Judaism, to the point of contrasting them with each other. An accusation often leveled against one’s adversaries and heretics is that of “Judaizing”.
Just as the Christian Passover cannot be understood if it is not considered as the fulfillment of what the Jewish Passover foretold, so the Eucharist is not fully understood if it is not seen as the fulfillment of what the Jews did and said in the course of their ritual meal. A first important result of this turnaround was that today no serious scholar advances the hypothesis that the Christian Eucharist is explained in the light of the dinner in vogue at some mystery cults of Hellenism, as has been tried for over a century.
The Fathers of the Church retained the Scriptures of the Jewish people, but not their liturgy, which they no longer had access to, after the separation of the Church from the Synagogue. They therefore used the figures contained in the Scriptures – the paschal lamb, the sacrifice of Isaac, that of Melchizedek, the manna – but not the concrete liturgical context in which the Jewish people celebrated all these memories, that is the ritual meal celebrated, once a year in the Passover supper (the Seder) and weekly in the synagogue worship. The first name with which the Eucharist is designated in the New Testament by Paul is that of “meal of the Lord” (kuriakon deipnon) (1 Cor 11:20), with evident reference to the Jewish meal from which it now differs for the faith in Jesus. The Eucharist is the sacrament of continuity – not of the opposition – between the Old and New Testaments, between Judaism and Christianity.
The Eucharist and the Jewish Berakah
This is the perspective that Benedict XVI also takes in the chapter on the institution of the Eucharist in his second book on Jesus of Nazareth. Following the prevailing opinion of scholars today, he accepts the Johannine chronology according to which Jesus’ Last Supper was not a Passover meal but a solemn farewell meal. With Louis Bouyer, he holds in addition that one can “trace the development of the Christian eucharistic liturgy [that is, of the canon] from the Jewish berakah.”
The link between the old and the new rite is given by the Didachè, a writing of the apostolic era that we can consider the first sketch of a Eucharistic anaphora. The synagogal rite was composed of a series of prayers called “Berakah” which in Greek is translated as “Eucharist”. At the beginning of the meal, each in turn took a cup of wine in his hand and, before bringing it to his lips, repeated a blessing that the current liturgy makes us repeat almost verbatim at the moment of the offertory: “Blessed be you, Lord, our God, King of the ages, you have given us this fruit of the vine…”.
But the meal officially began only when the father of the family, or the head of the community, had broken the bread that was to be distributed among the diners. And, in fact, Jesus takes the bread, recites the blessing, breaks it and distributes it saying: “This is my body which will be given up for you.” And here the rite – which was only a preparation – becomes reality. The figure becomes the event.
After the blessing of the bread, the usual dishes were served. When the meal is about to end, the diners are ready for the great ritual act that concludes the celebration and gives it the deepest meaning. Everyone washes their hands, as in the beginning. Having finished this, having in front of him a cup of wine mixed with water, he intones the three prayers of thanksgiving: the first for God the Creator, the second for liberation from Egypt, the third because he continues his work at the present time. At the conclusion of the prayer, the cup passed from hand to hand and everyone drank. This, the ancient rite performed so many times by Jesus in life.
Luke says that Jesus, after having eaten, takes up the chalice and says, “This chalice which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Lk 22:20). Something decisive occurs at the moment when Jesus adds these words to the formula of the prayer of thanksgiving, that is, to the Jewish Berakah. That ritual was a sacred feast in which people celebrated and thanked God as their Savior for having redeemed his people in order to form a covenant of love with them that was sealed by the blood of a lamb. Now, at the very moment in which Jesus, as the true Lamb of God, decides to give his life for his own, he declares that the Old Covenant that they were all celebrating liturgically has been concluded. At that moment, with a few simple words, he makes the new and eternal Covenant in his Blood.
By adding the words “do this in memory of me,” Jesus gives a lasting significance to his gift. From the past, the gaze is projected towards the future. Everything he has done so far in the supper is placed in our hands. By repeating what he did, that central act of human history which is his death for the world is renewed. The figure of the paschal lamb which becomes an event on the cross is given to us in the supper as a sacrament, that is, as a perennial memorial of the event.
Priest and victim
This, I said, with regard to the liturgical and ritual aspect of the consecration. Let us now move on to the other consideration, that of a personal and existential kind, in other words to the role that we, priests and faithful, play at that moment of the Mass. To understand the role of the priest in consecration, it is of vital importance to know the nature of the sacrifice and of the priesthood of Christ because it is from them that the Christian priesthood derives, both the baptismal one common to all, and that of ordained ministers.
We are no longer, in reality, “priests according to the order of Melchizedek”; we are priests “according to the order of Jesus Christ”; at the altar we act “in persona Christi”, that is, we represent the High Priest who is Christ.
The Letter to the Hebrews explains in what the novelty and uniqueness of Christ’s priesthood consists: “He entered the sanctuary once and for all, not by the blood of goats and calves, but by virtue of his own blood, thus obtaining an eternal redemption” (Heb 9: 12). Every other priest offers something external to himself, Christ offered himself; every other priest offers victims, Christ offered himself a victim! St. Augustine summed up in a few words the nature of this new kind of priesthood in which priest and victim are the same person: “Ideo sacerdos quia sacrificium”, priest because victim. The French scholar René Girard defined this novelty of Christ’s sacrifice as “the central fact in the religious history of humanity”, which put an end forever to the intrinsic alliance between the sacred and violence.
In Christ it is God who becomes victim. All this means that in the Mass we must be priests and victims at the same time. In light of this, let us reflect on the words of the consecration: “Take, eat: this is my body offered as a sacrifice for you”.
That Jesus of the Cenacle no longer exists! The risen Christ now exists: the Christ, to be exact, who was dead but now lives forever (cf. Rev 1:18). But this Jesus is the “total Christ”, Head and Body inseparably united. Therefore, if it is this total Christ who pronounces the words of the consecration, I too pronounce them with him. Yes, I pronounce them “in persona Christi”, in the name of Christ, but also “in first person”, that is, in my name. I say with Jesus: “Take, eat all of you: this is my body that I want to give for you … Take, drink: this is my blood that I want to shed for you ».
St. Augustine says: “In what the Church offers she offers herself”. Closer to us is the Mexican mystic Concepcion Cabrera de Armida, called Conchita, who died in 1937 and was beatified in 2015. To her Jesuit son, about to be ordained priest, she wrote: “Remember, my son, when you hold in your hands the Holy Host, you will not say: ‘Behold the Body of Jesus and Behold His Blood,’ but you will say: ‘This is my Body, This is my Blood, that is, there must be worked in you a total transformation, you must lose yourself in Him, to be ‘another Jesus.”
All this applies not only to ordained bishops and priests, but to all the baptized. A famous text of the Council puts it this way:
The faithful, by virtue of their royal priesthood, contribute to the oblation of the Eucharist … By participating in the Eucharistic sacrifice, source and summit of all Christian life, they offer the divine Victim to God and themselves with it; so everyone, both with the oblation and with Holy Communion, fulfills their part in the liturgical action, but not equally, but some in one way and some in another (Lumen gentium,10-11).
There are two bodies of Christ on the altar: there is his real body (the body “born of the Virgin Mary”, dead, risen and ascended to heaven) and there is his mystical body which is the Church. Well, his real body is really present on the altar and his mystical body is mystically present, where “mystically” means: by virtue of his inseparable union with the Head. There is no confusion between the two presences, which are distinct but inseparable.
Since there are two “offerings” and two “gifts” on the altar – the one that is to become the body and blood of Christ (the bread and the wine) and the one that is to become the mystical body of Christ – there are also two “epiclesis” in the Mass, that is, two invocations of the Holy Spirit. In the first it is said: “Now we humbly pray to you: send your Spirit to sanctify the gifts we offer you, so that they become the body and blood of Jesus Christ”; in the second, which is recited after the consecration, it is said: «Give the fullness of the Holy Spirit so that we become one body and one spirit in Christ. May the Holy Spirit make us a perennial sacrifice pleasing to you ».
This is how the Eucharist makes the Church: the Eucharist makes the Church, making the Church a Eucharist! The Eucharist is not only, generically, the source or the cause of the holiness of the Church; it is also its “form”, that is, its model. The holiness of the Christian must be realized according to the “form” of the Eucharist; it must be a Eucharistic holiness. The Christian cannot limit himself to celebrating the Eucharist, he must be a Eucharist with Jesus.
The Body and the Blood
Now we can draw the practical consequences of this doctrine for our daily life. If in the consecration it is we too who, turning to our brothers and sisters, say: «Take, eat: this is my body. Take and drink: this is my blood ”, we must know what “body” and “blood” mean, to know what we offer.
The word “body” does not indicate, in the Bible, a component, or a part, of man which, combined with the other components which are the soul and the spirit, form the complete human being. In biblical language, and therefore in that of Jesus and Paul, “body” indicates the whole of a person, insofar as he or she lives his or her life in a body, in a corporeal and mortal condition. “Body” therefore indicates the whole of life. By instituting the Eucharist, Jesus left us his whole life as a gift, from the first instant of the incarnation to the last moment, with everything that concretely filled that life: silence, sweat, toil, prayer, struggles, humiliations. …
Then Jesus says: “This is my blood”. What does he add with the word “blood” if he has already given us his whole life in his body? He adds death! After giving us life, he also gives us the most precious part of it, his death. In fact, the term “blood” in the Bible does not indicate a part of the body, that is, a part of a part of a person; indicates an event: death. If blood is the seat of life (so it was thought then), its “pouring” is the plastic sign of death. The Eucharist is the mystery of the Lord’s body and blood, that is, of the Lord’s life and death!
Now, coming to us, what do we offer, offering our body and our blood, together with Jesus, in the Mass? We too offer what Jesus offered: life and death. With the word “body”, we give everything that concretely constitutes the life we lead in this world: time, health, energy, skills, affection, maybe just a smile. With the word “blood”, we too express the offer of our death. Not necessarily definitive death, martyrdom for Christ or for the brothers. All that in us, right now, prepares and anticipates death: humiliations, failures, diseases that immobilize, limitations due to age, health, all that, in a word, “mortifies” us.
A great French spiritual teacher, Pierre Olivaint (1816-1871), used to say: “In the morning, at Mass, I am the priest and Jesus the victim; throughout the day, Jesus is the priest and I the victim ». Thus a priest imitates the “good Shepherd”, because he really gives his life for his sheep.
with the Body and Blood of Christ
In our mystagogical catechesis on the Eucharist – after the Liturgy of the Word and the Consecration – we have reached the third moment, that of communion.
This is the moment of the Mass that most clearly expresses the unity and fundamental equality of all the baptized, below any distinction of rank and ministry. Till this moment the distinction of the ministry is present: in the liturgy of the Word, the distinction between the teaching Church and the learning Church; in consecration, the distinction between ministerial priesthood and universal priesthood. At communion there is no distinction whatsoever. The communion received by the simple baptized is identical to that received by a priest or a bishop. Eucharistic communion is the sacramental proclamation that koinonia comes first in the Church and it is more important than the hierarchy.
Let us reflect on the Eucharistic Communion starting from a text of St. Paul:
The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a communion with the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a communion with the body of Christ? Because the loaf of bread is one, we, though many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf. (1Cor 10:16-17)
The word “body” occurs twice in the two verses, but with a different meaning. In the first case (“the bread that we break, is it not a communion with the body of Christ?”), body indicates the real body of Christ, born of Mary, died and risen; in the second case (“we are one body”), body indicates the mystical body, the Church. It could not be said in a clearer and more synthetic way that Eucharistic communion is always communion with God and communion with the brothers and sisters; that there is a vertical dimension in it, so to speak, and a horizontal dimension. Let’s start with the first.
Communion with Christ
What kind of communion is established between us and Christ in the Eucharist? In John 6:57 Jesus says: “As the Father, who has life, sent me and I live for the Father, so also he who eats me will live for me”. The preposition “for” (in Greek, dià) has a causal and final value here; it indicates both a movement of origin and a movement of destination. It means that whoever eats the body of Christ lives “from” him, that is, because of him, by virtue of the life that comes from him, and lives “for” him, that is, for his glory, his love, his Kingdom. As Jesus lives of the Father and for the Father, so, by communicating ourselves to the holy mystery of his body and his blood, we live of Jesus and for Jesus.
In fact, it is the strongest vital principle that assimilates the less strong one to itself, not vice versa. It is the vegetable that assimilates the mineral, not vice versa; it is the animal that assimilates both the vegetable and the mineral, not vice versa. So now, on the spiritual level, it is the divine that assimilates the human to itself, not vice versa. So that while in all other cases the one who eats assimilates what he eats, here it is the one who is eaten who assimilates to himself whoever eats it. To the one who approaches to receive him, Jesus repeats what he said to Augustine: “It will not be you who will assimilate me to you, but it will be I who will assimilate you to me”.
An atheist philosopher said: “Man is what he eats” (F. Feuerbach), meaning that in man there is no qualitative difference between matter and spirit, but that everything boils down to the organic and material component. An atheist, without knowing it, gave the best formulation of a Christian mystery. Thanks to the Eucharist, the Christian is truly what he eats! Saint Leo the Great wrote a long time ago: “Our participation in the body and blood of Christ tends to make us become what we eat” .
In the Eucharist, therefore, there is not only communion between Christ and us, but also assimilation; communion is not just the union of two bodies, of two minds, of two wills, but it is assimilation to the one body, the one mind and will of Christ. “Whoever unites himself with the Lord forms one Spirit with him” (1 Cor 6:17).
The Letter to the Ephesians says that human marriage is a symbol of the union between Christ and the Church: “This is why a man will leave his father and mother and unite with his woman and the two will form one flesh. This mystery is great. I say this in reference to Christ and the Church! ” (Eph 5: 31-33) The Eucharist – to use a bold but true image – is the consummation of the marriage between Christ and the Church. Therefore Christian life without the Eucharist is marriage which has been ratified, but not consummated. At the moment of Communion the celebrant says: “Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb”, and the book of Revelation, from which the expression is taken, says even more explicitly: “Blessed are those called to the nuptial supper of the Lamb.” (Rev 19:9).
Now – again according to St Paul – the immediate consequence of marriage is that the body (that is, the whole person) of the husband becomes the wife’s and, vice versa, the wife’s body becomes the husband’s (cf. 1 Cor 7: 4). This means that the incorruptible and life-giving flesh of the Incarnate Word becomes “mine”, but also my flesh, my humanity, becomes Christ’s, is made his own by him. In the Eucharist we receive the body and blood of Christ, but Christ also “receives” our body and our blood! Jesus, writes Saint Hilary of Poitiers, “assumes the flesh of him who assumes his.” He says to us: “Take, this is my body”, but we too can say to him: “Take, this is my body”.
Let’s try to understand the consequences of all this. In his earthly life, Jesus did not have all possible and imaginable human experiences. To begin with, he was a man, not a woman: he did not experience the condition of half of humanity; he was not married, he did not experience what it means to be united for life with another creature, to have children, or, worse, to lose children; he died young, he did not know old age …
But now, thanks to the Eucharist, he has all these experiences. He leaves the feminine condition in the woman, the sickness in the sick, the old age in the elderly, the precariousness in the emigrant, the terror in the bombed… There is nothing in our life that does not belong to Christ. St. Elizabeth of the Trinity understood the profound reason for this when she wrote to her mother: “The bride belongs to the bridegroom. My Bridegroom has taken me. He wants me to be an added humanity for him “.
And yet, that’s not all yet; the most beautiful part is missing. The bride’s body belongs to the bridegroom; true, but the body of the bridegroom belongs in his turn to the bride. From giving one must pass immediately, in communion, to receiving. Receive none other than Christ’s holiness! Where will that “marvelous exchange” (admirabile commercium) of which the liturgy speaks of will actually take place in the life of the believer, if it is not carried out at the moment of communion?
“Since – writes Cabasilas – we belong to Christ more than to ourselves, having bought us back at a high price (1 Cor 6:20), inversely what belongs to Christ belongs to us more than if it were ours”. We only need to remember one thing: we belong to Christ by right, he belongs to us by grace! It is a discovery capable of giving wings to our spiritual life. This is the daring blow of faith and we should pray to God not to allow us to die before we have achieved it.
Communion with the Trinity
Reflecting on the Eucharist is like seeing ever wider horizons opening up in front of oneself as one advances, as far as the eye can see. In fact, the Christological horizon of communion that we have contemplated up to now opens onto a Trinitarian horizon. In other words, through communion with Christ we enter into communion with the whole Trinity. The ultimate reason for this is that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one and inseparable divine nature, they are “one”.
All I have said about the Trinity and the Eucharist is visually summarized in Rublev’s icon of the three Angels around the altar. The whole Trinity gives us the Eucharist and is given to us in the Eucharist. The Eucharist is not only our daily Easter; it is also our daily Pentecost!
Communion with one another
From these dizzying heights, let us now return to earth and pass to the second dimension of Eucharistic communion: communion with the body of Christ which is the Church. Let us recall the words of the Apostle: “Since there is only one bread, we, although many, are one body: in fact, we all share in the one bread”.
Developing a thought already sketched in the Didache, St. Augustine sees an analogy in the way in which the two bodies of Christ are formed: the Eucharistic and the ecclesial. In the case of the Eucharist, we have the wheat first scattered on the hills, which threshed, ground, mixed in water and cooked over the fire becomes the bread that reaches the altar; in the case of the Church, we have the multitude of people who, united by evangelical preaching, ground by fasting and penance, kneaded in water in baptism and cooked in the fire of the Spirit, form the body which is the Church.
Communion with the Poor
This is especially true with regard to the poor, the afflicted, the marginalized. He who said of the bread: “This is my body”, also said it of the poor. He said it when, speaking of what was done for the hungry, the thirsty, the prisoner and the naked, he solemnly declared: “You did it to me!”. This is like saying: “I was the hungry, I was the thirsty, I was the stranger, the sick, the prisoner” (cf. Mt 25, 35 ff.).
The sister of the great philosopher Blaise Pascal relates this fact of his brother. In his last illness, he was unable to retain anything of what he ate and for this reason they did not allow him to receive the viaticum that he insistently asked for. Then he said: “If you cannot give me the Eucharist, at least let a poor person into my room, so that if I can’t communicate with the Head, I want to at least communicate with his body“.
The only impediment to receiving communion that St. Paul explicitly names is the fact that, in the assembly, “one is hungry and another is drunk”: ”When you meet in one place, then, it is not to eat the Lord’s supper, for in eating, each one goes ahead with his own supper, and one goes hungry while another gets drunk.”(1 Cor 11: 20-21). Saying “this is not eating the Lord’s Supper” is like saying: yours is no longer a true Eucharist! It is a strong statement, even from a theological point of view, to which we perhaps do not pay enough attention.
Nowadays, the situation in which one is hungry and another bursts with food is no longer a local problem, but a global one. There can be nothing in common between the Lord’s supper and the rich man’s lunch, where the master feasts lavishly, ignoring the poor Lazarus outside the door (cf. Lk 16:19 ff.). The concern to share what one has with those in need, near and far, must be an integral part of our Eucharistic life.
Jesus said: “For you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me” (Mt 26:11). This is also true in the sense that we cannot always receive the body of Christ in the Eucharist and even when we do, it only lasts a few minutes, while we can always receive it in the poor.
4. THE REAL PRESENCE OF CHRIST IN THE EUCHARIST
After our mystagogical catecheses on the three main parts of the Mass – the Liturgy of the Word, Consecration and Holy Communion – we shall reflect today on the Eucharist as the real presence of the risen Christ in the Church.
How can we deal with such a deep and incomprehensible mystery? Memories of the numerous theories and discussions on it, the dissensions between Catholics and Protestants, between the Latin and Orthodox Churches, which filled our theology books at one time, assail us.
And yet this is the wonder being worked by the Holy Spirit today among all Christians. He is prompting us to admit to what extent our Eucharistic disputes were based on the human presumption that this mystery could be enclosed in a theory, or even in a word, and on the will to prevail over our adversaries. He is prompting us to repent for having reduced the supreme pledge of love and unity left to us by Our Lord to our favorite topic of discussion.
The way to Eucharistic ecumenism is the way to mutual recognition, the Christian way of agape, or sharing. We are not asked to ignore the real differences that exist or to break faith with any point of authentic Catholic doctrine. It is a question of bringing together the positive aspects and authentic values in every tradi¬tion so as to form a “mass” of common truths that will gradu¬ally lead us to unity.
It is unbelievable how some Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant points of view on the real presence appear to be so divergent and destructive whenever they are seen in contrast or as alternatives, and how they appear wonderfully convergent when they are carefully brought together. We must therefore set about making a synthesis. We must, as it were, sift the great Christian traditions to take out what is not good and, as St. Paul exhorts us, to “hold fast what is good” (cf. 1 Thess 5:21).
The Catholic tradition: a real but hidden presence
In this spirit, let us now take a close look at the three main Eucharistic traditions — Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant — to be edified by the treasures they contain and unite them in the common treasure of the Church. As a result we shall find that our understanding of the mystery of the real presence is richer and more vivid.
In Catholic theology and liturgy, the consecration is the indisputable heart of the Eucharist, from which we have Christ’s real presence. At the consecration, Jesus himself acts and speaks.
From the Western Catholic viewpoint we can talk of a Christological realism. “Christological” because attention is centered on Christ seen both in his historical and incarnate state and as the Risen One. Christ is both the object and subject of the Eucharist, and that is to say, he is fulfilled in the Eucharist and he fulfills the Eucharist. “Realism” because Jesus is not seen as present on the altar simply in a sign or symbol but in truth and in his reality.
The Council of Trent gave a more precise explanation of this approach to the real presence. Three adverbs were used: vere, realiter, substantialiter. Jesus is truly present and not simply through image or form, he is really present, and not only subjectively through the faith of believers; he is substantially present, that is, in his profound reality, which cannot be seen by the senses, and not in the appearances which remain that of bread and wine.
It is true that the risk of falling into a “crude” or exaggerated realism existed. The remedy to this risk is to be found in tradition itself. St. Augustine made it clear, once and for all, that the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is “in the sacrament.” In other words, it is a sacramental and not a physical presence, mediated by signs, and precisely, by bread and wine. However, in this case the sign does not exclude the reality but makes it present to us, in the only way in which the risen Christ, living “in the Spirit,” can be present to us as long as we are on this earth.
Jesus is therefore present in the Eucharist in a totally unique way. No single word can suitably describe this presence, not even the adjective “real.” The word real is derived from res (thing) and means, as a thing or an object. But Jesus is not present in the Eucharist as a “thing” or an object, but as a person. If we really want to name this presence, it would be better to simply say “Eucharistic” presence, because it occurs only in the Eucharist.
The Orthodox Tradition: the action of the Holy Spirit
The Western theology is very rich but it is not, nor could it be, exhaustive. In the past, at least, the importance due to the Holy Spirit and essential to an understanding of the Eucharist was neglected. And so we turn to the East to see what the Orthodox tradition has to offer us. However, our attitude today is different; we are no longer worried about the differences but grateful for what is offered to help complete our own views.
In fact, the Orthodox tradition has always given great importance to the action of the Holy Spirit in Eucharistic celebration. Since Vatican Council II, this sharing has already shown results. Up to then, the Roman Canon of the Mass only mentioned the Holy Spirit incidentally in the final doxology: “Through him, with him, in him … in the unity of the Holy Spirit…” Now, instead, all the new canons have a double invocation to the Holy Spirit: one on the gifts before the consecration and another on the Church after the consecration.
Oriental liturgies have always attributed the actual real presence of Christ on the altar to the particular action of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, who at Easter bursts into the sepulcher, touches Christ s Body and gives him life again, repeats this wonder in the Eucharist. He comes upon the dead elements of bread and wine and gives them life; he makes them into the Body and Blood of the Redeemer. Truly, as Jesus himself says of the Eucharist, “it is the Spirit that gives life” (John 6:63).
However, we must not lose sight of one fact which shows that also the Catholic tradition has something to offer to the Orthodox brothers. The Holy Spirit does not act independently of Jesus; he acts within his words. Jesus says of the Spirit: “He will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak. … He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:13-14). That is why we must not separate the words of Jesus (“This is my Body”) from the epiclesis (“May the Holy Spirit make this bread into the Body of Christ”).
The call to unity, for both Catholic and Orthodox faithful, springs from the very heart of the Eucharistic mystery. Even if, for obvious reasons, the memorial of the institution and the invocation to the Holy Spirit take place at two distinct moments (mortals cannot express the mystery at just one instant), their action is, nevertheless, simultaneous. Its effectiveness undoubtedly comes from the Spirit (and not from the priest or the Church), but it works within and through Christ’s words.
I have said that the effectiveness that makes Jesus present on the altar does not spring from the Church but neither does it take place without the Church. The Church is the living channel through which and with which the Holy Spirit acts. It is the same for the coming of Jesus on the altar as it will be for the final coming in glory: The Spirit and the Bride (the Church) say to Jesus: Come! (cf. Rev 22:17). And he comes.
Protestant spirituality: the importance of faith.
The Roman tradition highlights “who” is present in the Eucharist, Christ; the Orthodox tradition highlights “by whom” this presence is effected, the Holy Spirit; Protestant theology highlights “on whom” this presence is effective; in other words, the conditions that make the sacrament really effective in those that receive it. The conditions are many but they can be summed up under one heading: faith.
Let us not concern ourselves immediately and exclusively with the negative aspects which have been criticized at certain times in the Protestant principle that the sacraments are only “signs of faith.” Let us forget misunderstandings and controversies and we shall find that this energetic recall to faith is beneficial to saving the sacrament and preventing it from becoming just another “good work,” or something that works mechanically or magically as it were, almost without human knowledge. In the end, it is a question of discovering the profound meaning of the exclamation that re-echoes in the liturgy at the end of the consecration and which was once placed at the center of the consecration formula, as if to emphasize that faith is intrinsic to the mystery: “Mysterium fidei,” mystery of faith!
Faith doesn’t “make” the sacrament but it “receives” it. Only Christ’s words repeated by the Church and rendered effective by the Holy Spirit “make” the sacrament. But what would a sacrament “made” and not received avail? Concerning the incarnation, men like Origen, St. Augustine and St. Bernard said: “What advantage is it to me that Christ was born of Mary in Bethlehem if he is not born through faith in my heart too?” We can say the same of the Eucharist; what advantage is it to me that Christ is really present on the altar, if to me he is not present? Faith was necessary even when Jesus was physically present on this earth; otherwise — as he himself repeated many times in the gospel — his presence was of no use, if not to condemn: “Woe to you Chorazin, woe to you Capernaum!” (Matt 11:21f.).
Faith is essential to make the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist not just “real” but “personal,” a one-to-one presence. “Being there” is one thing, “being present” another. Presence presupposes someone present to someone else; it presupposes reciprocal communication, an exchange between two free persons who are aware of and open to each other. There is much more involved, therefore, than simply staying in a given place.
Such a subjective and existential dimension of the Eucharistic presence does not annul the objective presence that precedes human faith, it actually presupposes it and gives it value. Luther, who raised the role of faith to such heights, was also one of the staunchest defenders of the doctrine of Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist. In the course of a debate on the subject with other Reformers, he stated:
I cannot interpret the words ‘This is my Body’ differently from how they sound. It is up to others, therefore, to prove that, where the words ‘This is my Body’ are said, Christ’s Body is not present. I do not want to hear explanations based on reason. In front of such clear words, there can be no question; I refuse logical reasoning and plain common sense. I totally refuse practical demonstrations and analytical argumentation. God is above all kinds of mathematical certainties and we must adore the Word of God in wonder.
The sentiment of the presence
We have now terminated our little Eucharistic pilgrimage through the different Christian denominations. We have collected a few baskets of crumbs from the big multiplication of bread in the Church. But we cannot conclude here our reflections on the mystery of the real presence. It would be like collecting the crumbs and not eating them. Faith in the real presence is a wonderful thing, but it is not enough; at least, faith taken in a certain way is not enough. It is not enough to have an exact and theologically perfect idea of Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist. Many theologians know all about the mystery, yet they do not know the real presence. In biblical terms you “know” something only when you have experienced it. To know fire, you would have to have been, at least once, so close to a flame to risk being burnt.
St. Gregory of Nyssa left us an amazingly profound expression of this higher kind of faith; he speaks of a “sentiment of the presence (aesthesis parousias). This happens when a person is seized by God’s presence and has a certain perception (not just an idea) that God is there. It is not a natural perception; it is the fruit of grace. There is a strong analogy between this and what happened when, after his resurrection, Jesus appeared to someone. It was something sudden that unexpectedly and absolutely changed the person’s state of mind.
From faith and the “sentiment” of the real presence, reverence must spring spontaneously, and, indeed, a sense of tenderness for Jesus in the Sacrament.