The Eucharist

I want to take on a labor of love: expressing the Church’s mind and heart as regards the Eucharist. Often called the Most Blessed Sacrament, the Eucharist is the Sacrament around which all of the other Sacrament circle, much like planets encircle a sun. Without a sun, planets -- their alignment and their placement -- become less certain, less clear; so too, it is in the Eucharist that our six other sacraments find their full meaning, and conversely, without the context of the Eucharist, the sacraments would lose that fullness of meaning.


 

 

Confection Reflection

So, what is the Eucharist? The Eucharist (which is commonly translated from the Greek as “thanksgiving”) is the Sacrament confected when a priest takes bread and wine, invokes the Holy Spirit, and consecrates those elements using the words of Christ from the Last Supper; then, what was bread and wine becomes the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Let’s be clear: this change I speak of is not symbolic, it is real; it is actual. Whatever it is that makes Christ, Christ, it is there in the Eucharist. And it is God – Jesus Christ – nourishing us with His Divine Life, when we receive the Eucharist in the form of Holy Communion.

“Hokey smokes! That’s quite a belief,” you might say! Indeed, but it is a seminal belief of Catholics, and was a seminal belief of all Christians until some went rogue during the Protestant Revolt in the 16th century. Understanding this Sacrament is pivotal to understanding the Catholic faith.

So, how do we understand this Sacrament – the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ ministered to the faithful? Well, this could be the subject of many articles, but I am going to limit this article so it fills one page, not 20 Britannica Encyclopedia volumes.

 

King of the Nile, King of Denial

Step 1: Let’s step into the way back machine and head back to the 13th century B.C. This is the era when the Jewish people were living in Egypt – and they weren’t on some kibbutz, they were enslaved by the Egyptians. God, a steadfast abolitionist, tried to change of the heart of the Pharaoh – who denied the Jews their freedom – by inflicting a series of ten plagues on Egypt. These plagues were visited on Egypt so that God’s chosen people – the Jewish people – would be set free; they would also serve to show the Pharaoh that the so-called Egyptian gods were false and the God of the Jewish people was the big man in charge.

 

Angel of the Mourning

The tenth of the ten plagues, the most severe, would have unleashed the Angel of Death to take the lives every first born male in Egypt. To protect the Jews from this plague, God commanded them to slaughter a lamb, as a sacrifice, to consume the body (of the sacrifice) and mark the doorpost of their house with its blood. If they did these things, then the Angel of Death would “pass over” the Jewish homes and their first born males would be spared. They would be saved, by the Sacrifice of the lamb and through its blood. This would free them from slavery to the Egyptians because the Egyptians would realize that God’s chosen people needed to be set free. The sacrifice would be “propitiatory” – that is it would spare them from the “wrath of God.” And so it was: the Jews via the body and blood of the Sacrifice of the lamb, doing as God instructed, were spared death and set free to make their way to the Promised Land.

“Okay, stop!” you may be yelling. “What the heck does that have to do with the Eucharist? I don’t see any lambs or blood at Mass – I see the priest using bread and wine.” Legitimate question; stay with me and I’ll clear it.

 

Meanwhile 13th Centuries Later…

Step 2: Let’s get into the way-back machine again and this time we’ll set the dial for 33AD. On the night before Christ was crucified he gathered with His Apostles in the Upper Room on the occasion of what we call “The Last Supper,” which occurred during the Jewish Passover. Instead of celebrating what would have looked like a Passover feast, Christ did something different. He took bread, broke it and gave it to His disciples, telling them that “this is my Body” and then took a chalice filled with wine and told His disciples, “this is the cup of my Blood.” He then shared this with them and gave them the admonition to continue to do this often, and do it “in memory of me.”

Christ has His “Last Supper,” and the next day he makes the ultimate sacrifice for us, His people for whom he has a Passion (a great love); on the cross, he freely sacrifices His Body and sheds His Blood for us. That Sacrifice is the perfect Sacrifice: Christ is Priest (the offerer of the Sacrifice), and the victim (the Sacrifice itself). God, in the person of Christ, offered himself for us that we might live. Thus, that breach in the relationship between God and man that started in the Garden of Eden by the disobedience of Adam and Eve, would be once – and for all – healed. That death would no longer be the final word and the gates of heaven – closed by man’s disobedience -- would be opened again.

 

That was Then, This is Now

Now, for the connection between what happened in Egypt with the Jews at Passover and Christ’s sacrifice which we re-present at Mass. The Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, which happened in connection to the time of Passover, parallels, fulfills and – as they would say today – puts context to what God did for Jews in ancient Egypt.

  • In the original Passover the Jews were freed from Slavery to the Egyptians; in the new and improved Passover, mankind is freed from slavery to sin (just as Adam condemned man’s relationship with God by his abject disobedience, Jesus Christ – sometimes called the New Adam – restored that relation to God and His Kingdom by His abject obedience, even unto death.
  • In the original Passover a Lamb was slaughtered as the Sacrifice; in the new Passover, Christ is the Lamb who was slaughtered.
  • In the original Passover the slaughtered Lamb was consumed by the family that was gathered around the altar table on which it was slaughtered. In the new Passover, Christ gave His Apostles the foretaste of how this Paschal (lamb-type) meal would be shared – under the form of bread and wine.
  • In the original Passover, the shed blood of the Lamb allowed the faithful people to be spared death; in the new Passover, the shed Blood of Jesus, the Lamb of God, allows His faithful people to be spared death to sin.

And so, with Christ looking ahead to the cross on Good Friday, on Holy Thursday he commands His Apostles to share His Body and Blood and to do this often, and in memory of Him. To this end Church calls for the celebration of the Mass in every corner of the globe. In this way, just as the Jews shared in the Lamb of sacrifice, so too, we share in Christ own being – His Body, His Blood, His soul and His Divinity. Not symbolically, but in actuality. Just as the Jewish people celebrate the Seder meal and the fruits of the Passover, and that freedom given them by God is re-presented, so too, do Catholics celebrate the Mass. At Mass the fruits of Christ’s cross – our freedom from sin and death – are re-presented.

 

Mass-ive Presence!

Thus, at Mass, the Priest (or Bishop) celebrates the Sacrament of the Eucharist – and in the course of that celebration Christ is present in several ways: in the proclamation of Scripture, in the person of the Priest, and in the prayerful voice of the assembly. Moreover, Christ is abidingly present in only one profound and specific way: He is ltruly and really present to us in the Eucharistic species (i.e., His Body and Blood, visible to our senses as bread and wine). Just as Christ was present to His Apostles and followers in His time on earth, he continues to be with us, present to us, wholly and fully in the Eucharist. And this is why at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, he promises to be with us “until the end of the age” -- for indeed he is: the Eucharist is Christ’s abiding presence in the world to us and amongst us.