Circular Letter: Fall 2019
The Holy Eucharist: At the Heart of the Mystery of the Church
“The Church draws her life from the Eucharist”
(St. John Paul II, Ecclesia de Eucharistia=EcEuch, 1).
Just as an infant which would refuse the breast of its mother would wither and die, so too do those members of the Church who lose their faith in and thirst for the Eucharist become sterile branches and die. For the Holy Eucharist is at the very “heart of the mystery of the Church” (ibid.). By meditating on this sublime mystery, therefore, we want to renew and reawaken our faith, our first love, our thirst for the Holy Eucharist and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, our wonder and gratitude for this most sacred gift of Christ to His Church. It is not just “one gift – however precious – among so many others, but the gift par excellence, for it is the gift of Christ Himself, of His Person in His sacred humanity, as well as the gift of His saving work. Nor does it remain confined to the past, since ‘all that Christ is – all that He did and suffered for all men – participates in the divine eternity, and so transcends all times‘” (ibid, 11, citing the Catechism 1085). “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb 13:8).
The Eucharist and Calvary: One same Sacrifice
The Church, as we know, was born from the Paschal Mystery – the sacred Passion, Death and Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus sacrificed His life in obedience to the Father, and in His freely accepted death, He made the total gift of Himself to the Father for our sake. The Father accepted this gift and granted in return His “own paternal gift… new immortal life in the Resurrection” (ibid. 13). Jesus gives this gift of the Resurrection to the Church, to those who by faith and Baptism are united to Him as His Body, to those who feed on Him in the Holy Eucharist. “For My flesh is food indeed, My Blood is drink indeed” (Jn 6:55).
The Holy Eucharist is the very sacrifice of Christ; it is the Paschal Mystery made present to every generation. The Catechism states, “The sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice” (CCC 1367). It is not a mere remembrance, but rather, every celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass “is the sacrifice of the Cross perpetuated down the ages” (EcEuch, 11), though now in an unbloody manner. At every Holy Mass, we are spiritually present at Calvary, beneath the Cross with our Blessed Mother and St. John. We are there! While the painful, physical sacrifice of His flesh was only once, the spiritual act by which Jesus gave Himself to the Father is one eternal act of the Son of God, which transcends time. At every Holy Mass, therefore, the work of our Redemption is made present to us.
This is why the Sacred Host and Precious Blood are consecrated separately, even though the whole Jesus, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, are present wholly under both species. It is a sacred sign to remind us that a death has taken place, that Jesus dies to Himself and surrenders Himself wholly, once and always, in obedience to the Father. As members of Christ’s Body through Baptism, we are called to unite our own gift of self with His sacrifice, most especially at Holy Mass. The Second Vatican Council teaches this clearly: “Taking part in the Eucharistic Sacrifice, which is the source and summit of the whole Christian life, [the faithful] offer the Divine Victim to God, and offer themselves along with it” (Lumen Gentium, 11). How do we do this? When we accept our trials and sorrows, and lay them consciously on the paten at the offertory, along with all our joys and accomplishments, our thoughts, works and aspirations, lifting them up and giving them to the Father in gratitude for our life and for all the graces He has granted us, and in reparation for our sins and the sins of others. This is conscious and active participation in the Holy Sacrifice.
“He who eats My flesh and drinks My Blood remains in Me, and I in Him” (Jn 6:53).
By faith we know that at the consecration, the bread and wine cease to exist; they are transformed into the very Body and Blood of Jesus, who remains hidden under the outward appearances of bread and wine. It is Jesus, who becomes really present in the Sacred Host, and He gives Himself to all who approach Him. He is not only present among us, but He wants to unite Himself intimately with each of us in Holy Communion.
The saving efficacy of the sacrifice is fully realized when the Lord’s Body and Blood are received in Communion. The Eucharistic Sacrifice is intrinsically directed to the inward union of the faithful with Christ through Communion; we receive the very One who offered Himself for us, we receive His Body which He gave up for us on the Cross and His Blood which He “poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt 26:28). (EcEuch, 16)
In Holy Communion, it is the resurrected Body of Jesus which we receive, the living Jesus in His glorified state. Jesus Himself is present and active in the Eucharist; He thirsts for us. He thirsts to be united with us and to share His new life with us. “As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me will live because of Me” (Jn 6:57). He wants to act on us, to change and transform us into the form of His own Self-giving and newness of life.
Pope Benedict, when still a cardinal, commenting on St. Paul says that in Holy Communion, Jesus …takes hold of our bodily existence. In order to express fully the intensity of this fusion, Paul compares what happens in Holy Communion with the physical union between man and woman… He refers us to the words in the creation story: “The two [=man and wife] shall become one flesh” (Gen 2:24). And he adds: “He who is united to the Lord becomes one spirit [that is, shares a single new existence in the Holy Spirit] with Him” (1 Cor 6:17). (Card. Ratzinger, The Lord is Near, p. 77)
Jesus’ presence is not something merely symbolic or passive, “but is a power that catches us up and works to draw us within Itself” (ibid.). Ultimately, Holy Communion is ordered to the transformation of the soul into Christ. This was revealed to St. Augustine, who while struggling with the philosophical possibility of the Eucharist before his conversion, received a sort of vision: “I am the Bread of the strong, eat Me! But you will not transform and make Me a part of you [as in the case of normal bread]; rather, I will transform you and make you a part of Me!” (Confessions, VII, 10:16). In Holy Communion, therefore, Jesus aims to take us out of ourselves, to assimilate us to Himself, making us one with Him, and in Him, one also with our neighbor.
“That they all may be one, as Thou in Me, and I in Thee” (Jn 17:21).
St. Paul writes, “The bread which we break, is it not a communion in the Body of Christ? Because there is one Bread, we who are many are one Body, for we all partake of the one Bread” (1 Cor 10:16-17). St. John Chrysostom comments on this text, “For what is the Bread? It is the Body of Christ. And what do those who receive it become? The Body of Christ – not many bodies but one Body. For as bread is completely one, though made of up many grains of wheat, and these, albeit unseen, remain nonetheless present, in such a way that their difference is not apparent since they have been made a perfect whole, so too are we mutually joined to one another and together united with Christ” (Hom. on 1 Cor).
While it is good to experience the fellowship of liturgical prayer, it is not holding hands or greeting each other at Mass which brings us closer to one another. Supernatural fellowship and unity with our neighbor can only come about when each one surrenders Himself to the Lord interiorly in his heart, thus allowing himself to be transformed by the Lord. Open to His will, we are molded according to the example of His selfless love, even to the point of the Cross. Jesus can make of me a “giving” person, who goes out of self as He Himself did for the sake of others. Those who accept the will of God in the Cross of daily life will be transformed by it in the strength of the Holy Eucharist. This is the true foundation for unity in every community and family, in the Church and the world. Pope John Paul II writes, “The seeds of disunity, which daily experience shows to be so deeply rooted in humanity as a result of sin, are countered by the unifying power of the Body of Christ. The Eucharist, precisely by building up the Church, creates human community” (EcEuch 24).
Yet in order for Jesus to be able to transform us and to strengthen and unite us with Himself and one another, we must open ourselves for Him. It is for this reason that Holy Communion must be a very personal, interior speaking, listening and communing with the Lord. Pope Benedict writes, “In Communion I enter into the Lord, who is communicating Himself to me. Sacramental Communion must therefore always be also spiritual Communion…At this point I have to move out, go toward Him, call to Him…, that is why we need a time of silence, in which we converse quite personally with the Lord who is with us” (The Lord is Near, pp. 81-82). This presupposes a disposition of loving adoration when we receive the Lord.
“Behold, I am with you until the end of time!” (Mt 28:20)
The Eucharist is not only the holy sacrifice of the Cross made present at the Mass, it is also Real Presence, the presence of Jesus in both His humanity and divinity. And this Presence calls for adoration. Pope John Paul II testifies to his own great love for Eucharistic adoration outside the Mass:
It is pleasant to spend time with Him, to lie close to His breast like the Beloved Disciple (cf. Jn 13:25) and to feel the infinite love present in His Heart. If in our time Christians must be distinguished above all by the “art of prayer”, how can we not feel a renewed need to spend time in spiritual converse, in silent adoration, in heartfelt love before Christ present in the Most Holy Sacrament? How often, dear brother and sisters, have I experienced this, and drawn from it strength, consolation and support! (EcEuch 25)
In Eucharistic adoration outside the Mass, the fruits of our Communion with the Lord are prolonged and increased. Communion with Jesus who gave Himself for us leads us most especially on the path of self-surrender, of giving love, of charity.
Eucharistic worship constitutes the soul of all Christian life. In fact, Christian life is expressed in the fulfilling of the greatest commandment, that is to say, in the love of God and neighbor, and this love finds its source in the Blessed Sacrament, which is commonly called the Sacrament of Love. …We not only know love; we ourselves begin to love. We enter, so to speak, upon the path of love and along this path make progress. Thanks to the Eucharist, the love that springs up within us from the Eucharist develops in us, becomes deeper and grows stronger. (John Paul II, Dominicae Cenae 5)
For growth in charity, therefore, Eucharistic adoration prolonged outside of Mass is most efficacious. St. Alphonsus Liguori writes, “Of all devotions, that of adoring Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament is the greatest after the Sacraments, the one dearest to God and the one most helpful to us” (Visits to the Blessed Sacrament and to Mary Most Holy).
“Do this in memory of Me…” – The necessity of the priesthood.
Further, we must remember that the mystery of the Eucharist is intrinsically connected with the mystery of the ordained priesthood. “The ministry of priests who have received the Sacrament of Holy Orders, chosen by Christ in the economy of salvation, makes clear that the Eucharist which they celebrate is a gift which radically transcends the power of the assembly and is in any event essential for validly linking the Eucharistic consecration to the sacrifice of the Cross and to the Last Supper” (EcEuch 29). Though we may be disillusioned by the many cases of unfaithful priests at this time, we must remember the many, many more faithful priests who have given their lives to Christ and the Church, so that we might receive the Holy Eucharist! Without them and their sacrifice, it would not be possible! The Eucharist is in fact “the principal and central raison d’être of the sacrament of the priesthood, which effectively came into being at the moment of the institution of the Eucharist” (Dominicae Cenae 115). While the faithful offer the holy Sacrifice by virtue of their common priesthood, as the Body of Christ, the priest shares in the priesthood of Christ the Head, acting in persona Christi.
This means more than offering “in the name of” or “in place of” Christ. In persona means in specific sacramental identification with “the eternal High Priest” who is the author and principal subject of this sacrifice of His, a sacrifice in which, in truth, nobody can take His place. Only He—only Christ—was able and is always able to be the true and effective “expiation for our sins and…for the sins of the whole world.” Only His sacrifice—and no one else’s—was able and is able to have a “propitiatory power” before God, the Trinity, and the transcendent holiness. Awareness of this reality throws a certain light on the character and significance of the priest celebrant who, by confecting the holy Sacrifice and acting “in persona Christi,” is sacramentally (and ineffably) brought into that most profound sacredness, and made part of it, spiritually linking with it in turn all those participating in the Eucharistic assembly. (Dominicae Cenae 8)
We see, then, that it is Christ Himself present in the priest who confects the Eucharist. Therefore, the priest is in a very real sense the mediator between the faithful and God. Let us be grateful, therefore, to God and to His priests for this great gift to the Church, the gift of the priesthood which brings us the Eucharist, praying and supporting our priests and seminarians with all our heart.
Cosmic dimensions of the Eucharist, with and through the Angels
In order to appreciate truly the mystery of the Holy Eucharist, we must see it in its cosmic dimensions. To this end, we want to reflect on the profound words of Pope John Paul II:
Even when it is celebrated on the humble altar of a country church, the Eucharist is always in some way celebrated on the altar of the world. It unites heaven and earth. It embraces and permeates all creation. The Son of God became man in order to restore all creation, in one supreme act of praise, to the One who made it from nothing. He, the Eternal High Priest who by the Blood of His Cross entered the eternal sanctuary, thus gives back to the Creator and Father all creation redeemed. He does so through the priestly ministry of the Church, to the glory of the Most Holy Trinity. Truly this is the mysterium fidei which is accomplished in the Eucharist: the world which came forth from the hands of God the Creator now returns to Him redeemed by Christ. (Ecclesia de Eucharistia 8).
Here Pope John Paul II gives the final end of all creation, which is accomplished in and through the Holy Eucharist by the Redemption in the Blood of Christ: the restoration of all creation, in one supreme song of praise, to the Creator. And, as we shall see, it is the Angels who lead us along this way of praise, teaching us their own song of praise especially in the Liturgy.
In his small but momentous work, The Angels and the Liturgy (which influenced even the Second Vatican Council’s document on the Liturgy and is corroborated in many ways by John Paul II’s six week catechesis on the Angels), Eric Peterson demonstrates through chapters 4 and 5 of the Apocalypse and from the ancient liturgies of the Church, that the liturgy of the Church participates in the liturgy of Heaven, in that men join in the ceaseless praise of the Angels and Saints in heaven who sing day and night, “Holy, holy, holy…”. It is the liturgy of the whole cosmos which praises God since “the breaking open of heaven by the Ascension of Christ”: “‘Him do praise the heavens and the heaven of heavens and their concerted might, the sun and moon and all the singing galaxies of stars, earth, sea and all that they contain…’ (Liturgy of St. James). But it is principally the heaven of the Angels…which is the central point, the most spiritual part of the universe” (Peterson p. 23) to which the praise of man is joined:
Never during the Church’s worship can the hymn of the Angels be allowed to lapse, for it is this alone which gives to the Church’s praise that depth and transcendence arising from the nature of Christian revelation. As eschatological worship, the liturgy of the Church derives, not from a self-sufficient and self-contained Nature, but from a human nature elevated by the ministrations of a higher order of angelic being and for the first time truly aroused to the proper praise of God by the praise of the spirit-world. (ibid.)
The Angels, as genuine spiritual ministers of the liturgy, raise up the praise of man so that he transcends his own nature and participates in the new song of redeemed humanity. “It is part of the nature of the monk that his Order should imitate the being of the Angels and so also the nature of that liturgy which is allied to the angelic life. This means, in the first place, that he voluntarily joins in the angelic hymn of praise in the course of the canonical [Divine] Office, whereas the laity have to be bidden to join in the Sanctus in the course of the celebration of the Mass” (Pet. p. 25).
“In the presence of the Angels, I will sing Your praise.” (Ps 137)
But not only does man participate in the heavenly liturgy, the Angels also come down and are present in the liturgy of the Church on earth, whether it be at the celebration of the seven Sacraments, especially at the Eucharist, or the singing of the Divine Office. “For where the Lord Jesus Christ is, there are His Angels: at His birth, at His temptation, his Resurrection and Ascension. Because the Angels cannot be separated from Him, they are present with Him at the Mass also” (ibid. p. 46). In the Psalms we pray, “In the presence of the Angels, I will sing Your praise, O Lord” (Ps 137). In the Holy Mass especially, there is a long tradition that the Angels take part in the Eucharistic action. In the first Eucharistic canon the priest prays: “Command that these gifts be borne by the hands of Your holy Angel to Your altar on high in the sight of Your divine majesty…” A similar petition is found in the Mozarabic Liturgy: “we have received what You sanctify and distribute to us by Your holy Angel” and “Command the offering of gifts by the hand of Your Angels be sanctified” (cited in Peterson, p. 33).
Further, by the witness of many Saints, we know the Angels are present at the altar of sacrifice. When the priest approaches the altar to present the unbloody sacrifice to God, St. John Chrysostom writes, “Angels surround the priest; the whole sanctuary and the space around the altar is filled with the heavenly hosts, worshipping Him who lies upon the altar…These Angels have been seen in a vision round about the altar, bowing to the ground as one may see soldiers standing in the presence of the king.” Elisha the Armenian also writes, “You are not far from the Angels, but go to prayer alongside them, so that you praise God with them. In as much as you unite yourself with them, they become sharers in your songs when you pray and sing praise. With confidences you raise your voice and say ‘Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ [that is, as it is done by the Angels!]”. (All cited in Peterson, p. 33-34)
To the praise of His glory!
The Angels, especially in the liturgy, draw man out of himself and into their own hymn of praise. They remind him that like them he is spirit and is created to transcend himself to the glory of God. “An impulse might simply be felt as an urge towards purity of heart; or one might become conscious of an overwhelming desire for mental clarity and a true existence. Man hurries towards the Angels along many paths, not as though he expected to become an Angel, but because his own being is only a preliminary existence and it does not yet appear what he shall be (cf. 1 Jn 3:2)” (Peterson, p. 47). The more man advances in the spiritual life and rises above himself, the more he realizes that he is nothing and thus approaches his own final form, which is likened to the Angels in their pure praise of God. The more he advances in perfection, the more he realizes that all creation enters into the praise of God, from the highest star to the lowest blade of grass. St. Francis of Assisi, a man so completely touched and transformed by grace that he reached seraphic love, was united with both Angel and nature in the praise of God. It was not merely poetic exuberance that inspired him to compose the Canticle of the Sun on his deathbed at the height of his spiritual ascent to God. Rather:
He begins to make music as brother to sun, stars, water and death, because the grace of the Crucified has aroused his creatureliness to its very depths, so that he becomes not merely the sinner who has found mercy, but also the poor creature—a relative of the ass—who can do nothing but pour forth the praises of God. Thus, the mystical life of the Church can only develop in close connection with the liturgy of the Church. Only from the life of the Church, which praises God in concert with the Angels and the whole universe, can that praise arise which testifies—both through the liturgy and the mystical life of grace—that heaven and earth are full of the glory of God. (Peterson, p. 49)
The Sanctus of the Angels, therefore, takes up the praise of all creation into their singing the glory of God, and helps both man and nature to reach the final goal, to become a song of praise to God.
In all the universe, the Blessed Virgin Mary is the highest, most perfect and pure song of praise to God. She understood her own lowliness, her nothingness, and in faith could open herself to receive at the message of the Angel the greatest of all gifts, the Incarnation of the Son of God in her womb. She is for us a model of Eucharistic faith. She carried Jesus beneath her heart for nine months, loving and conversing interiorly with Him in all hiddenness. She was open for God’s will, even to the point of the death of her Son on the Cross, saying yes in the name of us all to the work of Redemption, which is made present at every Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. She accompanied the early Church, gathering with them for the “breaking of the Bread”, the Eucharist, which renewed in her that gift of the Incarnation and her sorrow beneath the Cross. She is in fact our Mother in the order of faith, Mother of the Most Holy Eucharist, Mother of Priests, Mother of the Church. But above all, she is entirely Magnificat, the perfect praise of God’s glory in time and in eternity.
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