Circular Letter: Lent 2008

Understanding the Liturgy (3 of 3): The Eucharist as the Form of Christian Life

Lent is a season of spiritual renewal, of detaching ourselves from the world and drawing closer to God. “Sursum corda!”—“Lift up your hearts!” The holy angels want to lift our hearts and minds to things that are above, that we may order our lives once again to Him who is our true life, our origin and our last end. The angels purify us and also lead us to purification, to sacramental confession, that our sins may be forgiven, so that we may see with clearer vision our true purpose in life and direct our steps more effectively towards this goal. In his Lenten message for 2008, Pope Benedict writes, “Each year, Lent offers us a providential opportunity to deepen the meaning and value of our Christian lives, and it stimulates us to rediscover the mercy of God so that we, in turn, become more merciful toward our brothers and sisters.” One privileged sphere in which we encounter God and His loving mercy is in the Holy Eucharist, which also unites us to our brothers and sisters.

The Eucharist: The Self-gift of Jesus Christ

Jesus died on the Cross that we might have life, and have it in abundance. His total self-gift on the Cross in expiation for our sins has opened for us the way to reconciliation with the Father and a new life in Christ. This self-gift of the divine Logos is recalled and made present at every celebration of the Holy Eucharist. In the last two Circular Letters, we have attempted to expound upon the Eucharist and Christ’s self-giving in relation to salvation history and as they are expressed in the language of symbols and signs found in the Eucharistic celebration. An understanding of these can help us to participate more consciously and fruitfully at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. But participation in the Holy Mass does not end with the final blessing; it is meant to be lived, to permeate and have an influence on our entire lives.

In the last Circular, we pointed out that the celebration of the Eucharist on earth is not the consummation of Christian life. On the Cross, Jesus made a perfect offering of Himself in body and soul for our sake and in our name. His Sacrifice, made in our name and liturgically made present to us, must now become our sacrifice; our gift of self to the Father must be offered up in and through Christ Jesus. Our participation is only complete when we are “personally conformed to the mystery being celebrated, offering one’s life to God in unity with the Sacrifice of Christ for the salvation of the whole world” (Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis—hereafter, SacC—64). For full “active participation” in the Sacred Liturgy, therefore, we must allow ourselves to be drawn into the “dynamic” of the Eucharist and be transformed by it. “The Eucharist draws us into Jesus’ act of self-oblation. More than just statically receiving the incarnate Logos, we enter into the very dynamic of His self-giving” (Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, 13).

A Mystery of Trinitarian Love ~ A Call to Love

The Eucharist is a mystery of self-giving because it is essentially a mystery of love. God Himself is love, the “perfect communion of love between Father, Son and Holy Spirit” (SacC, 8). The love of God for us was revealed most perfectly by the self-gift of Christ on the Cross, and this love is made present at every celebration of the Eucharist. In calling us to enter into Jesus’ self-giving, we are called to share in God’s divine life of love. “In the bread and wine under whose appearances Christ gives Himself to us in the Paschal meal (cf. Lk 22:14-20; 1 Cor 11:23-26), God’s whole life encounters us and is sacramentally shared with us. …At creation itself, man was called to have some share in God’s breath of life (cf. Gen 2:7). But it is in Christ, dead and risen, and in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, given without measure (cf. Jn 3:34), that we have become sharers of God’s inmost life” (SacC, 8). The Eucharist is therefore a mystery of Trinitarian love and an invitation to each of us to live this love. “In the Sacrament of the Eucharist, Jesus shows us in particular the truth about the love which is the very essence of God. It is this evangelical truth which challenges each of us and our whole being. For this reason, the Church, which finds in the Eucharist the very centre of her life, is constantly concerned to proclaim to all, ‘opportune importune’ (cf. 2 Tim 4:2), that God is love” (SacC, 2).

Sharing in God’s life of love, we begin already in some way “eternal life”. “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). Pope Benedict comments on this text, “These words of Jesus make us realize how the mystery ‘believed’ and ‘celebrated’ contains an innate power making it the principle of new life within us and the form of our Christian existence. By receiving the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ we become sharers in the divine life in an ever more adult and conscious way” (SacC, 70). From the Eucharist we receive a new “form of existence”, a new way of living our lives. “The Eucharist, since it embraces the concrete, everyday existence of the believer, makes possible, day by day, the progressive transfiguration of all those called by grace to reflect the image of the Son of God (cf. Rom 8:29ff.)” (SacC, 71). Unlike natural food, which when consumed is changed into our substance, the Bread of Life changes and transforms us into Christ. St. Augustine writes, “I am the food of grown men; grow, and you shall feed upon Me; nor shall you change Me, like the food of your flesh, into yourself, but you shall be changed into Me” (Confessions, VII, 10, 16).

The New Spiritual Worship

Through the Eucharist, the life of Christ is nourished and grows within us. Christ lived every moment of His life as a self-offering to the Father out of love, which culminated on the Cross. We, too, are called to live for God, making of everything an act of worship, an act of love for God. This orientation towards God in and through Christ in the Eucharist is the radical “new worship” of Christianity. St. Paul writes, “I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1). All that we do or say or think should be offered to God: “Christianity’s new worship includes and transfigures every aspect of life: ‘Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God!’ (1 Cor 10:31)” (SacC, 71).

The origin and source of this new worship is the Eucharist, the offering of Christ Himself, to which we are united through the Liturgy. Pope Benedict goes further in saying that this “new worship” constitutes what he calls the “Eucharistic form of Christian life”:

Here the intrinsically Eucharistic nature of Christian life begins to take shape… There is nothing authentically human—our thoughts and affections, our words and deeds—that does not find in the Sacrament of the Eucharist the form it needs to be lived to the full. Here we can see the full human import of the radical newness brought by Christ in the Eucharist: the worship of God in our lives cannot be relegated to something private and individual, but tends by its nature to permeate every aspect of our existence. (SacC, 71)

Participation in the Eucharist does not end with the Mass, therefore, but continues in our daily life, in every moment. Nourished by His Sacrifice, we are progressively assimilated to Christ and united to His offering. “Worship pleasing to God thus becomes a new way of living our whole life, each particular moment of which is lifted up, since it is lived as part of a relationship with Christ and as an offering to God. The glory of God is the living man (cf. 1 Cor 10:31)” (SacC, 71).

The Eucharistic and the Mystical Body of Christ

This “Eucharistic form of Christian life” is first of all an ecclesial reality. We do not live as isolated individuals, but within the community of the Church, the Body of Christ. We cannot live in communion with God without also living in communion with our neighbor. “Wherever communion with God, which is communion with the Father, with the Son and with the Holy Spirit, is destroyed, the root and source of our communion with one another is destroyed. And wherever we do not live communion among ourselves, communion with the Triune God is not alive and true either” (General Audience, March 29, 2006). This interdependence between love of God and neighbor nuances our understanding of the communio sanctorum, the communion of saints: We belong to the Lord, to His Body, and are therefore also members of one another. “The Eucharistic form of Christian life is clearly an ecclesial and communitarian form. …Secularization, with its inherent emphasis on individualism, has its most negative effects on individuals who are isolated and lack a sense of belonging. Christianity, from its very beginning, has meant fellowship, a network of relationships constantly strengthened by hearing God’s word and sharing in the Eucharist, and enlivened by the Holy Spirit” (SacC, 76). St. Thomas says that the res or reality to which the Sacrament of the Eucharist points is not only the substantial presence of the Body of Christ contained in the Sacrament itself, but also the unity of the faithful within the communion of the Mystical Body, the Church (cf. Summa Theol. III, q. 80 art. 4). The Eucharist has a causal relation to the Church and molds the faithful into a communion of persons in Christ. When we participate in the Eucharist, then, we grow into ever greater communion with the entire Mystical Body, the Church, and we strengthen the Church in that communion.

Since the Eucharist is the sacrifice of Christ, it is also the sacrifice of His Body, the Church. St. Augustine writes, “The Church celebrates this mystery in the Sacrament of the Altar, as the faithful know, and there she shows them clearly that in what is offered, she herself is offered” (De Civitate Dei, X, 6). Only in communion with the Church does it become also our sacrifice. In order to participate in the Eucharist, therefore, we must participate in this communion of love which includes both God and neighbor. “Offering the immaculate Victim, not only through the hands of the priest but also together with him, they should learn to make an offering of themselves. Through Christ, the Mediator, they should be drawn day by day into ever more perfect union with God and each other” (Vatican II, Sacrosanctum Concilium, 48).

Moral Implications of the Eucharist

Another essential element of the “Eucharistic form of the Christian life” and true spiritual worship is the moral dimension, a newness of life, a life transfigured by Christ. Immediately following the passage on the new spiritual worship St. Paul writes, “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:2). The life of a Christian must be different from those who live only for this world, “as if God did not exist”. Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist should make a difference in how we live, how we think. Pope Benedict writes, “Today there is a need to rediscover that Jesus Christ is not just a private conviction or an abstract idea, but a real person, whose becoming part of human history is capable of renewing the life of every man and woman. Hence the Eucharist, as the source and summit of the Church’s life and mission, must be translated into spirituality, into a life lived ‘according to the Spirit’ (Rom 8:4ff.; cf. Gal 5:16, 25)” (SacC, 77).

In Jesus we have a new life in which we can find the strength to overcome our ruling passions, to live the “freedom of the sons of God” and make of our lives a continual offering pleasing to God. It is not just some philosophical ethical code. This moral transformation is the new life of Divine Grace, enabling us to live the new law of Christ. It is a response of love inspired by the working of the Spirit, a joyful gratitude in discovering God who loves me and comes to me in the Eucharist. Pope Benedict comments,

This appeal to the moral value of spiritual worship should not be interpreted in a merely moralistic way. It is before all else the joy-filled discovery of love at work in the hearts of those who accept the Lord’s gift, abandon themselves to Him and thus find true freedom. The moral transformation implicit in the new worship instituted by Christ is a heartfelt yearning to respond to the Lord’s love with one’s whole being, while remaining ever conscious of one’s own weakness. This is clearly reflected in the Gospel story of Zacchaeus (cf. Lk 19:1-10). After welcoming Jesus to his home, the tax collector is completely changed: he decides to give half of his possessions to the poor and to repay fourfold those whom he had defrauded. (SacC, 79)

It is only love that can attract and transform us. In the Eucharist we find the fullness of truth about the love God has for us.

Bearing Witness to God’s Love

But love longs to be shared. For this reason the Eucharistic form of Christian life necessarily includes mission. “What the world needs is God’s love; it needs to encounter Christ and to believe in Him. The Eucharist is thus the source and summit not only of the Church’s life, but also of her mission” (SacC, 84). By our transformation and renewal of life, we are called to bring the light of Christ to the world, to be Christ in the world. Most importantly, we must bring the love of God into the world. “We become witnesses when, through our actions, words and way of being, Another makes Himself present. Witness could be described as the means by which the truth of God’s love comes to men and women in history, inviting them to accept freely this radical newness” (SacC, 85). When we live the love we receive in the Eucharist, this love will of itself attract others to Christ.

This witness reaches its height in martyrdom. “The Christian who offers his life in martyrdom enters into full communion with the Pasch of Jesus Christ and thus becomes Eucharist with Him. Today, too, the Church does not lack martyrs who offer the supreme witness to God’s love. Even if the test of martyrdom is not asked of us, we know that worship pleasing to God demands that we should be inwardly prepared for it” (SacC, 85).

Active Charity

Another integral element of the Eucharistic form of Christian life is active charity. Sharing in the Eucharist commits us to have concern for all those for whom Christ gave His life, especially the poor and the outcasts of this world. “By sharing in the sacrifice of the Cross, the Christian partakes of Christ’s self-giving love and is equipped and committed to live this same charity in all his thoughts and deeds” (John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, 107). “‘Worship’ itself, Eucharistic communion, includes the reality both of being loved and of loving others in turn. A Eucharist which does not pass over into the concrete practice of love is intrinsically fragmented” (Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, 14). Blessed Mother Teresa is a sublime example of a woman who lived from the Eucharist and gave her own life to the service of the poorest of the poor. “Our communities, when they celebrate the Eucharist, must become ever more conscious that the sacrifice of Christ is for all, and that the Eucharist thus compels all who believe in Him to become ‘bread that is broken’ for others, and to work for the building of a more just and fraternal world. Keeping in mind the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, we need to realize that Christ continues today to exhort His disciples to become personally engaged: ‘You yourselves, give them something to eat’ (Mt 14:16). Each of us is truly called, together with Jesus, to be bread broken for the life of the world” (SacC, 88).

We see then that full, active participation in the Eucharist is more than just one hour of worship on Sundays; it engages our whole life. Does our life correspond to the mystery of Christ’s sacrifice, which we celebrate, the Eucharistic form as described by the Holy Father? “Active participation in the Eucharistic liturgy can hardly be expected if one approaches it superficially, without an examination of his or her life” (SacC, 55). Do I make of everything an offering to God? Do I live in communion with and support the Church? Do I have the courage to bear witness? Am I concerned for the poor? In order to participate fruitfully in the Eucharist, we must dispose ourselves through a “spirit of constant conversion which should mark the lives of all the faithful. …This inner disposition can be fostered, for example, by recollection and silence for at least a few moments before the beginning of the Liturgy, by fasting and, when necessary, by sacramental confession” (SacC, 55). The holy angel can also remind us of what still needs to be purified in our hearts. Perhaps this way of participating in the Eucharist can form part of our Lenten proposal, as we prepare to celebrate worthily the Paschal Triduum.

The Angels and Our Participation in the Eucharist

The holy angels can help us to participate even more fruitfully in the Eucharist. At every Mass we enter into the eternal Liturgy of heaven, the heavenly praises of Christ with all the angels and saints. We ask in the preface to join in the prayer and praise of the angels, praying together with them, “Holy, Holy, Holy…” If we consciously ask our angel to be with us at Holy Mass, to pray with us, he can enlighten us with regard to the mystery of God’s love which we celebrate. He can adore with us, inflame us with love and remind us of how much Christ has done for us. At Holy Communion, we can ask like St. Therese, that our angel adore Jesus with us and make a loving home for Him in our hearts. And at the dismissal, we want to go out with our angel to live the love we have received from the Holy Sacrifice in our daily lives. He will go with us and show us how we can live our life as an offering, just as Jesus offered Himself for us. We turn especially to Mary, “Woman of the Eucharist” and “singular model of Eucharistic life”. She will help us “to become a living offering pleasing to the Father” (SacC, 96). May she accompany us through these days of Lenten renewal, that we may worthily participate in the Sacred Mysteries of our faith and share fully in the joys of Easter!

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