“O sacred Banquet, wherein Christ is received, the memory of His passion is recalled, the soul is filled with grace, and there is given to us a pledge of future glory.” —St. Thomas Aquinas, O Sacrum Convivium (hymn for Corpus Christi)
Salvation History—the unfolding story of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection and its meaning for our lives—involves a past, present, and a future. In his hymn for the great feast of Corpus Christi, O Sacrum Convivium (“O Sacred Banquet”), St. Thomas Aquinas precisely identifies three crucial moments of Salvation History that are all woven into the mystery of the Holy Eucharist:
• at a particular moment in the past, Jesus Christ suffered and died for our salvation;
• today, that supernova of grace becomes present to us once again on the altar of sacrifice, and we are able to receive His Body and Blood;
• and in a future is promised, one we begin to taste now as we celebrate the Eucharist, but which will be definitively fulfilled in heaven.
The world today has lost its sense of meaning. People often lack any deep sense of purpose or direction. Their goals are too often reduced to seeking pleasure, rest, or distraction. And when those goals prove unsatisfying, they give up altogether on the goodness of life.
In the Holy Eucharist, we find the exact antidote to this cancer of the human spirit. The truth that the all-holy Son of God chooses to become present among us, chooses to nourish us, to share His life and strength with us, chooses to remain with us so that we can worship Him and grow in friendship with Him, infuses our lives with an immeasurably rich meaning. We find this meaning in the story of our salvation, made present in the Holy Eucharist. The saving death of the Son of God, the graces the risen Son gives to us today, and the promise that we will live with Him, and with the Father and the Holy Spirit, forever, charges every moment of our lives with drama and importance.
Pope Benedict XVI, in a 2007 document on the Eucharist, Sacramentum Caritatis (“The Sacrament of Charity”), uses an apt expression: “the eucharistic form of the Christian life.” We have in this single phrase an encapsulation of the immeasurably great and rich reality into which we are immersed when we encounter Christ in the Eucharist, and into which we invite others as we evangelize.
The Christian life is eucharistic in many senses, some of which we explored in the first article on the Eucharist as the “source” of the Christian life. My focus here is on the Eucharist as the “summit” to which we aspire, to which the pilgrimage of our entire earthly lives is directed.
Our focus on the Eucharist as the summit of our lives will take shape as an exploration of four themes: union with Christ and each other in Him, the Eucharist as the Sacrament of Peace, the Eucharist and the Universal Call to Holiness, and the Eucharist as a foretaste and promise of heaven. We will see that these themes are closely interrelated, and all of them are also closely related to the themes we considered in the article on the Sacrament as the source of the Christian life.
Union with Christ and His Church
One of the names we use for the Eucharist is Holy Communion, and the root meaning of the word “communion” is deep, binding union. The word “religion” has a similar meaning. At the essence of the Church’s life is our union with Jesus Christ. We are His Body; He is our head. We are that closely bound to each other.
If you ask the question, “What’s going on, spiritually,” when we celebrate the Mass and receive Holy Communion, the best answer to that question is that we are being drawn into closer union with Christ and each other. And to be drawn into union with Christ means we also become more united with the Father and the Holy Spirit. This reflection puts us in touch with two passages from the Last Supper in John’s Gospel:
• The Vine and the Branches (Jn 15:1-8)—In this passage, Jesus clearly teaches that union with Him brings life, while separation from Him brings death;
• Christ’s invitation to the household of His Father (Jn 14:2-3, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places…”)—The image of a household evokes intimacy and shared life, so to be invited into the Father’s household promises that we will share in the very life of the Holy Trinity.
The very elements of bread and wine signify the union the Sacrament of the Eucharist effects, as St. Paul reminds us. He writes in 1 Corinthians 10:17, “Because the loaf of bread is one, we, though many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.” The same is true of the wine consecrated into the Blood of Christ. Many grapes are crushed so that they might become one drink. In this way, the appearances of the Eucharist remind us of the spiritual reality at work in the Sacrament. God is truly the best of authors and artists, and He knows well how to communicate His life and truth to us.
The Sacrament of Peace
At the Last Supper, Jesus told His apostles, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you” (Jn 14:27). But what does Christ mean by “peace?” Perhaps a vignette will help.
Anyone who has read the novel Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh knows that the climax of the story is a scene in which Lord Marchmain, the patriarch of an aristocratic Catholic family in England at a time just before the Second World War, lies on his deathbed. Although his family is Catholic, the Marchmains are a mixed lot when it comes to the practice of the faith. Lady Marchmain, who had already died by this point in the novel, and two of the children are devout Catholics, while Lord Marchmain and the other two children spend most of the novel estranged from the Church.
As Lord Marchmain lies dying, with his family gathered around him, the topic of whether and when it would be appropriate to summon a priest comes up, as it inevitably does in all but the most indifferent Catholic families. One of the Marchmain daughters, Julia, who has been involved in an adulterous relationship with the novel’s narrator, Charles Ryder, discusses with Charles the propriety of a priest visiting her father to see if he might want to receive the last sacraments.
Charles Ryder is not a religious man at this point in the novel, and objects to the very idea that the Church might “interfere” with the final days of a dying man who has for decades shown no interest in religion. Ryder asks, “Can’t they even let him die in peace?” To which Julia replies, “They mean something so different by ‘peace.’”
Peace is not about merely leaving other people alone. The Eucharist brings true peace because it strengthens our peace with God, within ourselves, and with others. Three “fruits” of Holy Communion, according to the Catechism (pars. 1393-1395), are that the Sacrament separates us from sin, wipes away our venial (less serious) sins, and preserves us from future mortal (gravely serious) sins. To sin is to commit an act of spiritual violence against God, ourselves, and other people. Sin is an act of war. Insofar as the Eucharist acts against sin, it brings us the peace of Jesus Christ. The Eucharist was perhaps first called a sacrament of peace by St. Ignatius of Antioch near the turn of the second century, and it remains so for us today.
The Eucharist and the Universal Call to Holiness
One of the clarion calls of the Second Vatican Council was the “Universal Call to Holiness,” the truth that all people are called to become holy, and not only those with vocations to the priesthood or consecrated life.
The call to holiness is rooted in the Sacrament of Baptism, but finds its culmination in the Holy Eucharist. The Eucharist, being the “sacrament of sacraments,” completes Christian initiation (Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Communion) and is the greatest source of sanctifying (holiness-effecting) power Christ has given us.
“Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect,” Jesus says in His Sermon On the Mount (Mt 5:48). To be like the Father is to love, because “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8). Saint Thomas Aquinas teaches the perfection to which Christ calls us is especially perfection in charity, or Christian love. He further writes that the freedom from sin effected by the Eucharist is the surest path to sharing in God’s love. The Eucharist prepares our hearts to love, and because it is filled with the self-sacrificing love of Jesus Christ, it in turn fills our hearts with His divine love.
Pope Benedict XVI, in Sacramentum Caritatis, draws a connection between the Eucharist and martyrdom, the act by which a Christian shares most completely in the self-sacrificing love of Jesus Christ, which He described for us when He said, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn 15:13). The Eucharist is the food of martyrs, which strengthens us by the power of Christ’s death and resurrection to love as He has loved us. Whether or not we are called to die for our faith in Christ, the Sacrament strengthens us to remain faithful and give witness to Him no matter what the cost. Martyrdom is not the only path to holiness, by any means, but to be ready for martyrdom is to be ready for whatever is the path to holiness down which God calls us.
The Eucharist as the Bread of Heaven
“Our citizenship is in heaven,” St. Paul tells us in Philippians 3:20. A simple way of expressing the salvation Christ has won for us is to say that the Son of God has come to earth that He might bring us to heaven.
The great Christian apologist C.S. Lewis once wrote that for many of us, the way we live our lives today, the joys of heaven would prove to be an acquired taste. In the Holy Eucharist, we acquire the taste for heaven’s goodness. We become more spiritual, more godly, more loving and virtuous. We learn to set aside not only what is sinful, but also that which is merely earthly. We learn to prioritize God and His Kingdom.
The Eucharist empowers our conversion, which we can think of as a turning away from the world toward God and the life of heaven. The Eucharist, as an experience of heaven on earth, allows the Christian to appropriate more deeply the divine life God offers him. Monsignor Ronald Knox once preached in a sermon on the Holy Eucharist, “We must be weaned away from earth first; and the means by which he does that is holy communion. That is the medicine which enables the enfeebled soul to look steadily at the divine light, to breathe deeply of the unfamiliar air.”
In His Bread of Life Discourse, Jesus speaks of the “bread of heaven” that He will give so that His disciples might go enjoy divine life (Jn 6:32-33, 51):
Amen, amen, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world … I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.
In the same discourse, Jesus teaches that to refuse the Bread of Life is to refuse the life the Eucharist gives. Hell is a real threat for those who knowingly choose to live outside of communion in Christ’s Body and Blood. But for those who believe, who live faithful lives as followers of Christ and members of His Church, and who participate in the sacrifice and the sacrament of the Eucharist, eternal life is their inheritance.
The “eucharistic form of life,” then, is a life oriented to heaven, a life of perfection in the divine love of the Father, a life lived in imitation of the Lord Jesus, a life entirely animated by the Holy Spirit. The Eucharist fills our lives with meaning, and both empowers and accompanies us until the our lives reach their fulfillment, when we complete our pilgrimage and ascend to the summit of union with God and eternal life in Him.
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