This small book by Stephen Redmond SJ is an accessible introduction for anyone keen to learn more about the central act of the christian tradition specially prepared for the Year of the Eucharist (October 2004 – October 2005).
91 pp, Veritas, 2005. To purchase this book online, go to www.veritas.ie .
Chapter 1 – Eucharist: history
I remember seeing many years ago in the museum of Mount Melleray Abbey a set of dummy books. The ‘books’ were entitled De Nimia Caritate Dei (Concerning the boundless love of God). It was a penal-day tabernacle. A reminder of the fidelity of our ancestors to the faith in times of persecution. A reminder too that the Eucharist is a unique outpouring of God’s love for us.
The Church has been a part of human history for two millennia and has experienced many changes. But the basics, the elements in the Church that flow directly from its ultimate source, the Blessed Trinity, remain unchanged; and one of these, the centre and heart of the life of the Church, is the Eucharist.
From East to West
It has been in the world since that Thursday evening, as we would call it, when ‘the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me. In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’
This is Saint Paul’s account of its institution in his first letter to the Christians of Corinth, written about thirty years after the first Holy Thursday with the Eucharist already a living reality in the Church. It is the earliest account we have, antedating those in Matthew 26, Mark 14 and Luke 22.
We get sightings of the Eucharist in the very early Church: for instance, Justin’s outline of Mass as celebrated in Rome about 150, substantially identical with our rite, and Hippolytus’ text from about 200, which we now use almost word for word as the second Eucharistic Prayer. Later the Eucharistic event was inset into elaborate liturgies in various parts of the Church. The Latin Roman rite became predominant in the West. In our own time the Roman liturgy has been revised with, among other things, a swing to vernaculars and a re-emphasis on the role of the laity.
The Eucharist has been celebrated in many cultures and languages during those two millennia. The first of those languages must have been Aramaic, the vernacular of the Lord and the apostles and their first converts, but with the spread of the Church beyond Palestine, Greek, then an international language, became dominant in Christian worship and the re-present-ing memorial of the Last Supper got a Greek name: Eucharistia. From, say, the fourth century Latin began to replace Greek in the West. Eastern Christians, whether Catholic or not, kept their tradition of celebrating in various languages. Since the Second Vatican Council Mass in the Roman rite is nearly always celebrated in the vernacular with Latin holding a primacy of doctrine and honour.
‘The Altar of the World’
On the first Holy Thursday the Lord told his disciples Peter and John to go to a certain house and say to the man of the house: “The Teacher says, where is the guest room where I am to eat the passover with my disciples? And he will show you a large upper room furnished”(Luke 22, 11-12).
There have been so many ‘upper rooms’: the houses of the first Christians; the sanctuaries of early Christian Ireland and Britain; basilicas, cathedrals, parish and monastic churches; ‘safe houses’ in Tudor England and Mass-rocks in penal-day Ireland; the trenches of war and the hermitages of peace; makeshift shelters like the Ark of Kilbaha in Clare and wide open-air spaces like the Phoenix Park in Dublin. I remember a friend of mine flopping down on the grass in the ruined church at Bodenstown in County Kildare and saying, ‘I like to pray wherever Mass was said’. As Pope John Paul says lyrically in Ecclesia de Eucharistia (echoing Teilhard de Chardin), ‘the Eucharist is always in some way celebrated on the altar of the world’.
And, we can add with Saint Paul, the Eucharist will remain until the end of the world as we know it: ‘As often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes’ (1 Corinthians 11,26): an element of Christ’s tremendous parting promise: ‘I will be with you always, to the close of the age’ (Matthew 28, 20). He is still Emmanuel: God with us.
Ruins: the grass is high
here Christ arrived, passed by
here the Mass was said
The church across the way
here Christ comes every day
here the Mass is said
Until that secret hour
when Christ returns in power
the Mass will still be said
Chapter 2 – Eucharist: essence
Enfolded and clothed, as it were, in so many variables of culture, language, time and place are three related core facts about the Eucharist: Christ becoming present, Christ sacrificing and being sacrificed, Christ nourishing.
The glorious risen Christ in his totality becomes present. By the power of God through the ministry of the priest who acts in the person of Christ, the substance, the inner basic reality of bread and wine (what makes bread to be bread and wine to be wine in ordinary estimation), is changed into the substance of the body and blood of Christ. But he becomes present as he is: so blood, soul and divinity are present too under the appearances of bread and body, soul and divinity are present too under the appearances of wine, and of course, body, blood and soul are constituents of a glorified humanity.
‘In the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist, the body and blood together with the soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, and therefore the whole Christ is truly, really and substantially contained’ (Council of Trent). ‘This presence… is presence in the fullest sense… substantial presence, by which Christ, God and one of us, makes himself wholly and entirely present’ (Paul VI: The Mystery of Faith).
To believe in this presence is one of the greatest of Christian graces: a grace for the mind and will (‘senses fail and faith alone assures the mind that Christ has come’ – Pange Lingua): meant to be the prelude to an eternal experiencing of the risen Lord in both divinity and humanity.
Priest and Sacrifice
Christ becomes present as a sacrifice. The making of this sacrament (the Eucharist) is a sacrifice’, says Saint Thomas Aquinas. And Christ is its priest. Last Supper, Calvary and Mass are one sacrifice in the sense that Priest and Gift and Love are one and the same in all three. Only the mode of offering is different: the Cross involves actual bloodshedding, actual death; the Supper and Mass do not. In the Mass the risen Christ continually ‘re-presents’ himself in a way suitable to his pilgrim people (the Lover adapting to his beloved), inviting them to unite themselves with him in selfgiving.
Echoing the Council of Trent and indeed the traditional faith of the Church in Ecclesia de Eucharistia, Pope John Paul says that Christ gave the Church the Eucharist as the perennial making-present of the paschal event (Last Supper, Passion and Death, Resurrection), thus bringing about a ‘oneness in time’ between that event and history. The thought of this, he says, evokes ‘profound amazement and gratitude’. The ideal Mass congregation and officiating priest are a community lost in wonder and thanks.
Christ nourishes. In Communion he keeps his stupendous gospel promises: ‘He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him up on the last day. He… remains in me and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me’ (John 6:54, 56, 57). The words are stark and urgent. They shocked many of their first hearers. They are words of love.
The beautiful antiphon of the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi) echoes the doctrine and promises in John: ‘O holy banquet, in which Christ is received, the memorial of his Passion is celebrated, mind and heart are filled with grace and a pledge of future glory is given to us’.
Christ as our high-priest is the chief minister of all the sacraments. He is of course a most loving minister. According to Saint Thomas Aquinas (endorsed by, among others, Pope John Paul) all the other sacraments are oriented towards, converge on, the Eucharist. The other sacraments come from Christ. The Eucharist is Christ. In a uniquely concentrated way it is the sacrament of his love for us. He associates that love for us with the love-gift of himself to his heavenly Father in Passion and Death and Eucharist.
Love evokes love. Our best response to his love (a response in complete keeping with the specific purpose of this sacrament) is a practical Eucharist-centred gospel-minded love of God and others: with God’s help to ‘walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God’ (Ephesians 5, 2). So we proclaim and pray:
For all there is one Christ
for all one loving Lord is sacrificed
one living Bread we eat
to bind and hold us close and firm
as God’s own blessed wheat
And may this Eucharist-Gift
arise and shine across the world’s dark drift
that all may see and come
and find in Him their All-Desired
and in his love be one
We praise you, Trinity
the Father, Son and Spirit, Blessed Three
we thank You and adore
and share in Eucharist the pledge
of life forevermore.