Several years ago, The New York Times ran a poll about belief in the Eucharist. All of us understand the limited value of polls, but this one deserves careful attention. It seemed to show that only about a third of Catholics believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist!
This finding prompted me, as a teacher of the faith, to examine my conscience. I am afraid that many Catholics do not receive sound religious instruction on the fundamental truths of our faith, including the Eucharist in the Mass and the Blessed Sacrament Reserved. Sometimes that instruction incomplete, and sometimes it is erroneous. At the same time, many complain that 'they don't get much out of the Mass' - and that may well be true if they do not really know what actually happens at Mass or if they are not prepared to enter into this wondrous mystery. I invite you to see the Pope's encyclical on the Eucharist as an invitation and a means to spread the Good News about the Eucharist, a mystery which is at the very heart of the Church we love so much.
Chapter One, entitled "The Mystery of Faith," deals with the basic teaching of the Church on the gift and mystery of the Eucharist. It is my privilege to pull out for your instruction and meditation the basic point and eight key ideas contained in Chapter One of the encyclical. Of course, there is no substitute for your reading this beautiful letter yourself!
This Chapter aims to help us see how the Mass is related to three realities:
- To Christ's death and resurrection of Christ that took place nearly 2000 years ago;
- To the liturgy of Heaven, our future destiny, where saints and angels rejoice in the Presence of the Trinity;
- To our daily life and to the concern we must have for the world in which we live.
So when we come to Mass, we are put into real contact with the saving deeds of Christ from the past, with the glory that is to be ours in the future, and with our needs and the needs of the world here and now.
Building on the basic points of this Chapter, let's proceed to pullout the eight key ideas. For the sake of clarity, I will continue to refer to the basic point of the whole Chapter.
I. How the Eucharist Puts Us in Contact with Christ's Saving Death and Resurrection
Jesus Instituted the Eucharist
The Eucharist is the Lord's gift to us, instituted at the Last Supper. The Pope reminds us that Jesus instituted the Eucharistic Sacrifice of His Body and Blood "on the night He was betrayed." [no. 11, cr. St. Paul 1Cor. 11:23]
The Eucharist is not just any gift, but the greatest gift the Lord gave 1 because the Eucharist is Christ's gift of self to us! In the Eucharist, Christ, who gave His life for us, endlessly gives Himself to us.
What Christ Did to Save Us is Not Stuck in Time!
Jesus is God's son made Man. He gave Himself to us by becoming one of us, by assuming our humanity, our human nature, by offering His life on the Cross and by rising from the dead. He did this to deliver us from sin and enable us to share His Father's life and love. What the Lord did for us some 2,000 years ago is not stuck in time. As the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us, Jesus sacrificed Himself 'once for all' - that is, for all time. What Jesus did to save us, "participates in the divine eternity, and so transcends all time." [n Hebrews 7:27]. It is an "act of God" that took place at a certain point of history B but because God knows no past or future, only an "eternal now" B what Jesus did to save us so long ago can be accessed by us here and now. So whether a Catholic Christian lived in 400 A.D. or in 1500, or in 2003 - he or she actually participates in the same sacrifice which Jesus offered for redemption.
The Eucharist: The Principal Means Christ Left Us to Share in His Death and Resurrection
The death and resurrection of Jesus is THE central saving event of all history. Pope John Paul II teaches us that it is "decisive for the salvation of the human race." For that reason, Jesus offered this sacrifice only after he left us the means of sharing in it as if we had been present there[on Calvary.] no. 11] The Eucharist is the means Christ gave us so that we can have a living contact with and genuine participation in what He did to save us from sin and enable us to share divine life. [no. 12] So when we come to Mass, we not only encounter Jesus in a vaguely spiritual sense ("I feel He's here"); rather, through sacramental signs, we truly encounter and share in what Christ did to save us. Let me clarify this more.
In the Eucharist, we don't merely 'remember' the death and resurrection of Christ like we remember the Battle of the Bulge or the Presidency of Andrew Jackson. Rather, the Eucharist is a living memorial that makes Christ's sacrifice present anew in every parish community that offers it at the hands of bishop or priest.
Unfortunately, some current translations and the songs that are used in the liturgy do not help us grasp the actual presence of the death and resurrection of Christ. The language that we use merely talks about "remembering" in the usual sense. But at Mass, we are not merely recalling a past event, we are sharing in the central saving event made present again and again in the power of the Holy Spirit, so we can apply it to our lives here and now.
The Mass Really Is a Sacrifice: Without it We Cannot Offer Our Sacrifice to God
Years ago, we used to speak regularly of "the Sacrifice of the Mass." Today, unfortunately, that is out of fashion. Sometimes people speak about the Eucharist as a banquet, as Christ's giving Himself as our spiritual food but shun talking about the Mass as a true sacrifice. Some wrongly imagine that speaking of the Mass as a Sacrifice implies that we are crucifying Jesus again and again. Of course, that is not true. The Mass makes present Christ's One Sacrifice. However, the Pope reminds us that the Mass is a sacrifice in the strict sense. [no. 13] Indeed the two aspects of the Mass, (sacrifice and meal) are not opposed or mutually exclusive. We don't have to choose whether the Eucharist is a Sacrifice or a Meal; it is both! Our food is Christ. [no. 16] "the living Bread come down from Heaven,"[Jn. 6: 3-4] who offered Himself for us to the Father in loving obedience. The Father accepts Jesus' sacrifice, and in turn, gives to His Eternal Son (who shares in our humanity) the new and imperishable life of the resurrection. By taking part in the Eucharist, you and I, as members of the Church, can offer our lives to the Father as an acceptable sacrifice that truly gives praise to God the Father. We can do this because we offer ourselves along with the Divine Victim on the altar.
Don't Break UP the Pascal Mystery
Sometimes people speak of Christ's death as if that were the last chapter of His life. They almost forget to mention that He rose from the dead! At other times, people prefer to overlook the price which Jesus paid for our redemption, namely, His death on the Cross, and speak only of the Resurrection. The Pope reminds us that Jesus' Passover (pasch) includes both His saving death and resurrection. At Mass we capture the truth when we say, "Dying you destroyed our death, rising you restored our life." By our union with Christ at Mass, WE pass from the old life of sin leading to death to the new life of grace, leading to glory.
Transubstantiation by Jesus Christ is present in many ways
In recent times, some have preferred to focus on Jesus' presence in the Word and in the community and t downplay Jesus' substantial presence in the Eucharist. That may be why only about 1/3 of Catholics believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. But the ways in which Jesus is present to us do not compete with one another; they reinforce one another. Jesus' substantial presence in the totally transformed Bread and Wine take nothing away from the power of His Word nor does it diminish His Presence in the assembly. What is meant by Jesus' substantial presence? What does the term "transubstantiation" mean? It means that the bread and wine are completely changed into the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ. They are no longer bread and wine, but truly they are Christ - not just because we think and believe they are Christ, but because they are Christ in actuality...[no. 15] This truly the 'mystery of faith!' The host we consume and the cup we drink of really and truly are Christ, coming to us as our food and drink, bringing us the power of pascal mystery and granting us an ever greater share in the Holy Spirit, so that we can live the life we receive! [no. 17]
II. How the Eucharist Enables Us to Share in Our Future Destiny, the Great Liturgy
To those who claim to be bored at Mass, I have bad news: Heaven will be one long liturgy!
That leads me to:
The Mass is the Pledge of Future Glory
The Eucharist looks toward the future, not just tomorrow or next year bl to the absolute future of eternity. It is the foretaste, a glimpse of Heaven, where saints and angels are rapt in joyful adoration of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. [no. 19] But don't think of this foretaste like a preview, like "coming attractions" in a movie theater. On the contrary, in the Mass we actually share in the liturgy that goes on eternally in Heaven. Those who feed on Christ, who died and rose, share already in the life to come, the life we shall live fully eternity. Our Holy Father teaches us so profoundly that "...with the Eucharist we digest, as it were, the secret of the resurrection." [no. 18] Here is a truth should meditate on before each and every Mass in which we share!
III. The Eucharist and Everyday Life
Sometimes it is claimed that when, in the Eucharist, we focus on presence of Jesus' death and resurrection, and the future glory in which we now share, we miss the significance of the Eucharist for our everyday lives. Again that's just not the case! And this leads me to one final key idea:
The Eucharist Enables Us to Live in the Present with Hope
In a misguided effort to show how the Church relates to the world, some say that the Church's mission is simply to affirm what's good in the world and not to hold out hope of paradise, which is viewed as a sort of never- never land that real adults ought not to believe in. But that is not the faith of the Church. The Pope reminds us that we are expecting "a new heaven" and "a new earth" (Rev. 21:1). The hope of new and eternal life doesn't give us an excuse to turn our back on this world or on our role in making the world more humane. Rather, because "God so loved the world" and because each person is called to share in the divine life of the Trinity, we are obliged to allow the truth of the Gospel and the light and love of the Eucharist to shine on the earth, and to transform the world into a place where the poorest, the weakest, the most powerless are respected and loved. The hope we experience in the Eucharist is what motivates our solidarity with the unborn, the poor, the persecuted, the sick and the dying, the powerless - hope is what enables us to imitate Christ, who washed the feet of the disciples and washed our sins away on the Cross, Mother Teresa constantly pointed out the relationship between Christ's Body on the altar and the broken bodies of the poor.
I hope these reflections on the Mystery of Faith will help all of us grow in our love for the truth, reality and gift of the Most Holy Sacrament, of the Altar and equip us to spread the Good News of God's love which it reveals and contains.
This column is credited to Fairfield County Catholic monthly magazine.
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