The Day of the Lord
Not long ago, a parishioner shared with me her attitude about the Eucharist: "I go to Mass once in a while, when I think it will help me." Going to Mass every Sunday was out of the question: "I just don't see the need," she said. Unfortunately, her attitude is shared by many who consider themselves faithful Catholics. Yet that attitude is not proportionate to the gift. If we really embraced the gift and mystery of the Eucharist, we'd never want to be absent from Mass on Sunday.
The Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church offers us a brief summary of this great mystery of faith. It begins by pointing out that "the Eucharist is the very sacrifice of the Body and Blood of the Lord Jesus." It is not merely a reminder that the Lord offered his Body and Blood in sacrifice for our sake. Rather, it is that offering: Jesus himself instituted the Eucharist to perpetuate the sacrifice of the cross throughout the ages until his return in glory." Far from being a mere token of what the Lord did so long ago to save us, the Eucharist is the living memorial of Jesus' death and Resurrection. Furthermore, the Eucharist is at the heart of the Church's life. It is the love that holds the Church together and regenerates the Church in every age. It is the banquet of Christ's Sacrifice in which His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity are consumed. When we worthily partake of the Eucharist we participate in God's own life (grace). Thus, through the Eucharist we begin to share even now in the divine life in which we shall fully share in the life to come.
Gathered with his Apostles, Jesus entrusted the Eucharist to the Church at the Last Supper. At the consecration of every Mass, the priest repeats and re-enacts the words by which the Lord instituted the Eucharist: "Take this and eat it, all of you: this is my Body which will be given for you... Take this and drink of this, all of you: this is the cup of my Blood, the Blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven. Do this in memory of me." We hear these words so often but do we understand that they put us into living contact with what Jesus did at the Last Supper? Do we realize that they put us into living contact with His death and Resurrection?
No wonder the Second Vatican Council teaches that the Eucharist is "the source and summit of the Christian life" (Lumen Gentium, 11). Through the Eucharist we are sanctified so that we can worship God "in spirit and in truth" (Jn. 4:21). Since the Eucharist re-presents (makes present again) the Death and Resurrection of Christ (the Paschal Mystery), it contains the entire spiritual wealth of the Church. It brings us into union (communion) with the Trinity and with one another in the Church. It puts us in touch with the great liturgy of Heaven, that utterly joyous and eternal worship of God for which we were made and for which our hearts long.
The more we think about what the Eucharist actually is, the less "optional" it seems! The very names used to describe the Eucharist remind us of its centrality. Here are just a few examples. The word "Eucharist" refers to the thanksgiving we owe to the God who made us and redeemed us. The phrase "Holy Mass" speaks to our mission to bring to bring the Christ-life we encounter in the Eucharist into our daily life, in other words, our duty to evangelize by word and example. The Lord's Supper reminds us the Lord instituted this Sacrament as a sacred meal to nourish us inwardly. The Scriptures refer to the Eucharist as the "Breaking of Bread" – a sharing in the Body of the Lord that makes us one. Holy Communion tells us that the Eucharist unites us to the Trinity, to the saints and angels in Heaven, and to one another in the Church here on earth.
We also shouldn't forget that the Eucharist is prefigured in the Passover of the Old Covenant. When Jesus gathered with his apostles in the Upper Room, they celebrated a paschal meal that commemorated the deliverance of people of Israel from the slavery of Egypt to the freedom of the Promised Land. This deliverance foreshadowed the great deliverance we experience at the Eucharist – from the slavery of sin to the freedom of that new life of grace Christ won for us by his Death and Resurrection. In other words, the Eucharist gives us the strength we need to become like Christ in word and deed, observing the commandments in the spirit of the Beatitudes, giving of ourselves in our vocations, and seeking to build a civilization of love wherein human life and dignity are respected. Indeed the Eucharist is central to God's plan of redemption.
The Mass is made up of two parts "which together form one, single act of worship" (Compendium, no. 277). The first part is called "The Liturgy of the Word." Here, the Word of God is proclaimed, reflected on, and listened to." The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy teaches that when the Scriptures are proclaimed, it is Christ himself who speaks to us (see Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 7). The second part of the Mass is called "The Liturgy of the Eucharist." This includes the presentation of the bread and wine, the great Eucharistic Prayer, and Communion. As noted earlier, the Eucharist is the memorial of the sacrifice of Christ offered to the Father on our behalf. Each time the Eucharist is celebrated, Jesus' Sacrifice, that is, His Pasch, are truly made present: "The sacrifice of the cross and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one and the same sacrifice" (Compendium, no. 280). The Priest and Victim are the same. The sacrifice was offered on the cross in a bloody manner but in the Eucharist that same sacrifice is offered in an unbloody manner, through the signs of bread and wine.
Think of Christ's love in giving us the Eucharist. Jesus makes His sacrifice of love available to us so that we can offer our lives – our joys, sorrows, and daily work – in union with Him to the Father as an acceptable sacrifice of praise. It is a most perfect prayer that we can offer for our loved ones and indeed for all the living and the dead. It is the principal source of strength for our discipleship and unites us to saints in heaven. Can we really do without the Eucharist?
We can understand our need for the Eucharist by focusing on how Christ is present in the Eucharist: "He is present in a true, real, and substantial way, with His Body and His Blood, His Soul and His Divinity" (Compendium, no. 282). Indeed, the Church has coined a word to describe the complete transformation of bread and wine into Christ's Body and Blood, namely, "transubstantiation". While not a household term, we should make it part of our vocabulary of faith. It reminds us of the unique way in which Christ makes Himself present to us in the Eucharist.
This leads us to reflect on the respect we owe to Eucharistic species, the bread and wine transformed into Christ's Body and Blood. Christ is present whole and entire in each particle of the Host and in each drop of the Precious Blood. The Eucharistic Species should be treated with reverence and great care. Because the Eucharist is truly the Body and Blood of Christ, we worship the Eucharist both during Mass but also outside of Mass, for example, during Benediction and in Corpus Christi processions. The Eucharist is brought to the sick and the homebound. When administered to the dying it is called "Viaticum" – "food for the journey" into eternity.
Given the beauty and centrality of this sublime gift, the Church rightly obliges us to take part in Mass each Sunday. While we are obliged to receive Holy Communion at least once a year during the Easter Season, the Church encourages us to receive the Eucharist frequently.
To receive Communion worthily,< we must be members of the Catholic Church and be in the state of grace. If we are aware of any mortal sins we have committed, we should first receive the Sacrament of Penance before partaking of the Eucharist. We should prepare our hearts to receive Our Lord in the Eucharist by prayerful recollection and by fasting one hour before Mass. We should also show our respect for the Eucharist by our prayerful demeanor and appropriate dress when attending Mass.
As the great season of Lent approaches, I pray that we will approach the Holy Eucharist, the great mystery of faith, with renewed appreciation and thanksgiving. By word and example, let us encourage one another never to be absent from Sunday Eucharist but observe the Lord's Day in the way that He has provided for us.