Ecclesiasticus 4:28

"Fight to the death for truth, and the Lord God will war on your side."

Ora pro nobis,

Most Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Francis de Sales, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Dominic. Amen.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Food for the Soul

"Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood
lives in me
and I live in that person.
As the living Father sent me
and I draw life from the Father,
so whoever eats me will also draw life from me." (John 6:56-57)
For a Puritan, and one considered rather anti-Catholic, the renowned non-conformist preacher and writer, John Bunyan, has a fascinating passage about the Eucharist in the Second Part of his famous work, Pilgrim's Progress. Christiana, the Pilgrim's wife, and her children, have set out after him on pilgrimage of their own. Along the way, Matthew, her eldest son, eats fruit from trees growing in Beelzebub's orchard. A doctor, Mr. Skill, is called who prepares a "purge" to make Matthew vomit up the sinful fruit.
So he made him a purge, but it was too weak. 'Twas said, it was made of the blood of a goat, the ashes of a heifer, and with some of the juice of hyssop, &c. [Note: Hebrews 9]. When Mr. Skill had seen that the purge was too weak, he made him one to the purpose. 'Twas made ex carne et sanguine Christi [Note: The Latin I borrow -Bunyan ("Of the flesh and blood of Christ"; see John 6:53-56.)]. (You know how physicians give strange medicines to their patients.) And it was made up into pills, with a promise or two, and a proportionate quantity of salt [Note: Mark 9:49-50]. Now he was to take them three at a time fasting, in half a quarter of a pint of the tears of repentance. When this potion was prepared and brought to the boy, he was loath to take it, though torn with the gripes as if he should be pulled in pieces. Come, come, said the physician, you must take it. It goes against my stomach, said the boy. I must have you take it, said his mother. I shall vomit it up again, said the boy. Pray, Sir, said Christiana to Mr. Skill, how does it taste? It has no ill taste, said the doctor; and with that she touched one of the pills with the tip of her tongue. Oh, Matthew, said she, this potion is sweeter than honey. If thou lovest thy mother, if thou lovest thy brothers, if thou lovest Mercy, if thou lovest thy life, take it. So with much ado, after a short prayer for the blessing of God upon it, he took it and it wrought kindly with him. It caused him to purge, it caused him to sleep and rest quietly; it put him into a fine heat and breathing sweat, and did quite rid him of his gripes.
(John Bunyan, Pilgrim's Progress. [1985, Bridge Publishing, Chepstow.] pp. 290-291. [Notes] in original.)
After Matthew is healed, Christiana asks Mr. Skill what else the pill is good for, and he tells her that it is a universal medicine against all the problems a pilgrim might face, and that, if used properly, it would cause him to live forever (p. 292). As I said, such a passage is fascinating in a book by a man whose theology had very little regard for the sacraments. And yet, Bunyan's thorough knowledge and love for Scripture inspired this specific and exalted description of the Eucharist. Immediately after the first remedy fails to bring healing (an allegory of Old Testament sacrifices), the New Testament Sacrifice of Christ's Body and Blood--the Eucharist--is employed and is efficacious in saving the boy.

In our last article, we examined the Unifying effect of the Eucharist--that it reinforces our incorporation into Christ that was first effected in our baptism, and that in so doing, it further unites us to the rest of the Church, His Body. Now, let us ask with Christiana, "What is this pill good for else?" We will delineate five effects of Holy Communion which flow from the conclusions of our previous articles--primarily that Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist, and that the Eucharist re-presents His sacrificial death on Calvary.

Divine Grace
Since Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist, and we thus receive Him in Holy Communion, this reception carries with it His divine grace. This is all the more evident since the Eucharist, in making Calvary present to us, is making the very cause of that Grace present. What does it mean to say that in the Eucharist we receive divine grace? What is Grace? Grace is nothing less than a share in the divine life of God (2 Peter 1:4). Through Christ's sacrifice, He Himself comes to us and unites us to Himself, as we saw in our last article. He bestows on us His life--eternal life--abundant life. This Grace is the means of our acceptance and adoption as God's children, which we first receive at baptism. It continues in us to effect our sanctification, our growth in holiness. In short, this Divine Grace that we receive in the Eucharist, makes us more and more into the image of Christ.

The Forgiveness of Sins
Since the gift of Divine Grace causes our sanctification, this logically means that the Eucharist brings about the forgiveness of sin--since sin is the antithesis of sanctification and thus of grace. Again, since the Eucharist is a re-presentation of Christ's atoning sacrifice, that atonement is effected in and through the Sacrament. However, we must make note of the degrees of sin, and the effects of each degree of sin, as well as the disposition of the sinner--for the Eucharist in itself is not oriented to the purpose of the forgiveness of all sins, but of increasing Grace in one's soul, more closely uniting him or her to Christ.

In 1 John 5:16-17, he speaks of Mortal, or deadly sin, and non-mortal sin, which the Church calls "venial" or light. While some want to deny such a distinction, claiming that all sin is equal in the eyes of God, neither Scripture nor logic bear this opinion out. It seems self-evident that murder is a much more serious sin than being disrespectful, for example. We cannot treat the discussion of the varying severity of sin at length in this article, and will take for granted the obviousness of the distinction between Mortal and Venial Sin (with a promise to write a full article about it in the future). Now, since there is a difference in the severity of sin, it seems obvious that there is a difference in the effects of each degree of sin on the soul. Briefly, Mortal Sin is called Mortal because it kills the divine life in a soul. The graces of justification and sanctification are destroyed by willfully, knowingly committing a sin of a grave matter. Such sin is the ultimate act of uncharity and thus is in itself a declaration that we are rejecting God's Covenant. On the other hand, a Venial sin is not the result of the absense of charity, but human weakness. It does not completely kill the life of grace in a soul, but only wounds it.

Since, as we discussed in our last article, the Eucharist is the Sacrament of Unity and the sign of Covenant faithfulness, those in Mortal Sin will not through the Eucharist receive forgiveness of their sins, but, in fact, greater condemnation, for they profane the Sacrament by participating in it. Those in Mortal Sin need the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which was instituted by Christ specifically for the forgiveness of Mortal Sin and the restoration of the Sinner to the Covenant and the Life of Grace. For those whose sins are merely venial, though, the Eucharist is efficacious to entirely forgive those sins. Furthermore, however, one who has committed a Mortal Sin, but does not intend to remain attached to his sin, and has forgotten it, in approaching the Altar and receiving the Sacrament, can find forgiveness in it. The Eucharistic graces will perfect charity in him, making his contrition perfect, leading to the forgiveness of those forgotten mortal sins. If, however, he remembers his mortal sins before receiving the Eucharist, such a one must have recourse to Confession, as said above.

The Remission of Punishment due to Sin
Throughout Scripture, we see time and time again people committing sin, and then repenting and turning to God. We see God forgive their sin and welcome them back into His Covenant, into relationship with Him. But we also, time and again, see that these people still have to face the consequences or the punishment for their sins, even after they've been forgiven. For example, even though God forgave Adam and Eve, they still were not allowed back into the Garden of Eden. Even though God forgave Moses in the Wilderness, he still couldn't enter the Promised Land. Even though God forgave King David for his affair with Bath-Sheba and his murder of Uriah, David's first son with Bath-Sheba still died.

When we sin, there is a just punishment due to our sins, both in time and in eternity. The forgiveness of our sins eliminates that eternal punishment: Hell. But restitution still needs to be made in the here-and-now. This is the purpose of penance in the Sacrament of Confession--to help us begin to make that restitution, to help cut us off from our attachment to sin and to participate in the righting of the wrongs we've done. Mercy, after all, might cause my neighbour to forgive me for breaking his window, but justice still demands that I pay for the damage.

In the Eucharist, we receive the very life of Christ Himself. His grace is bestowed on us, as well as a share in His infinite merits which He earned in His perfect obedience to the Father, even to death on the Cross. In and of itself, the Eucharist, as the re-presentation of Christ's sacrifice, is powerful enough to remit all the temporal punishment due to all sins. However, our appropriation of this merit is dependent upon our own charity. The amount of punishment remitted is in accord with the measure of our devotion. The greater our love for God, and the more we strive to love God, the more effective the Sacrament will be in remitting our temporal punishments.

Stength for the Soul
Since the Eucharist infuses sanctifying grace into our souls, frequent reception will have the effect of making us more holy, if we cooperate with the graces we receive. Holiness is more than simply the forgiveness of our sins. It is being made more and more perfect. The Eucharist, then, gives us the grace to overcome temptation and to avoid sin. When we cooperate with the grace that Christ gives to us, we can become free of sin through His strength at work in us. In other words, frequent reception of the Eucharist will enflame our charity, increase our holiness, and, in the end, make us Saints.

The Means of Eternal Life
Holiness is the prerequisite for Heaven and union with God. It is the pure who will see God's face, and it is the Eucharist that makes us pure. It is our Viaticum, our "Food for the Journey". As Bunyan's Mr. Skill tells Christiana, those who receive the Eucharist properly will indeed live forever. Jesus Himself gives us this promise in John 6. Just as physical food nourishes our bodies, repairing, healing, and sustaining them, so the Eucharist does all this for our souls.

Through the Eucharist, our eternal life begins here and now, and in the Eucharist, we have the pledge of future glory--which topic we'll examine in our next article.

(Category: Catholic Distinctives: Sacraments--The Eucharist)


Joni said...

Our family just recently listened to Fr. Larry Richard's teaching on "The Meaning of the Mass". He honed in on the fact that anyone who says they left the Church because they "weren't being fed", does NOT understand the Eucharist at all.

Thanks for this great article. Without the Eucharist, we will starve.

Gregory said...

I have that talk, too (as well as Jeff Cavins' "I'm Not Being Fed"). It's so true. That's why I'm writing this series, so that hopefully those who haven't understood the great gift Jesus gives us of Himself in this Sacrament will come to understand the truth of the love He has for us, and of our desperate need for Him.

Joey said...

Absolutely beautiful post.

This is why I became Catholic.

Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, pray for us.
St. Joseph, custodian of the body of Christ, pray for us.
St. Thomas Acquinas, pray for us.
St. Alphonsus Liguori, pray for us.
St. Andre Bessette, pray for us.
St. Bonaventure, pray for us.
St. Augustine, pray for us.
St. Catherine of Sienna, pray for us.