The blessing-cup, which we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ; and the loaf of bread which we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? And as there is one loaf, so we, although there are many of us, are one single body, for we all share in the one loaf. (1 Corinthians 10:16-17)When we understand that Jesus Christ is truly present in the Eucharist, and that it is the memorial sacrifice of His death and resurrection at Calvary, made present to us again here and now, we come to understand certain other truths about the Eucharist--namely, if we really are consuming Jesus, and are participating in and appropriating His sacrifice to our lives, then there must be certain dramatic effects in so doing. After all, a Sacrament, by definition, is a physical object that confers God's grace. In the next two artilces, we'll be looking at just what those graces are that we recieve in the Eucharist.
The Kiss of Christ
One of the most beloved times in a Catholic family's life is the time when their children receive their first Holy Communion. The child, now old enough to understand right from wrong, and enough of the Church's teaching of the mystery of Jesus' real presence, having been taught and prepared for this event, and having made his or her first Reconciliation, is now dresssed up in the finest suit or the prettiest dress in order to come to the Table of the Lord for the very first time. It's striking to see so often that the little girls are dressed in what could almost be described as wedding dresses, and indeed the similarity is apt. For in the Eucharist we come into a real and true Communion with our Saviour, who waits for us, Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, in the Blessed Sacrament. Great saints and mystics of the Church have described receiving the Eucharist in almost erotic terms, reminiscent of the Song of Songs. Indeed, this very book of the Bible is allegorically interpreted to refer to the unique and all-surpassing intimacy of Christ and His Bride, the Church. Consider the words of St. Ambrose of Milan:
You have come to the altar. The Lord Jesus calls you--both your soul and the Church--and says, "O that you would kiss me with the kisses of your mouth!" (Sgs 1:2).Holy Communion
Do you want to prepare for Christ?
Do you want to do this for your soul? Nothing is more pleasant.
"O that you would kiss me." He sees that you are cleansed from all sin, your sins are purged away, and you are worthy of the heavenly sacrament; and so He invites you to the heavenly banquet. "O that you would kiss me with the kisses of your mouth!"
Now your soul sees itself cleansed from sin and worthy to approach the altar of Christ, and so the body of Christ. Now your soul has seen the wonderful sacrament and says, "O that you would kiss me with the kisses of your mouth!" That is: Let Christ press a kiss upon me.
Why? Because "Your love is better than wine" (Sgs 1:2). That is, the sensations that You provide are better--Your sacraments are better than wine. Though wine brings sweetness, joy, and pleasure, it is but worldly joy, while in You is spiritual pleasure. (On the Sacraments 5.2)
In Communion, Christ enters into us, and we receive Him into ourselves. He brings His grace of new life into our souls, and makes us more and more like Him. So many Christians speak about having a "personal relationship" with Jesus, and yet fail to realise the full depth of intimacy with our Lord that is available to them in this Sacrament. And in this intimate union, we allow Christ to truly transform us, as St. Augustine says, "Through those appearances [of bread and wine] the Lord wished to leave us His body and blood that He poured out for the remission of sins. If you receive well, you are what you have received" (Sermon 227). And so, in the Eucharist, we become so united to Christ that more and more, like a marriage, we become "one flesh" with Him.
The Sacrament of Unity
As such, more than any other sacrament, the Eucharist signifies unity. It not only unites us in a greater degree to Christ Himself, our Head, but as the passage from 1 Corinthians, quoted above, points out, the Eucharist unites us closer to the Body of Christ, as well--that is, the Church. Referring to this text, St. Augustine further elaborates:
So if you want to understand the body of Christ, listen to what the apostle tells the faithful: "Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it" (1 Corinthians 12:27). If you are the body of Christ and its members, you are the mystery that has been placed on the Lord's table, and you are the mystery that you receive! You respond "Amen" to what you are, and in responding you agree. You hear "the body of Christ," and you respond, "Amen." Then be a member of the body of Christ, so that your Amen may be true.When Jesus taught His disciples to pray, He said "Our Father." While on the one hand, this indicates that God the Father is both our Father and Jesus' Father, on the other hand, Jesus was emphasising the communal nature of His Church--that the Our Father is meant to be prayed in community--that Christianity is not a solo act, but one that must be lived with regard to others. After all, He Himself summed it up when He told us that all the Law could be boiled down to "Love God and love one another" (cf. Matthew 22:34-40). St. John tells us that if we claim to love God, but hate our brother, we are liars, for we cannot hate our brother and love God at the same time (cf. 1 John 4:2-21). And St. Paul himself, in his teaching on the Eucharist in 1 Corinthians 11, ties these two things together: that we must eat Christ's flesh and blood worthily, recogising the body (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:17-34). On the one hand, as we discussed in the article on Transubstantiation, this refers to recognising that Jesus Himself is truly and sacramentally present. But on the other hand, as indicated by the particular problem being addressed by St. Paul, that Body of Christ in the Sacrament makes His Church the Body of Christ together, and just as failure to recognise the sacramental presence of Christ is sacrilege, so too is the failure to honour our brothers and sisters in Christ. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us that when we offer our sacrifice (i.e., the Mass), and there remember that we have something against our brother, we must leave and reconcile with him, and then come back to the sacrifice (cf. Matthew 5:23-24). This is why, just before Communion, there is the "Sign of Peace" exchanged with our fellow parishioners. In a very real way, it is our opportunity to be reconciled with anyone there against whom we may harbour unforgiveness, or whom we may have wronged. It is our opportunity to recollect as to whether there is anyone else to whom we must be reconciled, so that we may fulfil the command of our Lord.
Why then in bread? Let's say nothing on our own here, but listen instead to what the apostle says when he speaks of the sacrament: "Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread" (1 Cor 10:17).
Ponder and rejoice! Unity, truth, piety, charity--one bread! And what is this one bread? "We who are many are one body!" Remember that bread is not made from a single grain of wheat, but from many. When you were exorcised, it was like a grinding. When you were baptised, it was like being mixed into dough. When you received the fire of the Holy Spirit, it was like being baked. So be what you can see, and become what you are....
That is how Christ the Lord signified us, and how He wished us to belong to Him. That is how He consecrated the mystery of our peace and unity on His table. Whoever accepts the mystery of unity but does not hold the bond of peace, does not receive it for his own good, but rather as a testimony against himself. (Sermon 272)
Moreover, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church points out, this love of neighbour must extend to the poorest, with whom Christ so explicitly identifies Himself in Matthew 25. Paragraph 1397 of the Catechism states, quoting St. John Chrysostom,
The Eucharist commits us to the poor. To receive in truth the Body and Blood of Christ given up for us, we must recognize Christ in the poorest, his brethren:Thus, while on the one hand, the Eucharist makes us more and more a part of the Body of Christ, and thus more Christlike, it also demands that we become so. The Eucharist calls us to cooperate with the grace that it gives us, and if we fail to do so, as St. Paul tells us, we profane the Body and Blood of the Lord.
You have tasted the Blood of the Lord, yet you do not recognize your brother,....You dishonor this table when you do not judge worthy of sharing your food someone judged worthy to take part in this meal....God freed you from all your sins and invited you here, but you have not become more merciful.
But when we receive worthily, Holy Communion has tremendous effects on our souls, which we'll discuss more at length in our next article. The Catechism sums them up in paragraph 1416:
Communion with the Body and Blood of Christ increases the communicant's union with the Lord, forgives his venial sins, and preserves him from grave sins. Since receiving this sacrament strengthens the bonds of charity between the communicant and Christ, it also reinforces the unity of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ.And yet, here we touch on a tragic irony, for we cannot share the Eucharist with every member of the Body of Christ.
The Sacrament of Disunity
The Latin word "sacramentum" literally means "oath." Every sacrament is an oath made by God to us of His enduring love and grace, and an oath made by us to God of our love and obedience in return. In the Eucharist, Jesus' pledged oath is His continual presence in our midst, and our incorporation into His body. Our response, our "Amen," signifies our faith in His real presence, and, just as the sacrament signifies, it is our pledge of unity and charity with the other members of His Body. But throughout the centuries, heresies and schisms have divided Christ's Church so that the unity professed in the Sacrament of the Eucharist is missing. Those who have separated themselves, or find themselves separated, from the Church that Christ founded, cannot participate in the Eucharist, for to do so would be, in essence, to perjure oneself--to take an oath swearing unity with the Church, and then to live at variance with it. St. Augustine points out that such a one sets themselves up for judgement when they receive the Eucharist:
Consider what you have received! Just as you see the bread made one, so may you also be one body--by loving one another, by having one faith, one hope, and an undivided charity. When heretics receive this, they receive testimony agaist themselves, because they seek division, while this bread bespeaks unity (Sermon 229).There are, of course, varying degrees of disunity. Those who are in a state of mortal sin are barred from the Eucharist, as noted above, since to partake would be a profanation of the Body and Blood. The rupture in their union with Christ and His Church is healed through the sacrament of Reconciliation. Those who publicly challenge and repudiate Church teaching on fundamental issues, and in so doing lead others into sin, place themselves under a ban of excommunication, and beyond needing Confession, need to publicly repudiate their errors and have the bishop formally reinstate them into Communion with the Church.
Those, such as the Eastern Orthodox churches, who are in schism with the Catholic Church, but who otherwise hold nearly all things in common with her, are excluded from the Eucharist under normal circumstances, but exceptions can be made where a Catholic can receive Orthodox Communion, and vice versa, since the wounds to full unity are rather small.
In the 16th century, however, due in no small part to abuses within the Catholic Church, another great rending of the unity of the Church occurred with the so-called "Reformation." Unlike Eastern Orthodoxy, which bears very little theological difference with Catholicism, the Reformers, based on their credo of "Sola Scriptura", reinterpreted much of Scripture according to their own notions, and eschewed much of the Sacred Tradition passed down from the Apostles. Thus the rifts between Catholicism and Protestantism are far more severe. Among the divergences are the failure to maintain an authentic ordination to the priesthood, and hence the Eucharist as celebrated in the Protestant traditions is not in fact the same as that celebrated by the Catholics and Eastern Orthodox churches, even among those Protestant groups who hold to some form of belief in the Real Presence. Yet even in the doctrine of the Eucharist, Protestants are divided among themselves, to the point that just one hundred years after Luther revolted, a book was published titled, "Two Hundred Interpretations of 'This is My Body'". The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the situation between Catholics and Protestants thus:
Ecclesial communities derived from the Reformation and separated from the Catholic Church, "have not preserved the proper reality of the Eucharistic mystery in its fullness, especially because of the absence of the sacrament of Holy Orders." It is for this reason that, for the Catholic Church, Eucharistic intercommunion with these communities is not possible. However these ecclesial communities, "when they commemorate the Lord's death and resurrection in the Holy Supper...profess that it signifies life in communion with Christ and await his coming in glory" (# 1400).In the following paragraph, the Church does allow that a Protestant in mortal emergency, who, with full consent of his will and the expression of belief in the Catholic Church's teaching on the Eucharist, may receive it (cf. # 1401). But on the whole, the wounds to unity caused by the Reformation are too great to be overlooked in order to celebrate the Sacrament of Unity with them.
Some may object here that the Catholic Church, in so teaching and practising, is being exclusionary--that if the Eucharist is truly about unity, wouldn't it demonstrate a much more "ecumenical" attitude if the Church were to practise an "open table" form of Holy Communion? Such an objection, however, demonstrates the very reason for the Church's teaching and practise on this matter. That is, the objection itself stems froma diminished view of what the Eucharist is. If it is truly Jesus Himself, then naturally we would want to protect it from any type of profanation or sacrilege. If the Eucharist is truly a Covenant Oath of unity, then we would want to preserve the truth of that oath and prevent perjury. Those who believe that the Eucharist should be "open" to any Christian are not themselves recognising the absolute sacredness of the Sacrament itself; if they were, they would never raise the objection.
After all, if one denies that Jesus is present, those who believe He is would consider this a major act of blasphemy. If He is not truly present, those who believe He is and thus are worshipping the Eucharist, would be committing grave idolatry. In what sense can these two irreconcilable positions be joined in a Sacrament that swears, signifies, and causes the unity of the Body of Christ?
Many are Called
The fact is, though, that the Table of the Lord is open. As St. John's Revelation depicts, the Spirit and the Bride bid us to "Come" to the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev. 22:17). It is open to all who will receive, who will come to Jesus on His terms. He instituted the Eucharist, and He founded His Church and ordained her priests to administer it. All who will submit in obedience to Him, He welcomes to the table.
In Matthew 22, Jesus tells a parable about those who are called to His Eucharistic feast, and about those who think they can come on their terms, rather than His:
Jesus began to speak to them in parables once again, 'The kingdom of Heaven may be compared to a king who gave a feast for his son's wedding. He sent his servants to call those who had been invited, but they would not come. Next he sent some more servants with the words, "Tell those who have been invited: Look, my banquet is all prepared, my oxen and fattened cattle have been slaughtered, everything is ready. Come to the wedding." But they were not interested: one went off to his farm, another to his business, and the rest seized his servants, maltreated them and killed them. The king was furious. He despatched his troops, destroyed those murderers and burnt their town. Then he said to his servants, "The wedding is ready; but as those who were invited proved to be unworthy, go to the main crossroads and invite everyone you can find to come to the wedding." So these servants went out onto the roads and collected together everyone they could find, bad and good alike; and the wedding hall was filled with guests. When the king came in to look at the guests he noticed one man who was not wearing a wedding garment, and said to him, "How did you get in here, my friend, without a wedding garment?" And the man was silent. Then the king said to the attendants, "Bind him hand and foot and throw him into the darkness outside, where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth." For many are invited but not all are chosen' (Matt. 22:1-14).Let us not presume that the invitation of Christ demands nothing of us.
For myself, I came to recognise that if the Church simply let all Christians to her altar, that this would indeed foster further disunity--by declaring that disunity was acceptable. If there was no call to conversion in order to receive the Sacrament, then no one would convert. I know that my desire to receive Jesus in the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Altar was many times the only reason that I became a Catholic. Jesus prayed that the Church would be one, as He and the Father are one (John 17). May we all strive for such unity, of heart and of mind--of love for God and of sound doctrine, that we may all soon be able to come to the Lamb's Supper and dine together with our Lord and His Church.
(Category: Catholic Distinctives: Sacraments--The Eucharist)