Whenever you eat this bread, then, and drink this cup, you are proclaiming the Lord's death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:26)In this, the last of our series of reflections on the theology of the Eucharist, as outlined in paragraph 1323 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, we're going to examine an aspect of the Church's teaching on the Blessed Sacrament that is often overlooked in common explanations. Indeed, the very branch of theology known as "eschatology" (the study of the Last Things or the End Times) is often neglected in Catholic circles, too often leaving people's understanding of the end of the world to be formed by fringe personalities like Harold Camping or Hollywood's sensational, if wrong-headed ideas. As Pope Benedict recently stated to journalist Peter Seewald in his book-length interview, Light of the World,
Our preaching, our proclamation, really is one-sided, in that it is largely directed toward the creation of a better world, while hardly anyone talks any more about the other, truly better world. We need to examine our consciences on this point. Of course one has to meet one's listeners half-way, one has to speak to them in terms of their own horizon. But at the same time our task is to open up this horizon, to broaden it, and to turn our gaze toward the ultimate (p. 179).The fact is, we do believe Jesus when He tells us that He is coming again. We believe Him when He tells us there is more to this world--a world which is passing away. We hope in the world to come, in heavenly glory, in the Beatific Vision, in which we will see God face to face. And to strengthen us in that hope, Jesus left us Himself in the Blessed Sacrament, as a pledge of that future glory!
In an ancient prayer the Church acclaims the mystery of the Eucharist: "O sacred banquet in which Christ is received as food, the memory of his Passion is renewed, the soul is filled with grace and a pledge of the life to come is given to us." If the Eucharist is the memorial of the Passover of the Lord Jesus, if by our communion at the altar we are filled "with every heavenly blessing and grace," then the Eucharist is also an anticipation of the heavenly glory (Catechism #1402).Who Was and Is and Is to Come
As we discussed in previous articles, we believe that Jesus is truly present, here and now, in the Eucharistic elements. When at Mass, we see the consecrated Bread and Wine, we understand that they are bread and wine no longer, but the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of our Blessed Lord. He is as truly present in our midst as He was with the Apostles. However, that presence is radically different in its realisation. Jesus is present in a hidden manner; but He has promised to come to us at the end of the age fully revealed in all His glory, as we proclaim in the Nicene Creed, "He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead." As such, there is a tension in Catholic belief between the presence of Christ with us now, as He promised in Matthew 28:20, "And lo, I am with you always, even to the very end of the age," and our hope in His second coming. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it,
The Church knows that the Lord comes even now in his Eucharist and that he is there in our midst. However, his presence is veiled. Therefore we celebrate the Eucharist "awaiting the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ," asking "to share in your glory when every tear will be wiped away. On that day we shall see you, our God, as you are. We shall become like you and praise you for ever through Christ our Lord" (#1404).As such, the Eucharist bridges the gap between Christ's first coming and His second. On the one hand, it is the Memorial Sacrifice of His Passion, reminding us of our redemption and enabling us to appropriate the grace won for us on the Cross. On the other hand, it drives us on to the fulfilment of that redemption--the grace we are given making us worthy of eternal salvation--when we will see the Lord face to face. Pope Benedict, in the second volume of his study of Jesus of Nazereth, reflects on this truth:
The Church greets the Lord in the Holy Eucharist as the one who is coming now, the one who has entered into her midst. At the same time, she greets him as the one who continues to come, the one who leads us toward his coming. As pilgrims, we go up to him; as a pilgrim, he comes to us and takes us up with him in his "ascent" to the Cross and Resurrection, to the definitive Jerusalem that is already growing in the midst of this world in the communion that unites us with his body (Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, p. 11).In the Eucharist, then, we are not only promised life in the world to come, but actually made partakers in that eternal life here and now, and are being changed, sanctified, so as to be ready to meet Jesus face to face. This is what Jesus promised us in John 6:53-55: "In all truth I tell you, if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Anyone who does eat my flesh and drink my blood has eternal life, and I shall raise that person up on the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink."
During the Mass, immediately after the Consecration of the Eucharist, the priest bids the congregation, "Let us proclaim the mystery of faith," to which there are several different responses, which each convey the Gospel tension of Jesus having come, being with us now, and coming again. The verse from 1 Corinthians appearing at the beginning of this article is the foundation for one of these "memorial acclamations": "When we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim Your death, Lord Jesus, until You come in glory." That is, just after recognising Jesus, truly present, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, in the Sacred Species, we remember and proclaim His sacrificial death and resurrection, and long for the day when He will return that ultimate time, in all the fullness of His glory. And yet, it seems, for many of us, the notion that Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead doesn't enter into our minds very often. We get so distracted by the worries and cares of this world, that the thought of it ending strikes us with the fear of what we'd lose if it did--provided that thought ever enters our minds at all. Pope Benedict cautions against this attitude:
But what is the position now in the Christian life regarding expectation of the Lord's return? Are we to expect him, or do we prefer not to?...Should this passing world be dearer to us than the Lord for whom we are actually waiting?The passage to which the Holy Father refers above is a beautiful Eucharistic prayer from the Didache, one of the earliest Christian writings outside of the New Testament, written between AD 50 and 100--that is, while the Gospels themselves were still being written. Below I offer the entire text of that prayer, from chapter 10 of the Didache:
The Book of Revelation concludes with the promise of the Lord's return and with a prayer for it: "He who testifies to these things says, 'Surely I am coming soon.' Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!" (22:20)....
At the end of the First Letter to the Corinthians, Saint Paul quotes the same prayer in an Aramaic version, which as it happens can be divided differently and is therefore open to different interpretations: Marana tha (Lord, come!), or Maran atha (the Lord has come). This two-fold reading brings out clearly the peculiar nature of the Christian expectation of Jesus' coming. It is the invocation "Come!" and at the same time the grateful certainty that "he has come".
From the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles (Didache, ca. 100), we know that this invocation formed part of the liturgical prayers of the eucharistic celebrations of the earliest Christian communities, and here too we find a concrete illustration of the unity of the two readings. Christians pray for Jesus' definitive coming, and at the same time they experience with joy and thankfulness that he has already anticipated this coming and has entered into our midst here and now.
Christian prayer for the Lord's return always includes the experience of his presence. It is never purely focused on the future. The words of the risen Lord make the point: "I am with you always, to the close of the age" (Mt 28:20). He is with us now, and especially close in the eucharistic presence. Yet, conversely, the Christian experience of the Lord's presence does include a certain tension toward the future, toward the moment when that presence will be definitively fulfilled: the presence is not yet complete. It pushes beyond itself. It sets us in motion toward the definitive (Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, pp. 288-290).
And after being filled, eucharistize thus:Just as the Early Church prayed for Christ's return, so must we. The same tension between Christ's immanent, Eucharistic presence now, and the full unveiling of His glory to come, summed up in the prayer Maranatha!, reminds us of the tension of the Church and of the disciple of Christ, to be in this world, and yet to hope for a better one. The pledge of future glory contained in the Eucharist calls us to set our hopes on Heaven, to store up our treasures there, and to call all people to have that same hope.
We give you thanks, holy Father,
for your holy name,
which you tabernacle in out hearts,
and for the knowledge and faith and immortality
which you revealed to us through your servant Jesus.
To you [is] the glory forever.
You, almighty Master, created all things
for the sake of your name,
both food and drink you have given to people for enjoyment
in order that they might give thanks;
to us, on the other hand, you have graciously bestowed
Spirit-sent food and drink for life forever through your servant [Jesus].
Before all [these] things, we give you thanks
because you are powerful [on our behalf].
To you [is] the glory forever.
Remember, Lord, your church,
to save [her] from every evil
and to perfect [her] in your love
and to gather [her] together from the four winds
[as] the sanctified into your kingdom
which you have prepared for her,
because yours is the power and the glory forever.
[A] Come, grace [of the kingdom]!
and pass away, [Oh] this world!
[B] Hosanna to the God of David!
[C] If anyone is holy, come!
If anyone is not, convert!
[D] Come Lord [maranatha]! Amen!
(The Didache 10:1-6, from the translation of Dr. Aaron Milavec. Text in [brackets] indicates words not in the Greek, added for clarity.)
Food For the Journey
In light of the fact that the Eucharist prepares us for the life to come, the ancient Church adopted the practice of administering the Sacrament to the sick and dying. St. Justin Martyr, writing around AD 150, describes how after Mass, the Deacons would bring the Eucharist to those who were not well enough to attend the Church. The union with the Resurrected Lord brings the needed grace to the dying person to "cross over" into death and new life. In this context, the Eucharist is referred to as "viaticum", a Latin term conveying the meaning of "Food for the Journey."
[T]he Church offers those who are about to leave this life the Eucharist as viaticum. Communion in the body and blood of Christ, received at this moment of "passing over" to the Father, has a particular significance and importance. It is the seed of eternal life and the power of resurrection, according to the words of the Lord: "He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day." The sacrament of Christ once dead and now risen, the Eucharist is here the sacrament of passing over from death to life, from this world to the Father (Catechism, #1524).Since, then, Jesus is with us through the Eucharist, we need not fear death, but can rest in the confident hope of being united with Him in paradise. This is the great promise of the Eucharist, as the Catechism again reminds us:
There is no surer pledge or dearer sign of this great hope in the new heavens and new earth "in which righteousness dwells," than the Eucharist. Every time this mystery is celebrated, "the work of our redemption is carried on" and we "break the one bread that provides the medicine of immortality, the antidote for death, and the food that makes us live for ever in Jesus Christ" (#1405).Conclusion
Thus, when we come together to celebrate the Eucharist, let us truly lift our hearts up to the Lord, who has come down to dwell with us in this Blessed Sacrament--not so that we will have peace and prosperity here and now, but in order that we will have the grace to truly live sanctified lives, as pilgrims making our way to a better home. Whether we come to that better home through our own death, or whether we will live to see the Lord's triumphant return with our own eyes, Jesus in the Eucharist will make us more like Him, so that when we meet, He will welcome us to that Heavenly Banquet, unto which the Spirit of God and His Bride, the Church, bid us, "Come!" (cf. Revelation 22:17).
Having passed from this world to the Father, Christ gives us in the Eucharist the pledge of glory with him. Participation in the Holy Sacrifice identifies us with his Heart, sustains our strength along the pilgrimage of this life, makes us long for eternal life, and unites us even now to the Church in heaven, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and all the saints (Catechism #1419).Maranatha! Amen!
Feast of Corpus Christi
(Category: Catholic Distinctives: Sacraments--The Eucharist)