Father Thomas Acklin: What is the Eucharist?
As soon as we start to like someone, we want to get to know him or her better. A clearer understanding of the Eucharist opens us to a deeper, personal relationship with Jesus. This relationship with Jesus is a covenant with all of us in His blood, and with each one of us in an intimate way. In dying, Jesus conquers our death because of our union with Him in our humanity. In rising, He restores our life, and in taking on our sins, His offering washes away the sins of all the living and dead. In the Spirit He breathes forth as He dies, the Son reconciles us to the Father.
The Eucharist as a meal and as a sacrifice
A meal, especially one with family and friends, and particularly for a celebration, is a time to deepen our closeness with each other and with our hosts. Jesus gave us the Eucharist at the Last Supper. But in this case, we not only eat with the Host of the meal, we also eat and drink the consecrated host and wine and thereby eat the Giver of the Gift, becoming one with each other as we become one in Jesus Christ. The common substances of bread and wine become the very Body and Blood of Christ, and our love for Him, our consuming desire for Him, is satisfied in receiving the Eucharist.
The Last Supper was a celebration of the Pasch, the Passover meal in which the Israelites were incorporated into God's chosen people as they ate the Paschal Lamb before their exodus from Egypt to the promised land. This sacrificial meal grounded a special relationship with the Lord, gave them an identity as His people, and strengthened their covenant with Him.
Jesus established a new covenant, a new relationship with us, through offering not a lamb but Himself, the Lamb of God. When we do this in memory of Him, we do it at a sacrificial meal, the new Paschal Meal participating in the Paschal Mystery of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The Eucharist as a memorial
Most other sacrifices that were offered to God, or even sacrifices we would offer in daily life for others' sake, had to be repeated. But on the Cross, Jesus offered Himself once and for all. The Eucharistic sacrifice, repeated each time Mass is celebrated, is not a new sacrifice, but a participation in the one sacrifice of Christ. In this sense, it is a memorial.
"No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends" (Jn 15:13). In the Eucharist, the priest is also the victim. The one offering the sacrifice is also the one being sacrificed. The Good Shepherd is also one of the sheep, the Lamb of God, the lamb who has been slain. It is one thing to give something to someone in need, yet another to act to help someone in need, and yet the greatest sacrifice of all to give oneself for someone in need. Christ, the great high priest, offers Himself once and for all, so that from that time forward, all sacrifices are offered in His sacrifice.
The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, offered by an ordained priest, is the unbloody sacrifice that participates in the once-and-for-all sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross. In a real way, the moments of time in which we celebrate and receive the Eucharist are taken up into and participate in the time opening into eternity of the self-giving love of Jesus in the Paschal Mystery. For the Christian, no sacrifice or offering is ever too small, because it is taken up into the one sacrifice and offering of Christ.
Through the invocation of the Holy Spirit, the moments of our time participate in the moments of the time of the Last Supper, Jesus' Death and Resurrection, and the offering of the Son to the Father. This is the deeper meaning of the Eucharist and of the directive Jesus gave His Apostles and their successors to enact what He did in order to participate in His offering: "Do this in memory of me."
'Anamnesis': real presence
We know what it is like at a meal when we are remembering our loved ones who have died or the great deeds of our ancestors. We use our memories to know them as they once were (and somehow still are) to us. But the memorial of the Eucharist, the remembering of Jesus, is also His Real Presence. The word "anamnesis" in Greek has this fuller meaning of "remembering." For example, in Luke 23:39-43, as Jesus hangs with two thieves dying on the cross, one thief says to Him, "Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom." Jesus responds, going far beyond reassuring him that He will remember him: "Amen, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise!"
This shows the fullness of His remembrance of us and how He is present to us in the Eucharist. We can understand the injunction of Jesus at the Last Supper, "Do this in remembrance of me," to mean, "On that day when you do these things (the Eucharist), I will be with you." Now, that is real presence.
His presence is substantial, and the bread and wine are "transubstantiated." Substance is the very being of something, and the very being of Jesus – Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity – is present in the Eucharist. Transubstantiation describes the changing over ("trans") of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. Though still under the appearances of bread and wine, the reality is the person of Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God who has shared our human nature.
This is truly the real Jesus as He walked on earth, God and man, but more. It is Jesus on the Cross, who has died, risen and entered into glory, truly present to us in the Eucharist.
Offering the Eucharist in thanksgiving and praise
However, when we gather to receive the Eucharist, we must remember that it is more than a meal, a sacrifice, or a memorial. In the Eucharist, we encounter Jesus Himself. We are united as members of His body, ever more deeply each time we receive Him.
"We are the body of Christ" must be complemented by "We are the Body of Christ!" This is no ordinary meal, and the transcendent nature of what we are doing should never be lost in the familiarity we also seek to have with our brothers and sisters. The secular must here open out to the sacred, Jesus Himself.
Vatican II's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) recognizes distinct and complementary ways in which Jesus is present: in the faithful gathered in His name, in the proclamation of His Word, and most especially in His sacramental presence in the Eucharist.
Our fellowship with each other in the Eucharistic meal is also a sacrifice. Whatever we offer in the Eucharist, we should offer not only our intentions and needs but also everything we have and are. We place ourselves on the altar with the gifts, and as we are incorporated into the one Body of Christ, we are taken up into His once-and-for-all offering of Himself to the Father.
Receiving the Eucharist communally, yet individually
On the day we do these things, Jesus is with us! Whatever we bring with us as a community – our identity, our shared life of worship – we bring to Him present now with us. Yet as individuals, we not only receive Him in unity with all the other members of His Body, in communion with them, we also encounter Him in a personal way. The silent time given to us during the celebration of the Eucharist allows the intimacy of this personal encounter to become communion. Our receiving Him is our letting Him "come under our roof." We can share with Him whatever we bring of our memories, hopes and fears, needs and desires. We can also share with Him what we might find impossible to share with anyone else.
We are humbled that He would come to us because of our sense of our communal unworthiness, but also especially because we are aware of our personal unworthiness. Yet this should stir us to contrition rather than mere guilt. Who am I that the Son of God would come to me, would let me receive Him under my roof? This type of self-knowledge is too much for us, and we unconsciously seek to avoid it. So often in contemporary celebrations of the Eucharistic liturgy, there is so much singing, reading, talking, explaining and expressing, that the time for silence and intimacy with the Lord can be lost.
It can become hard for us to sit still, to be silent, to truly meet the Lord in the Eucharist. It seems easier to establish a more ready fellowship with the other people present. If we do not find the homily interesting or the music moving, we do not quite know what to do with ourselves.
In times gone by, many Catholics followed the practice of going to church a half hour or more before Mass to pray and prepare themselves to receive the Body and Blood of Christ. Likewise, following Mass, they spent private time in thanksgiving and prayerful communion with the Lord. In a society where we are all in such a rush, where we blow into church and leave amid quick hellos and good-byes, much of the intimacy with Christ in the Eucharist has been lost. We must take time following Communion to deepen an interior awareness and the personal relationship with Christ that the Eucharist gives us.
Benedictine Father Thomas Acklin is senior fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and director of counseling at St. Vincent Seminary in Latrobe, Penn.
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