This year’s Eucharistic Congress is a chance to ponder the depths of this mystery which is at the heart of our Christian faith, writes Rik Van Nieuwenhove
The Synoptic Gospels and St Paul unanimously witness to the fact that the Eucharist was instituted by Our Lord himself. This took place during the celebrations of the Jewish Passover, which remembers the liberation of the Hebrew people from exile and oppression in Egypt.
The words that Christ spoke that night ring out through the ages: ”He took some bread, and when he had given thanks, broke it and gave it to them, saying: ‘This is my body which will be given up for you; do this in memory of me’…” (Luke 22:19).
Christ saw the Last Supper and his Passion that was to follow as a sacrifice, a gift of himself. Perhaps the language of ‘sacrifice’ sounds somewhat alien and cultic to people living in the 21st Century.
The sacrifice of Christ on the cross should not be understood as if it was somehow necessary to placate an angry God.
On the contrary, the Father bestows his Son in order to allow humanity to restore the relationship with God — a relationship which had been skewed by sin.
Perhaps the following analogy can make things clearer: a woman has committed adultery; her husband still loves her and is willing to forgive her.
But if the wife is genuinely repentant, she herself will want to show her remorse and contrition, through an act of penance of some kind, even though the husband does not demand this, so as to restore their relationship.
Similarly, Christ, the representative of humanity restores the relationship with God the Father through his love and obedience unto death — even if the Father did not demand this sacrifice to placate his alleged anger.
In short, Christians teach that sacrifice and self-abnegation can be healing and life-giving — a profoundly counter-cultural view in a consumerist society — and no sacrifice more so than the sacrifice of Christ.
Receive what you are
Like the Passion, the Eucharist too is a source of new life, a sacrament of love. For it would be foolish to think that Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross is something that simply occurred 2,000 years ago and we are now done with it.
On the contrary, Christ’s sacrifice is renewed every day in the sacrament of the altar, which is a re-enactment of Christ’s self-gift. The symbolism of the Eucharistic rite makes this clear: for instance, as Christ’s body was broken on the Cross, so too the bread is broken on the altar.
Furthermore, in receiving the sacrament in a faithful manner we become Christ-like. We become incorporated into Christ as members of his Body.
This is why the phrase ‘Body of Christ’ can refer to both the Eucharistic bread and the Church (i.e. the community of the believers).
In receiving the Eucharistic bread, in which Christ is genuinely present, the Christian community becomes strengthened in faith, hope and love, and becomes the Body of Christ.
There is a famous sermon by Augustine which he preached to newly converted adults who were to receive the Eucharist for the first time.
Augustine told them: ”Receive what you are!” For they were about to receive the Body of Christ — but in doing so (in faith and love) they become the Body of Christ (i.e. the Church).
Heaven and Earth
Still more needs to be said. The Eucharist does not just make the sacrifice of Christ present among us, and allows us to become part of him. It is also a ”pledge of glory to come”.
Through partaking in the Eucharist and becoming incorporated in Christ we receive a pledge that we will dwell in the presence of God forever.
Ordinary temporal categories do not apply here. Past (Christ’s self-gift on Calvary), present (the celebration of the Eucharist here and now), and future (the heavenly banquet) coincide.
This paradoxical coming together of past, present and future is well captured in St Gregory of Nyssa’s famous saying: ”In the Eucharist we remember what is to come.”
Or as Pope Gregory the Great put it at the end of the 6th Century: ”Let us remember what this sacrifice, which for our forgiveness always re-enacts the passion of the only-begotten Son, means for us. Who among the faithful would doubt that at the exact moment of offering Heaven is opened to the voice of the priest; that the choirs of angels are present at the mystery of Jesus Christ; that the highest is united to the lowest; that Heaven and Earth are joined; that the visible and the invisible become one?”
Of course we need faith and humility for the Eucharistic graces to take root in us. None of this happens magically.
I wrote ‘humility’ because these mysteries are beyond rational understanding or verification, and it is somewhat humbling having to let go of our everyday certainties.
If we manage to do this, we are perhaps sharing in the astonishing humility of the Son of God himself who does not mind dwelling in elements as modest and ordinary as bread and wine.
Rik Van Nieuwenhove is Lecturer in Theology at Mary Immaculate College, Limerick.