The Eucharist: Christ Giving Himself to Us
Professor of Theology, Boston College
Perceiving Christ's real presence in our spirituality
The Letter to the Hebrews is one of the richest writings of the New Testament; yet too often it remains neglected by believers. Perhaps this is because its argument is rather dense, and demands close attention, as the author himself cautions us. The heart of his proclamation may be found in these verses: "Jesus holds his priesthood forever, because he continues forever. Consequently, he is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them" (Heb 7:24-25).
At the liturgy we offer every prayer "through our Lord Jesus Christ who lives and reigns forever and ever". Thus we echo the faith of the author of Hebrews: Jesus lives always and makes intercession for his Church, his body of which he is the head. The Church depends upon Christ for its very life; and Jesus communicates this life most especially in the Eucharist. Pope Benedict XVI, in the Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis writes: "The Eucharist is Christ who gives himself to us and continually builds us up as his body" (n. 14).
There is an adage from the Patristic era that affirms: "The Church makes the Eucharist and the Eucharist makes the Church". It suggests the intimate and reciprocal relation between the Eucharistic body of the Lord and his ecclesial body. But it is important to understand correctly the priority. As Pope Benedict insists: "The Church's ability to 'make' the Eucharist is completely rooted in Christ's self-gift to her"; because "for all eternity Christ remains the one who loves us first" (n. 14). And the love of Christ finds its fullest incarnation in the Eucharist: his very body and blood given for us.
The welcome and needed reform of the liturgy after Vatican II has brought many riches in its wake. The Sacred Scriptures have been restored to a place of honor so that the people of God are nourished at the table of the Word as well as the table of the Eucharist. The fuller involvement of the whole congregation in the liturgical celebration has led to a more active participation on the part of the whole community, meeting the Council's call for "participatio actuosa".
Yet, even the most fervent advocates of the reformed liturgical rites admit that there is also a potential "dark side" of the reform. The celebration of the Eucharist versus populum and the tendency to highlight the Eucharist as the meal of the community can unwittingly place in the shadow the unique nature of this meal, made possible by the sacrifice of Christ. It is Christ's self-gift that is the heart of this meal: "the bread that I give is my flesh for the life of the world" On 6:51). As Pope Benedict wrote: "The Eucharist is Christ who gives himself". And the Latin is even more forceful: "Christus se nobis tradens —Christ handing himself over to us".
Stressing the communal dimension of the liturgy, unquestionably valid in itself, can subtly turn into a self-celebration of the community. This risk becomes more pronounced in a therapeutic culture where surface emotion often becomes the gauge of authenticity. The outcome, to put it bluntly, can be a "decapitated" body — a community that has been severed from its Head.
However, the need to emphasize the primacy of Christ, as Head of the body and source of its life, did not only emerge after the Second Vatican Council. Long before the Council the great theologian (later Cardinal) Henri de Lubac, SJ, wrote his book, The Splendor of the Church (French title: Meditation sur l'eglise). In it he insisted: "There is certainly no confusion of Head with members. Christians are not the physical or Eucharistic body of Christ, and the Bride is not the Bridegroom". There is intimate union within irreducible distinction. Christ the Head is never without his body the Church; and the Church cannot flourish save in life-giving union with its Head.
Therefore, it is essential to cultivate in our spirituality a lively sense of Christ's real presence. Surely, the sacramental presence of Christ in the Eucharist constitutes the fullness of that presence. But it needs to be complemented by other practices of the presence of Christ. Eastern Christians have promoted the practice of the "Jesus prayer", often synchronized with one's breathing. The Benedictine tradition seeks to recognize Christ's presence in the guest. The welcome recovery of Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament has helped many to rediscover the living presence of the Lord in the midst of his people.
The Eucharist thus becomes a school of the Lord's presence, teaching us to perceive that presence in every aspect of our lives. And the priest who is the celebrant of the community's Eucharist should also strive to be the community's mystagogue, helping lead his people to an ever deeper realization of Christ's saving presence in their midst. A crucial dimension of such mystagogy is the incorporation of moments of profound silence in the Eucharistic celebration so as better to savor Christ's presence in word and in sacrament.
In a world in which absence of meaning and of hope seems too often to prevail, Christians, schooled in the Eucharist, can be witnesses of real presence, both in their worship of the risen Christ and in their service of those suffering from spiritual or material need. Their experience of Christ in the Eucharist will impel them to sing, with Bernard of Clairvaux: "Jesu dulcis memoria, dans vera cordis gaudia sed super mel et omnia, ejus dulcis praesentia!".
Weekly Edition in English
17 June 2009, page 8
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