Eucharist, Communion and Formation
Father Billy Swan*
Reflections from the International Eucharistic Congress for the Year of Faith
The theme of the recent International Eucharistic Congress: "The Eucharist: communion with Christ and with one another", draws attention to the relationship between the Eucharist and ecclesial communion. While it is conventional to associate the Eucharist as the place where communion is celebrated and received, the importance of the Eucharist as the locus where communion is formed has arguably received insufficient attention. Here we explore the importance of communion with Christ and with one another being continually formed by the action of the Holy Spirit when Eucharist is celebrated: a time and space when we are formed into the people of God the Father, con-formed to the image and likeness of Christ and transformed by the Spirit into the Body of Christ.
First, the Eucharist forms Christians into the new people of God, into an organic community with a singular identity. Just as by celebrating the seder, the Jewish people remembered their election by God and gathering by him to be qahal or a nation (cf. Deut 4:10; 10:4; 18:16), so the Eucharist gathers into one a people of all ages, cultures and nations, where all differences are subordinate to a shared identity as children of the Father and brothers and sisters in Christ. For Paul, the Eucharist constitutes the Church as one, for "we who are many are one body, for we all partake in the one bread" (1 Cor 10:17). It makes visible the "one body of faith, one baptism" where we are united in worship of "one God and Father of us all" (Eph 4:4-5). As the Church is a sign of unity, so she is called to be an instrument of unity "to gather the whole human race into one". In a world torn by strife, this visible unity seen at the Eucharist is called to "shine forth as a sign of prophetic unity and concord" (Roman Missal, Eucharistic Prayer for Church on the Path of Unity, 662). Finally, for many of the Fathers, this unity of all peoples through the Eucharist had both vertical and horizontal aspects. The Mass effected unity among God's people on earth, but also joined God's people on earth to those in heaven at the wedding feast of the lamb (cf. Heb 12:22ff; Rev 19:9; Irenaeus, Against the heresies, 4, 18, 6; PG 7, 1029). Hence the Eucharist remains a powerful formative experience when participants in heaven and earth are united in communion with the Trinity that embraces Christians of every age, in time and eternity.
At the Eucharist and by the Eucharist, participants are united in communion as one people of God, united in Christ to whom they are conformed. This profound communion with Christ was first sealed at baptism when Christians were irreversibly bonded to the person of Christ, to his life, death and glorification (cf. Rom 8:15; Gal 4:6-7). This unique intimacy with Christ and fundamental orientation of one's life towards him, is confirmed at the Eucharist in a way that conforms us ever closer to him. This active conformation is made possible by the inherent power of God's word that transforms those who hear and accept it. At the Eucharist, God's word is explicated: first by the spoken word and then by the visible word made flesh in the Body and Blood of Christ. In both cases, Christ continues to reveal who the Father is and communicates himself to us. And so the Eucharist is the "externalisation" of the Father's love in Christ made visible to the faithful. This externalisation on the part of God and beholding of man absorbs the participant into the act of contemplation where the believer becomes more like the One he or she contemplates. At the Eucharist we "see him as he really is" and so "become like him" (cf. 1 Jn 3:2). Here the object of contemplation is "the unsearchable riches of Christ" (Eph 3:8): his beauty, truth, self-giving and obedience to the Father. So too is revealed the new world in him: "a glorious ray of the heavenly Jerusalem which lights up our journey" (John Paul II, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 18). In this act of contemplation the subject sees himself with greater clarity: his own creatureliness, sinfulness, but above all his divine calling and identity. Following the initiative of God's love that evokes responses of love, blessing and thanksgiving, the subject is drawn into the mystery of transformation. At the Eucharist, this conformation of the participants to Christ is consummated with the reception of communion when we are united intimately with the person of Christ when his glorious existence is joined to ours. In the Eucharist, the mutual indwelling of Christ in the believer and the believer in Christ is given full expression and leads to a fuller immersion into Trinitarian life.
Finally, the Eucharist not only conforms us to Christ individually but transforms us collectively into his body by the power of the Holy Spirit. In him "all become one" (Irenaeus, Oratio 2, 23; PG 35, 433A) for 'Christ is the centre where all lines converge' (Maximus the Confessor, Mystagogia 1; PG 91, 668). Paul testifies to the power of the Eucharist to transform the early Christians into the body of Christ and to heal divisions that threatened the importance of that unity (cf. Acts 2:46). All become one in Christ, for he is the Word through whom all were created and in whom all are re-created (cf. Eph Eph 1:10 and Augustine, In Iohannis evangelium tractatus, 12; PL 35, 1385). An indispensable part of forming this communion is forgiveness, which is why sins are acknowledged at the beginning of Eucharist and forgiveness sought. The Eucharist continues to effect the power of Christ's sacrifice, reconciling God to humanity and humanity to itself, for "as often as his blood is poured out, it is poured out for the forgiveness of sins" (Ambrose, De sacr. 4, 6, 28; PL 16, 464).
Reconciliation is always cruciform: vertical and horizontal. The community is reconciled to the Father, for its members offer their lives to him in union with Christ. Thus, the one who offers the sacrifice is the Totus Christus in capite et in corpore, Christ the head together with his members. Since the effects of sin are division, the Eucharist is "the sacrifice of perfect reconciliation ... the saving banquet that takes away everything that estranges us from one another" (The Roman Missal, Eucharist Prayer for Reconciliation II, 654). Seeds of disunity among Christians are countered by the unifying power of the Mass, the bond of love, where communion is restored by the gift of Christ's forgiveness received and shared. This occurs through the healing power of the Holy Spirit invoked in the Eucharistic Prayer that moulds the community into "one body, one Spirit in Christ". Just as the Spirit transforms bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, so does he transform the Church into the visible image of Christ, becoming "one Spirit with him" (1 Cor 6:17). In this way, the Church becomes the Body of Christ filled with the same Spirit as Christ himself. As his body was given pro nobis so the Church offers herself in service to the world, united by the Spirit to the life and mission of Christ himself.
The drama of Christian existence is most intense and active where believers and the mystery of Christ are brought into intimate contact at the Eucharist. For this reason, "all the activities of the Christian life are bound up with the Eucharist, flow from it and are ordered to it" (cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium 10; Presbyterorum Ordinis 5). If we are "God's work of art" (Eph 2:10) then the Eucharist is God's studio where his innovation is seen at its best, where communion is formed and the Church is made. It is the place where formation, conformation and transformation of Christians occur in a single Trinitarian act "that transfigures every aspect of life" (Pope Benedict XVI Sacramentum Caritatis, 71). May awareness of God's power, active at the Eucharist, transform and rekindle Eucharistic amazement and lead to a greater conviction of the Eucharist's supreme effectiveness for the transformation of the world in justice, holiness and peace.
* Priest of the Diocese of Ferns, Ireland, and currently based at St Aidan's Cathedral, Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford
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17 October 2012, page 20
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