Eucharist vs. the Word

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Eucharist vs. the Word

ROME, 11 NOV. 2008 (ZENIT)

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: Could you succinctly state the relationship between the importance of the Eucharist versus the Word of God in the liturgy of the Mass? I was on a Eucharistic retreat with a group of Catholics, when the leader of our group said that we as Catholics believe that the Word of God is as important as the Eucharist. I have always been taught that the Eucharist is the source and summit of our faith, but after she said this I did some research into adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and the Word of God, and it seemed that there was more than a little validity to her statement since the "Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us" ... and God speaks to us though his inspired Word, etc. Please clarify this. — N.C., Cleveland, Ohio

A: I would like to begin this answer by recalling a conversation I had during my seminary years with an elderly Catholic layman while on vacation in upstate New York. This wise gentleman, of Lithuanian descent, rented canoes in the Adirondacks and often dealt with evangelical Christians who tried to win him over by saying they had the Good Book. He replied that as a Catholic he not only had the Book but moreover frequently met the Author.

Although one might discuss the theological precision of the anecdote, it does reflect a fundamental truth with respect to the different forms in which Christ is present to us. God certainly speaks to us through his inspired Word, and the Church teaches that he is present when the Scriptures are read. This presence, however, as Pope Paul VI teaches in his encyclical "Mysterium Fidei" is a real but transitory presence enduring while the liturgical reading lasts. It is, therefore, not of the same class as the substantial real presence found in the Eucharist.

From another angle we can also consider how Scripture is fulfilled in Eucharistic worship.

"The Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us" this is the foundation of our faith. However, the same Word who took flesh in Mary's womb, who died, rose and ascended, is the same one who said, "This is my body … this is my blood," and is thus present body, soul and divinity under the species of bread and wine. In every Eucharistic celebration the entire mystery of Christ from the incarnation to the ascension is truly made present anew, albeit under the veil of sign and symbol.

From this perspective the Eucharist is thus "more important" than Scripture because Scripture's ultimate goal is to lead us to union with Christ through full participation in the Mass. The Mass is a sharing in the worship which the Incarnate Word offers to the Father in the Holy Spirit.

Yet, from a different perspective and precisely in the context of the Mass, the question as to the relative importance of Scripture vis-a-vis the Eucharist is relatively meaningless.

In every Mass we are like the disciples going to Emmaus, except we already know that Christ is present among us. Like them, our hearts should burn as we listen to Moses, the prophets and the New Covenant as they speak about Christ. At the same time we are aware that in the end we will recognize him only in the breaking of bread.

Therefore it is not a question of the superiority of one over the other but of an inseparable interrelationship and ordering of one toward the other. Precisely because Scripture is ordered toward Eucharistic worship, the celebration's external form necessarily follows the road to Emmaus. All the historical evidence available shows us that the celebration of the Word and the Eucharist have always formed a single act of worship. Likewise, Scripture is so intimately intertwined within the fabric of every single prayer that we can say that without Scripture there could be no Catholic liturgy.

Conversely, and from a historical perspective it is also partially true that without liturgy there would be no Scripture, for one of the major criteria for determining which books eventually made it into the biblical canon was whether the book was read in the liturgical assembly.

Therefore the contraposition of Word and Eucharist does not correspond to an authentically Catholic vision of their intimate relationship.

It is true that, historically, Catholics have not been assiduous Bible readers. During the greatest part of the Church's existence books were a luxury few could read and fewer could afford. The lack of direct Bible reading did not mean that there was total biblical illiteracy. Most Christians were imbued with biblical salvation history through church decorations in painting, sculpture and stained glass. The huge reredos enshrining the high altars of many cathedrals harmoniously wove in the stories of Genesis, kings, prophets, Jesus' ancestry and the principal events of the New Testament, while centering everything on the sacrifice of the altar. In this way they provided a visible scriptural background to Catholic worship.

In today's changed circumstances the Church actively encourages all Catholics to possess, read and meditate on the Good Book, while not forgetting to make frequent visits to the Author.

* * *

Follow-up: Eucharist vs. the Word [11-25-2008]

In the wake of our column on the Eucharist and the Word (see Nov. 11), a Singapore reader offered the following comments:

"In this week's topic on 'Eucharist vs. the Word,' I was also thinking about Vatican II's dogmatic constitution on divine Revelation, 'Dei Verbum,' when I read the question posed by N.C. from Cleveland, Ohio.

"In No. 21 of 'Dei Verbum' it states, 'The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she venerates the body of the Lord, since, especially in the sacred liturgy, she unceasingly receives and offers to the faithful the bread of life from the table both of God's word and of Christ's body.'

"The proclamation of the Scriptures has always been an integral part of the liturgy at Mass. In a sense, [the] relationship between Scriptures and the Eucharist is complementary, as expressed in 'Dei Verbum.' This was also clearly brought out in your reply.

"The 17th General Congregation (12th Synod of Bishops) on Oct. 15, 2008, reported in the third point: 'Eucharist, homily, community' deals with the relationship between Scripture and the Eucharist, with the question, which emerged from the synodal discussion, on how to privilege, among the faithful, a more unitary perception of this relationship; the sacramental dimension of the Word and eschatological dimension; the celebration of the Word; the importance of the homily; art as an analogical form of preaching; finally, the relationship between the Word of God, celebration and community.

"Perhaps this is also the reason why, in the question asked, the reader said he was told that 'Catholics believe that the Word of God is as important as the Eucharist.'"

While "Dei Verbum" is a solemn conciliar text, the text from the Synod represents a work in progress. The latter will become formally magisterial in the degree that the Holy Father might incorporate these suggestions into an apostolic exhortation.

It is quite possible that a misinterpretation of texts such as "Dei Verbum" could have led some Catholics to cast a shadow on the mutually complementary relationship between Eucharist and Word, thus leading to a false opposition between them.

"Dei Verbum" simply recalls that the Church has historically observed a certain parallelism between the liturgical honors offered to sacred Scriptures and that offered to the Eucharist (incense, candles, etc.). The point was not to produce equivalence but rather to emphasize the fact that, contrary to certain accusations, Catholics had always venerated the Word. After all, the same Second Vatican Council had earlier proclaimed the liturgy, and especially the Eucharist, as the summit and source of the Church's life.

The Synod's recommendation of a more unitary perception of the Word in its relationship with the Eucharist should also be seen in continuity with previous doctrine. At the same time, a fuller and deeper vision of the various dimensions of the Word in Catholic life and worship can only lead to a fuller appreciation of the importance of the Eucharist as the fulfillment of Scripture.

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