Reflection on Sacramentum Caritatis
God's love and Eucharistic charity
The Thomistic title of the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Sacramenturn Caritatis, can also be illuminating for gathering certain biblical data that recur throughout the Document of the Holy Father Benedict XVI and make it possible to suggest a scriptural interpretation of the many dimensions of "Eucharistic charity".
Indeed, in the "Sacrament of charity" are interwoven the presence of Christ's love at its supreme level, the foundation of God's eros/agape, the force of the Flesh and Blood that sustain believers in charity, and the Holy Spirit's generous action which, after sustaining Christ in his Pasch, now enables the Church to move in the same loving lines.
Sacrament of Christ's love
The "Sacrament of charity" originated first of all in Christ's love, offered in its most exalted form in which it has its first constitutive dimension. The Joannine affirmation of he loved them "to the end", cited in the initial paragraph of the Exhortation (cf. Jn 13:1 in Sacramentum Caritatis. n. 1), is helpful for understanding this.
In the Gospel narrative this sentence introduces the washing of the feet at the beginning of the Last Supper, while in Eucharistic Prayer IV, precisely in the introduction to the consecration, it is applied directly to the gift of the Eucharist. John's sentence examined in its entirety shows the point at which Jesus' love, already clear beforehand, acquires a new and crucial dynamism: "having [already] loved his own who were in the world, [now, with this new gesture] he loved them to the end".
The love and dedication revealed by Jesus' entire life are summed up in this culminating act and the Eucharist becomes the hermeneutic of Jesus' death, a univocal interpretation that Jesus desired to give to his disciples in his Person and for ever.
In the words: "This is my body which is given for you", Jesus transforms into the total gift of himself the act of extreme violence that he is about to suffer. He does not merely offer something, even if it is truly important, such as his healing strength or his words of revelation, but gives the whole of himself, his own Body and Blood, his own Person.
The origin of Sacramentum Caritatis lies above all in this "transformation" brought about by Jesus and in the Son's decision to grant to those who believe in him exceptional participation in this sacrifice through the celebration of the Eucharistic memorial. The Last Supper is an event that interprets the Cross; it is the hermeneutic of his death which Jesus proposes.
The Eucharist finds its meaning not only in making the Pasch of Jesus statically present but in interpreting it as a culminating gift and definitive sacrifice that embraces the whole of Jesus' previous life. All his words, all his actions are recovered, brought to completion and offered as a space of life given for others.
Believers and the celebrating community are also invited to enter this very space by taking part in the Banquet and by adoring the Sacrament.
Foundation of God's eros/agape
Having glimpsed the core of the Sacramentum Caritatis in the self-giving love of Christ, one can extend his or her gaze to the divine love which unfolds from creation through the whole history of revelation. Jesus' act at the Last Supper is not an isolated event, but only against this background can its full riches be described and interpreted.
His ministry, whose human aspect is extraordinarily universal, could formerly be interpreted in depth only with the help of the Bible of Israel.
Today, the Eucharistic Supper finds its historical framework in the celebration of the Jewish Passover. The promise of liberation, suggested by the ancient symbol of the Memorial of the Exodus, becomes reality, whereas Jesus' gift of his life stems from the divine love that has always existed and, at the same time, brings it to its culmination.
In his Encyclical Deus Caritas Est, Benedict XVI had already painted an articulate fresco of God's eros/agape (cf. nn. 13-15) and identified the special role of the Eucharist in this history: "It had meant standing in God's presence, but now it becomes union with God through sharing in Jesus' self-gift, sharing in his Body and Blood" (Ibid., n. 13).
Christ's love, the fundamental treasure which comprises the Eucharist, is silhouetted and stands out as the crowning point in the history of the love of the Father, who sent the Lamb from the foundation of the world (cf. I Pt 1, 18-20, quoted in Sacramentum Caritatis, n. 10)
Developing the disciples' love
The Eucharist does not only contain the love of Jesus and the divine love of the Father, but also provides the basis for the development of the disciples' love.
Nourished by the Eucharist, they can accept the new commandment and extend through themselves in history the love of Jesus and the eros/agape of God.
By his command, "Do this in remembrance of me" (Lk 22:19; I Cor 11:25), Jesus "asks us to respond to his gift and to make it sacramentally present. In these words the Lord expresses, as it were, his expectation that the Church, born of his sacrifice, will receive this gift.... In this way, Jesus left us the task of entering into his hour" (Sacramentum Caritatis, n. 11).
The gift is not only made in the liturgical representation of Christ's sacrifice, but also to the extent that we are strengthened in order to "enter into the very dynamic of his self-giving" (Sacramentum Caritatis, n. 11; Deus Caritas Est, n. 13).
The Eucharist, as a place for interpreting divine love through the death of Jesus, brings this charity into circulation in the community of the disciples. The hermeneutic with which Christ interpreted his death, thereby finding the way for freedom of the gift, becomes for the community and for believers the possibility — indeed the necessity — of orienting one's own existence to love. This is a hermeneutic coupling of the historical event and of our existence.
By virtue of the Eucharistic celebration, whose crowning point was Jesus' capacity for offering himself as a sacrifice, the reality of divine charity is able to circulate within the communities of his disciples.
Thus, involved in "the very dynamic of his self-giving" (n. 11), Christians not only enjoy the sacramental representation of Christ's sacrifice but make it present in the oblative orientation of their own lives, made concretely possible by the Eucharistic food and adoration.
The believer's life is thus welded to the interpretation that Jesus gave of his destiny and becomes, so to speak, "the existential hermeneutic" of all that is truly Christian.
In the presence of the Spirit
Without reference to the role of the Spirit, any discussion on Eucharistic charity would be incomplete. It was the Spirit who brought Jesus to obey the Father in the gift of himself (cf. Heb 9:14). and it is the Holy Spirit who makes the Eucharist exist in the Church.
It is wonderful to consider that the Spirit who enabled Jesus to make the gift of himself in the Eucharist on the night of the Last Supper is the same Spirit who today brings about the Sacramentum caritatis for the benefit of believers and within them. Indeed, the Spirit's presence in the Eucharistic celebration is multiple.
The Church, gathered in celebration and sustained by the Son's command, asks the Father for the gift of the Holy Spirit so that he may bring about the transubstantiation of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of the Crucified and Risen Lord.
Indeed, the Church also expects of the Spirit her own transformation, so that she herself may be "transubstantiated" into the Body of Christ.
As St. Leo the Great teaches: "Sharing in the Body and Blood of Christ has no other effect than to accomplish our transformation into that which we receive" (Serm. 63, 7; cf. Lumen Gentium, n. 26).
Thus, the possibility for believers to attain in their lives that same love that was Christ's and alone corresponds to the eros/agape of God derives from a gift made by the Spirit. So it is that the "Ecclesial Body of Christ" is born, at last capable of loving "as he loved us".
One trait successfully distinguished by the Exhortation concerns the role of the Spirit who guides the Church in developing, in time, the liturgical forms of the Eucharistic rite (cf. Sacramentum Caritatis, n. 12).
It is within the Eucharist that the love of the Spirit is present and also acts with the concern that all generations who succeed one another in the Church may have a celebration suited to their culture and own theological development.
In this light, the Synod on the Eucharist and the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation belong among the concrete signs that testify to the attention the Holy Spirit also pays to the specific situations of our generation.
Weekly Edition in English
16 January2008, page 8
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