Reflections on Ecclesia de Eucharistia - 5

Author: Nicola Bux


Nicola Bux

1. "This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?" (Jn 6:60) is what one might think of the Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia: for it addresses the truth about Christ, the human being, the Church, the world, the present and the future... the truth about the Incarnation that bursts into our time and orients it to the last day, that definitive one, when there will be no more crying or weeping. For the Eucharist has to do with death, and facing it, says: Where is your victory? Because it is possible simply to die; but it is also possible to die and bring forth new life, that is, the body and blood, making them a gift for others, even enemies. Who wouldn't take life back and give thanks (in Greek: eucaristia) for such a gesture?

John Paul II sends a "circular" — an Encyclical — to the Catholic world to clarify certain questions concerning the meaning and manner of this thanksgiving: the Holy Eucharist, more commonly known by Latins as "Holy Mass" and by Greeks as the "Divine Liturgy". The Pontiff does so in the style of papal documents, but not without the poetic tones and wonder of one who knows that this Mystery of faith should first and foremost be adored.

What prompted him to do so? A widespread blurring of the most original feature of Catholic doctrine: the belief that Jesus Christ is still alive and present in a host and in a chalice.

Doubts first arose in Capernaum when Jesus delivered his bread of life discourse and actually associated this bread with man's survival and resurrection after death. He remarked: "But there are some of you who do not believe" (Jn 6:64). This discourse should have come as a surprise to no one: from being God he became man: why, once he had risen, would he not have been able to "enter" the bread and the wine when the Apostles and their successors said, in memory of him, take this, all of you, and eat it... take this, all of you, and drink from it..."?

Well, in the history of the Church those most sceptical of this miracle — what else could we call it? — were precisely the persons who had been invested with the authority to say those words: priests. Suffice it to remember Bolsena and Lanciano.

It was not by chance that the Holy Father published the Encyclical on Holy Thursday: yes, he recalls the lights of the Council's liturgical reform, but he does not conceal his anxiety — he speaks of shadows — that in the Church the "Blessed Sacrament" (another name for the Eucharist) — may be manipulated by her ministers themselves.

Moreover, he puts the faithful on guard several times against two errors: the belief that the Eucharist can be reduced to a festive event, forgetting that it is in fact a sacrificial death, and that this is the beginning of ecclesial communion which, instead, must be presumed to exist already, if it is to grow and be perfected. Communion is not only mystical, it must also figure in the profession of the faith itself.

Indeed, the Encyclical contains certain observations: non-Catholics and Catholics cannot normally receive Communion from one another because their way of believing in the Eucharist is different. Then, those who hold that Penance, that is, going to confession, is not necessary prior to receiving Communion are reminded by the papal document that this is not so: the two sacraments are very closely connected (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n. 37).

Through Eucharistic presence, God is no longer absent

2. Jesus said: "He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day" (Jn 6:54). Eternal life is believing in Jesus Christ; it begins when man has faith in Our Lord Jesus (cf. Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n. 18). This occurs because the flesh of Jesus Christ that we feed on "is his body in its glorious state after the resurrection" (ibid.). Eternal life begins on earth, not after death.

We can say that the "eschatology" of the Eucharist is the final goal of which it is an effective sign: the Lord's entry into the cosmos and into history, matter, flesh: an entry that makes him present once and for all until the end of the world. This is the eschaton, the ultimate event in time, which is why the passage from his mystical presence to the vision of him as he is (parousia) is brought about from one celebration to the next. Thus, through his presence in the Sacrament, God is no longer absent.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger offers, as it were, a commentary on this "eschatological thrust" (ibid.) of the Eucharist in a lecture published in his latest book Il Dio Vicino (pp. 139-159). What is eternal life? It is a quality of life in which duration, understood as the succession of instants, no longer exists. Eternity is not merely time without end, but another level of human existence.

Hence, it is impossible to make a purely chronological distinction, for this would not do justice to the meaning of eternal life. The dividing line between eternal life and temporal life can be found in our life on earth itself. Where is the distinction? Either we live "biologically" or we live "truly". John distinguishes, precisely, between bios, transitory life in this world, and zoe, that is, true life, aware of the meaning of both.

In this regard Jesus says: "He who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life... he has passed from death to life" (Jn 5:24ff.). In Bethany at the tomb of Lazarus he said: "I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die" (Jn 11:25). St Paul goes so far as to say: "For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain" (Phil 1:21); and in his Letter to the Romans: "If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's" (Rom 14:8ff.).

It is not enough to live biologically, we must live to the full. This is the difference between temporal and eternal life. Eternal life begins when one becomes aware of self in relation to God. It is at that moment that new life begins, the life of new awareness, or eternal life, which will not end with death.

When man says "O God, you are my God, I seek you" (Ps 63[62]:1), eternal life begins. Baptism is the dawn of eternal life, for in baptism we are immersed in the risen and living Lord. So it is that even the body, which is a limitation in our daily life, with the resurrection of Jesus is so no longer. The risen Jesus passes through closed doors to show that eternal life overcomes time and space.

With the Eucharist, we digest the ‘mystery’ of the Resurrection

3. In his Encyclical, the Pope recalls the Masses he celebrated in the most varied contexts, from stadiums to mountains, in the dramatic moments of wars or social conflicts and in his immense, festive meetings with youth. Mass gives an impetus to the journey of Christians through history and nourishes their hope in daily dedication. This is its "political" dimension. If there is a way of saying "peace", it is precisely "Mass".

However, a cosmic Eucharist, John Paul II says, celebrated on the altar of the world, "while always offered in a particular community, is never a celebration of that community alone" (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n. 39). Catholic Christians, in every latitude and with their legitimate cultural differences, have the right to take part in a Catholic Mass, not the Mass of one priest or another or of one community or another. The Sacrifice is only ever one. The Pope cites St John Chrysostom: "We always offer the same Lamb, not one today and another tomorrow" (n. 12).

In a conference he gave in 1960, Von Balthasar said that the Church lives in an incomprehensible place between earth and heaven, between death and eternal life, between the ancient world that is transient and the new world that is everlasting. The Christian is dead with Christ in baptism, but also, according to Paul's assurance, is risen with him and ascended into Heaven, alive in time, drawing on eternal life with a view to eternal life. In this way, Christian life embraces the space that extends between penance and celebration.

The liturgical year recalls this with its seasons of Advent and Lent, and with its uninterrupted sequence of great and small feast days. What is thus tangibly represented for us in succession and in depth is an interpenetration of our paradoxical Christian existence. The Eucharist represents the paradox of the mystery, the paradox of our Christian existence.

All the solemn feasts of the Old Testament developed from celebrations of thanksgiving for the harvest; these were later linked to historical commemorations. But what are these feasts compared with the incomparable harvest of bread and wine in the New and everlasting Testament? Now it is the whole earth that is bread and wine. Shouldn't authentically human joy explode here as an expression of what the Apostle says: "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let all men know your forbearance. The Lord is at hand. Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving (eucaristia) let your request be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus" (Phil 4:4-7).

It is not worldly enthusiasm that we must find in the banquet of the Eucharist, but rather, an ability to penetrate the essence of God's love and to be strengthened by it. The reality is God who becomes a man among us in order to die for us. We are celebrating Jesus Christ in his love taken to the very end, his ability to give his life in sacrifice and to take it up again, his creative power in offering himself as a gift to us in the bread and wine, in making himself inconceivably one with humanity. Although we Catholics also include inour celebration [of Jesus Christ] the miracle of the transformation, which we seek haltingly to designate by the term "transubstantiation", it is not this that we are celebrating but rather, in an absolute sense, divine love made man, the Incarnate Word who, as Eastern Christians claim, is "metabolized", as well as the mystery of the Last Supper, which our Protestant brethren also know and celebrate; we do not take part in an anti-reformist celebration, but one that dates back to the the Middle Ages when Christianity was still undivided. Furthermore, how could we celebrate it other than in the spirit of the Church una sancta (one, holy)?

In this way, as the Encyclical says, there is one consequence for history: the transformation of life in the Eucharist "until he comes" (n. 20). The Eucharist builds the Church to the extent that her members agree to share in the sacrifice, the gift of self, the grains of wheat and the grapes which, through their effacement, become bread and wine (cf. n. 21). Each one of us receives Christ and Christ receives each one of us: this is incorporation: "He who eats me will live because of me" (Jn 6:57). The person who lives, abides in Jesus Christ (n. 22), and like light and salt, has the power of transforming and redeeming the world. In this sense, the Eucharist is the source and summit of evangelization.

The Body of Christ is the new heaven. Furthermore, heaven is no longer closed, and if we have become members of the body of Christ our souls are anchored in this body, which becomes his body. Our souls await the definitive resurrection in which God will be all in all. Our soul, therefore, is anchored to the body of Christ. We can thus say that the body of Christ is our body. Consequently, if heaven has come down to earth, the heavenly Jerusalem has come down into the Church, and Communion is achieved with the heavenly Church and with the Virgin, the saints and the just who departed this world (cf. n. 19). There is no other way to be in touch with them.

In the First Communion Mass, following the fast from midnight, a drawn out time for children, came the crowning moment: on his knees, in adoration before the ciborium outside the tabernacle, the parish priest entered into fervent dialogue between Jesus and us: "Today you are receiving a secret that will be with you always. This is the most beautiful day of your life". It certainly is, we thought, with the "secret" of life in eternity!

This is what it was, the cosmic dimension of the Eucharist which enters into history and redeems it, involves it and deeply transforms it, orienting it to the last, eschatological day. John Paul II's Encyclical recalls this constant Patristic thought: "With the Eucharist we digest, as it were, the 'secret' of the resurrection" (n. 18), which is far more than the immortality of the soul.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
3 September 2003, page 4

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