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Sacramental Life

The Eucharist

... Introducing

The Eucharist

The Eucharist is the central and greatest sacrament of the Church. It is the means by which the Church is continually maintained in communion with Jesus Christ the Lord and the means by which each Christian participates in the once and for all sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. The Catechism of the Catholic Church following a document of Vatican II calls the Eucharist the ‘source and summit of the Christian life’.

The word ‘Eucharist’ from the Greek word for ‘thanksgiving’ is commonly used in various ways: You might read a sign outside a church that says: “Sunday Eucharist: 8.00, 9.30 and 11.00 am”. Here the word Eucharist means the Mass – the act of worship through which Catholics re-present and participate in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Or you might ask a child, “When did you receive your first Eucharist”? Here the word refers specifically to the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ: the bread and wine consecrated during the Mass through the eating and drinking of which we are drawn into communion with Jesus Christ and the Church, hence it is also referred to as Holy Communion.

There are actually many titles for the Eucharist each with it own special emphasis. The Catechism of the Catholic Church #1328-1332 provides a list of these titles with a brief explanation of each.

An outline and basic texts of the Mass can be found on Fr. Felix Just’s site while a good general introduction to the Eucharist is provided by Fr Anthony Kain as part of his site ‘Exploring the Sacraments’. The US Bishops site provides a Question and Answer style article which responds to frequently asked questions about the 'real presence' of Christ in the Eucharist.

Human dimensions of the Eucharist

Like all the sacraments the Eucharist has parallels in ordinary human experience and yet expands and transcends every human experience. It is an inexhaustible source of significance.

In no particular order it is about:

  • remembering and offering
  • proclaiming and listening
  • giving praise and thanks
  • forgiveness and reconciliation
  • hungering and being fed
  • the sacrificial death of Jesus and his resurrection
  • our own death and resurrection.
  • receiving the body of Christ
  • being the Body of Christ
  • identifying with those who suffer
  • justice and the love of others
  • the presence and absence of Christ
  • being gathered together and being sent out
  • the past and the future crystallised in the present moment
  • the life of this world and the life of the world to come

The Mass: a meal and a sacrifice

Two crucial ways the Church speaks of the Eucharist are as a meal and as a sacrifice.

Each of these ways of understanding the Eucharist expands the other. The Mass is a ritual representation of the last supper of Jesus and takes the form of a meal. Yet the Last Supper gains its true significance from the fact that Jesus associates his words and actions at that supper with the sacrifice of his life on the cross that he would make on the next day. Both these aspects of the Mass speak to the human dimensions of our lives.

The Mass as a Meal

The most obvious human dimension of the Eucharist is that of the meal. While on one level meals are very much taken for granted in the affluent society in which we live, on another level they represent a human necessity – eating – without which we would simply die. Hence bread (which represents all food) is a potent sign or symbol of our dependence on what is beyond ourselves – God - for life.

Meals are also occasions when a family or a community group come together to converse, share experiences, laugh or complain or simply sit. Research shows that members of families who regularly eat together experience a stronger sense of belonging and security, are more resilient and less likely to feel to alienated and depressed. Yes I’ll take a Happy Meal Please’ looks at the ways in which the family meal and the Eucharist correspond.

Another Catholic Update site further explores the Mass as a meal.

The Mass as a Sacrifice

Sacrifice means giving up or setting aside something exclusively to God. The word comes from the Latin ‘to make holy’. Jesus’ death on the cross was a sacrifice because Jesus freely offered his whole life and self to God, and for others. His death was an act of freedom and trust totally consistent with his life of love and service. And yet the initiative was God’s. God ‘shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.’ (Rom 5:8). Jesus death on the cross is of universal significance for all time and all history.

The Eucharist is understood as a sacrifice because it re-presents throughout the ages Jesus’ self-offering on the Cross. Through the Eucharist we can share in this sacrifice as if we had been present there. It is explicitly there that we make Jesus’ prayer of self-offering to the Father our own, and join our prayers to his.

What does the sacrifice of Jesus have to do with our ordinary human experience?

Human hunger, the longing for community, the search for justice, the desire for self-giving even willingness to give one’s life for what is right are just some of the human impulses and longings which find expression in the sacrifice of the Mass. But so do the daily efforts of dying to selfishness and living for God and other 'sacrifices' which are part of every ordinary Christian life.

The Eucharist is where we learn, little by little, to model our lives on the paschal mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The Eucharist invites all of us who belong to the Church to see ourselves as we are before God, to make sense of our lives in the light of Jesus’ self-giving, to unite ourselves with his offering to God, to become more and more the Body of Christ by receiving his Body, to accept all he accepted and refuse all he refused, to be his presence in the world.

A Catholic Update site explores the Mass as a sacrifice further.

A note about the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross:

It is important to understand that Jesus did not offer his life to appease an angry, vengeful God. It was not the Father who inflicted torture and death on Jesus but sinful humanity. God not only does not destroy us for our sinfulness but in the person of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, absorbs the violence and sinfulness of all human beings. Jesus’ death shows us the utter injustice and wrongness of human violence and sin; Jesus’ resurrection shows us God affirming the innocence and righteousness of Jesus. In Jesus, God suffers for the life of the world.

 So the Mass is

  • not simply a communal meal but a sacrificial meal;
  • not simply of local but of universal significance;
  • it happens in time but is beyond time.

It does not matter that we do not always appreciate the full significance of what we are doing at Mass – no-one ever can. What matters is that we are there and that we open ourselves as much as we can to the central mystery of our faith.

FURTHER READING

Three quite demanding articles explore various aspects of the Eucharist: The Responsible Body: A Eucharistic Community discusses among other things the relationship between hunger and the Eucharist.

An article entitled Eucharist God’s Absolute ‘No’ to Violence presents the key points about the relationship between the Eucharist and violence made by the papal chaplain Fr Raniero Cantalamessa OFM.

The article by William Cavanaugh The Social Meaning of the Eucharist suggests that the Eucharist proposes to the world not only a religious and ethical truth but a whole new social reality.

A fourth article It is accomplished attempts an explanation from an anthropological point of view the universal significance of the crucifixion of Jesus and how Christians have sometimes undermined this by looking for someone to blame for his death.

 

Reflections &  Responses

What is your own experience of the Eucharist? Think of Masses that have been important in your journey of faith. What has helped you be alert to what is really being celebrated in the Eucharist. What sometimes makes it more difficult to enter into a celebration of the Eucharist?

Could you describe the Eucharist as ‘the source and summit’ of your life?

Explore the meaning of bread and or wine. Why are these used in the Eucharist?

What connections can you see between

  • the Eucharist and a family meal?
  • the Eucharist and your deepest hopes and longings?
  • the Eucharist and your efforts to offer your life for God and others?

Look at the list offered above of aspects of the Eucharist. Which aspects are most meaningful for you? Can you add to this list?

As a class project prepare a collage on the Eucharist which reflects the different aspects listed above plus any other insights of the class members.

How would you explain the Mass as a meal to a first communion class?

How might you also explain the Mass as re-presenting the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross to a parent formation meeting.

What light does the following poem cast on the mystery of redemption?

And God held in his hand
a small globe. Look, he said.
The son looked. Far off,
as through water,
he saw
a scorched land of fierce
colour. The light burned
there; crusted buildings
cast their shadows; a bright
serpent, a river
uncoiled itself, radiant
with slime.
On a bare
hill a bare tree saddened
the sky. Many people
held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
for a vanished April
to return to its crossed
boughs. The son watched
them. Let me go there, he said.

R.S. Thomas, The Coming

At the heart of the Eucharist is the celebration of the paschal mystery. Express your understanding of the paschal mystery in story form, poetry, or images.

Choose a saint or another Christian whose life story you know well and show how he or she lived out the paschal mystery.