The Eucharist: Source and Summit of the Christian Life
I think the first thing I’d like to say here is that the Eucharist is Jesus, not a symbol, not a metaphor. American writer Flannery O’Connor was once invited to a dinner party by, at that time, much more famous US author Mary McCarthy. At the dinner, Ms McCarthy opined that the Eucharist was a good symbol. Flannery O’Connor, who’d been quiet the whole time suddenly said: ‘Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it … it’s the centre of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.’
Another great woman of the twentieth century, Chiara Lubich, wrote that the Eucharist isn’t there in the first place to make us holy, nor to deepen our unity with God and among us. Yes, these things too. But the principal aim of the Eucharist is to make us God, by participation. By mingling with ours the life-giving body of Christ, made alive by the Holy Spirit, the Eucharist divinises us in soul and in body. So, the first effect of the Eucharist is to make us God. Now God cannot exist except in God. That’s why, if we have been nourished by it worthily, the Eucharist makes us enter into the Father, it places us, in Jesus, in the Trinity. (Chiara Lubich, Essential Writings, London: New City, 2006, p. 129).
Since the feast of Corpus Christi comes right after the feasts of Pentecost and the Trinity, maybe a few reflections on the Trinity’s role in the eucharistic sacrifice might be helpful. Let’s have a look at what happened at the First Mass – what we call the Last Supper – that First Mass which every Mass participates in and re-enacts. (I’m summarising a section from Piero Coda’s ‘“The Body Given Up for You” as Origin and Form of Communion’ in 50th International Eucharistic Congress, Volume I: Proceedings of the International Symposium of Theology, Dublin: Veritas, 2013, pp. 165–77.)
i) The Father, Abba, is the one who’s directing all that will happen. From the beginning, arché – at the start of Mark’s Gospel when Jesus begins to announce the evangélion, he says: ‘the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand’ (Mk 1:15). The terrible death of Jesus, which the First Mass points towards, isn’t a chance incident, something completely unexpected – though the end is the collapse of everything. Yet it’s completely surrounded by the mysterious and effective love of the Father. In his agonised prayer, ‘not my will, but yours be done’ (Mk 14:32-36) the Son will express his full awareness of being completely united with the will of his Father.
So the meal begins with the blessing – in Paul and Luke, eucharistia, in Mark and Matthew, eulogia – which in the Old Testament was the berakah or great prayer of thanksgiving to God. This blessing is now directed by Jesus to his Father. The Supper is fundamentally a Eucharist or thanksgiving and praise, on behalf of the whole of humanity, of the entire created cosmos, by the Son and in the Son, to the Father. Because on the Cross, the Son will finally and definitively fulfil the Father’s plan of salvation.
ii) If the Abba, Father, is the hidden director of the drama of salvation about to be enacted, the Son, Jesus, is the protagonist or principal actor. That means above everything else, that he’s a free and responsible agent of all that’s happening. Jesus’ freedom in bringing about the will of the Father in history is the heart of the First Mass. On the one hand it reveals the face and heart of God – in him there’s no darkness, no revenge, no vindictive justice. On the other hand, the light of that love that is freedom, that freedom that is love, penetrates even the most impenetrable darkness of the human heart.
Mark’s gospel is the shortest and most essential account of that First Mass. There he writes: ‘he took, he broke, he gave.’
‘He took’ brings out the freedom and full awareness of Jesus of what he’s doing.
‘He broke’: what’s going to happen isn’t something that’s just in the mind, his body will be nailed to a cross, his blood will be poured out. But the breaking also refers to the dynamic sharing with others, since each one is aimed at and desired in this gesture.
‘He gave’: in that gesture, not only does his giving show the deep meaning of Jesus’ existence. ‘He gave’ also transfers his self-sacrifice to whoever will welcome him. This action can be understood in the sense of ‘I lay down my life that I may take it up again’ (Jn 10:17). This taking up again has the two meanings (i) of his resurrection, but also (ii) by giving up his life he receives it again in those who welcome that life and make it their own – it’s how Jesus becomes ‘the first-born among many brethren’ (Rm 8:29).
And this self-giving is what constitutes the essence of the Church in its vocation to be communion – which it does by living Jesus’ ‘he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren’ (1 Jn 3:16).
So in the account of the First Mass, there’s the word ‘for’: ‘which will be given up for you.’ This little word opens up the depths of Jesus’ self-giving: Pope Benedict says that this ‘for’ can be considered as the ‘key word’ not only of the accounts of the Last Supper, but of who Jesus is in himself.
This ‘for’ echoes Isaiah’s songs of the Suffering Servant of Yahweh, now taken up by Mark’s ‘the Son of man came not be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’ (Mk 10:45). Here, ‘to serve’ is explained by the ‘give his life as a ransom (lútron)’. Mark is expressing how expiation and reconciliation here interact, as does the Cross and the Supper. Here the apparent immense power of negation and sin meet up with the wisdom and power of God’s love – the crucified Christ. ‘For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men’ (1 Cor 1:25).
In this giving of himself – the Son’s living out of the Father’s own self-giving, he descends into the abyss of death where sin has imprisoned humanity. Only by taking on himself the consequences of the tragic contradiction of Love that is human sin, can Jesus show, in his love of the Father, that ‘Love is stronger than death’.
iii) And the Holy Spirit is the third co-agonist, co-sufferer, in the drama of the Last Supper and of the Cross. At first glance, the Holy Spirit doesn’t say a word at either event. But he’s the breath of life where the gift of the Father and of the Son reaches into our souls. Saint Mark has Jesus using this word when he offers to his disciples ‘the blood of the new and eternal covenant which will be poured out for you and for many’. And St Paul uses the same word ‘pour’ (ekchéo) when he speaks of the Holy Spirit ‘poured out in our hearts’ (Rm 5:5).
This new alliance or pledged relationship has been prophesied as we know by Jeremiah: ‘Behold the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel … I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts’ (Jer 31: 31, 33). And Ezekiel had already written that ‘I will give you a new heart, I will put into you a new spirit, and take from you the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit into you …’ (Ez 36: 26-27).
The blood of Jesus poured out on the cross, that he offers with the chalice to the disciples at the Supper evokes the cruel reality of his blood separated from his body at death. But it also evokes the gift of himself ‘to the end’. Saint Catherina of Siena in her Dialogues, said that ‘the blood [of Christ crucified] is mixed in with the mortar of divinity and with the strength of the fire of charity’ that is the Holy Spirit.
We can say that the ‘blood poured out’ of the Crucified One is the ‘blood of God’, his own life: the Holy Spirit. Saint John’s Gospel tells us that when Jesus died, ‘he gave up the Spirit’ (Jn 19:30), meaning by that the pouring out of the life of the Holy Spirit. So, the blood of Christ is an expression of what St John writes when he says ‘for it is not by measure that he gives the Spirit’ (Jn 3:34) of the Spirit, who – poured out into our hearts – brings the life of God to them, his own blood.
But as well as a celebration of the Trinity, each Eucharist also brings us into the Unity of God:
iv) Saint John Paul wrote in §6 of his 1994 Letter to Families that ‘The divine “We” is the eternal pattern of the human “we”’, and that surely holds for our participation in the Unity of the Trinity that he and Pope Benedict referred to as the divine We. Each time we participate in the Mass and receive Jesus in the Eucharist, we receive not only Jesus, but in him we’re swept up into the Father’s – Abba’s – loving plan of salvation, and have the life of God poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit who comes to dwell in us. As St Paul said, ‘always and for everything giving thanks (eucharistountes) in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father’ (Eph 5:20). When we receive the Eucharist, we’re invited through Jesus into the whole Trinity in its Communion of Persons, the divine We.