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Eucharist: Where Gratitude Becomes Mission
By Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M., S.T.D.
The commissioning rite at Mass sends us forth to show God's love for each person—through generous acts of compassion.

Q U I C K S C A N

Taking Up Our Burdens
Return to the World
The Arms of Christ
Washing Feet
Mass or Eucharist?
Love of the Journey
It's All About Gratitude

PHOTO © DESIGN PICS/CON TANASIUK

The "commissioning" or "concluding rite" (as it is called in the Roman Missal) is relatively short and simple: announcements, a final "The Lord be with you," a blessing, the dismissal and (often) a hymn sending us forth.

The final prayer of the meal sharing is the Prayer After Communion. This is not a prayer of thanksgiving—the eucharistic prayer itself is our thanksgiving prayer—but rather a prayer of transition. While the words of the prayer vary according to the season and feast, this prayer always asks the Father to help us who have celebrated these eucharistic mysteries to turn toward the world and to live in such a way that we become worthy of the gifts we have just received. The prayer moves us into a journey.

I once heard a Scripture scholar describe the Bible as a story of oases and journeys. During his lecture he recalled leading a group of student archaeologists through the Egyptian desert. Everyone was hot, sweaty and tired. Each time they would come upon an oasis, everyone would run and take off their shoes and soak their feet in the water. "We wanted to stay there forever," he said. "But you can't stay at the oasis; you have to get up and continue the journey through the desert if you are going to arrive at the site of the next archaeological dig."

The first three parts of the Eucharist (gathering, storytelling and meal sharing) are something of an "oasis" on our Christian journey. The commissioning rites help us transition from the oasis of worship to our journey, our life in the world.

Taking Up Our Burdens

At Mass we have gathered with other like-minded believers and seekers. We have laid down our burdens at the door of the church so that we might be encouraged by the stories of God's constant love. We have shared our sacred meal and experienced a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. And now that we are refreshed, encouraged and strengthened for the journey ahead, it is time to dry off our feet and put on our shoes—just as those student archaeologists did. Taking up the burdens we left at the church door, we return to our daily lives.

For many Catholics, the Eucharist—and especially the time of intimate prayer after Holy Communion—is like an oasis in the desert. I know that often I would like to stay there forever and relish the closeness of the Lord! Perhaps that is why, at Jesus' Transfiguration, Peter said, "Lord, it is good for us to be here. This is really great! Let's make some tents and stay here forever!" (see Matthew 17:1-8).

But the Gospels tell us that Jesus had a different idea. Peter, James and John had to go back down the mountain and continue their journey. At the foot of the mountain, there were sick people waiting to be healed, devils to be cast out, doubts and fears to be dispelled.

Like Peter, James and John, we have to leave the oasis of Communion and continue down the mountain on our Christian journey. We, too, will find people who need to be healed, evils to be eradicated and fearful people waiting for our encouragement and support.

In the story of the two disciples returning home to Emmaus (see Luke 24:13-35), we see that a stranger gathers them together. They tell their story and recall the Scriptures. They invite the stranger into their home and, while sharing their meal, they "recognize him in the breaking of the bread."

This must have been an "oasis moment" for the two disciples! They had thought that Jesus was dead and buried. Now here he is at table with them, sharing word and bread and life! How they must have wanted that moment to last forever!

But again Jesus has a different idea, and what happens next is very important for understanding the Eucharist. Jesus doesn't permit them just to sit there, resting in the joy of his presence. "Their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he vanished from their sight" (Luke 24:31). He vanished from their sight! And the disciples immediately get up from the table and—even though the hour is late—they dash back to Jerusalem to tell the others: "He has risen!"

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The fourth "movement" of the Eucharist is the commissioning. Like the disciples at Emmaus, we are sent forth from the Eucharist to announce to the world the Good News that we have experienced in the gathered assembly, in the Word proclaimed and in the breaking of the Bread. We are commissioned—sent forth on mission—by our encounter with the Risen Lord at the Eucharist. We are to continue each day the biblical theme of oasis and journey.

The return to the world is an essential element of the Eucharist. In the eucharistic prayer, the Church asks the Holy Spirit for a twofold transformation: that 1) the Holy Spirit change the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, and 2) the Holy Spirit change us—we who eat and drink—into the body and blood of Christ.

In Eucharistic Prayer II, for example, we ask God to make the bread and wine "holy by the power of your Spirit, that they may become the Body and Blood of your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ." And then we pray, "Grant that we, who are nourished by his Body and Blood, may be filled with his Holy Spirit, and become one Body, one Spirit in Christ."

The eucharistic prayer asks that the Holy Spirit change not only the bread and wine but also us! We are commissioned to go forth to continue the mission of Christ to reconcile all things to his Father.

Whenever we celebrate the Eucharist, we must be attentive to both parts of this prayer. In the transformed bread and wine, we recognize Christ, risen from the dead, truly God and truly human, and we recognize Christ's body, the Church—particularly the poor, the marginalized and those whom the world considers worthless. "For," as Paul writes, "all who eat and drink without discerning the body [the Church], eat and drink judgment against themselves" (1 Corinthians 11:29). (All Scripture quotes in this article are from the New Revised Standard Version.)

One day, St. John Chrysostom (347-407 A.D.) was preaching on the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46). St. John told his congregation: "Do you wish to honor the body of Christ? Do not ignore him when he is naked. Do not pay him homage in the temple [here at Mass] clad in silk, only then to neglect him outside where he is cold and ill-clad. He who said, 'This is my body,' is the same who said: 'You saw me hungry and you gave me no food,' and 'Whatever you did to the least of my brothers you did also to me'....What good is it if the Eucharistic table is overloaded with golden chalices when your brother is dying of hunger? Start by satisfying his hunger and then with what is left you may adorn the altar as well" (Gospel of St. Matthew, homily 50:3-4; available from www.newadvent.org/fathers).

When I was a high school student at our Franciscan seminary in Cincinnati, there was a fire across town at the diocesan seminary. The diocesan seminarians came and lived with us while their building was being repaired. They brought with them the crucifix that had hung in their now-ruined chapel. Fire had destroyed the arms of the corpus, and the charred, armless image was displayed with the inscription, "I have no arms but yours!"

That crucifix made a lasting impression on me and my understanding of the Eucharist. At each Eucharist, we invoke the Holy Spirit to make our arms be Christ's arms reaching out to heal and to comfort, that our words be Christ's words of love and forgiveness, and that our hands be Christ's hands lifting up the fallen, the discouraged and the outcast. This reaching out to the poor is at the heart of our Christian journey. "The Eucharist commits us to the poor," says the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#1397).

At the Evening Mass of the Lord's Supper on Holy Thursday, we wash feet. Washing feet! Isn't this a rather strange way to begin these holiest of days? Perhaps the Church proposes this ritual foot-washing to remind us that the Eucharist is a sacrament of humble service.

It is wonderful to be inspired by beautiful vestments and monstrances of gold and silver. It is helpful to understand theological and liturgical terms. But we can never forget that the Eucharist transforms us into the body of Christ so that we might think and act like Christ.

This transformation is at the heart of the mystery. In the Gospel reading on Holy Thursday, Jesus commands: "Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you" (John 13:12-15).

Humble service to one another! The Eucharist forms us for this mission and strengthens us to realize it. This is why Pope John Paul II (echoing Vatican II's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church) called the Eucharist "the source and summit" of Catholic life and mission.

We frequently use the terms Eucharist and Mass to describe the same act of worship. What's in a name? Which is the better term?

I'll admit that Mass is the word that comes most readily to my lips. It is a lot shorter and easier to say and the word Catholics use most often: going to Mass, missing Mass, saying Mass, the time for Mass and so on.

I am often asked where the name comes from. During the centuries when the Roman-rite Mass was celebrated in Latin, the last thing the people heard the priest say was "Ite, missa est." Probably Mass comes from "Ite, missa est." Ite means "Go!" And missa is a technical term for a formal dismissal.

Often what we hear last is what sticks in our memory. (In the parking lot after Mass, people are more likely to remember the final hymn than the homily or Gospel!) This dismissal (missa) became the name for the entire action.

The word Eucharist comes from the Greek verb eucharistein, "to give thanks." The verb form of this word appears in each biblical account of the first Eucharist. For example, "Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it" (Mark 14:23).

There are some good reasons to call the sacrament and its celebration the Eucharist instead of the Mass. First of all, this term echoes Jesus' words at the Last Supper. Once we know what the term eucharist means, each time we hear it we will be reminded of our primary response both to this sacrament and to the very gift of life itself, namely, thanksgiving.

The Eucharist is the primary and most important response that a person can give for the gift of life. It ritually expresses our primary stance before God, namely, gratitude.

The word Mass refers to only one aspect of the Eucharist, the dismissal; Eucharist is a much more inclusive term.

The Baltimore Catechism, which even today shapes our understanding of Eucharist, treated the Eucharist in three separate chapters: "The Holy Eucharist," "The Sacrifice of the Mass" and "Holy Communion." The unfortunate result of this pedagogical choice is that many Catholics, even today, think of the Eucharist in these three separate categories: 1) the real presence in the consecrated host, 2) Mass, and 3) receiving Communion. The New Testament invites us to a more unified vision of the Eucharist.

When I was doing research for my doctoral thesis on liturgical law, I studied the development of Vatican II's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. As that text evolved from preliminary drafts into its final form, the title of its Chapter Two, which in the early drafts was called "On the Mass," was changed in the final text to "On the Most Sacred Mystery of the Eucharist."

In documents of this importance—a dogmatic constitution of an ecumenical council—no change, no matter how small, is insignificant. If the authors of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy preferred Eucharist to Mass, that fact alone would be reason enough for us to prefer the term Eucharist.

When I think of those archaeology students with their feet in the cooling waters of the oasis, I know that they don't really want to stay there forever. As peaceful and refreshing as the oasis may be, an archaeologist's real thrill is doing archaeology, and for that, one must leave the oasis and journey on to the next dig.

The same is true with our Christian life. As enjoyable and refreshing as it may be to bask in the presence of the Eucharist, the real thrill and excitement of Christian life are found in the journey, the mission: "Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation" (Mark 16:15). This is the message of the commissioning rite at the Eucharist.

Our basic, daily pilgrimage is following Jesus. And if I had to put into one sentence all that Jesus said and did, all that he tells us about God, I believe that sentence would be, "God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them" (1 John 4:16). When we come up out of the waters of Baptism and "follow Jesus," that does not mean that we have to become carpenters, fishermen or charismatic preachers. "Following Jesus" means that we have to become great lovers!

Years ago, when I was a music student, I would spend hour after hour at the piano, learning the two pieces required for the recital at the end of the semester. And after weeks of practice, I could play those two pieces rather well. But just because I could play two songs didn't mean that I was an artist at the piano! A real artist isn't limited to a couple of pieces. Artists can play whatever music is set before them. Artists can play all the pieces.

Similarly, to be good at the art of loving, we have to be able to love all the pieces. You have to be able to love everyone—even as God loves everyone and invites people of every race, language and way of life to the great eucharistic banquet of the Kingdom. Every Eucharist sends us forth to love all the people whom God loves.

This text is adapted from Chapter Eight and the Conclusion of Father Richstatter's latest book, The Mass: A Guided Tour (St. Anthony Messenger Press).


Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M., earned a doctorate in sacramental theology from the Institut Catholique of Paris and serves on the faculty of St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology. He is a popular writer and speaker at parish and diocesan gatherings.


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