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On the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ 2004, the pope announced a Year of the Eucharist. Eucharist: Jesus With Us examines the function of the prayers and actions of the Mass, provides a fresh look at the Eucharist and explores the ways Catholics understand and talk about this central mystery of the Catholic faith.

Eucharist: Jesus With Us

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The First and Greatest Sacrament

by Father Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M., S.T.D.

Fasten your seatbelts for a really quick trip through history, Scripture and theology because in these few pages I want to explain the meaning of life! But before we begin this overly ambitious adventure, please complete the following sentence: “The Eucharist is…”

Typical of the responses I receive when I ask this question are: “The Eucharist is Sunday Mass.” “The Eucharist is the sacrifice of Calvary.” “The Eucharist is Holy Communion.” These are all accurate statements. But the issue I want to treat in this article is this: Can you fit all the various correct responses together so that when you think about the Eucharist the multiple meanings of this mystery come together into a unified, consistent vision? That’s what I want this article to help you accomplish.


Creation as God’s work of art

Let’s start at the beginning—the very beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth. Now, as we know, God didn’t have to create anything. God created freely out of love. God, who is the very essence of love (see 1 Jn 4:16), planned from day one to share the love, harmony, communication and unity of God’s own inner Trinitarian life with the persons and things that God would create. After all, isn’t that what love does? It wants to propagate itself.

Just as an artist is always embodied in his or her work of art—we can look at a painting and say “that’s a Monet” or hear a piece of music and say “that’s Mozart”—the Divine Artist is embodied in the beautiful universe we see around us. And of all God’s works of art, God’s masterpiece is Jesus! If God’s inner Trinitarian life and love spill over into creation, nowhere is this more evident than in Jesus Christ, who is “the refulgence of [God’s] glory” (Heb 1:3).

God’s plan for creation

Usually when we make something, we have some kind of plan in mind. For example, imagine you are building a house and you begin to measure the land, dig the foundation and pour the footings. If someone were to ask you, “What are you doing?” you wouldn’t say, “Well, I don’t know yet; I’m just pouring concrete. We’ll see what happens.” No, from the very beginning, your mind’s eye is on the finished project: “I’m building a house.”

Similarly, God had a plan for all of creation. Little by little that plan was revealed in the history of God’s people. As we read in the Letter to the Hebrews: “In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he spoke to us through a son…who is the very imprint of [God’s] being” (1:1-3). When the time was ripe, God’s plan was revealed in all its wonderful mystery in the birth, life, passion, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The plan God had in mind from the very beginning was Jesus Christ!

Jesus: sacrament of God’s plan

When the inspired authors of the New Testament describe this amazing plan of God for the world, the word they use for “plan” (they were writing in Greek) is mysterion (“mystery” in English). They tell how this mystery, this wondrous plan of God for the world, is “summed up” in Christ. They share the plan with others so that “their hearts may be encouraged as they are brought together in love…for the knowledge of the mystery of God, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:2-3, italics added).

When the Greek New Testament was translated into Latin, the Greek word mysterion was often translated into the Latin word sacramentum (“sacrament” in English). St. Augustine taught that a sacrament is a “visible sign of invisible grace.”

Today, when we Catholics think of sacraments we usually think of the seven sacraments—but in Augustine’s broader understanding of sacrament, we see that of all the visible signs we have of who God is, the best, the most complete “visible sign” (sacrament) is Jesus himself. For Jesus “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (Col 1:15).

In Jesus “we see our God made visible and so are caught up in love of the God we cannot see” (Mass of Christmas, Preface I). It is in this sense that we can speak of Jesus himself as a “sacrament.”

Unity of mind and heart

At Mass we pray: “You sent Jesus Christ your Son among us as redeemer and Lord. He was moved with compassion for the poor and the powerless, for the sick and the sinner; he made himself neighbor to the oppressed. By his words and actions he proclaimed to the world that you care for us as a father cares for his children” (Eucharistic Prayer for Masses for Various Needs and Occasions, IV).

The love that is the inner Trinitarian life of God is revealed in everything that Jesus said and did, but nowhere is this love so clearly expressed as in his passion, death and resurrection. Jesus Christ empties himself on the cross to be in perfect union with the will of his Father through the Holy Spirit.

Perfect union of mind and heart! This is the goal, the purpose of sacrifice: joyful union with God. Nothing could separate Jesus from the love of God, not even death. Victorious over death itself, Jesus “rose on the third day, according to the Scriptures.” This is Christ’s paschal victory!

Christ’s reconciling sacrifice

The events of the days we have come to call Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter are at the very heart of God’s mysterious plan to embody his own Trinitarian love and harmony in creation. This plan is perfectly accomplished in the self-offering of Jesus through which he reconciled all things to himself.

And while Jesus accomplished this reconciliation once and for all on the cross, his sacrifice is not something that only happened in the past—as is the case with ordinary past events that happened once and now are over and done with. By means of the sacred meal that Jesus celebrated with his disciples before he died, we are enabled to participate in, and indeed to be mysteriously present to, Christ’s offering. The Eucharist is the sacramental “door” through which we can personally enter into Christ’s reconciling sacrifice.

Transformed by the Spirit

Each time we gather for the Lord’s Supper we ask God to send the Holy Spirit to transform our bread and wine into that sacrament of reconciliation, communion and love which is Christ himself. And that same Holy Spirit comes upon us who eat and drink and takes us up into the sacrifice of Christ. “Lord, look upon this sacrifice which you have given to your Church; and by your Holy Spirit, gather all who share this one bread and one cup into the one body of Christ, a living sacrifice of praise” (Eucharistic Prayer, IV).

This Holy Spirit—the spirit of wisdom and understanding, of right judgment and courage, of knowledge and reverence, the spirit of wonder and awe, which the prophet Isaiah said would be the hallmark of the Messiah (the Christ) —permeated and sealed the life of Jesus of Nazareth. It is this same Spirit which Christ gives to us. After his resurrection, Jesus said to the disciples, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” He then breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (Jn 20:21-22).

Eucharist makes Church

We receive that Spirit in Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist. Through these sacraments Christ commissions us to continue his work. Christ, through the Holy Spirit, has “given us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:18). We are to free creation from slavery by working to improve the quality of life for all, to alleviate hunger and disease, injustice and conflict. We are to be ambassadors of reconciliation until that perfect union of Creator and creation, which was planned by God from the beginning of the world and achieved by Christ on the cross, extends to the ends of the earth.

We cannot accomplish this alone; we cannot accomplish this divine plan together with the help of other people, even thousands of other people. We can only carry on the mission of Christ together with Christ. When we celebrate the Eucharist, we become Christ’s Body; we become Church. The Eucharist makes the Church. That is why the Church is so much more than merely the sum total of its members.

The Church itself is a sacrament, “a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race” (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, #1). And that sacrament which is the Church is never more visible than when we are celebrating the Eucharist. The Eucharist “is the outstanding means whereby the faithful may express in their lives, and manifest to others, the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, #2).

One unified vision

I have friends who returned from a visit to Russia with a set of those Russian nesting dolls (matryoshka). I always enjoy watching the amazement on the faces of their grandchildren as they open the doll to find another slightly smaller doll inside, and another inside that, and so on until all 10 are displayed on the table. Perhaps this can serve as an image for an integrated vision of the Eucharist.

Picture the dolls as being transparent so that you can see through the outer one to the next and the next and the next. Look at the Eucharist and see not only the consecrated host but also your own mystery and the mystery of the Church, the Body of Christ. See Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter and Pentecost. See the mystery of Christ, the sacrament of God, God’s plan for the world and the Trinitarian love of God’s very self. All of this is really present in the Eucharist.

When we view the Eucharist as the embodiment of the whole mysterious plan of God for the universe, then we can understand why the Eucharist is the first and greatest sacrament, indeed, the “Sacrament of sacraments” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1211).

The meaning of life

Many years ago when I was a high school religion teacher, I used to tell the sophomores that in order to find the meaning of life you have to answer three questions:

1) Who is God?

2) Who am I?

3) What am I going to do about it (that is, questions 1 and 2)?

These are the three questions that will be on the final examination. I refer to the very final examination when we stand before the throne of God in judgment.

The Eucharist is the key to the answers to these questions.

1) In the Eucharist we experience the presence of Christ, who      reveals to us who God is.

2) In the Eucharist we are incorporated more and more into the      Body of Christ, and in that Body we find our true identity.

3) Through the Eucharist the Holy Spirit empowers us, as Church,      to continue the mission of Christ. We become ambassadors of      reconciliation, ministers of healing, sacraments of God’s love.

In the Eucharist we find the meaning of life. In the Eucharist we come into contact with the mysterious plan of God. In the Eucharist we become Church. This is why the Eucharist, as Pope John Paul II has proclaimed, is the “source and summit of the life and mission of the Church.”

Next: The Community Gathers


Question Corner

• Before reading this article, how would you have completed the sentence, “The Eucharist is...”? How has your answer changed since reading it?

• Through the Eucharist we are empowered to continue Christ’s mission of reconciliation and healing and to be sacraments of God’s love. Are you taking your mission seriously?

• The main article says that the Eucharist is the first and greatest sacrament. How does your participation in Sunday Mass need to change to better reflect how important the Eucharist is in your life?




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