Each issue carries an imprimatur from
the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Reprinting prohibited
The First and Greatest Sacrament
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? Thats what I want this article to help you accomplish.
Creation as Gods work of art
Lets start at the beginning—the very beginning, when God created the
heavens and the earth. Now, as we know, God didnt 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 Gods
own inner Trinitarian life with the persons and things that God would create. After all,
isnt that what love does? It wants to propagate itself.
Just as an artist is always embodied in his or her work of artwe can
look at a painting and say thats a Monet or hear a piece of music and
say thats Mozartthe Divine Artist is embodied in the beautiful
universe we see around us. And of all Gods works of art, Gods masterpiece is
Jesus! If Gods inner Trinitarian life and love spill over into creation, nowhere
is this more evident than in Jesus Christ, who is the refulgence of [Gods]
glory (Heb 1:3).
Gods 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 wouldnt say, Well, I dont know yet;
Im just pouring concrete. Well see what happens. No, from the very beginning,
your minds eye is on the finished project: Im building a house.
Similarly, God had a plan for all of creation. Little by little that
plan was revealed in the history of Gods 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 [Gods] being (1:1-3). When the time was ripe, Gods 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 Gods 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
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
sacramentsbut in Augustines 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 Christs paschal victory!
Christs reconciling sacrifice
The events of the days we have come to call Holy Thursday, Good Friday and
Easter are at the very heart of Gods 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 pastas
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, Christs
offering. The Eucharist is the sacramental door through which we can personally
enter into Christs reconciling sacrifice.
Transformed by the Spirit
Each time we gather for the Lords 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
This Holy Spiritthe 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
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
Christs 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, Gods plan for the world and the Trinitarian love of Gods 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
reconciliation, ministers of healing, sacraments of Gods
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
Before reading this article, how would you have completed
the sentence, The Eucharist is...? How has your answer changed since
Through the Eucharist we are empowered to continue Christs
mission of reconciliation and healing and to be sacraments of Gods 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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