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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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Source and Summit of Catholic Life

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

“Oasis and journey to another oasis and another journey: The Bible is a story of oases and journeys.” Many years ago I heard a Scripture scholar describe the Bible in this way.

During his lecture he recalled leading a group of student archaeologists through the Egyptian desert. Everyone was hot and 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.”

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From worship to the world

In this series of newsletters we have been examining the parts of the Mass—gathering, storytelling, meal sharing—and we come now to the fourth and final part of the Mass: commissioning. If the first three movements have been something of an “oasis” in our Christian journey, the Commissioning Rites help us transition from the “oasis” of worship to the “journey” that is our life in the world.

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”—like the students on that Egyptian dig. We take up the burdens we left at the church door and return to our daily lives.

Prayer of transition

The final prayer of the third movement of the Mass (the “meal sharing”) is the Prayer After Communion. This is not a prayer of thanksgiving. The Eucharistic Prayer itself is our thanksgiving prayer. The Prayer After Communion is a prayer of transition.

While the words of the prayer vary according to the season and feast, the petition of the 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 expresses our transition from “oasis” to “journey.”

Commissioning

The fourth and final movement of the Mass (the commissioning—or Concluding Rite as it is called in the Roman Missal) is relatively short and simple: the announcements, “The Lord be with you,” a blessing, the dismissal and, usually, a concluding hymn.

This final part of the Mass is so brief that you might ask: Why stay? Why not just leave and go home after receiving Communion? I know that there are times when one has to leave early because of other commitments or obligations—this has happened to me on occasion and I presume that it can happen to others.

But the reason I want to stay to the end is because I didn’t come to Mass merely to receive Holy Communion. I came to share in a sacred meal, and at meals we don’t eat and run. After sharing a meal we need time to take our leave and say goodbye to our companions. And at the eucharistic meal we need transition time—time to move from oasis to journey.

A journey for all

For many Catholics 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 what Peter, James and John experienced on the mountain of the transfiguration: “Lord, it’s good to be here. This is really great! Let’s build dwellings 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. 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, fearful people waiting for our encouragement and support.

An oasis in Emmaus

The four-movement description of the Eucharist (gathering, storytelling, meal sharing and commissioning) that has been presented in these newsletters is taken from the Emmaus story (Luke 24:13-35). The two disciples are returning home to Emmaus. The stranger (1) gathers together with them. They (2) tell their story and recall the Scriptures. They invite the stranger into their home and (3) in sharing their meal they “recognize him in the breaking of the bread.” They (4) return to Jerusalem to bring the good news to the other disciples.

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!

Sent forth

But again Jesus has a different idea, and what happens next in the story is very important for our understanding of the Eucharist. Jesus doesn’t permit them to just 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!”

The fourth part of the Eucharist is the “commissioning.” We, like the disciples of Emmaus, 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. In our daily lives we are to continue the biblical theme of oasis and journey.

Praying for change

The “return to the world” is an essential element of the Mass. When we examine the structure and function of the Eucharistic Prayer (the central prayer of the Mass), we see that the petition of the prayer—the epiclesis or invocation of the Holy Spirit—asks for a twofold transformation. We pray that (1) the Holy Spirit change the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, and we pray that (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….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. We also petition the Holy Spirit to change us!

This second “change” was very real for the early Church. It was impressed on St. Paul from the day he was knocked to the ground on the way to Damascus: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4-5). Paul realized from that moment on that the risen Lord is so united with us that what we do to one another we do to Christ himself.

Becoming the change

This is why Paul became so irritated when he observed how the Corinthians celebrated the Eucharist. He scolded them because when they came together for the Eucharist they didn’t come to eat the Lord’s Supper; they came to eat their own supper. They were concerned with their own needs and hungers, while the poor stayed hungry and the rich had so much to eat and drink they got drunk! (see 1 Corinthians 11:17-22.)

Whenever we celebrate the Eucharist we must be attentive to both parts of the epiclesis/invocation. We recognize Christ not only in the Bread and Wine, but also in his Body, the Church—particularly the poor, the marginalized and those whom the world considers worthless. “For,” as Paul writes, “anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the Body [the Church] eats and drinks judgment on himself” (1 Corinthians 11:29).

Our part in God’s plan

I like to refer to this twofold, inclusive understanding of Christ’s presence as the “Easter Sunday” dimension of the Eucharist. The early Church’s Easter experience of the risen Christ was that of the conversion insight of St. Paul: Christ identifies himself with the poor.

The Eucharistic Prayer with its twofold epiclesis/invocation continually reminds us of this reality. When we ask the Holy Spirit to transform us into the Body of Christ we are asking that the Holy Spirit enable us to take our part in God’s great and mysterious plan for creation. We pray that we become the presence, the sacrament, of the risen Lord in our world, in our time and place.

No arms but ours

When I was a high school student at our Franciscan seminary in Cincinnati, there was a fire across town at the diocesan seminary. We invited the diocesan seminarians to come and live 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” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1397).

And 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 at the oasis forever. As peaceful and refreshing as the oasis may be, the real thrill of being an archaeologist is in doing archaeology, and for that, one must leave the oasis and journey on to the site of 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 the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15).

Three key mysteries

In his letter On the Eucharist in Its Relationship to the Church (Holy Thursday 2003), Pope John Paul II spoke of the Eucharist as the “source and summit of the Christian life.” He reminded us that just as we cannot understand the historical Jesus without reference to the events of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday, so we cannot understand the Eucharist without seeing it in relation to these same three mysteries.

In this series of newsletters we have examined the Eucharist in relation to the mystery of Holy Thursday (Eucharist as sacred meal) and the mystery of Easter Sunday (unity of the risen Christ and his Body, the Church). The Eucharist in relation to the mystery of Good Friday (the Eucharist as sacrifice) will be the subject of our next newsletter.

Next: The Sacrifice of Good Friday

    

Question Corner

• Father Tom states that the real thrill of the Christian life is in the journey, the mission to share the Good News. Recall an experience when getting involved enlivened your faith.

• Does the Mass sometimes feel like an oasis along your life’s path? Do you leave Mass recommitted to the journey?

• We must recognize Christ not only in the Bread and Wine but also in his Body, the Church. Christ especially identifies with the poor. “The Eucharist commits us to the poor” (CCC, #1397). What more can you do for the poor?

 

 

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