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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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Presence of the Risen Lord

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

Is Christ really present in the Eucharist? I am sure you would answer “yes” to that question. I can’t imagine why you would be spending the time and effort needed to read these articles if you were not already convinced of this central mystery of our Catholic faith.

The presence of Christ in the Eucharist is the topic of this month’s article, and because you already believe this doctrine, I thought we might approach the subject in a slightly different way. Let’s consider icebergs and shoeboxes.

Icebergs

Several times in these newsletters I have used the metaphor of an iceberg. I don’t know how familiar you are with icebergs—I must admit I have never seen a real one myself—but all you need to know about them to understand this article is that the biggest part of the iceberg (about 87%) lies unseen below the surface of the water. The part that we see is literally only the “tip of the iceberg.”

Our understanding of the Real Presence is something like an iceberg. There is a conscious, reasoned, logical part of us that embraces all the things we “know” about the Eucharist—the things we have been taught in school, catechisms, the writings of the popes, Sunday homilies, etc.

All of these “facts” rest on top of a much larger body of experiences and meanings which, like the submerged part of the iceberg, lie unseen below the surface of our consciousness. Sometimes we may not even be aware of this vast body of memories and feelings. Yet they are very important because of the way they support and interpret the “facts,” the things we “know” about the Eucharist (the “tip of the iceberg” part of our understanding).

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The whole picture

Recently I saw a spectacular photograph of an entire iceberg, top to bottom. The picture was taken by a diver when the water was especially calm and the sun was almost directly overhead. The photo not only revealed the beauty of the iceberg as we normally see it, floating exposed on top of the waterline, but also showed the great mass of ice hidden below the surface of the water.

In this article I invite you to put on your “theological wetsuit” and stick your head in the icy waters to take a look at the bottom of your “Eucharist iceberg.” Together we will attempt to look at some of the meanings and images that lie underneath the statements we make about the Eucharist.

As Catholics we believe that in the most Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist, our Lord Jesus Christ “is truly, really and substantially contained” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1374). This is a “tip of the iceberg” type of statement: conscious, reasoned, intelligible.

But what happens when you look underneath those words and try to see what they mean for you? For example, when you say that Jesus is contained in the Blessed Sacrament, who is this Jesus? What unconscious images and memories shape your understanding of Jesus?

Imagining Jesus

When I close my eyes and imagine Jesus, the pictures that first come to my mind are images of Jesus of Nazareth, the man born of Mary. Jesus looks something like the statue of the Sacred Heart that gazed down on me each morning at Mass during my grade school days.

I know that Jesus was not only a human being; he was also truly God, the Word who “became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14). It’s hard to imagine the Second Person of the Trinity.

I have seen frescoes in old Spanish churches of the Trinity pictured as an old man, a younger man and a dove arranged in a triangle, but those images can mislead me into thinking that there are three separate Gods rather than one God in three Persons. It’s hard to “picture” God.

Jesus of Nazareth, the historical Jesus—truly God and fully human— passed through death and is now our risen Lord. While I know that Jesus’ risen body “is the same body that had been tortured and crucified,” I also know that it now “possesses the new properties of a glorious body” (CCC, #645). Jesus did not die and then simply come back to life like Lazarus (see John 11:1-44). Jesus passed through death and is now “the man of heaven” (CCC, #646). How do you picture this Jesus?

Imagining the Body of Christ

We believe that Jesus, “the man of heaven,” is truly, really and substantially contained in the most Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist. How do you picture the Jesus present in the Eucharist? Does he look like the host at Mass—a small, round, white piece of unleavened bread? Or do you think of an image of the Last Supper and picture Jesus of Nazareth holding a loaf of bread?

At Mass we pray that the Holy Spirit will “gather all who share this one Bread and one Cup into the one Body of Christ” (Eucharistic Prayer IV). How do you picture this Body? When I close my eyes and imagine the Body of Christ that is the Church, it sort of looks like a group of ordinary people. It really doesn’t look much like my other images of Jesus. This brings us to the second metaphor: shoeboxes.

Shoeboxes

In my bedroom closet I have several pairs of shoes, each pair neatly put away in its shoebox. I have a pair of black dress shoes that I wear for Mass. I have a new pair of sneakers I wear to the gym and an old pair I wear when working in the yard. I have a pair of sandals and a comfortable pair of slippers for lounging around the house.

These shoes all have some things in common: They are all the same size and each pair has a left and a right foot. But the different pairs don’t interact with each other. They are five distinct pairs of shoes, each pair in its own shoebox.

No shoebox for Jesus

This is OK for shoes, but it is not OK for our image of Jesus. Sometimes when I listen to Catholics talk about Jesus present in the Eucharist, I am led to suspect that they have five different images of Jesus operative below the surface of their “Eucharist iceberg” and that each image is kept in its own separate “shoebox.”

There is one Lord Jesus Christ. The task of the mature Catholic is to work to get those below-the-surface images integrated into one, coherent, combined understanding of the Body of Christ.

Jesus’ eucharistic Body

When I look back on my childhood days and examine my under-the-iceberg understanding of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, I think that I imagined the historical Jesus making himself very small and getting into the host. That is why I worried about hurting Jesus if I chewed the host. And I wondered if Jesus was lonely in the tabernacle at night.

Only later did I finally put together the historical Jesus with the Word made Flesh and come to realize that the risen Lord is beyond suffering. He reigns glorified at the right hand of the Father. I can’t physically hurt Jesus in the Eucharist.

But even more important, I don’t think I put together the eucharistic Body with Christ’s Body, the Church. Integrating the way I treat the people around me with the way I understand the Eucharist came later in my faith journey.

Putting it together

For St. Paul it came first. His very first encounter with the risen Lord was in and through actual Christian people—the people he was persecuting and sending to prison. “On that journey as I drew near to Damascus, about noon a great light from the sky suddenly shone around me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ I replied, ‘Who are you, sir?’ And he said to me, ‘I am Jesus the Nazorean whom you are persecuting’” (Acts 22:6-8).

Paul’s conversion experience is the key to understanding why he is so insistent that we have one integrated understanding of the Body of Christ. The vision taught him that the risen Lord is so identified with his disciples that they cannot be separated. This unity comes about through Baptism (“For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body”—1 Cor 12:13) and the Eucharist (“Because the loaf of bread is one, we, though many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf”—1 Cor 10:17).

Getting it right

When Paul writes to the Corinthians regarding their conduct at the eucharistic supper he is not concerned about their reverence toward the risen Lord. He is concerned about their reverence toward the Body of Christ, the Church. “When you meet in one place, then, it is not to eat the Lord’s supper, for in eating, each one goes ahead with his own supper, and one goes hungry while another gets drunk” (1 Cor 11:20-21).

The Corinthians were celebrating the Eucharist without due regard for their fellow Christians, especially the poor and those on the margins of society. Paul reproaches them for not putting together the eucharistic Body of the risen Lord and the Body of Christ, the Church.

Stopping too soon

Today, each time we gather to celebrate the Eucharist, our petition (epiclesis) at the Eucharistic Prayer asks the Spirit to change the bread and wine into the Body of Christ and to change us into the Body of Christ. The words change depending on the prayer, but the point of the request is always the same: that we who feast on the Body of Christ become the Body of Christ!

We must not limit our reverence and our concern so that they are directed only to the first part of the epiclesis: the change in the gifts and the resulting presence of Christ in the Eucharist. We must follow through to the second part of the epiclesis: the change in us and the resulting concern for Christ in our neighbor.

Fourth-century insight

One day, St. John Chrysostom (347-407 A.D.) was preaching on the parable of the sheep and the goats (“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink…”—Mt 25:31-46). He told his congregation: “You want to honor Christ’s Body? Then do not neglect him when he is naked. Do not honor him here [at Mass] with silk garments while you leave him outside perishing from cold and nakedness.

“For he who said, ‘This is my Body,’ and by his word confirmed the fact, also said, ‘For I was hungry and you gave me no food,’ and, ‘Just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ Here [at the Eucharist], the Body of Christ needs no clothing but pure souls; there, it needs great solicitude.”

Our daily challenge

As Catholics we believe that the Eucharist is truly the Body of Christ. As Catholics we struggle to integrate our love for the Body of Christ present in the Eucharist and our love for the Body of Christ which we encounter daily in the people with whom we live and work, pray and play.

How have we celebrated this mystery throughout the centuries of Christian history? That will be the topic of our next article.

Next: A Short History of the Eucharist

    

Question Corner

• What images and memories shape your understanding of Jesus? How has your understanding of Jesus grown and changed over time?

• At Mass we pray that the Holy Spirit will “gather all who share this one Bread and one Cup into the one Body of Christ” (Eucharistic Prayer IV). How do you picture this Body? How truly inclusive is your image?

• What must you do to better integrate your love for Jesus with your love for the everyday, ordinary—and sometimes irritating—people who make up Christ’s Body?

 

 

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