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The Eucharist: A Foretaste of Heaven
by Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk

Every time we celebrate the Eucharist we reach out for heaven. At the end of every preface at Mass, "we join the angels and the saints as they sing their unending hymn of praise." In Eucharistic Prayer I we pray that God's angel may take our sacrifice to his altar in heaven. In Eucharistic Prayer III we pray that Christ will "enable us to share in the inheritance of God's saints." Elsewhere the Church's liturgy speaks of the Eucharist as a pledge (or foretaste) of the glory to come (i.e., of heaven).

What is heaven, anyway?

To understand the connection of the Eucharist with heaven, we have to have a clear concept of what heaven is. It is an important element in our faith, but it seems to mean different things to different people. For many, heaven suggests harps and little angels and lots of singing, and is a place which, on reflection, is not particularly attractive. Some wonder if it might not turn out to be rather boring.

For those of a more religious cast of mind, heaven is the dwelling place of God and the angels, where all those who are redeemed will ultimately receive their eternal reward. Virtuous people can look forward to "going to heaven."

In the New Testament, several images speak of the ultimate happiness that we associate with heaven. Jesus speaks of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 4:17), of seeing God (Matthew 5:8) and of entering into the joy of the Lord (Matthew 25:21-23). The Letter to the Hebrews promises Christians that they will enter into God's rest (4:9-11).

Theologians over the centuries have reflected on what revelation has taught us about "heaven." They see it as a state of ultimate, final and full happiness. This does not mean numberless ice-cream cones and puppy dogs, but rather the healthy and permanent satisfaction of our deepest needs. Because only God can fully satisfy all human needs, final happiness necessarily involves communion or togetherness with God.

'Final stage' of nearness

Heaven is not so much a place where God puts good people as it is a state, a situation in which those who know and love God and share his life through grace reach the final stage of nearness to him. In heaven God gives himself to the beloved in the fullest and most definitive way. (Similarly, hell is not a place where God puts bad people. Hell is a state in which people are unable to accept and enjoy the only thing that remains for them after this earthly life: the love and respect of God.)

There is a social dimension to heaven, too. Primarily there is the presence of the Trinity. By God's grace the citizens of heaven share in the knowledge and love of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But there is also the loving community of the blessed in heaven with each other. Just as God's goodness and generosity were expressed for us on earth through the women and men whose lives touched ours, so also those in heaven find joy and fulfillment in knowing and being with others who are enjoying the presence of God.

Occasionally we experience little hors d'oeuvres for heaven in our earthly life, experiences that give us some idea of what final and full happiness must be like. The extended experience of love that is part of marriage or friendship reflects the lasting relationship with God that will be the cornerstone of our heavenly happiness. The sense of awe that we feel sometimes at sunrise or sunset or in great music is something like what our awareness of God in heaven will evoke in us. What we feel at the end of a memorable liturgical occasion—where everybody has been singing and praying together, sharing the joy of being in the company of the risen Christ—is a sample, though provisional and pale, of what we can expect from heaven.

But the most persistent, recurrent and habitual foretaste of heaven that God has provided for us is the Eucharist.

The Eucharist is both sacrament and sacrifice, an encounter with Christ that we experience and an action of his that becomes present for us. Both aspects of the Eucharist have profound resonances with the realities of heaven.

Eucharist: sacrament

The Eucharist as sacrament is a personal encounter with the risen Christ that comes about through our reception of Jesus, body and blood, soul and divinity, under the appearance of bread and wine. It's important to remember that our reception of Jesus Christ in the sacrament of the Eucharist is not just a matter of his being with us for a few minutes after we receive Communion, as if he were dropping in for a little visit. The reception of the Eucharist is a dynamic event that has several purposes and several effects, each of which also has a dimension that connects us with heaven.

First of all, holy Communion increases and energizes and strengthens the life of Christ in us. Our whole relationship with God depends on the life of Christ in us, on what we call grace. Without grace, we are out of touch with God, on our own to sink or swim as best we can with energies and capabilities that are simply insufficient for the challenges we face. Moreover, grace is what qualifies us for heaven, what makes us capable of the contact with God that provides our eternal happiness. The food of the Eucharist is a source of life and energy for our spirits just as material food is a source of life and energy for our bodies. It makes us grow in grace and thus grow in our aptitude for heaven.

Secondly, since this life of Christ in us is a relationship, it is capable of growth and development, just as any friendship is. Each time we receive holy Communion, we deepen our friendship with the risen Christ. We increase our resistance to everything that would keep us apart from Christ. In this way, too, we become more qualified to participate in the joy and fulfillment of heaven.

Next, because the Eucharist unites us more closely to Christ, it also unites us more closely to all those who are at one with him. The Eucharist is the one bread that makes us all into one body, the Body of Christ which is the Church. This is the Body that will take its final form in heaven, when all those who shared the life of Christ will be together with him forever. The deeper our participation in the Church, the deeper will be our sharing in the life of heaven.

Finally, because the life and ministry of Christ and of the Church are extended to all men and women, our increased participation in that life through holy Communion also makes us capable of increased love and care for our brothers and sisters, especially those in need. Because we are like Christ through faith and the sacraments, we are called to behave like Christ. Because we are members of the Church, we are called to take part in its mission. Behaving in a Christlike way and participating in the Church's mission contribute to our readiness to share the heavenly blessedness God promises us.

But the Eucharist is not just a sacrament. It is also a sacrifice.

Eucharist: sacrifice

The Eucharist as sacrifice joins us with Jesus' death on the cross. The significance of the cross does not lie in the brutal reality of Christ's suffering and death, as if the Father's justice could be appeased by the painfulness of what his Son experienced. No, the significance of the cross lies in its expression of the love of Christ for his Father, of his faithfulness from the first instant of his human existence. He persisted in love and faithfulness throughout his early, hidden life in Nazareth, throughout the efforts and frustrations of his public ministry, even to the point of accepting death as a criminal rather than backing away from his mission. In his sacrifice of himself on the cross—but also throughout his whole life—he was submitting his human will to that of his heavenly Father. Jesus gave obedience to God to make up for the disobedience of all of humankind. This brought about our redemption. In his faithfulness and love is our salvation.

But his faithfulness and love are not over yet. The self-giving of Jesus, the submission of his human will to the loving will of his heavenly Father, still continues in heaven. It's not as if Jesus had a role to perform in a kind of stage drama and, now that the drama is over, he can take off his makeup and forget about the role. Jesus is still a human being, though with a risen and glorified humanity, and his dedication and obedience and love toward his Father still continue in heaven. Our redemption, our salvation, is still going on because Christ continues to intercede for us, to love us, to express through his human will the obedience of all humankind.

'Centerpiece'

The centerpiece of heaven (at least as concerns its human citizens) is Christ the king and redeemer, now and forever sitting at the right hand of the Father, representing humanity, mediating between us and the Father, offering himself even as he did during his earthly life. He is our way of access to the Father and the channel through which the Father's love reaches us. We have a claim on heaven because his sacrifice of himself has made up for our sinfulness and has made us like him and continues to do so.

But this centerpiece of heaven, this sacred, eternally ongoing event, is not just something that continues way off outside the realms of earth. It is also an action that is part of our life of faith each day. Whenever the eucharistic sacrifice is celebrated, the sacrifice of Christ is renewed. It is not that Jesus suffers again and dies again another time, but that the faithfulness, love, dedication and obedience that Jesus expressed through his acceptance of death on the cross and now expresses in heaven becomes present to this group of Christian believers, in this place, at this time. The celebration of the Eucharist serves to put the followers of Jesus from every time and place into contact with his one sacrifice. Their needs, their sufferings, their joys, their frustrations, their desires, their successes are now associated with his sacrifice. The life of each believer (and of each group of believers) is changed and deepened and sanctified to the extent that it is associated with the sacrificial life and death of the risen and living Christ, risen from the dead and living in heaven.

The suffering and death of Jesus in time at the end of his earthly life are the core that enables us to understand the meaning of his whole life. Christ's ongoing offering of himself in heaven gives force and validity to human salvation. Our sharing in the sacrifice of Christ through the Eucharist here and now connects us both to his original offering long ago as well as to his ongoing eternal sacrifice in heaven. It is a memorial of the past and a preview of our heavenly future.

The Eucharist, both as sacrament and as sacrifice, orients us toward heaven and makes us ready for it. We can learn what lies in store for us there only to the extent that we are attentive to the Eucharist here.

Daniel E. Pilarczyk is archbishop of Cincinnati. His most recent book is Believing Catholic (St. Anthony Messenger Press).

 


 

Carroll O'Connor 

Of all the roles Carroll O'Connor has played, including that of Archie Bunker on All in the Family, the real-life role of father has been most precious to him. Surely his 50-plus years as a professional actor have offered him a series of thrilling moments on the stage, as have the awards he has won for his work. But most enduring has been his off-screen role as a father to his son, Hugh.

From the day in 1962 that Carroll and Nancy O'Connor adopted one-week-old Hugh in Rome, the tug was strong. "Hugh gave me the greatest pleasure for 33 years," Mr. O'Connor says. "He was everything a father could want in his son." The strong bonds would become tested as Hugh entered his teen years and developed a drug habit. Despite attempts at rehabilitation, the habit continued into adulthood. It marred Hugh's acting career, threatened his marriage and strained his relationships with family members, including his beloved father.

Carroll O'Connor lost his son to suicide on March 28, 1995. The young man he had helplessly watched spiral downward from a mixture of cocaine and alcohol gave up the struggle.

For Mr. O'Connor, Hugh's death became, among other things, a test of his own relationship with God. His Catholic faith had always been an important part of his life, but would it sustain him? "I don't believe God 'allows' things to happen. We do. God gave us free will," Mr. O'Connor says today.

The tragic loss of his son has led Carroll O'Connor to take on a new role, that of spokesman in the fight against drugs. His familiar face can be seen on a public service announcement that briefly tells Hugh's story of involvement with drugs over many years. "When his life became confused, unreal," the famous father says into the camera, "he ended his life. Get between your kids and drugs any way you can."

Although he keeps a hand in acting, Carroll O'Connor is at heart a devoted father seeking to prevent others from the tragedy he and his family have known. And he is a man of faith who believes his son is now with his heavenly father. "I think of heaven as a place where souls are able to live in full knowledge of everything and in peace. I believe Hugh is at peace now."

— by Judy Ball



 
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Pilgrim Power

Huge crowds of pilgrims traveled to Rome for the International Eucharistic Congress scheduled for June 18-25. But smaller, historic national eucharistic congresses also have left their mark.

The Antilles Eucharistic Congress in St. Lucia, observed May 17-20, was the highlight of the Jubilee Year in the Caribbean region. Participants included 2,000 pilgrims from the 19 dioceses that make up the Antilles Episcopal Conference as well as a papal representative. "What a great privilege it is for us to be living at this particular period in history," said Archbishop Kevin E. Felix of Castries, St. Lucia, in anticipation of the event.

In Mexico City, tens of thousands of pilgrims, accompanied by the sound of indigenous drums, participated in a historic outdoor religious procession— the first in nearly 150 years—through the center of the ancient city. In 1873, outdoor religious ceremonies were prohibited, one of the restrictions on the role of the Church growing out of a series of "reform" laws. In another major event of the congress, the 300-year-old Basilica of Guadalupe, the site of Mexico's 1924 Eucharistic Congress, was reopened. It has not been in use since the new basilica was consecrated in 1976.

 

 
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