Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
The way Catholics think about the Eucharist
has a lot to do with the way we understand the body. Theologian
Nathan Mitchell pointed this out a few years back when he wrote
that in Christian tradition the human person is not simply someone
who has a body, but is someone who is a body. That
challenges us to think beyond a narrow understanding of the body
as a collection of muscles, bones and organs where a soul resides.
Mitchell challenges us to think of the
body in a deeply traditional sense, as the whole person in relation
to God. Christian teaching on the Resurrection focuses, for example,
not on an immortal soul, but on a transfigured world of glorified
bodies. That's why the famous theologian Karl Rahner called the
feast of the Ascension "a festival of the future of the world."
For we believe that Christ's bodyand our bodieswill
last forever, transformed by God.
This view of the body affects how we
understand the Eucharistindeed even how we understand Christ.
Writes Mitchell, "The body of Christ offered in consecrated bread
and wine is not something, but someone....The ultimate
intent of celebrating Eucharist is not to produce the sacred species
for purposes of reservation and adoration, but to create the united
body of Christ which is the Church." The body of Christ is not only
on the table, but at the table and around the
2000 years of presence
If we look at the history of the Mass
from the days of the apostles to our own time, we shall see there
have been many changes in the way our Church has understood the
Eucharist. But throughout that long tradition is the firm belief
in the real presence of the risen Jesus in the Eucharist and in
the centrality of the Eucharist in the life of the Church.
Looking at eucharistic history in wide
sweeps, we can see three periods in that history. For the first
seven or eight centuries of the Church's life, the Eucharist had
been the people's Eucharist. The Eucharist was people gathering
in community (often in house-churches) to express their praise and
thanks to God. This is precisely what the word eucharist
means: "giving thanks and praise."
Christians, gathered together for Eucharist,
were conscious all the while that the risen Jesus was in their midst
as they did so. They never even bothered to ask when Christ became
present. It was enough to know that he was with them. There was
no elevation of the host and cup at the words of institution. The
only elevation came at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer. After
the Eucharistic Prayer, everyone shared in the meal. Following the
meal, Communion was taken to the sick. Later the custom developed
of reserving the Holy Bread in a special place in the church to
take to the sick in case this was necessary when Eucharist was not
being celebrated. Eventually it happened that people would go to
the place of reservation for private prayer.
A change in emphasis
In the Middle Agesroughly between
800 and 1000something happened to the Eucharist. It became
something quite different from what it had been in the beginning.
From being the action of people, it became an act of God coming
down among God's people to be adored.
Let me try briefly to clarify how this
happenedagain in broad strokes. First of all, as the number
of Christians grew (in the centuries after Constantine, the first
Christian emperor), Church buildings became much larger. The homey
image of a community gathered around the Lord's table became less
and less visible. Second, in the age of Charlemagne (742-814), many
people of non-Roman background were baptized without adequate preparation.
They went to a liturgy celebrated in Latin, a language they did
Third, for a long time the Church had
fought against the persistent heresy of Arianism. The Arians denied
that Jesus Christ was divine. In reaction to this heresy, Christian
thought emphasized the divinity of Christ so much that his humanity
was almost forgotten! The result was that Jesus became for many
people a fearful figure. Having lost sight of the fact that Jesus
had truly become part of the human family, people began to think
of him solely as Godand as God who is our judge and who will
punish us for our failings. The Jesus who had said: "Come to me,
you who labor and are burdened, and I will refresh you," had become
Someone who was unapproachable and to be feared.
Priest's role changes
These factors working together brought
about a different way of viewing the Eucharist. The priest began
to celebrate Mass with his back to the people. Few received Communion.
They were content to look at the Jesus whom they felt now afraid
to receive. More and more the priest did everything at the Mass.
The people simply "attended."
Let me offer a parallel to what was
happening to the Eucharist. Suppose someone were to rewrite the
Gospels and transform the image of Jesus as presented in the Gospels.
Suppose that, instead of describing the Jesus who moved among people
healing them, reconciling them, consoling them, inviting them to
choose the Kingdom (as the Gospels certainly do picture Jesus)suppose,
instead, that the Gospels presented Jesus as someone who sat in
a house at Nazareth behind a glass window where anyone who wanted
to could come and get a look at him. There would be Jesusnot
acting in the midst of peoplebut just sitting there day after
day, on view for people.
No one would dare rewrite the Gospels
in this way. Yet what no one would dare to do to the Christ of the
Gospels is what the Middle Ages unwittingly did to the Christ of
the Eucharist. They took away much of the awareness of Christ in
the midst of people. The Mass had drifted from a human experience
of community in Christ, which called for people's participation,
to a divine reality that called for a priest to act in the name
of Christ to bring him down from heaven. The priest became the only
one to be acting in the eucharistic celebration.
The people watched as silent spectators.
They said their prayers. They watched the host lifted up for them
to see. On occasion they received Communion. For the most part they
were not really a community, but a collection of individualswatching
something that was being done on their behalf.
If you look at the theology of the Eucharist
that emerged from the Council of Trent (a theology that persisted
down to the Second Vatican Council), it is clear that its approach
to the Eucharist was that of medieval theologians. For them the
essence of a sacrament was to be found in its matter and form.
To give an example, the matter of Baptism
was water; the form the words: "I baptize you in the name of the
Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." As long as the priest
used water and said the proper words, the sacrament was valid. Other
parts of the ceremony might have been edifying and "good for the
faithful to hear." But it was the water and the proper words that
The Eucharist was understood in similar
fashion. The matter was bread and wine; the form, "the words of
consecration" said by the priest over the bread and wine. The priest
was the celebrant. He really did not need the people to have a Eucharist
as it was understood. All he needed was bread and wine and the words
of consecration that he spoke. The people were there largely as
spectators, watching an action being performed on their behalf.
They were especially attentive when the priest pronounced "the words
of consecration." The rest of the time they were, by and large,
occupied with saying their prayers.
Receiving Communion had little to do
with any kind of relationship with the rest of the people in the
church. Communion was seen as something between "Jesus and me."
When we returned from Communion, we made this abundantly clear by
burying our faces in our hands, to exclude from this exquisite moment
all else, including the rest of the congregation.
That was the limited understanding of
liturgy that existed for most people prior to the Second Vatican
Council. I say for most people, because the 20th century witnessed
the development of a movement that was to prepare for the liturgical
changes initiated by Vatican II.
The small group of people interested
in liturgical renewal were given a basic liturgical principle by
Pius X in the very first document of his papacy, an apostolic letter
on Church music (November 22, 1903): "Active participation in the
liturgy is the primary and indispensable source of the true Christian
spirit." This became the watchword of a small number of priests
and laity who sought to achieve fundamental changes in the celebration
of liturgy. This group came to be called the liturgical movement.
The unofficial publication of the movement, published at St. John's
Abbey in Minnesota, first called Orate Fratres, is now named
In 1938 the first Father Stedman
Missals were published. They used a number system to guide people
through the various parts of the Mass. I remember buying my first
Stedman missal for 38 cents. Thousand and thousands of copies
were sold. Instead of saying their rosary or reading their prayers,
people were now able to follow the priest at Mass. This was not
yet full participation, but at least a step toward it. Yet another
step occurred in the 1940's with the advent of the dialogue Mass,
in which people participated by making the responses that up to
then had been reserved to the altar servers.
A most important step toward liturgical
renewal occurred on November 16, 1955, when Pope Pius XII restored
the Easter Vigil and then, later, the Triduum of Holy Thursday,
Good Friday and Easter. Recentering liturgy around the mystery of
the death and, especially, the resurrection of the Lord was a decisive
preparation for the liturgical changes initiated by the Second Vatican
Influence of Vatican II
At the time of Vatican II most people
still carried with them the heritage of the past: They said their
prayers at Mass and fulfilled a religious obligation. Now, more
than 30 years after the Council, some people continue to think of
the Mass only as a Sunday obligation they must fulfill. For them
the Eucharist still means Jesus as God being shown to us and received,
rather than the earliest understanding of the Eucharist: Jesus as
the Risen One who became dynamically present among his people, doing
things to us: healing us, cleansing us, reconciling us, calling
us, inviting us to deeper and deeper involvement in proclaiming
God's Kingdom, calling us to be his body in the world.
The Council's Constitution on the
Sacred Liturgy, as well as the liturgical documents issued after
the Council to implement the directives of that Constitution, produced
what can only be called an unprecedented and explosive revolution
in liturgical understanding and practice. The most important thing
the Council did was to give the Eucharist back to the assembly,
to the people of God.
It would be too strong to say that the
Council took the Eucharist away from the priest and gave it back
to the people. But it would not be too strong to say that it returned
the Eucharist to what it had been in the beginning: an assembly
of God's people come together, under the leadership of a priest,
to praise God, to hear God's Word and to "break bread" with the
firm belief that the Lord Jesus was present among them.
In today's Eucharist, though a priest
presides, the central actor is the risen Jesus present in our midst
through the action of the Spirit.
The priest's role remains essential:
He is the presider who leads the assembly and, in the person of
Christ and on behalf of the people, asks God to send the Holy Spirit
on the bread and wine and also on the assembly.
New language, new accents
The radical changes introduced by the
Council introduced new language. Where we used to emphasize mainly
the role of the priest, we now emphasize as well the role of the
entire assembly. The priest presides over the celebration.
Where we used to speak of the priest
changing the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, we
now see his role as a humbler one. He acts in the person of Jesus,
asking God: "Let your Spirit come upon these gifts to make them
holy, so that they may become for us the body and blood of our Lord,
Jesus Christ" (Eucharistic Prayer II). In other words, the priest
asks God to send the Holy Spirit to do for us now what Jesus did
at the Last Supper.
All the reforms of liturgy that have
come out of Vatican II have had as their ultimate intent to make
the Mass once again a human reality, namely, something that people
do; yet always a human reality that moves beyond the human to the
divine. By this I mean that what people do at Mass, they do with
a profound realization that the risen Lord is present in their midst.
Jesus calls us to eat his flesh and
drink his blood. We must avoid an overly literalistic understanding
of these words. We do not literally eat flesh or drink blood. Jesus'
command to eat his body and drink his blood can only make sense
if we understand the words body and blood as designating
the whole person, the real glorified Jesus as he exists today.
Thus to eat his body and drink his blood
is to enter into a true encounter with the person of Jesus. This
is the full meaning of the Eucharist. It is a dynamic meeting with
the Risen One.
But it is not a solitary experience.
We do not come to the Eucharist simply as isolated individuals,
but rather as persons who are members of a community, as persons
who are the Body of Christ. The Eucharist is not just Jesus with
me, but Jesus with us, and all of us with one another. And we are
not together hiding from the world: We are Christ's body in the
world God created, 24 hours a day.
In a word, Jesus' presence is not static:
He is not satisfied just to be there. He is there to act dynamically
in order to change our lives. At Eucharist we meet Christ and are
challenged by him in the assembly of his people. He is there to
make us whole people. He is there to bring harmony and peace into
our lives, our families, our country, our world. He comes to make
us experience ourselves as his body in the world.
All too often our understanding gets
reversed. We think of the Eucharist as a kind of reservoir we come
to and get the grace that will carry us through the week. Yet we
need to look at the reality of God's grace quite differently. The
grace of God acts in the world, among people.
Liturgy of the world
Our liturgies, therefore, must not be
seen as isolated interventions of grace into our otherwise profane
and graceless lives. Rather these acts of worship are symbolic expressions
of what theologian Karl Rahner called "the liturgy of the world."
The experience of God is primarily to
be found hidden in the midst of ordinary life, observes Rahner,
in our experiences of hope and doubt, responsibility, love and death.
We gather together in worship, not to "refuel" lives devoid of grace,
but because we need to celebrate all the grace-filled moments of
our lives, which are so easily overlooked or ignored. We gather
at Eucharist to be challenged to deeper awareness of what God is
doing in our lives, in this world, all week long.
We have to keep remembering to ask the
questions: "Who are at the table? Who are around the table?" as
well as the question, "Who is on the table?" The Catechism of
the Catholic Church quotes a moving passage in which St. Augustine
relates the Body of Christ in the Eucharist (on the altar) to the
Body of Christ that is the Church (at and around the altar).
Says Augustine at the turn of the fifth
century: "If you are the body and members of Christ, then it is
your sacrament that is placed on the table of the Lord; it is your
sacrament that you receive. To that which you are, you respond:
'Amen' ('Yes, it is true!'), and by responding to it you assent
to it. For you hear the words 'The Body of Christ,' and respond
'Amen.' Be then a member of the Body of Christ that your Amen may
be true" (#1396).
Next: Lent, Day by Day (by
Elizabeth Bookser Barkley)