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The Eucharist, Source and Summit of the Christian Life

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

The moment we say that the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life, we are faced with an avalanche of ideas that contradict this statement.

It was this concern about the Eucharistic errors in our day that occasioned Pope Paul VI to issue his historic encyclical Mysterium Fidei, the Mystery of Faith, during the Second Vatican Council. The pope foresaw two major errors which threatened the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

What was the first error about the Real Presence which the pope condemned? He condemned the error of transignification. Transignification is the heretical view of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist which claims that the meaning or significance of the bread and wine is changed by the words of consecration. The consecrated elements are said to signify all that Christians associate with the Last Supper; they have a higher value than merely food for the body. The theory of transignification was condemned by Pope Paul VI when it is understood as denying transubstantiation.

What was the second significant error about the Real Presence condemned by Pope Paul VI? It is the error of transfinalization. It is very similar to the false theory of transignification. But here it is claimed that Christ is not really present in the Eucharist. Rather, the purpose or finality of the bread and wine are changed by the words of consecration. They are said to serve a new function as sacred elements that arouse the faith of the people in the mystery of Christ’s redemptive love. Both transignification and transfinalization have deeply penetrated the literature used by priests and the laity in the Western world.

What were the consequences of these errors? Pope Paul VI saw great harm for the faith and devotion to the divine Eucharist. He wrote this judgment in 1965. Since then, the damage to the Eucharistic faith and devotion of millions of once-believing Catholics has been enormous. It can safely be said that this is the root cause of the widespread apostasy in one so-called developed country after another (MF 11).

Needless to say, these errors go back generations in the Church’s history. In the nineteenth century, the founder of the Blessed Sacrament Fathers, Saint Peter Julian Eymard, asked:

How is it that Our Lord is so little loved in the Eucharist? One reason is that we do not speak enough of it and that we insist only on faith in the presence of Jesus Christ in the Most Blessed Sacrament, instead of speaking about His life and His love therein, instead of calling attention to the sacrifices which His love imposes upon Him—in a word, instead of showing Jesus Christ in the Eucharist with the personal and special love He has for each one of us. How many among the best Catholics never pay a visit of devotion to the Most Blessed Sacrament to speak with Him from their heart, to tell Him of their love? They do not love Our Lord in the Eucharist, because they do not know Him well enough.

The Eucharist is Jesus

Yes, more Catholics, including priests and religious, are not more devoted to the Eucharist because they do not understand how important it is not only to believe in what the Church tells us God has revealed, but to understand what we believe. It is because of this lack of understanding of what the Eucharist is, that people who are otherwise good Catholics are so pathetically wanting in devotion to the Eucharist.

As a backdrop for this conference, we may use two passages from the Gospel of Saint John. To grasp the meaning of these passages is to come closer to a realization of not only that the Eucharist exists but also what the Eucharist really is. In the first, John tells us that “God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that those who believe in Him may not perish, but may have life everlasting.” Behind the Incarnation, and therefore behind the Eucharist, is the breathtaking, inevitable love of God.

The second passage is when Christ made the promise of the Eucharist. “I am,” He said, “the bread of life. He who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst.” The Eucharist and the spiritual life are related as cause and effect.

We will look at this panoramic subject on three levels. First, to refresh our faith in the fact that the Eucharist is Jesus Christ. This, then, is an article of our undivided and unchangeable Catholic faith: the Holy Eucharist is Christ. He is present in the fullness of His divine nature and in the fullness of everything that makes Him a human being. As Catholics, we believe that there is absolutely no difference—none whatever—between Jesus in the Eucharist and Jesus, as we profess in the Creed, at the right hand of His heavenly Father.

The Act of Faith from the Coptic Liturgy on this article of faith explains in simple language the belief of the Church that her Founder and Savior is in the Blessed Sacrament and that although He surely ascended into heaven, He never left this earth. The prayer is addressed to God the Father.

I believe and will confess to my last breath that this is the living Body which your only-begotten Son, Our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, took from Our Lady and the Queen of Mankind—the holy, sinless Virgin Mary, Mother of God. He made it one with His Godhead, without confusion or change. He witnessed before Pontius Pilate and was of His own free will condemned in our place to the holy tree. Truly I believe that His Godhead was not separated from His manhood for a moment, for the twinkle of an eye. He gave His Body for the remission of our sins and for eternal life for them that partake of it. I believe, I believe, I believe that this is, in very truth, that Body.

Once we assume this faith in the Holy Eucharist, that Jesus Christ is here and now and near, two wonderful corollaries follow. This means that Jesus is alive on earth and practicing the virtues that He wants us to admire and imitate. And He is in the Blessed Sacrament as the most dramatic manifestation of His love, in order that we might love Him in some corresponding measure in return.

Jesus Living in the Eucharist

We can never meditate too much on the historical life of Jesus as He lived that life in the first century Palestine. It is now called “first century” because He lived in that age; He made it the first century. It began with His Incarnation in the womb of Mary; then through the long, hidden years at Nazareth, followed by His preaching and His miracles in Judea and Galilee; and then His passion, that all four evangelists concentrate so much upon as though everything else before it was only a prelude, which it was. Finally, His death and resurrection and ascension to His heavenly Father. As we read these pages, we are filled with the evidence of how the divine attributes were lived out by a human being and, therefore, what all ages have told men—they would be as holy as they became Godlike. This became real, even simple possibility because, since that man was God, whatever virtues as man He practiced were the attributes of God, revealing themselves to us and inviting our imitation. Most of the books on the spiritual life understandably concentrate on that life of Jesus. It is real and important and indispensable in the pursuit of holiness.

But—and with this adversative we enter what will be in the years and the generations to come a discovery, especially for those chosen souls who want to know how to become holy by becoming like Jesus and will see His virtues practiced not only in the pages of the Gospel, but in the Blessed Sacrament of the altar. I could not better recommend anyone than Saint Julian Eymard. There are nine books in English by him, all on this profound subject:

         Volume IThe Real Presence
Volume IIHoly Communion
Volume IIIEucharistic Retreats
Volume IVThe Eucharist and Christian Perfection (Vol. 1)
Volume V The Eucharist and Christian Perfection (Vol. 2)
Volume VIA Eucharistic Handbook
Volume VIIOur Lady of the Blessed Sacrament
Volume VIII      Month of St. Joseph
Volume IXIn the Light of the Monstrance

I strongly recommend reading works of this man, who profoundly changed my life when I first read him.

What are we saying? Jesus not only lived on earth nineteen hundred years ago; He is living on earth today. Behind that present tense is all the implication for the following of Christ and the becoming Christlike that those who not only believe the Eucharist, but understand what the Eucharist is, have at their constant, daily disposal. This present tense is what our faith reveals to us and, by God’s grace, we are enabled to make it our own. God never just tells us anything; He never wastes His revelation. He always makes sure there is corresponding grace to put that revelation into practice.

What does it mean that Jesus is living on earth today in the Eucharist? It means many things. He is here because He wants to be here to teach us the virtues He is practicing. Note the present tense? The virtues He is practicing in the Eucharist are the virtues He wants us to duplicate in our lives.

He is practicing humility of the highest degree. While on earth in visible form, He veiled His divinity, but manifested for everyone to see His humanity. So true was this that many saw only Jesus the man and could not, because they would not, see Christ who is God. But in the Eucharist, Jesus also hides His humanity. This is the glorious humanity that was transfigured on Tabor and is now resplendent in heaven and is the object of awesome adoration by the angels and saints.

How we need this lesson: to be willing to be hidden; to be willing not to be recognized; to be willing not to be acknowledged, not to be praised, not to be honored. How our proud human hearts seek recognition and, mystery of human iniquity, we not only seek recognition for what we are and have, but sometimes we even stupidly make-believe that we are and have what we are not and don’t have.

If humility is the willingness not to be recognized, surely Jesus in the Eucharist is humble in the most extreme way that even God could devise. It looks like bread, like wine, but is neither. It is the Son of God in human form. What a rebuke to our masked civilization.

Jesus in the Eucharist is practicing sacrifice. He surrenders Himself to the conditions of place and space. Wherever the Eucharistic elements are present, there and only there is Jesus in the Eucharist. And in the sacrifice of the Mass, Jesus time and again offers Himself to His heavenly Father for our salvation. As Pope Pius XII explains in his encyclical Mediator Dei (which I recommend for your reading and meditation): In every Mass, Christ would again die for our sins. He is there with the self-same flesh and blood that He had on Calvary, and the only reason He does not die, is because He is now glorified and immortal.

Jesus in the Eucharist is practicing obedience. The moment the priest pronounces the words of consecration, Jesus obediently comes down on the altar. As Augustine says, whether it is a John or a Peter or a Paul who consecrates, Jesus becomes present. He allows Himself to be placed where the priest wills and nowadays Christ in the Eucharist is put in places that are not, to say the least, respectful—even in tabernacles that are hidden out of sight. So many of the faithful are asking, “What has happened to the Eucharist?”

Jesus allows Himself to be received by people who are worthy, but also by those who are not worthy to receive. How many have asked me, “How can it be?” And there is no answer. Almost no one in some parishes ever goes to confession, and yet it seems everyone is going to Communion, even men and women known to be living in sin and open adultery. Jesus allows Himself to be received by them, too. Judging by some of the theatrical celebrations that are supposed to be the Mass, He also allows Himself to come into the midst of a gathering in which the people are totally preoccupied with themselves, with the noise and movement they are making, as though the Savior of the world was not right there. Jesus allows Himself to remain in the tabernacle, unvisited, unappreciated, unrevered, and for many Catholics, unknown.

How we need this lesson of Christ’s patient obedience in the Eucharist. And how we need, according to the grace given to us, to make up for the indifference and neglect that Christ experiences in the Blessed Sacrament. As He told Saint Margaret Mary, “What most pains me is that I am so coldly treated by my consecrated souls, the priests and religious who above all should show me their affection.”

Our third and final level of reflection is on Jesus loving in the Eucharist. Not only, then, is Jesus Christ alive and on earth in our midst, teaching us by His humility and patience, obedience and self-surrender to be humble, patient, obedient and selfless in our lives—but He is in the Blessed Sacrament par excellence as the One who loves.

Consider the following. It was out of sheer love, through no compulsion or necessity, that God made the world and made us part of the world; and needless to say, we are grateful—He did not have to. It was out of pure love that God became man to redeem us from sin; Love became man, which is a definition of the Incarnation—again, He did not have to. It was out of love and nothing else that He instituted the priesthood to perpetuate the miracle of transubstantiation so that He could remain among us in this valley of tears—again, He didn’t have to.

It is, therefore, love that moved God to be where we are, to be available to us at our will, to be as close as close can be, to be a human being who is also God and, as this man-God, to invite us to come to Him.

What does all of this mean to us? It means that even as He is with us in mind and affections, so we should be with Him. That is why He is here! His love should evoke our love, His willingness to sacrifice should prompt our desire to surrender. But how loathe we are to give up. His readiness to give Himself to us entirely should move us to give ourselves to Him—entirely. That is why He is here.

I would like to close with a long prayer of our late, beloved Pope John XXIII, a prayer addressed to Jesus in the Eucharist. The title is, appropriately, “Jesus, King of Nations.” This is a man of faith praying.

Jesus, King of Nations

Jesus, King of nations and ages, receive the acts of adoration and praise that we, your brothers by adoption, humbly offer to you. You are the “living bread come down from heaven, which gives life to the world” (John 6:33). High Priest as well as Victim, you offered yourself on the cross in a bloody sacrifice of expiation to the Eternal Father for the redemption of the human race, and now, each day, you offer yourself on our altars by the hands of your ministers, so that there might be restored in each heart “your kingdom of truth and life, of holiness and grace, of justice, love and peace.”

King of glory, may your kingdom come! Rule from your “throne of glory” (Heb 4:16) in the hearts of children, so that they may keep immaculate the shining purity of their baptismal innocence. Rule in the hearts of youth, so that they may grow in wholesomeness and purity and docility to the voice of those who represent you in the family, school, and Church. Rule in the heart of the home, so that the parents and children may live united in the observance of your holy law. Rule in our country, so that in the harmonious ordering of the social classes, all its citizens may regard themselves as children of the same heavenly Father, called to work together for the common temporal good and happy to belong to that one Mystical Body of which your Sacrament is both the symbol and the everlasting source.

Rule, finally, King of Kings, and “Lord of Lords” (Deut. 10:17) over all the nations of the earth, and enlighten the rulers of each nation, that inspired by your example, they may nourish “thoughts of peace and not of affliction” (Jer. 29:11). Eucharistic Jesus, grant that all people may serve you freely in the knowledge that “to serve God is to reign.”

May your Sacrament, O Jesus, be a light to the mind, strength to the will, and attraction to the heart; may it be a support to the weak, comfort to the suffering, viaticum of salvation to the dying, and for all may it be a pledge of future glory. Amen.

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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