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Prayer Before the Blessed Sacrament
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
When we speak of the Blessed Sacrament, we can mean the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist or the Holy Communion that we receive during the Eucharistic Liturgy. And the language of Catholicism does not separate the two, even while it distinguishes them. My present purpose is to look as closely as we can at one practice of Catholic piety that represents a real development of doctrine in the history of the Church, namely the practice of praying before the Blessed Sacrament, either exposed on the altar or reserved in the tabernacle. The fact of the practice is a matter of record now in the lives of many saints, even of whole religious congregations specially devoted to this custom, of the faithful in the world who have formed confraternities to make a monthly or weekly Holy Hour before the Blessed Sacrament, of the experience in the lives of thousands of priests, religious and the laity who, as by divine instinct, are drawn to spending whatever time they can in the presence of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
Except for saying this, it is not the focus of our reflections now. My intention is very specificto ask, Why? Why should prayer before the Blessed Sacrament be specially pleasing to God, fruitful for those who pray in this way, and for those whom they pray for? Why prefer, when possible, this kind of prayer?
There is more than passing value in going into this question of Why? For one thing, there are circles and segments in the Catholic world that look with disfavor on this kind of Eucharistic prayer. I am told that in the United States the Forty Hours devotion has practically disappeared in many, perhaps most, American dioceses. I know that numerous popular devotions held in church before the Blessed Sacrament have been swept away as by a tornado. I know that in the laudable effort to highlight the Eucharistic Liturgy and therefore emphasize the altar, the tabernacle has been almost put out of sight, hidden away, as though Christs Eucharistic Presence continuing after Mass and between Masses were something to be apologized for.
I know there are speakers and writers who say things about the Real Presence which obscure the fact that Jesus Christ is really, truly and substantially present in the Blessed Sacrament not only during Mass or at Communion time but all the time, as long as the sacred elements remain. I know Pope Paul VI was so disturbed over this undercutting of the Real Presence that he did the unprecedented thing of publishing a special encyclical Mysterium Fidei, right in the middle of the Second Vatican Council. Never before in the history of the ecumenical councils of the Church had a Pope published on his own authority a universal letter to the faithful while a council was in session. He wrote it, as he said, to remind the faithful, beginning with the bishops, that the Real Presence is REAL, distinctive and absolutely unique. It is Jesus Christ abiding in our midst today.
For all of these and other painfully urgent reasons, we could not spend our reflective time more profitably than to ask ourselves why every believing Catholic should make it a practice to pray as much as he can before the Blessed Sacrament on the altar. I would summarize the answer in a series of terms, with a brief commentary on each as we go along: faith in the Incarnation, faith in the Real Presence, the humanity of Christ as channel of Gods power, Christ as food for the mind and the will, and Christ as the object of our love.
Faith in the Incarnation
The most fundamental reason why prayer before the Blessed Sacrament is so meritorious is because it is prayer arising from faith in the cardinal mystery of Christianity, which is faith in the Incarnation. In the famous sixth chapter of Johns Gospel wherein the Savior predicted the Eucharist, the whole first part of that chapter is on faith in Him as the incarnate Son of God. Let us count the passages: first, I am the Bread of Life. He who comes to me will never be hungry. He who believes in me will never thirst. Again, Yes, it is my Fathers will that whoever sees the Son and believes in Him shall have eternal life and that I shall raise him up on the last day. And again, I tell you most solemnly, everybody who believes has eternal life.
When, therefore, we pray before the Eucharist, whether we advert to it or not, whether we even think of it or not, we are professing in the depths of our souls our faith in Jesus Christ as the natural, only-begotten Son of the Father.
The same apostle, John, in his first letter comes back to the same theme, only this time in the strongest words ever spoken by man on what is the foundation stone of the Christian religion. Says John, Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ has been begotten by God. Then the promise written under divine inspiration, Who can overcome the world? Only the man who believes that Jesus is the Son of God. Everyone else will be overcome by the world.
So the first reason why prayer before the Blessed Sacrament is so important is because it is an expression of faith in the divinity of Christ, that is, in the Son of Mary who is the Son of God, who is here, right here and now before me, as close and perhaps closer than were the people on the hillside near the Sea of Galilee when Jesus first predicted the Holy Eucharist.
Faith in the Real Presence
Another reason why prayer before the Blessed Sacrament is so praiseworthy is because it is a profession of faith in the real bodily presence of Jesus under the sacramental veils. On the same occasion when the Savior foretold the Eucharist, He so intertwined two objects of faith as to make them almost inseparable: faith in His divinity and faith in His Eucharistic humanity, otherwise know as the Real Presence. Recall what happened after hearing what He said. Many of His followers said to themselves, This is intolerable language. How could anyone accept it?
After this we are further told manynotemany of his disciples, not merely the onlookers or the crowd, but many of his disciples left him and stopped going with him. Everyone who prays before the Blessed Sacrament is in effect choosing to not only go along with Christ, but physically comes to Christ. Why? Because he believes. Believes what? Believes that behind the external appearances of bread is a Man and behind the Man is God.
He or she believes that the Christ who is in the church or chapel is the same who was conceived at Nazareth, who was born at Bethlehem, who fled into Egypt, who lived for thirty years in the same town in which He was conceived, who preached and worked miracles throughout Palestine, who died on the cross on Calvary, rose from the dead and ascended to His Father at Jerusalem. The same Jesus who was there in a definite geographic locality is now here also in a definite geographic place in whatever city or town where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved. This is the Christ of history and the Christhow I like to say itof geography.
If, as the apostle tells us, without faith no one can please God, so without faith no one can hope to obtain anything from God. On both counts the believer who prays before the Eucharist is a believer indeed. He believes that Jesus Christ is the man from Nazareth, but that this man is the eternal God. He further believes that this same Jesus who is God made man is present as man on earth today: that He is only feet away from me when I pray before Him; that in the Eucharist He has the same human body and soul, hands, feet, and Sacred Heart as He has now in heaven, as He had during His visible stay in the area we now call the Near East. The person who prays before the Eucharist believes that what Martha told Mary on the occasion of Christs visit is being told to him or her: The Master is here and He wants to see you. Hearing this, that person, like Mary who got up quickly, departs from wherever he or she may be and goes to the Master who is here waiting for them.
The Humanity of Christ as a Channel of Grace
Once we establish that fact of faith that the same Jesus is in the Eucharist as was on earth in New Testament times, it is not difficult to appreciate the third reason why prayer before the Blessed Sacrament is so efficacious. As we read the pages of the Gospels we are struck by the marvelous power that Christs humanity had in effecting changes in the persons who came into contact with Him. For the sake of convenience we limit ourselves to two short episodes from the Gospel according to St. Mark.
First episode: when the disciples were with Him in the boat at sea and a terrible storm arose, Jesus, who was asleep, got up and rebuked the wind and said to the seas, Quiet now, be calm! And the wind subsided and all was calm again. This was the Creator of the wind and Maker of the seas commanding His creatures. No wonder they obeyed! But He spoke with human lips and pronounced human words as man.
Second episode: when the woman with the hemorrhage who had been ill for a dozen years came up behind Jesus, she said to herself, If I can only touch His clothes I shall be well again. She touched His clothes and was instantly healed. Mark makes a significant observation about Jesus: Immediately, he says, Christ was aware that power had gone out from Him.
He turned around in the crowd and asked, Who touched my clothes? When the frightened woman admitted what she had done, the Savior praised her, My daughter, your faith has restored you to health.
All through the Gospels during His public life, the humanity of Christ was the instrument of great power that went out from Him to work signs and wonders such as the world has never seen. These signs and wonders were performed by divine power, of course, but through the humanity of Jesus Christ. Healing lepers and the blind, driving out demons, restoring strength to those who were maimed or paralyzed, even raising the dead back to lifeit was always the human nature through which the God-man manifested His power and conferred blessings on a suffering and sinful mankind. What he did then, He wants to continue until the end of time. We believe since this is our faith that all grace, all power and all blessing comes uniquely through the humanity of the Son of God. This humanity, as we know, operates in many ways, but it acts nowhere more effectivelyand I wish to add, miraculouslythan through the human nature that is substantially united to the divinity in the Blessed Sacrament.
As then, so now, the power is there, the potential miracles are there, no less than during His visible stay on earthand He is on earth, honest; He really isthe condition was faith. This condition IS faith. What Christ requires of those in whose favor He wants now, as then, to work the signs and wonders that will draw bodies and souls to Himself, is faith.
Christ as Food for the Mind and Will
One of the best ways to look at prayer before the Blessed Sacrament is to see it as an extension of Holy Communion. Christ Himself could not have been plainer when He called Himself the Bread of Life and told us to eat His Body and drink His Blood. What we may overlook, however, is that the spiritual nourishment that comes from the Eucharist does not end with Holy Communion. Of course, there is an efficacy that comes from the actual reception of the Sacrament that is special and distinctive, but we are not talking about that now. There is also a nourishment that takes place in what we may casually call spiritual communion.
How cheap the phrase sounds! But it is neither casual nor cheap. It is profoundly meaningful. As we pray before the Blessed Sacrament, our souls are fed by the Person of the Savior in the two faculties of spirit that need to be constantly fed. They are the mind and the will. In the mind we need light; in the will we need strength. And both needs are met in an extraordinary way through earnest prayer before the Eucharist. Remember we said it is still the Blessed Sacrament. It is not the remnants after the Sacrament. It is not a memory of the Blessed Sacrament. It is the Blessed Sacrament.
We might ask: Why not spiritual communion? Is it not the same Christ who taught the multitudes, who gave the sermon on the mount and who took time, and a lot of time, to tell His disciples and to further share with them the secrets that until then had been hidden from the minds of men? It is Jesus and He is here. We would not expect His lips to be sealed. He has a message to give and we have a lot to learn. Did He not say He was the Truth and the Way, the Truth who knows what we should know and the Way who knows how we should serve almighty God? It is this Truth and Way become Incarnate who is with us and near and available to us. All we need to do is to believe sufficiently, to come to Him in the Blessed Sacrament and ask very simply, Lord, teach me. Im dumb. And that is no exaggeration! Your servant is listening and ready to learn.
In the will we need strength to supply for the notorious weakness that by now we are almost ashamed to call our own. How well it is that other people do not know how really stupid and weak we are. What a precious secret! But again, is it not the same Christ who encouraged the disciples, who braced up the faltering Peter and promised to be with us all days? That promise is to be taken literally. He is here. Jesus is here telling us today, Peace I bequeath to you. My own peace I give you. Thanks, Lord, I sure need it!
Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid. How well you know, Lord, Im scared. Have courage; I have overcome the world. No less than then, so now Christ is not merely encouraging us in words, which we appreciate, but strengthening us with grace. And the words, being those of God, are grace. And the words and the grace are once more accessible to all who come to Him as He foretold, Come to me all you who labor and are overburdened and I will give you strength. Jesus, that is me. But we must come to Him, the Emmanuel, in the Eucharist to tell Him what we need. If we do, and as often as we do, He will do the rest.
Christ the Object of Our Love
The final, and in a way most important reason why prayer before the Blessed Sacrament is so important is that when we pray before the Eucharist we have before us in human form the principal reason for our existence, which is the all-loving God. Already in Deuteronomy in the Old Testament the Jews were told, Listen, Israel, Yahweh, our God, is the one Yahweh. You shall love your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength. But, what a difference between the Old and the New Testaments: what God did in the meantime¾and that is what made the New Testament NEWHe became Man. He became Incarnate, which means God became Man and as man He gave us the Eucharist which is the Real Presence. Why? We have seen other reasons but this is the main one: mainly to show us that we might be with Him. There was never a more important prepositional phrase in human language: to be with Him, to tell Him how much we love Him in return.
St. Margaret Mary was chosen by Providence, as Christ told her, principally to restore to a loveless world the practice of the love of God. What was the principal means that she was to tell the faithful to use to restore this neglected love? It was devotion to the Blessed Sacrament where, as the Savior complained, in the greatest manifestation of His love He is most neglected and forgotten, and worst of all by souls who are consecrated to Him by sacred bonds of the priesthood and religious life. I cannot think of anything that the Catholic Church, especially in our day, needs more than thousands of souls in every walk of life who pray daily before the Blessed Sacrament, telling God who is in the flesh in the Eucharist how much they love Him and asking Him for the most important favor we can ask of God: to love Him more.
I would like to close with a prayer composed by St. Margaret Marys confessor and counselor, Blessed Claude Colombiere, in which he expressed the kind of sentiments of love that we should express in our own words as we pray before the Blessed Sacrament where Christ our God in human form is near us. St. Claude prayed: To make reparation for so many outrages and such cruel ingratitude, most adorable and lovable Heart of my lovable Jesus, and to avoid falling as far as is in my power to do so into a like misfortune, I offer You my heart with all the movements of which it is capable. I give myself entirely to You, and from this hour I protest most sincerely that I desire to forget myself and all that have any connection with me. I wish to remove the obstacles which could prevent my entering into this divine Heart which You have had the goodness to open to me and into which I desire to enter, there to live and to die with Your faithful servants entirely penetrated and enflamed with Your love.
These sentiments can be our own, believing as we do that the Jesus to whom we are thus speaking is a man like us, but also our God. I love those who love me; those who seek me eagerly shall find me, was the prophecy foretold by Wisdom in the Old Law. It is fulfilled in the New Law for those who believe literally in the Real Presence and act on what they believe.
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