A young wife, who had been taking instructions for a year, told the writer she could believe everything in the faith except the Eucharist. Upon inquiring about her husband, it was learned that he was in the Pacific on military duty. In answer to further questions, she admitted that she corresponded with him every two days and that she had his photograph before her in the house.
We argued there was nothing wanting for perfect happiness. What more could she want than the constant memory of him through the photograph and a written communication in which heart poured out to heart. But she protested that she could never be truly happy except through union with her husband.
But, it was retorted, if human love craves oneness, shall not divine love? If husband and wife seek to be one in the flesh, shall not the Christian and Christ crave for that oneness with one another? The memory of the Christ who lived twenty centuries ago, the recalling of His mercy and miracles through memory, the correspondence with Him by reading the Scriptures – all these are satisfying, but they do not satisfy love. There must be, on the level of grace, something unitive with divine love. Every heart seeks a happiness outside it, and since perfect love is God, then the heart of man and the heart of Christ must, in some way, fuse. In human friendship the other person is loved as another self, or the other half of one’s soul. Divine friendship must have its mutual “indwelling”: “He who dwells in love dwells in God and God in him” (1st John 4:17). This aspiration of the soul for its ecstasy is fulfilled in the Sacrament of the Eucharist.
The Eucharist: Sacrifice and Sacrament
The Sacrament of the Eucharist has two sides: it is both a sacrifice and a sacrament. Inasmuch as biological life is nothing but a reflection, a dim echo, and a shadow of the divine life, one can find analogies in the natural order for the beauties of the divine. Does not nature itself have a double aspect: a sacrifice and a sacrament? The vegetables which are served at table, the meat which is presented on the platter, are the natural sacraments of the body of man. By them he lives. If they were endowed with speech, they would say: “Unless you have communion with me, you will not live.”
But if one inquires as to how the lower creation of chemicals, vegetables or meats came to be the sacrament or the communion of man, one is immediately introduced to the idea of sacrifice. Did not the vegetables have to be pulled up by their roots from the earth, submitted to the law of death, and then pass through the ordeal of fire before they could become the sacrament of physical life, or have communion with the body? Was not the meat on the platter once a living thing, and was it not submitted to the knife, its blood shed on the soil of a natural Gethsemane and Calvary before it was fit to be presented to man?
Nature, therefore, suggests that a sacrifice must precede a sacrament; death is the prelude to a communion. In some way, unless the thing dies, it does not begin to live in a higher kingdom. To have, for example, a communion service without a sacrifice would be, in the natural order, like eating our vegetables uncooked, and our meat in the raw. When we come face to face with the realities of life, we see that we live by what we slay. Elevating this to the supernatural order, we still live by what we slay. It was our sins that slew Christ on Calvary, and yet by the power of God risen from the dead and reigning gloriously in Heaven, He now becomes our life and has communion with us and we with Him. In the divine order, there must be the Sacrifice or the Consecration of the Mass before there can be the sacrament or the Communion of the soul and God.
Relation of Baptism and the Eucharist
Baptism is the initiation to the Christian life, and corresponds in the biological order to the beginning of life. But the birth to Divine Life comes only through a death; that is to say, an immersion under water which mystically symbolizes dying and being buried with Christ. The Eucharist is a sacrifice; it also incorporates us to the Death of Christ. Baptism, however, is a more passive representation of that death, particularly in an infant, where the will of the infant does not submit to it, except through the sponsors. The Eucharist is a much more active representation of the death of Christ because the Mass is an unbloody presentation of the sacrificial death of Christ outside the walls of Jerusalem.
The Fathers of the Church were constantly struck by the relationship between Baptism and the Eucharist; the blood and the water which flowed from the side of Christ on the Cross had deep significance. Water was the symbol of our regeneration and, therefore, betokened Baptism; blood, the price of our Redemption, was the sign of the Eucharist.
This brings up the question, if there is a relationship to the death of Christ in both sacraments, what is the difference between them? One of the differences is that in Baptism and the other sacraments, except the Eucharist, we are united to Christ simply by a participation of His grace, but in the Eucharist, Christ exists substantially, and is really and truly present – Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. In the Eucharist, man realizes more fully his incorporation to the Death and Resurrection of Christ than in Baptism. In the physical order, birth always gives resemblance to parents; but when a mother nourishes her child, there is a new bond established between the child and the mother. So in Baptism, there is a resemblance to the Divine nature created, inasmuch as we are made “other Christs”; but in the Eucharist, we receive the very substance of Christ Himself. Because of the close relationship between the two sacraments, the Council of Mayence in 1549 directed pastors to administer Baptism in the morning during the course of the Mass, or at least as soon after Mass as possible.
There is somewhat the same relationship existing between Baptism and the Eucharist, as there is between faith and charity or perfect love. Baptism is the sacrament of faith, because it is the foundation of the spiritual life. The Eucharist is the sacrament of charity or love because it is the re-enactment of the perfect act of love of Christ; namely, His death on the Cross and the giving of Himself to us in Holy Communion.
The Old Testament and the Eucharist
It would take pages to reveal the prefigurement of the Sacrament of the Eucharist in the Old Testament. Melchisedech offering bread and wine was a figure of Christ Himself, Who chose bread and wine the night of the Last Supper as the elements for both the sacrifice and the sacrament. The manna that fell in the desert was also a symbol of the Eucharist, which Our Blessed Lord said was Himself: “I myself am the living bread that has come down from heaven” (John 5:51). Saint Paul, picking up the analogy, said that what the Jews ate in the desert was a figure of our spiritual food: “They all ate the same prophetic food…. It is we that were foreshadowed in these events (1st Corinthians 10:3,6).
The blood of the paschal lamb, sprinkled on doorposts to preserve the Jews from destruction, was a sign not yet of a reality, but a figure of the blood of Christ sprinkled on our souls, which would save us from evil. Because the paschal lamb was a figure of Christ, it was on the feast of the Passover that Our Blessed Lord gave to His Church the Eucharist which He had promised over a year before at Capharnaum.
The Eucharist as a Sacrifice, or the Mass
The Mass has three important parts: the Offertory, the Consecration, and the Communion. In the order of human love, these correspond to engagement, the marriage ceremony, and the consummation of the marriage. When a man becomes engaged to a woman, he generally brings her the gift of a precious ring; it is not of tin or straw, because these represent no sacrifice. Regardless of how much he might pay for the ring, he would still tear off the price tag, in order that his beloved might never establish any correspondence between the price of the gift and his love. No matter how much he gave her, the gift to him would seem inadequate. The ring is round in order to express the eternity of his love which has neither beginning nor end; it is precious, because it is a symbol of the total readiness to give his whole personality to the beloved.
The Mass, too, has an engagement which corresponds to the Offertory of the Mass, in which the faithful bring gifts of bread and wine, or its equivalent, that which buys bread and wine. As the ring is a symbol of the lover offering himself to the beloved, so too, the bread and wine are the symbols of a person offering himself to Christ. This is apparent in several ways: first, since bread and wine have traditionally nourished man and given him life, in bringing that which was the substance of his life, he is equivalently giving himself. Second, the readiness to sacrifice himself for the beloved is revealed in the bread and wine; no two substances have to undergo more to become what they are than do wheat and grapes. One passes through the Gethsemane of a mill, the other through the Calvary of the winepress before they can be presented to the Beloved on the altar. In the Offertory, therefore, under the appearance of bread and wine, the faithful are offering themselves to Christ.
After the engagement comes the marriage ceremony in which the lover sacrifices himself for the beloved, and the beloved surrenders devotedly to the lover. The groom practically says, “My greatest freedom is to be your slave. I give up my individuality in order to serve you.” The joining of hands in the marriage ceremony is a symbol of the transfer of self to another self: “I am yours and you are mine. I want to die to myself, in order to live in you, my beloved. I cannot live unto you, unless I give up myself. So I say to you, ‘This is My Body; this is My Blood’.”
In the Mass, the faithful are already present on the altar under the appearance of bread and wine. At the moment of the Consecration of the Mass, when the priest as Christ pronounces the words “This is My Body” and “This is My Blood,” the substance of the bread becomes the substance of the body of Christ, and the substance of the wine becomes the substance of the blood of Christ. At that moment, the faithful are saying in a secondary sense with the priest: “This is my body; this is my blood. Take it! I no longer want it for myself. The very substance of my being, my intellect, and my will – change! Transubstantiate! – so that my ego is lost in Thee, so that my intellect is one with Thy Truth, and my will is one with Thy desires! I care not if the species or appearances of my life remain; that is to say, my duties, my avocation, my appointments in time and space. But what I am substantially, I give to Thee.”
In the human order, after the engagement and the marriage is the consummation of the marriage. All love craves unity. Correspondence by letter, or by speech, cannot satisfy that instinctive yearning of two hearts to be lost in one another. There must, therefore, come some great ecstatic moment in which love becomes too deep for words; this is the communion of body and blood with body and blood in the oneness which lasts not long, but is a foretaste of Heaven.
The marital act is nothing but a fragile and shadowy image of Communion in which, after having offered ourselves under the appearance of bread and wine and having died to our lower self, we now begin to enjoy that ecstatic union with Christ in Holy Communion – a oneness which is, in the language of Thompson, “a passionless passion, a wild tranquility.” This is the moment when the hungry heart communes with the Bread of Life; this is the rapture in which is fulfilled that “love we fall just short of in all love,” and that rapture that leaves all other raptures pain.
The Sacrifice of the Mass may be presented under another analogy. Picture a house which had two large windows on opposite sides. One window looks down into a valley, the other to a towering mountain. The owner could gaze on both and somehow see that they were related: the valley is the mountain humbled; the mountain is the valley exalted.
The Sacrifice of the Mass is something like that. Every church, in a way, looks down on a valley, but the valley of death and humiliation in which we see a cross. But it also looks up to a mountain, an eternal mountain, the mountain of heaven where Christ reigns gloriously. As the valley and the mountain are related as humiliation and exaltation, so the Sacrifice of the Mass is related to Calvary in the valley, and to Christ in heaven and the eternal hills.
All three, Calvary, the Mass, and the glorified Christ in heaven are different levels of the great eternal act of love. The Christ Who appeared in heaven as the lamb slain from the beginning of the world, at a certain moment in time, came to this earth and offered His Life in Redemption for the sins of men. Then He ascended into heaven where that same eternal act of love continues, as He intercedes for humanity, showing the scars of His Love to His heavenly Father. True, agony and crucifixion are passing things, but the obedience and the love which inspired them are not. In the Father’s eyes, the Son-made-Man loves always unto death. The patriot who regretted that he had only one life to give to his country, would have loved to have made his sacrifice eternal. Being man, he could not do it. But Christ, being God and man, could.
The Mass, therefore, looks backward and forward. Because we live in time and can use only earthly symbols, we see successively that which is but one eternal movement of love. If a motion picture reel were endowed with consciousness, it would see and understand the story at once; but we do not grasp it until we see it unfolded upon the screen. So it is with the love by which Christ prepared for His coming in the Old Testament, offered Himself on Calvary, and now re-presents it in Sacrifice in the Mass. The Mass, therefore, is not another immolation but a new presentation of the eternal Victim and its application to us. To assist at Mass is the same as to assist at Calvary. But there are differences.
On the Cross, Our Lord offered Himself for all mankind; in the Mass we make application of that death to ourselves, and unite our sacrifice with His. The disadvantage of not having lived at the time of Christ is nullified by the Mass. On the Cross, He potentially redeemed all humanity; in the Mass we actualize that Redemption. Calvary happened at a definite moment in time and on a particular hill in space. The Mass temporalizes and spatializes that eternal act of love.
The Sacrifice of Calvary was offered up in a bloody manner by the separation of His blood from His body. In the Mass, this death is mystically and sacramentally presented in an unbloody manner, by the separate consecration of bread and wine. The two are not consecrated together by such words as “This is My Body and My Blood”; rather, following the words of Our Lord: “This is My Body” is said over the bread; then, “This is My Blood” is said over the wine. The separate consecration is a kind of mystical sword dividing body and blood, which is the way Our Lord died on Calvary.
Suppose there was an eternal broadcasting station that sent out eternal waves of wisdom and enlightenment. People who lived in different ages would tune in to that wisdom, assimilate it, and apply it to themselves. Christ’s eternal act of love is something to which we tune in, as we appear in successive ages of history through the Mass. The Mass, therefore, borrows its reality and its efficacy from Calvary and has no meaning apart from it. He who assists at Mass lifts the Cross of Christ out of the soil of Calvary and plants it in the center of his own heart.
This is the only perfect act of love, sacrifice, thanksgiving, and obedience which we can ever pay to God; namely, that which is offered by His Divine Son Incarnate. Of and by ourselves, we cannot touch the ceiling because we are not tall enough. Of and by ourselves, we cannot touch God. We need a Mediator, someone who is both God and Man, Who is Christ. No human prayer, no human act of self-denial, no human sacrifice is sufficient to pierce Heaven. It is only the Sacrifice of the Cross that can do so, and this is done in the Mass. As we offer it, we hang, as it were, onto His robes, we tug at His feet at the Ascension, we cling to His pierced hands in offering Himself to the Heavenly Father. Being hidden in Him, our prayers and sacrifices have His value. In the Mass we are once more at Calvary, rubbing shoulders with Mary Magdalen and John, while mournfully looking over our shoulders at executioners who still shake dice for the garments of the Lord.
The priest who offers the Sacrifice merely lends to Christ his voice and his fingers. It is Christ Who is the Priest; it is Christ Who is the Victim. In all pagan sacrifices and in the Jewish sacrifices, the victim was always separate from the priest. It might have been a goat, a lamb, or a bullock. But when Christ came, He the Priest offered Himself as the Victim. In the Mass, it is Christ Who still offers Himself and Who is the Victim to Whom we become united. The altar, therefore, is not related to the congregation as the stage to an audience in the theatre. The communion rail is not the same as footlights, which divide the drama from the onlooker. All the members of the Church have a kind of priesthood, inasmuch as they offer up with the Eternal Priest this eternal act of love. The laity participate in the life and power of Christ, for “Thou hast made us a royal race of priests to serve God” (Apocalypse 5:10).
The expression, sometimes used by Catholics “to hear Mass,” is an indication of how little is understood of their active participation, not only with Christ, but also with all of the saints and members of the Church until the end of time. This corporate action of the Church is indicated in certain prayers of the Mass. For example, immediately before the Consecration, God is asked to receive the offering which “we Thy servants and Thy whole household make unto Thee”; and after the Consecration the faithful again say, “We Thy servants, as also Thy holy people, do offer unto Thy most excellent majesty of Thine own gifts bestowed on us.” All participate, but the closer we are to the mystery, the more we become one with Christ.
No man can ever come to the real fullness of his personality by reflection or contemplation; he has to act it out. That is why through all ages man laid his hand on the best of the herd and destroyed it in order to indicate the offering and surrender of himself. By laying his hands on the animal, he identified himself with it. Then he consumed it, in order to gain some identification with the one to whom it was offered. In the Mass, all the ancient dim foreshadowings of the supreme sacrifice are fulfilled. Man immolates himself with Christ, bidding Him to take his body and his blood. Through this destruction of the ego, there is a void and an emptiness created, which makes it possible for Divinity to fill up the vacuum and to make the offerer holy. Man dies to the past, in order that he may live in the future. He chooses to be united with his Divine King in some form of death, that he may share in His Resurrection and glory. Thus dying he lives; chastened he is not killed; sorrowful he always rejoices; giving up time, he finds eternity. Nothingness is exchanged for everything. Poverty turns into riches, and having nothing, he begins to possess all things.
The Eucharist as a Sacrament, or Holy Communion
Running through the universe is the law that nothing lives unless it consumes. Plant life, obedient to this law, goes down to the earth, eats and drinks from it its waters, phosphates, and carbonates, and circulates them through its organism. The animal, because endowed with a higher life than that of the plant, is in still greater need of nourishment. It needs not only the nourishment of the mineral order, the air, the sunlight and the like, but also the nourishment of plant life. The instinct of the animal is to seek food. The animal roaming in the field, the fish swimming in the water, the eagle soaring in the air, all are in search of daily bread, for without knowing it, they acknowledge that life is impossible without nourishment, that life grows only by life, and that the joy of living comes from communion with another kind of life.
Because men, as well as animals, have bodies, they are under the necessity of feeding these bodies. The food for which they clamor is more delicate because the human body is more delicate. The body is not content, as the plant, to take its food from the ground, raw, uncooked, and unseasoned. It seeks the refinement that comes with a higher creature but in doing so, acknowledges the law that every living thing must nourish itself.
Man has a soul, as well as a body. The spiritual part of him demands a food which is above the material and the physical and the biological. Some would call a halt to the law, that all life must nourish itself, and assert that the soul can find its satisfying food here below without any appeal to a higher life. But the broken minds and tortured hearts testify to the fact that nothing can satisfy the soul hunger of man, except a nourishment suited to his soul and its aspirations for the perfect. A canary does not consume the same kind of food as a boa constrictor, because its nature is different. Man’s soul being spiritual demands a spiritual food. In the order of grace, this divine food is the Eucharist, or the communion of man with Christ and Christ with man.
This is not something contrary to the natural law, for if the chemical could speak, it would say to the plant: “Unless you eat me, you shall not have life in you.” If the plant could speak, it would say to the animal: “Unless you eat me, you shall not have life in you.” If the animal, plant, and air could speak, they would say to man: “Unless you eat me, you shall not have life in you.” With the same logic, but speaking from above and now below, because the soul is spiritual, Our Blessed Lord actually says to the soul: “Except you eat the Flesh of the Son of Man and drink His Blood, you shall not have life in you.” The law of transformation works consistently through nature and grace. The lower transforms itself into the higher, the plant transforms itself into the animal when taken as food; man is transformed by grace into Christ when he takes Christ into his soul, for it is a quality of love to transform itself into the object that is loved.
Why should we be surprised that He gives Himself to us as food? After all, if He furnishes food for the birds and the beasts in the natural order, why should He not furnish it for man in the supernatural order? If the plant nourishes its seed before it is ripe, and if the bird brings food to its young before they can fly, shall we deny to Him that which we allow to a creature? To every infant at the breast, the mother virtually says: “Take, eat and drink; this is my body and blood.” The mother would be untrue to nature if she said, “This represents my body,” knowing that it is her body. So too, the Lord would be untrue to fact if He said: “This is not My Body and Blood. It is only a representation or a symbol of it.” The analogy with the mother, however, breaks completely down, because here a nourishment is on the same level, that of the human with the human. But in the Eucharist, the nourishment is on two different levels: The divine and the human.
Union with the Life of Christ
If Christianity were only the memory of someone who lived over nineteen hundred years ago, it would not be worth preserving. If He Who came to this earth is not God, as well as Man, then we are dealing merely with the fallible and the human. But even granting that He is God in the flesh, how do we contact Him? Certainly, not by reading books about Him, although they are edifying and instructive; obviously not by singing hymns, though these do help us emotionally. The human heart craves contact with the beloved. If we can have contact with nature through the food we eat; if lower creation winds up somehow inside of my body, why should not means be provided in order that there might be communion of the soul? This is one of the first effects of Holy Communion: we receive from Christ what we gave to Him. We gave to him our human nature – when, in the name of all humanity, Mary gave Him manhood, like unto us in all things save sin. He divinized that human nature because it was made substantially one with His Divine Person. In Communion, He gives it back to us, purified, regenerated, ennobled, a promise and a pledge of what our nature is to be on the Last Day in the resurrection of the just. Our Blessed Lord made it so clear, it is almost difficult to understand how one misses it:
“As I live because of the Father, the Living Father who has sent me, so he who eats me will live, in his turn, because of me.” (John 6:58)
“…That they may all be one; that they too may be one in us, as thou Father, art in me, and I in thee; so that the world may come to believe that it is thou who has sent me. And I have given them the privilege which thou gavest to me, that they should all be one as we are one.” (John 17:21,22)
In the natural order, a living thing assimilates its food and incorporates it into its own substance. In the Eucharist, the roles are reversed. The Eucharist is food for our soul, but the power of assimilation here belongs to Christ, and it is He Who, feeding us, unites us and incorporates us with His life. It is not Christ Who is changed into us, as is the food we eat; it is we who are incorporated in Him. With John the Baptist we say: “He must become more and more; I must become less and less.”
The moment of communion is that special intimacy reserved to real lovers. There are three intimacies in life: hearing, speaking, and touching. Our first contact with anyone who loves us is to hear his voice, our second is to see him, the third – and this is reserved only for intimates – is the privilege of touch. We hear of Christ in the Scriptures, we see Him by the eyes of faith, but we touch Him in the Eucharist. He only asks that we should purge our consciences of sin and come to Him, ready to receive what He wants to give us for He knows that we need Him.
Second Effect: Union with the Death of Christ
Holy Communion is incorporation not only to the life of Christ, but also to His death. This second aspect is sometimes forgotten. Saint Paul mentions it: “So it is the Lord’s death that you are heralding, whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, until he comes” (1st Corinthians 11:26). In another place, Saint Paul tells us that we are to fill up in our own body that which is wanting to the Passion of Christ. To save our souls, the life of Christ must be duplicated in our own life. What He did in His birth, at Calvary, in His Resurrection, and Ascension, we must do. But we cannot enter into those heavenly blessings except through the touch of the Cross, namely, through penance, mortification, and self-denial, and a death to our egotism.
Hence, the Church insists that we be in the state of grace in order to receive Our Lord in the Eucharist. As a corpse cannot receive nourishment, so neither may one without the divine life in his soul receive the divine nourishment. In addition to this, the Church demands a certain amount of fasting before Communion. This is to remind us that the Eucharist is not only a sacrament of life, but also the sacrament of mortification. Only when we are stamped with the sign of the Cross will we be stamped with the glory of His Resurrection. From the moment of His death on Calvary until the end of time when He comes in glory, the dying Christ is continually at work representing His death on the altar, and urging us to represent it in our detachment from the seven pallbearers of the soul – the seven capital sins.
We are the wax and He is the seal. He wants to see something of His victimhood in us; and it is up to every Christian, therefore, to lead a dying life: to be more humble when we are thwarted, more patient when things go wrong, dying a little to the world and to our selfishness, being ever happy to “herald His death in our body until He comes.”
Third Effect: Communion with the Mystical Body of Christ
No one was ever so wrong as the professor who said: “Religion is what a man does with his solitariness.” If man is solitary, he is like a cell that is isolated from the body. The body can live without an individual cell, but the cell cannot live without the body. No man can live the divine life without some incorporation either in fact, or in desire, with the Mystical Body of Christ which is the Church. But the Mystical Body of Christ can live without an individual member. Our Blessed Lord described our union with Himself the night He gave the Eucharist, as that of the “vine and the branches.” Saint Paul speaks of us, too, as being many and yet one because we all eat the one bread. There is no autonomic individualism in the Scriptures or in humanity. The whole historical existence is transformed; that is to say, both humanity and the visible creation. The first was transformed through the Incarnation; the second, through the sacraments and its symbols which animate personality.
As there is a lymph which passes through the human body, each cell drinking of that life; so too, the Eucharist is the Divine lymph of the Mystical Body of Christ on which every member feeds. The members of the Church are not little spiritual islands each cherishing its own isolation. What blood plasma is to the physical body, the Eucharist is to the Mystical Body – the bond of its unity: “The one bread makes us one body, though we are many in number” (1st Corinthians 10:17).
The Blessed Sacrament is present in the Tabernacle day and night. There Christ dwells, body, blood, soul, and divinity, under the sacramental appearances of bread. How do we know it? Because Christ told us so! Is there any other fundamental evidence? None other than that; but is there any other reason in the world as strong as the word of God Himself? Hence, the Eucharist is above all other sacraments – it is the sacrament of faith.
The faithful believe that Christ is as really and truly present sacramentally in the Tabernacle as you are present while you read this book. It is this that makes the Church different from any other building. Not a pulpit, not an organ, not a choir, but Christ is the center. As the tabernacle was the center of worship in the Old Testament, so the tabernacle and the altar are the center of worship in the New Testament. Visitors to the Church say they “feel the difference,” though they know nothing about the Eucharist, as they might feel heat and know not the nature of fire. But to the faithful members of Christ’s Mystical Body, here is Christ! Before His Eucharistic presence, the downcast eyes of sin find wealth of purging tears; here the heart wounded by betraying loves breaks its silence to the invitation of the Living Savior: “Child, give Me thy heart.” Here the knee is humbled in genuflection and the heart exalted in adoration; here priests make their “Holy Hour” in answer to the invitation of their Lord in the Garden. Here is the trysting place of love, for this is the “bread which is come down from heaven” (John 6:41-2) and will remain with us “unto the consummation of the world” (Matthew 28:20). Here Emmaus lives again as His disciples recognize Him in the breaking of the bread.