The Eucharist: The Perfect Valentine

For Valentine’s Day this year, I am taking a new approach. No more chocolate, fancy dinners or jewelry.  This year’s gift is the ultimate.  This year’s gift is love itself. This year, I am going to give the most precious gift of all.  I am going to give an understanding of how each of us can find Jesus  “truly,” “really” and “substantially” in the Holy Eucharist.

We begin the journey with an invitation from Jesus, Himself. We learn of the context of this invitation by understanding the tradition of the Jewish todah.  We see that the experience of our Jewish forefathers blazed a path that leads to the Mass. Here, at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, we find Totus Christus. By His grace, we see His reality and real presence every day.

Come, Lord Jesus – The Meaning of the Holy Eucharist.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that God became man for four reasons: (1) to save us by reconciling us with God, (2) to enable us to know God’s love, (3) to be our model of holiness, and (4) to enable us to be partakers of the divine nature.

Jesuit Father John Hardon in With Us Today: On the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist instructs that the Fathers of the Church were instrumental in teaching that the doctrines of the Incarnation also relate to those of the Holy Eucharist.  He points out that St. Justin Martyr taught that, “Just as truly as God became man in Mary’s womb at the Incarnation, so the same Incarnate Jesus becomes present on the altar at the moment of consecration in the Mass.  In other words, the Eucharist is the Incarnation continued on earth until the end of time.”

Former colleague of Father Hardon Carol Breslin, in her essay entitled The Real Presence: Christ’s Body, explains that one of the very important reasons that Christ became man (in addition to dying for man) was so that He could be with man here on earth as a “channel of grace.”  The Incarnation was designed to be a source of our sanctification so that we could be participants in the divine life.  She notes that “[j]ust as Jesus’ human and divine natures are united in the hypostatic union, so in the Eucharist are His human and divine natures united in the Eucharistic hypostatic union.” This “Eucharistic hypostatic union” is what makes it possible to have communion with the “same Jesus who grew up and lived in Nazareth, taught the disciples, and cured the sick. “

From its first introduction, the notion that to have life one must partake in the flesh of Jesus has always been difficult to understand and arguably is impossible to understand without faith. And what the faith teaches is very clear: The Eucharist is indeed Christ’s body—as Breslin notes, “whole and entire.”

We are taught this truth in the Bread of Life discourse found in John 6:22-59. Here is where Jesus continuously teaches that man must eat His flesh and drink His Blood in order to have eternal life:  “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day.  For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” (John 6:54-55) Therefore, eating and drinking the Holy Eucharist have always been understood by the Church to mean the actual partaking of Jesus in His person.

Our Jewish Roots – Thanks Be to God

The structure and context of the Holy Eucharist have their very roots in the sacred traditions of our forefathers in faith, the Jews. It is easier to understand the substance and meaning of the Eucharist if we look to the context of its institution.

One of the most important rituals of the ancient Jews was the special ritual meal called the todah. In Hebrew, todah means “thanks.”  This special ritual sacrifice was offered by someone who had been delivered from clear and present danger, often mortal danger. The saved person would show his gratitude to God by hosting his closest friends and family for the todah sacrificial meal.

The central component of the todah was a ritually-sacrificed lamb.  The bread for the meal was consecrated the moment the lamb was sacrificed. The bread and meat, along with wine, would constitute the elements of the sacred todah meal. The todah also included prayers and songs of thanksgiving.  Although the todah sacrificed an animal, the todah was greater than other animal sacrifices because it added the suffering of one’s own life. To understand this, we look to the writing of King David in Psalm 40:7-9:

Sacrifice and offering you do no want; but ears open to obedience you have me. Holocausts and sin-offerings you do not require; so I said, “Here I am; your commands for me are written in the scroll.  To do your will is my delight; my God your law is in my heart!

The todah was both sacrifice and thanksgiving. There are countless examples throughout the history of Israel of the todah. One of the most significant examples is found in Exodus 24:11 which notes that the seventy elders who went up with Moses to see God offered the todah:  “… after gazing on God, they could still eat and drink.”

Twelve centuries after God ratified His covenant with Moses and the elders of Israel, the twelve apostles beheld God, and ate and drank as Jesus prepared to offer His todah in the rich context of the Jewish Pesach (or Passover) sacrifice. Then he took the bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which will be given for you; do this in memory of me.” And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which will be shed for you.” (Luke 22:19-20)

Jesus’ todah was God’s dabar. Jesus became the sacrifice for all humanity because He offered himself as the perfect, loving sacrifice in thanksgiving of God’s loving mercy. How fitting that Jesus’ todah was done in the context of the Pesach, as the Pesach was the memorial feast of remembrance where Jews drew near to God to give thanks to him for His deliverance and God’s promise of redemption and salvation.

As Jesus takes the bread, breaks it, and declares thanksgiving (eucharistia), He is performing the key purpose of both the todah and Pesach — giving thanks for deliverance. When he does this, Jesus is not merely looking back at Israel’s history of salvation, but He is also looking forward to His own death and Resurrection. In other words, Jesus is giving thanks to the Father for His love and for the new life to be granted in the Resurrection.

In the Eucharist, we give thanks for God’s deliverance and remember how Jesus brought about the new exodus with His death and resurrection. Recall that Jesus told the disciples “Do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:19) This act of remembrance was what the todah was all about: recalling in gratitude God’s saving deeds. A deep sense of thankfulness was the fruit of the todah. This thankfulness lead to genuine worship. Worship flowed from gratitude; cut off from gratitude the will to worship fades.

The todah taught our forefathers to trust God with a grateful heart. In following, Jesus teaches us in the Holy Eucharist that by “remembering” the gift of Jesus on the Cross, our love for God is rekindled. Such “remembrance,” which is the purpose of todah, leads to deeper trust.

German biblical scholar Hartmut Gese explains in Pesiqta in his Essays on Biblical Theology that providentially, rabbinic teaching states that: “In the coming Messianic age all sacrifices will cease, but the thank offering [todah] will never cease.” We know that in 70 AD, the Temple was destroyed, and all of the bloody animal sacrifices ended. For us, only the todah remains, the eucharistia, at which the last words spoken are todah laEl, “Thanks be to God.”

Understanding the Sacrifice of the Lamb — Transubstantiation

To understand the reality of Jesus’ sacrifice, we must understand a metaphysical concept called transubstantiation. The term transubstantiation means, in the context of the Holy Eucharist, that the whole substance of bread and wine is replaced by the living and glorified Jesus Christ. What is left of what had been bread and wine is only their external properties, the aspects we perceive with our senses. The “being” of bread and wine is changed into the “being” of Jesus Christ. As Saint Thomas Aquinas would later describe, the “substance,” what the thing truly is, transforms from bread and wine into the living and glorified Jesus Christ, while the “accidents,” those aspects such as appearance, taste, feel, and smell, remain those of bread and wine.

What we have in the Holy Eucharist is not bread and wine AND Jesus, but only Jesus in the form of real spiritual food and drink. We can understand this if we recognize that material realities (“things”) have no reason or free will.  As such, they cannot freely and consciously subject themselves to God. In contrast, human beings cannot give up their own substance (personal existence— free will and reason) because to do so would destroy the God-designed perfection of human beings. As the result, we see God’s plan.  The material realities of bread and wine are not destroyed but rather are perfected by giving up their existence because they become solely the true sign of the real presence of the body and blood of Jesus.

The concept of transubstantiation is challenging because on Earth we cannot see or touch Jesus with our senses. But this is not a limitation in Him; it is a limitation in us precisely because it is contrary to our reason. Understanding the purpose behind the reality can help. However, in the end, finding God requires faith.

The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass – The Whole Christ

The Mass is the action of Jesus and His Body, the Church. It is during the Eucharistic Prayer that Jesus becomes present, body and blood, soul and divinity, under the form of bread and wine.  During the Mass, Jesus’ saving action, His passion, death and resurrection is offered to the Father by Jesus Himself (in the person of the priest) and by all present. Jesus’ action, offered once and for all on Calvary, brought about our redemption from sin and eternal death. In the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, Jesus’ action becomes present again for us, at this moment in history, so that we can join in Jesus’ perfect offering and can ourselves participate in His perfect worship.

In the Eucharistic Prayers of the Mass, prayer is offered, not to Christ, but to the Father: Father, you are holy indeed …; Father, we bring you these gifts …; Father, we ask you ….  These prayers are worship offered to the Father by Jesus just as it was at the moment of His passion, death and resurrection.  Now, in the Mass, these prayers are offered through the priest, acting in the person of Jesus, in conjunction with all of us who are part of Jesus’ Body, the Church. This is the action of Jesus’ Body, the Church, at Mass.

In the apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis, Pope Benedict XVI points to Saint Augustine’s explanation of God’s plan for assimilation:

The bread you see on the altar, sanctified by the word of God, is the body of Christ. The chalice, or rather, what the chalice contains, sanctified by the word of God, is the blood of Christ. In these signs, Christ the Lord willed to entrust to us his body and the blood which he shed for the forgiveness of our sins. If you have received them properly, you yourselves are what you have received.” Consequently, “not only have we become Christians, we have become Christ himself.”

In this assimilation, we do not offer Jesus alone. In union with Jesus, through the hands of the priest, God calls us to offer our lives and individual efforts to grow more like Jesus so that we can, as a community of believers, spread God’s Word and serve God’s people. Although our offering is in itself imperfect, joined with the offering of Christ, our offering becomes perfect praise and thanksgiving to the Father, our todah.

Reality and Real Presence

The Eucharist teaches us something very important about Jesus. By becoming spiritual food and drink for us, Jesus revealed the ultimate depth of his humility and self-emptying. On the cross, Jesus hid his divinity, and in the Eucharist, Jesus goes even farther and conceals His humanity. The result of this is that for our sense perception Jesus becomes a “thing” that is completely at our mercy.  We may worship the Eucharist, but we may also debase or disregard “it.”  “We may receive ‘it’ devoutly but also sacrilegiously.  He has made himself totally defenseless against us.  As such, it is critical for believers to increase awareness and act upon the understanding of Jesus in the Eucharist for the purpose of reverence and love.

The Eucharistic Presence of Jesus is both a reality and a relationship. It is a reality because Jesus really is in the Eucharist. It is a relationship because Jesus is present to us when we are aware of Him.  When we have Jesus in our mind and heart, He is present to us, and this presence fosters a sense a kinship and affection that translates into a relationship.

Pope Paul VI, in Mysterium Fidei, explains that the Holy Eucharist confers upon Christians an “incomparable dignity.” He explains that there is nothing more efficacious for pursuing holiness as to develop a relationship with Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.

Therefore, once we are able to recognize Jesus’ Eucharist Presence, we are able then to begin to fulfill our mission. This mission is a mission of charity that is designed to foster our own sanctity and that of our fellow man— real and true spiritual communion.

Conclusion — A Lasting Peace

Christ’s command to “Love one another as I have loved you” is an invitation to live out the Eucharistic mystery in our daily lives. Each cross we bear holds the promise of life-giving, inner peace. Suffering and hardships that often appear punitive bear striking resemblance to the pain endured by the disciples when Christ was crucified. They thought it was over when, in reality, it was just the beginning.

Mother Theresa reminds us that “[w]hen you look at the Crucifix, you understand how much Jesus loved you then. When you look at the Sacred Host you understand how much Jesus loves you now.”

Peace and love… Happy Valentine’s Day.

[Feature image by Josh Applegate via Unsplash]