May 25, 2007

Seeking the Face of the Lord

The Eucharist is Christ poured out for the life of the Church

(Second in a series)

In his apostolic exhortation The Sacrament of Charity, Pope Benedict XVI goes to great lengths to lay the solid theological foundation that undergirds the eucharistic mystery.

We need to plumb these theological depths at least a bit in order to understand that the gift of this sacrament is not based on superficial historical or cultural developments.

Part I of the pope’s exhortation is titled “The Eucharist, a Mystery to be Believed.”

He begins this part with the exclamation: “ ‘The mystery of faith!’ With these words, spoken immediately after the words of consecration, the priest proclaims the mystery being celebrated and expresses his wonder before the substantial change of bread and wine into the body and blood of the Lord Jesus, a reality which surpasses human understanding. The Eucharist is a ‘mystery of faith’ par excellence: ‘the sum and summary of our faith’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1327).

“The Church’s faith is essentially a eucharistic faith, and it is especially nourished at the table of the Eucharist. … The more lively the eucharistic faith of the People of God, the deeper is its sharing in ecclesial life in steadfast commitment to the mission entrusted by Christ to his disciples. The Church’s very history bears witness to this. Every great reform has in some way been linked to the rediscovery of belief in the Lord’s eucharistic presence among his people” (n. 6).

My pastoral experience over the last 43 years as a priest echoes the Holy Father’s words. People who want to be and are intimately involved in helping carry out the Church’s mission of charity are people who have a deep faith in the eucharistic mystery. I also believe the recent rediscovery of the eucharistic devotion of adoration before the Blessed Sacrament is a result of the rediscovery of belief in the Lord’s eucharistic presence.

The pope writes: “The first element of Eucharistic faith is the mystery of God himself, Trinitarian love. … In the Eucharist, Jesus does not give us a ‘thing,’ but himself; he offers his own body and pours out his own blood. He thus gives us the totality of his life and reveals the ultimate origin of this love. He is the eternal Son, given to us by the Father. … Jesus shows us that he is the bread of life which the eternal Father gives to mankind” (n. 7).

Pope Benedict pursues his clarion theme: God is a perfect communion of love between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He stresses that the “mystery of faith” is a mystery of Trinitarian love, a mystery in which we are called by grace to participate. He loves the quotation from St. Augustine: “If you see love, you see the Trinity” (cf. n. 8)

The apostolic exhortation develops in some detail the theme “The Eucharist: Jesus the True Sacrificial Lamb.” In this section, the pope develops the teaching that the mission for which Jesus came among us was accomplished in the paschal mystery.

“In the mystery of Christ’s obedience unto death, even death on a Cross, the new and eternal covenant was brought about. … Jesus is the true paschal lamb who freely gives himself in sacrifice for us, and thus brought about the new and eternal covenant. The Eucharist contains this radical newness, which is offered to us again at every celebration” (n. 9).

In his reflection on the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, Pope Benedict ties this institution to the deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt by citing the context of the paschal meal. In the Eucharist, “the remembrance of their ancient liberation thus expanded to the invocation and expectation of a yet more profound, radical, universal and definitive salvation” (n. 10).

In this way, Jesus brings his own “radical newness to the ancient Hebrew sacrificial meal.” The Holy Father writes: “The foreshadowing has given way to the truth itself” (n. 11).

The exhortation concludes the Trinitarian dimension of the Eucharist with a lengthy development of the role of the Holy Spirit in the Eucharist.

“We need a renewed awareness of the decisive role played by the Holy Spirit in the evolution of the liturgical form and the deepening understanding of the sacred mysteries.” The Holy Spirit was a constant presence in the life and mission of Jesus. “It is through the working of the Spirit that Christ continues to be present and active in his Church, starting with her vital center which is the Eucharist” (n. 12).

The Holy Spirit plays a decisive role in the eucharistic celebration, particularly with regard to the consecration and transubstantiation. “The Spirit invoked by the celebrant upon the gifts of bread and wine placed on the altar is the same Spirit who gathers the faithful ‘into one body’ and makes of them a spiritual offering to the Father” (n. 13).

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