Eucharistic Lives of Love
At Eucharistic Adoration the other night, I was reminded again of how central the Eucharist is to Catholic life. It is the key to the right ordering of both our interior and our social lives. It is nourishment for the journey and a foretaste of eternal life. It is at once the means by which we have been saved and the means by which we continue to be sanctified. It is Christ Himself, given for us, and given to us.
Christ’s Staggering Claim
Recently a reader expressed doubt about the priest’s ability to transform the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. He feared this was a made-up power, and wondered whether it was found among the first Christians. My answer was that not only was it found from the very first, but it was the very source of all Christian vitality. Christ made this intention clear in His Bread of Life discourse (Jn 6:22-71) immediately following His multiplication of the loaves. Recall how He increasingly challenged the Jews to give up their false claims to righteousness and instead put their trust in Him. He alone is the Manna from Heaven, the Bread of Life: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” (Jn 6:51).
His Jewish listeners found this a great stumbling block, but He drove the point home:
Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. 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. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. (Jn 6:53-56)
Many of those following him said, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” And so they followed him no more. But Jesus did not call them back; he did not try to explain that he was speaking only metaphorically. Instead, he turned to the Twelve: “Do you also want to leave?” And Peter answered rightly: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God” (Jn 6:67-69).
How Our Lord’s staggering claim was fulfilled is recounted in the three synoptic gospels, and is also recounted by Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians. I refer to the Last Supper when Christ instituted the Eucharist. Taking the bread, he said: Take and eat; this is my body which will be given for you. Taking the wine, he said: Take and drink; this cup is the new covenant in my blood, which will be shed for you. (See Mt 26:26-29; Mk 14:22-25; Lk 22:14-20; 1 Cor 11:23-26.) In his extended instruction on the Eucharist, St. Paul makes the literal meaning of these words crystal clear: “Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Cor 11:27). The first Christians took Christ at His word. They knew that Jesus Christ—body, blood, soul and divinity—is really made present in the Eucharist at each and every Mass.
Sacrifice and Communion
The Eucharist is therefore the key to the whole Christian life. It is through the Eucharist, to once again cite St. Paul, that we can say “I live, now not I, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20). First, Christ’s body and blood are given for us at each Mass through the unbloody perpetuation of the sacrifice of the Cross. This is the preeminent means by which Christ’s act of redemption is activated and applied in each succeeding generation. Second, each time His body and blood are given anew, we are invited to take and eat so that we may have life in us—Christ’s life.
In ordinary eating, we assimilate food to ourselves. When we eat the body of Christ, however, He assimilates us to Himself. Through the Eucharist, Christ lives in us, and in this communion of love we are also united to both the Father and the Spirit. While grace can and does work in other ways, the perpetuation of Christ’s sacrifice in the Mass makes present the central act of our redemption, from which all other graces flow. Moreover, the reception of Christ’s body and blood in communion is the single most powerful means for the transformation of our lives in Christ, the means of which he spoke when he promised: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me” (Jn 6:56-57).
But the Eucharist does not stop with the interior, the private, the personal. Note that the Eucharist is one of two manifestations of Christ which are called His “body”. The other is the Church herself which, while it is not the Real Presence, is nonetheless Christ’s body in a mystical sense. This is more than an analogy (i.e., if Christ is the head, the Church must be His body), and it is also more than the general animation of the Church by the graces which flow through the sacraments (even though in her sacraments the Church possesses the life of Christ in a preeminent way). More than both of these, the Church is the body of Christ because her members are united to Christ through the Eucharist. Christ actively lives in these members; therefore, taken all together, the Church is His mystical body. Insofar as Christ lives in us, especially as He lives in us through the Eucharist, we are an integral part of the Church, that is, members of the mystical body of Christ.
The Social Reality
It is precisely in this aspect of the Eucharist that we begin to see its profound social dimension, for it is through the Eucharist that we are all joined in bonds of supernatural love for each other, and that the Church herself stands as a beacon of love to all the world. This life of Christ into which we are all assimilated through the Eucharist is the strongest imaginable source and motive for charity toward one another and toward all. Our intimate sharing in Christ’s very being creates a special reciprocal movement of love among the members of the Church; this movement of love also reaches out to all those who are not yet able to join themselves directly to Christ through His Church.
It is here that the private devotional life and the public life of charity meet. The one emanates from the other as light and warmth emanate from the sun. Of course, it is important not to attempt to reverse the flow, as if our own commitment to this or that cause could itself be a source of love for the Church. For though we may commit ourselves to all kinds of noble causes, how will we sustain them through love if we are not first filled with the love of Christ? And what possible love can we offer by our own power that is greater than the love Christ can offer through us when we are first conformed to Him? No, it is not we who are love; it is God. We must first unite ourselves to our Blessed Lord, primarily through the Eucharist, and then we will have love enough to share—as well as the zeal to share it generously and the wisdom to share it well. If we instead seek to cut our own channel, we will quickly find that the torrent has dried up. We may make a certain noise, but that is all—the sound of brass, perhaps, or the tinkling of cymbals in the breeze (1 Cor 13:1).
The Eucharist is truly the source, center and motive of the Christian life. It roots the Kingdom of God within us (see Lk 17:21) by the indwelling of God Himself. By transforming both ourselves and the Church into a furnace of Divine love, this great Sacrament gives us a foretaste of eternal life. All of this happens through the liturgy of the Church, which has accordingly been called, in its Eucharistic essence, the source and summit of the Christian life—the liturgy at which Christ is both priest and victim precisely because His priests are empowered to “do this in memory of me.” Thus is Christ’s sacrifice perpetuated; thus are we joined to Him in communion; thus is the Church strengthened as His body; thus does His love go out to all the earth.
There is a famous anecdote in which a Muslim tells a Christian that, if he believed God were present in the Eucharist, he would crawl on his belly to receive Him. But Christ has not given the Eucharist to emphasize His transcendence. He has given it to fill us with His love. It is far more telling to say that if we really believed God is present in the Eucharist, we would be able neither to fathom nor to tolerate our own lack of love. Truly our hearts must be very hard indeed if we can partake of the Eucharist and remain unchanged. Are we not in a fiery furnace with one who “looks like a Son of God”? (Dan 3:92) Do we profess not to know why Our Lord offers Himself in the Eucharist? “I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled!” (Lk 12:49) For love and love alone does Love command: This is my body; take and eat.
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