I suppose it’s typical for human beings to sometimes take our finest gifts for granted – our health, our faith, our family and our friends, for example.
And even as Catholics we have the tendency to take for granted one of God’s most precious gifts – the Holy Eucharist, and all that it means for us. Although we typically pay lip service to the importance of the Eucharist, I wonder if we really appreciate its significance in our lives.
As the heart and soul of our Catholic Faith, the Eucharist a gift and mystery that includes several important dimensions. The Eucharist is a sacrifice – the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross, made present again in a sacramental way. The Eucharist is a sacrament – the abiding presence of Christ among His people under the external forms of bread and wine. The Eucharist is a meal – established by Jesus at the Last Supper, and in which the action of eating and drinking the Body and Blood of Christ is essential to its meaning. And the Eucharist is a celebration – an affirmation of our faith in sign and symbol.
Each dimension of the Eucharist tells us something important about its meaning and all of them are included whenever we follow the Lord’s command: “Do this in memory of me.”
From the very beginning, even in the Apostolic era, the Church has recognized that reception of the Holy Eucharist demands a certain spiritual disposition. Here it’s helpful to recall that no one has an absolute right to receive the Eucharist, or any other sacrament for that matter. And while we routinely profess that “I am not worthy to receive you,” in recent years the requirements for receiving Holy Communion have become a hot topic, moving beyond the walls of internal Church discipline and crossing over into the political domain, even becoming the fodder of radio talk show debates.
Pope John Paul explained the criteria for receiving Holy Communion in these words: “The celebration of the Eucharist cannot be the starting-point for communion; it presupposes that communion already exists.” (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, #35) The Pope goes on to explain that this necessary unity with the Church has both an invisible dimension (the spiritual disposition) and a visible dimension (the structural disposition.) In other, more traditional words, to properly receive Holy Communion, a communicant must be in the state of grace and be a member of the Catholic Church. These requirements apply not only to Catholic politicians – although they have particular obligations because of their role as public officials – but equally to all members of the Church.
There are other important dimensions of the Eucharist we should consider as well. And one is the fact that while the Eucharist effects union with Christ, “body and blood, soul and divinity,” it also has more horizontal, societal implications.
Pope Benedict said this: “The Eucharist brings about a fundamental transformation. God no longer simply stands before us as totally other. He enters into us and then seeks to spread outward to others until He fills the world, so that His love can truly become the dominant measure of the world.” (World Youth Day, Cologne, 2005)
The Eucharist, then, is all about “transformation” the Pope says. It begins with the transformation of the elements of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. (Note this is a very special kind of transformation that Catholics call “transubstantiation,” meaning the very substance of the bread and wine is changed into the very substance of the Body and Blood of Christ.) This transformation continues as the person receiving Holy Communion grows spiritually and is transformed into the image and likeness of Christ in their daily lives. And that transformation reaches its conclusion as the faithful enter into the world and, by living the vision and values of Christ, transform it, the secular world, into the Kingdom of God.
Blessed Mother of Teresa of Calcutta put it this way: “If we truly understand the Eucharist; if we make the Eucharist the central focus of our lives; if we feed our lives with the Eucharist, we will not find it difficult to discover Christ, to love Him, and to serve Him in the poor.”
And finally, in reflecting upon the value of the Eucharist, we should also recall the importance of Eucharistic adoration, a wonderful devotion in the history and spiritual tradition of the Church. Pope John Paul wrote that “it is pleasant to spend time with Him, to lie close to His breast like the beloved disciple, and to feel the infinite love present in His heart.” He also points to the example of many saints, specifically St. Alphonsus Liguori who wrote, “Of all devotions, that of adoring Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament is the greatest after the sacraments, the one dearest to God and the one most helpful to us.” (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, #25)
So, dear reader, as we consider the Holy Eucharist, let’s try to resist our normal tendency to take our gifts for granted. The Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Christ; it is the Bread of Life; it is spiritual food for our journey on earth; and it contains all the power we need to transform the world into the Kingdom of God.