Eucharist – Sacrament and Sacrifice
Eucharist could be described as the Sacrament of everyday presence, but that really only scratches the surface. Eucharist means “thanks-giving”. When we look at the Gospels we find that the whole attitude of Jesus towards God His Father was one of thanksgiving. Two of the better known passages in which Jesus expresses his thanks to the Father are
“I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children” (Mt. 11:25)
And, at the tomb of Lazarus his friend
Jesus looked up to heaven and said, “Father, thank you for hearing me. 42 You always hear me, but I said it out loud for the sake of all these people standing here, so that they will believe you sent me.” Then Jesus shouted, “Lazarus, come out!” (Jn. 11)
The best expression of gratitude is the gift of self and we find this throughout the life of Jesus, in so far as all his actions are attuned to the mission entrusted to him by his Father. In all of this the Last Supper is a unique act of thanksgiving.
The Last Supper began that night as a Passover meal, following the Jewish tradition of remembering and giving thanks each year for the way in which God had freed his people from slavery in Egypt. But Jesus chose to use this moment as a way of giving himself to his disciples, so that He could be with them Sacramentally, in every generation and in every place, however remote, through the signs of bread and wine.
This act of self-giving is repeated in a different way on Good Friday, in the death of Jesus on the cross. Jesus did not seek death. Rather he saw his death as the completion of a life offered in thanksgiving. His final words, as reported in John’s Gospel, Ch. 19, are: “It is accomplished”. There is an essential link between the celebration of the Eucharist and the death and resurrection of Jesus.
When we gather for the Eucharist, it is Jesus who gathers us, just as He gathered his disciples at the Last Supper. He speaks His Word to us, just as He spoke it to them. He gives himself to us, just as He gave himself to them, under the form of Bread and Wine. Our celebration of the Eucharist is our act of thanksgiving to God, for the gift of Jesus, for his faithful life, for his death and Resurrection, for his presence among us and for all that his Spirit makes possible in our lives. When it is celebrated well, the Eucharist gives rise in us to an attitude of gratitude, which sends us out the live our own lives as a gift of service to God and to one another. To use the words of St. Augustine:
Be what you see; receive what you are.(St. Augustine, Sermon 272
The Eucharist happens through the action of the Holy Spirit. In the first place it is the Holy Spirit who is given to Jesus, at the time of His Baptism, as the power for his own mission. It is the Spirit who inspires his whole gift of self. It is the Spirit, likewise, who transforms the Bread and Wine so that they become the Body and Blood of Jesus, not in a physical sense, but not just in a symbolic way either. It is like the bride and groom as they exchange their marriage vows. It is not just symbolic; there is a real gift of self. Finally, of course, it is also the Holy Spirit who is at work in us when, through our gathering and our hearing of God’s word, and our reception of the Body and Blood of Christ, we become “one body, one spirit in Christ” (Eucharistic Prayer 3) and we too are sent out at the end of Mass “to glorify God by our lives”.
The prayer of the 50th International Eucharistic Congress, which was celebrated in Dublin in 2012, expresses much of what is written above.
Lord Jesus, You were sent by the Father
to gather together those who are scattered.
You came among us, doing good and bringing healing,
announcing the Word of salvation
and giving the Bread which lasts forever.
Be our companion on life’s pilgrim way.
May your Holy Spirit inflame our hearts,
enliven our hope and open our minds,
so that together with our sisters and brothers in faith
we may recognise you in the Scriptures
and in the breaking of bread.
May your Holy Spirit transform us into one body
and lead us to walk humbly on the earth,
in justice and love,
as witnesses of your resurrection.
In communion with Mary,
whom you gave to us as our Mother at the foot of the cross,
may all praise, honour and blessing be to the Father
in the Holy Spirit and in the Church,
Now and forever. Amen
For more on the meaning of Eucharist and on how we can live it in our lives, go to the pastoral resources page of the 50th International Eucharistic Congress