On Receiving the Holy Eucharist                  (E.J.Tyler)

1. Baptism the entry into the divine life

  A child is born into the world and the first thing that good Christian parents arrange for is the child’s entry into the Christian life. That is to say, the child is baptized. What does Baptism do? St Paul tells us that by our Baptism we become a new creature. He tells us that by our Baptism we mysteriously enter into communion with Christ in his dying, and we come forth from the baptism with a share in his risen life (Romans 6: 3-4). He writes: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? ... so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” Putting it slightly differently, it involves a new birth. That is how our Lord expresses it in his conversation with Nicodemus, as reported to us in the Gospel of St John. “Unless a man is born again by water and the Holy Spirit,” our Lord says, “he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Through Baptism we are freed from the dominion of sin, from its power over us, and we are endowed with the presence of the Holy Spirit and his supernatural gifts enabling us to live a holy life with the help of the grace of God. We become members of Christ. I remember years ago when I visited Jerusalem I was sitting in the pilgrims' hostel known as Ecce Homo, where our Lord is said to have been scourged. I briefly met a person from Switzerland and I asked him what he did for a living. He said, “Oh, I am just a tailor. But - and he said this with great liveliness - I am a member of Jesus Christ!” We are united to Jesus by our Baptism and we then begin to live in him. St Paul time and time again in his letters refers to the Christian being in Jesus and Jesus being in him. That state of being begins at Baptism. Because by Baptism we are in Jesus, and because Jesus is in the Father, then by our Baptism we are placed deep in the life of God the most holy Trinity. All this happens at our Baptism, which is why the Sacrament of Baptism is the basis of our Christian life. Without Baptism we have not got off first base. With it we have been launched by the power of the Holy Spirit who comes to us at our Baptism to give us the rebirth our Lord promises, the rebirth in the life of God enabling us to life a holy life as a child of God, provided we set our minds to it.

2. Baptism and Confirmation

  But Baptism is not the only stage in being initiated into the Christian life. It is the first and fundamental stage, without which nothing is possible in the Christian life. But more and wonderful things are still to come before a person has been fully initiated into the life of Christ and of the Church. Two more Sacraments are to be received before a person has fully entered into the life of Christ, fully launched into the new life Christ came to give us. Those two Sacraments are the Sacraments of Confirmation and the Holy Eucharist. Just when those Sacraments are received varies among what are called the various rites of the Catholic Church. That is to say, there are different traditions within the Church as to when these Sacraments are received. As The Catechism of the Catholic Church mentions (no.1233) “today in all the rites, Latin and Eastern, the Christian initiation of adults begins with their entry into the catechumenate and reaches its culmination in a single celebration of the three sacraments of initiation: Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist. In the Eastern rites the Christian initiation of infants begins with Baptism and is followed immediately by Confirmation and the Eucharist, while in the Roman rite (baptism) is followed by years of catechesis before being completed later by Confirmation and the Eucharist, the summit of their Christian initiation.”

  When a child receives the Sacrament of Confirmation the spiritual effects of Baptism are deepened in the soul of the child because the same Holy Spirit who came at his Baptism comes again at his Confirmation. But what is especially distinctive about the effect of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Confirmation is the giving of the gifts that are needed to be able to bear witness to Christ and the Church. The child receives in Confirmation the gift and the presence of the Holy Spirit in order to be ready and willing to be an active Christian influence, to have the courage to do this, and to be able to do it with spiritual effect. The child is drawn into and is spiritually equipped to take part in the Church’s mission of bearing witness to Jesus, especially in a world that is secular and prefers to operate without God. Of course, for the child to respond to this essential aspect of his Christian calling, he needs the help, the instruction and the example of his parents.

3. The Eucharist

   But then there is even more to come. I refer to the gift of the most Holy Eucharist. Having been baptized and confirmed (although Confirmation is often later) the Christian receives the crowning gift of all, the coming to him of the very person of Jesus Christ in all his risen reality, human and divine. In thinking of this greatest of mysteries, we ought confront a problem. Our biggest problem is that time and again we do not look on the Eucharist with the eyes of faith. We go only on the appearances, and all we actually see are the appearances of bread and wine. We tend to live by sight rather than by faith. So the first thing we simply must try to realize is that during Mass at the Consecration what was bread becomes the living risen Jesus in his full human and divine reality. We must keep this constantly in mind. The first thing that ought come to our minds when we hear the term “the Eucharist” used, is not bread nor simply "the host" but the person of Jesus. We need to develop the habit of thinking this way. It involves activating our gift of faith.

   Just before our Lord ascended into heaven he gave his disciples the mission of going and making disciples of all the nations, telling them that he would be with them to the end of the world. So our Lord is constantly with the Church, abiding in the midst of her. He is present in very many ways in the life of the Church. He is present speaking in his word, he is present whenever the Church’s members pray together, he is present in the poor and the sick, he is present in the Sacraments of which he is the author and the one doing the action, he is present at Mass and in the person of the priest. But he is present most especially in the Eucharist, under the appearances of bread and wine. The appearance of bread is no more than just that, its appearance. The substance and reality of bread and wine has changed into the substance and reality of the fully risen person of Jesus, while retaining the mere appearance of bread and wine. So it is really Jesus there, but without his physical form and appearance, his height, his weight, his facial complexion. As the Council of Trent puts it, in the most blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist “the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, or our Lord Jesus Christ, and therefore the whole Christ is truly, really and substantially contained.” (Council of Trent 1551). While our Lord is present in a variety of ways in the life of the Church, in the Eucharist he is present in the fullest and most total way. The Church is where Jesus is to be found, and within the Church he is found most fully, totally and immediately in the Eucharist. In the Eucharist our Lord makes himself wholly and entirely present, in all his risen reality.

  This presence of our Lord in the Eucharist begins at the moment of the consecration and endures as long as the appearances of bread continue. Once the natural corruption of the qualities of bread begins so that it no longer can properly be said to have the qualities of bread, the special Eucharistic presence of Jesus ceases. For that reason it is generally accepted that about fifteen minutes after receiving the Eucahristic Jesus in holy Communion the special Eucharistic presence of our Lord within the person will cease and our Lord’s presence within the person will revert to a spiritual presence.

4. Jesus is the Eucharistic Jesus

  Whenever we think of Jesus as being present among us on this earth and in the life of the Church, in the first instance we ought think of Jesus in the Eucharist, the Eucharistic Jesus. Jesus is Emmanuel, God-with-us. Jesus is in heaven seated at the right hand of the Father, but for us he is present in his full reality most especially in the Eucharist, and it is the Eucharistic Jesus whom the first communicant is soon to receive. But of course we cannot see our Lord’s physical form in the way the Apostles could when he appeared to them after he rose from the dead. They felt him, saw him, heard him, and watched him eat. We know his presence in the Eucharist by faith, not by sight or hearing. Our faith, by means of which we know that it is Jesus who is there, relies on divine authority, on what our Lord has told us. This teaching of Jesus and his words come to us through the teaching and witness of the Church. If we are to live by faith in our Lord’s word, we need to accept the divine authority and position of the Church. We learn from the Church that God has revealed himself in the person of Jesus and we learn from the Church what Jesus did mean to teach. If in our hearts we quietly reject the Church’s authority to teach in the name of Jesus we shall fall into serious error, and be in danger of losing our Christian faith entirely.

5. Devotion to the Real Presence of Jesus

  Do we ever think of the Eucharistic Jesus very much during each day? Were our Lord to appear in person in his visible and physical form can you imagine the vast throngs that would come to see him? But the same Jesus is present in the Eucharist, and every day is present in every tabernacle across Sydney. Jesus is present in the Tabernacle among us, in our midst. Do we ever advert to this fact? When we come to the church precincts for a meeting, do we ever advert to the fact that the real, living Jesus is present right now in the tabernacle of the church just some yards from us? A very good practice is to make a spiritual communion with him as he is in the Tabernacle, and to do that often each day. Think of the fact that he abides in the Tabernacle, and to make a spiritual communion with him there and then wherever we are. That is to say, we can welcome the Eucharistic Jesus into our hearts spiritually by prayerfully asking him to come into our hearts. We ought make an act of contrition before we do, perhaps using the words we use at Mass before Holy Communion: Lord, I am not worthy, but say the word and my soul will be healed. Making frequent acts of spiritual communion with the Eucharistic Jesus will increase our faith in the real presence of our Lord in the Eucharist.

  But also, we ought consider making personal visits to the Blessed Sacrament. When we pass a church if we are driving by or passing it on the bus, we could do some little gesture of faith acknowledging our Lord’s presence in the tabernacle of that church. It could be to raise the hand and make a small sign of the cross on the forehead with the thumb, looking at the church as we pass it and saying a short prayer to the Eucharistic Jesus there. If we are not passing the church in a vehicle, but passing by foot, we could perhaps pause outside the door of the church if the church is closed and say a silent prayer to Jesus present in the tabernacle there. If the church is open, or if you can see inside the church, why not make a visit, or look inside to see the tabernacle and acknowledge the Eucharistic Jesus there. If we never do anything like this, we ought ask ourselves if we really believe what our Lord has told us, that he is truly there. He is not there for his own sake. He is there for ours, so as to receive our presence, our requests, our homage and our love. And when we actually enter the church, say, at Mass or for some other spiritual occasion, do we give Jesus our full and prayerful attention, or do we spend our time thinking of other things. How do we prepare for Mass when we get there? When Mass is going on, are we making a real effort to remember that the living risen Jesus in his full human and divine reality is the one doing what is being done there. Are we filled with the thought of the real presence of Jesus in the most holy Eucharist? That is the first thing we ought ask ourselves when we turn our minds to the matter of the Sacrament of the Eucharist. So as we think of receiving the Holy Eucharist, we must with great seriousness remember just what the Holy Eucharist really is. It is the living Jesus. We ought ask ourselves, have I realized this yet, and am I helping my children to realize it? I do invite you to renew your faith in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.

6. The Mass is the sacrifice of Calvary made present

   But there is more to this mystery of our Faith than simply the real presence of the whole person of Christ in the Eucharist. When we use the term Eucharist we usually think of the sacred host held aloft at Mass, or exposed for veneration at Benediction, or kept in the Tabernacle night and day for the prayer and veneration of the faithful. That sacred host is the Eucharist and the Eucharist is the person of Jesus. But in his Eucharistic presence our Lord does not simply make himself present. At Mass he does something marvellous. He makes present not only his very self but his very self precisely doing what he did at Calvary. He makes that sacrifice of Calvary present such that the Mass is itself the greatest possible sacrifice and gift to God, because it is Calvary made present but of course under entirely different circumstances. There are no shouts, hammer blows and jeering crowds. Calvary is present sacramentally. Our Lord is present in other ways at Mass too. He is present in the person of the priest who acts in him. He is present in the congregation who have gathered in his name praying to the Father. He is present speaking through his word when the Scriptures are read and during the giving of the homily by the priest. Most especially he becomes fully and entirely present at the moment of the Consecration when the bread and wine are changed into his body and blood. Then during the Eucahristic Prayer he makes present the offering of himself at Calvary for each of us and for all mankind, in this way honouring and glorifying his heavenly Father with a perfect gift, the gift of himself. Then in his full reality he gives himself in Holy Communion to any member of the Church who is in the state of grace. The protagonist in each of the Sacraments is our Lord, but the Mass is the greatest of the Sacraments, and is the summit and the source of our entire Christian life. It is our Lord’s greatest action in the life of the Church.

7. The Scriptural background to the Eucharist

  This greatest of the Sacraments had a preparation in the Old Testament. The Church sees in the gesture of Melchisedech the priest and king of Salem (the future Jerusalem at the time of Abraham) in which he offered up to God bread and wine on behalf of Abraham, a prefiguring of the coming sacrifice of the Mass. Furthermore, as The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: In the Old Covenant bread and wine were offered in sacrifice among the first fruits of the earth as a sign of gratitude and praise to the Creator of those fruits of the earth. But they received a new meaning in the context of the Exodus, which was the deliverance of God’s people from the land of slavery. The unleavened bread that Israel would eat every year commemorated the haste of their departure out of Egypt.  In eating bread too they remembered the manna in the desert, that form of bread that God sent them as they journeyed on to their coming homeland. The cup of wine in the Passover meal added joy to the commemoration. Then our Lord gave a new meaning to all this when during his last Paschal meal he instituted the Mass. The miracles of the multiplication of the loaves were a sign of the coming bread from heaven, that bread which would be his own flesh and blood. The changing of the water into wine at the wedding feast of Cana was a sign of the changing of the wine into his blood at the Last Supper. All these were, looking at them by hindsight, signs of what was to come. But our Lord actually did make very solemn and public announcements about the Eucharist, notably in the synagogue at Capharnaum. The whole of the sixth chapter of St John’s Gospel is given over to it. This is the bread come down from heaven, my flesh given for the life of the world. Again, he said, my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats this flesh and drinks this blood lives in me and I in him. These and many other explicit statements are made by our Lord in the Gospel.

   The typical Protestant position is that these are only metaphorical statements by our Lord and not to be taken literally. But from the beginning the Church has always known that our Lord meant them to be taken literally, and our Lord’s own audience understood him to be meaning them literally, because a great number left him when they heard him say that they would have to eat his flesh and drink his blood if they were ever to have life eternal. Years ago Fulton Sheen said it was then that our Lord lost the masses, and it was then that Judas turned away from him secretly. At the end of our Lord’s words about the Eucharist in that sixth chapter of St John, when we are told that many of his disciples had left him, our Lord said to the Twelve that one of them was a devil. He knew who in his heart had refused belief. But despite losing the masses over this teaching, and despite losing one of his own apostles, Our Lord did not draw back from what he had said in all its literal sense. He meant what he said, that to receive in faith the gift of the Eucharist is to receive the Lord himself.

8. The Eucharist and the Last Supper

   The great moment came during the Last Supper when he would do what he had promised. Knowing that the hour had come for him to leave this world and return to the Father, during the course of the meal he washed the feet of his disciples and gave them the commandment to love one another as he had loved them. Then, to give them the constant sign and a pledge of his love, and in order never to depart from those who were his own, and to enable them to become sharers in his Passion, Death and Resurrection, he instituted the Eucharist as the living memorial of his Passion and Death. When I refer to it as a memorial, I do not mean that it was simply a memento (which is more or less the Protestant understanding of the Eucharist). Rather it is a making present of what he did for us at Calvary, and of course in the process keeping before us constantly till the end of time what he did for each of us in his Sacrifice at Calvary. And so at the Last Supper, “he took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them saying, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after supper, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the New Covenant in my blood.”

9. The Sacrifice of the Mass

   When our Lord instructed his disciples to do all this in memory of him until he comes, he was especially referring to the Mass. Every time Mass is celebrated by a priest, that instruction our Lord gave nearly 2000 years ago is being obeyed. The priest by his ordination is united to Christ in such a way that henceforth Christ makes himself present in him and acts through him in very definite ways. Whenever the priest preaches at Mass or teaches in the name of the Church and in conformity with the Church’s teaching, Christ is present in him and is speaking through him. Especially whenever the priest brings the Sacraments to people, Christ is bringing himself to people through the priest. This is most especially and supremely the case at Mass. It is Christ our Lord who is acting, making himself present through and in the priest. Christ is there as the great Presence, making present in our midst what he did for us at Calvary. That is why we refer to Mass as the Sacrifice of the Mass, because it is the same Sacrifice that our Lord made of himself to the Father at Calvary. It is not just prayers and something of a sacred meal. It is the same Sacrifice on our behalf that Christ made of himself at Calvary. The Mass is a Sacrifice to God which pleases God and reconciles us to him. It is the greatest sacrifice to God that is possible, far surpassing any other sacrifice to God. And there is not a new and different sacrifice to God offered every time Mass is celebrated. No, the Church’s teaching is that it is the same one Sacrifice to God offered by our Lord, himself being both the victim and the priest, which he offered at Calvary. It is the same sacrifice as that unique one which was offered at Calvary, every time. It is just that it is made present at Mass, and we are, as it were, miraculously enabled to unite ourselves through Mass and Holy Communion with that single Sacrifice offered so long ago by the greatest of persons, Jesus Christ. Through the Mass, Christ makes himself and his great sacrifice at Calvary permanently present in the Church and in the world until the end of time. It is made present and we are able to unite ourselves to it.

10. The Mass and the infant Church

  This is what our Lord intended for his Church when he told his disciples that they were to do this until he comes again. That second and final coming will be at the end of time when he comes to judge the living and the dead. Between now and then the life’s task of every member of the Church is to unite himself or herself with the Sacrifice of Christ at Calvary. By doing this we receive the benefits of the Redemption won for us by Christ. From the beginning the Church has been faithful to the Lord’s command to do this in memory of him. Of the infant Church in Jerusalem it is written in the Acts of the Apostles that “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” That expression, “breaking of bread and the prayers”, Catholic scholars agree refers to the Eucharist. It was not bread, of course, that was being broken. It looked like bread, but it was the Body of Christ, the Holy Eucharist. Imagine our Lady receiving Holy Communion, knowing it was her own Son! Imagine the apostles celebrating Mass, knowing it was the same Jesus they had walked with! From that time down to our own the celebration of the Eucharist has been continued so that we see it celebrated everywhere in the universal Church with the same fundamental structure, even though various elements of it have evolved in different ways over the centuries to manifest better in particular epochs that fundamental structure. The Eucharist remains the centre of the Church’s life.

11. The structure of the Mass

  Let us for a moment consider the basic structure of the Mass, considering what our Lord is doing in its various stages. The basic lines of the order of the Mass have stayed the same until our own day. To begin with, of course, all gather together in one place for the Eucharistic Sacrifice. The main thing to remember in this coming together is that Jesus our Lord is there as the head of the congregation. He is the high priest, the same high priest that offered the great victim at Calvary. He was the priest and the victim, and he is the same priest and the same victim at every Mass. He himself is presiding invisibly over every congregation gathered for Mass. All are together in Christ offering the Mass. Now, when we say, and it is true to say it, that the priest presides over the Mass and celebrates Mass, we mean that the priest understood as being in the person of Christ the head does this. He makes Christ the head present, and through him Christ the head offers the Sacrifice, preaches the word, gives himself to us in holy communion. All members of the congregation offer the sacrifice in union with Christ and in union with Christ exercise their share in the priesthood of Christ. The priesthood of the laity is called the common priesthood, or the priesthood shared in common with all members of the Church. But the ordained priest exercises an essentially different share in the priesthood of Christ. It is called the ministerial priesthood, and by it the priest makes Christ the head of the Church present and through him, the ordained priest, Christ makes his sacrifice at Calvary present, through which he offered himself to the Father for us.

  So then with Christ at our head the congregation gathers for Mass. Mass begins with the penitential rite during which we ask God for his pardon for our sins. We pray the opening prayer. The Liturgy of the word is heard, consisting of readings from the Scriptures and the homily. It is Christ who is speaking to us during this liturgy of the word, and we ought strive to maintain a deep awareness that it is our Lord who is speaking to us at this stage, and we ought retain in our hearts and minds any light or inspiration that comes to us at this part of the Mass. We ought expect it, because God is speaking to us. Then the offerings of bread and wine and our own offerings are prepared and presented. Then the Eucharistic Prayer is begun and said out loud by the priest, during which we arrive at the most solemn moment which is when the priest says our Lord’s words in memory of him, This is my body, and This is my blood. Christ becomes present at that point doing what he did at Calvary. We unite ourselves to our Lord during the rest of the Eucharistic Prayer and prepare ourselves to receive him in Holy Communion. As I pointed out above, the critical issue for us ever to keep in mind is the real presence of Jesus himself, body, blood, soul and divinity, the full risen Jesus in all his humanity and divinity. It is so easy to take the Mass for granted, and it is so easy to take Holy Communion for granted.

12. Holy Communion and its fruits

The principal fruit of receiving the Eucharistic Jesus in Holy Communion is an intimate union with Jesus Christ. Our Lord said, “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him.” ((John 6:56). Again, our Lord tells us that “As the Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me.” (John 6:57). Every sacrament symbolizes what it brings about. What material food produces in our bodily life, Holy Communion achieves in our spiritual life. Communion with the flesh of Jesus Christ preserves, increases and renews the life of grace received at Baptism. We need this heavenly nourishment for our journey to heaven, and God made man makes himself our food for this difficult journey. Secondly, uniting us with Christ the Eucharist cleanses us even more from past sins and strengthens us against future sins. It does not replace the Sacrament of Penance, which we ought frequent regularly, but it contributes towards the eradication of sin in our life by uniting us to Christ the Redeemer. For this reason we all pray publicly the prayer before receiving Holy Communion which says, “Lord I am not worthy to receive you, but say the word and my soul will be healed.” Holy Communion strengthens our charity, and this living charity will contribute towards wiping away venial sins. Our Lord comes to us to break our disordered attachments to things other than God. Holy Communion in uniting us more closely to Christ unites us to all the faithful, the whole Church, because the Church is Christ’s body. In being united to the head, we are united to the body and its members. It also unites us to the poor, because our Lord said that whatever you do to the least of my brothers you do to me. He is in the poor, and in being united to him, we are brought close to the poor. We must live accordingly, responding to the needs of the Church and of the poor. 

13. The Eucharist is our pledge of glory to come

The great danger is that we shall slip into thinking of the Eucharist as nothing more than what its appearances suggest. We may not deliberately choose to think this - even though there have been persons in the past who have deliberately chosen to look on the Holy Eucharist as nothing more than a small piece of bread, and as simply the memorial of our Lord’s Last Supper, and in no sense the Real Presence of Jesus and his Sacrifice at Calvary. That is the danger. The Eucharist requires from us a lively faith that we ought be deliberately keeping active. Our union with Jesus at Mass and especially in Holy Communion makes present not only the great event of the past which is Calvary, but it makes present too what we are heading for, the bliss of happiness in union with Jesus. It is our pledge of glory. Let us make the most of it every time.