The early Christian basilicas in Rome, the Cathedrals of the Middle Ages, the Gothic Revival churches in 20th century America and the more contemporary constructions of recent years all share the same purpose. The church building is meant to be “a sacred building destined for divine worship” (Code of Canon Law, 1214). More than just a place where we gather, the church building makes visible the Church living in this place, the dwelling of God with us reconciled and united in Christ” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1180).
Central to every Catholic church, therefore, is the altar on which the Eucharist is celebrated. For the Eucharist is the summit and source of the Church’s life. The Eucharist makes the Church. And the Church makes the Eucharist. No Eucharist, no Church. The Eucharist is the Church’s most sacred treasure, because the Eucharist is the Lord Jesus.
So great is the mystery of the Eucharist that it cannot be straight-jacketed into a single concept or explanation. Jesus gifted the Church with the Eucharist at the Last Supper. On the evening before he died, he celebrated God’s deliverance of Israel and the redemption he himself was accomplishing for all. He did this in the context of the Passover meal.
First, the very giving of the Eucharist reminds us of the structure of a meal. “Take, eat… Then he took a cup and… gave it to them, saying: Drink from it, all of you” (Mt 26:26, 27). The Eucharist is the meal in which we enjoy table fellowship with the Lord. When we worthily receive the Eucharist, we enter into a profound communion with Jesus. He abides in us and we in him (cf. Jn 15:4).
Israel celebrated communion sacrifices in which part of the victim was offered to God and another portion given to the faithful to eat. Thus Israel expressed her desire to be one with God. When Moses ratified the covenant with Israel, Moses, Aaron and his two sons Nadab and Abihu, along with the seventy elders, went up the mountain. In a very rare sentence in the entire Old Testament, we are told, “they actually gazed on God and then ate and drank” (Ex 24: 11). At the very birth of God’s chosen people, the meal on the mountain prefigures the fellowship which God wishes to establish with all his children. Today, as we sit down at the Lord’s Table and eat and drink in his sight, we enter that fellowship, sharing in the very life of God himself.
Second, all the narratives of the Last Supper (Mt 26:26-28: Mk 14:22-23: Lk 22:19-20; and 1 Cor 11:23-25), help us understand the Eucharist as not just a meal but as sacrifice. Jesus gives his body broken for us and his blood poured out for us. Jesus is the Suffering Servant who is offering himself in sacrifice, pouring out his blood for the new covenant. He offers himself in place of humanity and for the salvation of all (cf. Is 42:1-9; 49:8).
The Cross begins at the Supper (cf. 1 Cor 11:26). In the Upper Room, Jesus makes present in an unbloody manner his self-offering on the Cross. In every Eucharist, Christ makes present to us anew that same sacrifice offered once for all on Golgotha. The Eucharist is sacrifice, not repeated again and again, but the one sacrifice of the Cross made present to us in every age.
Third, at the same time that the Eucharist makes present what occurred in the past, it also impels us towards the future. The Liturgy itself reminds us of this in the acclamation following the consecration: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” The Eucharist is an eschatological event.
St. John Chrysostom reminds us of this. He says, “For when you see the Lord sacrificed, laid upon the altar, and the priest standing and praying over the victim, and all the worshippers empurpled with that precious blood, can you then think that you are still among men, and standing upon the earth? Are you not, on the contrary, straightway translated to heaven, and casting out every carnal thought from the soul, do you not, with disembodied spirit and pure reason, contemplate the things which are in heaven?” (De Sacerdotio, III, 4).
Christ who will come again at the end of time comes to us in every Eucharist. This eschatological aspect makes the Eucharist an event that draws us up into heaven. Thus, the Eucharist fills our life journey with hope. In every Eucharist, we enter the Holy of Holies, the Body of Christ, and we are sanctified (cf. Heb 90:11-14). The Eucharist is the privileged place where life becomes sacred. The Eucharist makes our life a sacred adventure of ever-deepening communion with God.
Bishop Arthur Serratelli, S.T.D., S.S.L., D.D.
To be continued