The Eucharist: Source and Summit of Christian Spirituality | Mark Brumley
The Holy Eucharist, Vatican II tells us, is "the source and summit of the Christian life" (Lumen gentium, no. 11; cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1324). Since the Christian life is essentially a spiritual life, we might say as well that the Eucharist is the "source and summit of Christian spirituality" too.
To the pious Catholic, that proposition may seem obvious enough, even if he does not quite understand why. Intuitively, he knows that the spiritual life means using every means available to grow closer to Christ. And he knows that Christ Himself is present in the Eucharist in the most sublime manner. It makes sense, then, that the Eucharist should be central to the spiritual life of a Catholic.
But what the devout soul knows about the Eucharist intuitively should, where possible, become better known and more deeply experienced through systematic reflection on the Church's Eucharistic doctrine. The better we understand the Eucharist's role in Christian spirituality, the better we will be able to love Christ present in the Eucharist.
What follows is a summary of Catholic teaching on the Eucharist as both the "source" and the "summit" of Christian spirituality. We will consider each of these ideas in turn.
What Do We Mean By "Source and Summit"?
To say the Eucharist is the "source and summit of Christian spirituality" means at least two things. First, that Christian spirituality flows from the Eucharist as its source, the way light streams forth from the sun. And second, that Christian spirituality is supremely realized in and ordered to the Eucharist as its summit or highpoint that to which all of our actions should ultimately be directed.
Christian spirituality, then, is a two-way street. It leads us from the Eucharist as our starting point out into the world of daily life and it takes us back home to the Eucharist after our sojourn in the world.
These two dimensions of the Eucharist its being both the "source" and "summit" of Christian spirituality reveal how the Eucharist, being Christ Himself, brings God and man together in a saving dialogue, a mutually giving and receiving relationship. In short, in a covenant of love. The Eucharist is at once the Father's gift of Himself in Christ to us and, through Christ, our offering of Christ and, with Him, of ourselves our minds and hearts, our daily lives to the Father.
As the source of Christian spirituality, the Eucharist revealed that our salvation begins with God, not ourselves. God offers Himself to man in Christ first. At the same time, as the summit of Christian spirituality, the Eucharist is man's supreme, grace-enabled, freely given offering of himself back to God through Jesus Christ, our high priest, by the power of the Holy Spirit. The union or intimate, personal fellowship between God and man realized through God's gift of Himself to man and man's faithful response, we call communion.
Put in the traditional language of the Christian spirituality, we say that this communion with God is brought about by grace and lived out in the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. Because the sacraments are instruments of grace and means of growth in the theological virtues, we can say that Christian spirituality entails what Pope John Paul II called a "sacramental style of life." It involves using the sacraments to grow in the spiritual life. And because the greatest of sacraments is the Eucharist, Christian spirituality is above all Eucharistic: coming from the Eucharist as its source and directed to it as its summit or zenith.
But precisely how is the Eucharist the source of Christian spirituality? In other words, how precisely is the Eucharist the source of grace and the way we grow in faith, hope and charity? A closer look at the Church's teaching about the Eucharist provides an answer to this question.
The Eucharist as the "Source" of Grace
The Eucharist is the source of grace in a number of ways. First, the Eucharist is Christ Himself, the Author of grace. Other sacraments are actions of Christ, to be sure, but only the Eucharist is Christ Himself, under the "appearances" of bread and wine (CCC, nos. 1324, 1373-1381).
A second way the Eucharist is the source of grace is as the sacramental re-presentation of Christ's saving Sacrifice on the cross. Note it is the sacramental re-presentation of Christ's once for all Sacrifice on the cross, not merely a representation or a ritual re-enactment of it (CCC, nos. 1362-1367).
On Calvary, Christ offered Himself to the Father in the Spirit for our salvation. This happened once for all historically -Christ does not die again at Mass. In the Eucharist, however, this same Sacrifice of Christ, made once for all historically, is present here and now sacramentally, and celebrated on the altar. Why can we say that? Because the same Christ who was both priest who offered and victim who was offered is present here and now. Christ is present in heaven as our high priest and our offering for sin (Heb. 8:1-3; 9:24; 1 John 2:1-2), but He is also on our earthly altars as the Eucharist. In this way, the "work of our redemption is accomplished" through His Eucharistic offering (Lumen Gentium, no. 3), and fruits of Christ's unique Sacrifice are applied to us here and now (CCC, no, 1366).
A third way the Eucharist is the source of grace is as the Church's sacrifice. The Eucharist is the Church's sacrifice because it is foremost the Sacrifice of Christ, Bridegroom of the Church, who is "one-flesh" with the Church (Ephesians 5:21-32). In other words, the Eucharist is the Church's offering by virtue of her "spousal" union with Christ.
This sacrifice of the Church is twofold (CCC, no. 1368). First, the Church offers Christ, the spotless victim, to the Father. And second, the Church, in union with Christ, offers herself to God in the Spirit. To the extent individual members of the Church unite themselves with this offering, they receive the fruits of Christ's Sacrifice and dispose themselves to receive further graces. In this way, the Church is built up in her members as the body of Christ and the temple of the Holy Spirit.
Expressed differently, we can say that because the Eucharist is, through Christ, the sacrifice of the Church, in a certain sense, the Church, by the promise of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, "makes" the Eucharist, although it always remains foremost the work of God. But the Eucharist also "makes" the Church (CCC, no. 1396), continually renewing her communion with God through Christ's Sacrifice in the Spirit and bestowing graces upon her. Thus, the Eucharist can be said to be the source of grace and therefore of Christian spirituality, which is the life of grace, because the Church lives and grows in grace through its celebration of the Eucharist.
A fourth way the Eucharist is the source of grace is as a source of repentance. It is this in at least two ways. First, insofar as the fruitful and reverent reception of the Holy Eucharist requires one to examine himself spiritually before coming to the Eucharistic banquet and, if conscious of grave sin, to receive the sacrament of reconciliation before receiving Holy Communion (CCC, no. 1415). And second, in that meditation upon the Sacrifice of Christ made present in the Eucharist the supreme Sacrifice of Christ offered to atone for our sins ought to stir us to greater repentance for sin.
The last point is especially important with respect to the spiritual life. Christian spirituality consists of two aspects, a negative one repentance from sin and purgation of the attachment to sin and a positive one growth in the Christian life of faith, hope and charity. The Eucharist prepares us for the positive dimension of Christian living by helping us undertake the negative aspect rooting out sin from our lives through repentance and purgation.
The Eucharist as the Source of Growth in Faith, Hope and Charity
In addition to being the "source" of Christian spirituality because it is a "source" of grace, the Eucharist also helps us grow in the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. These virtues are essential to the spiritual life because they "dispose Christians to live in a relationship with the Holy Trinity" (CCC, no. 1812). They are called theological because they direct us to God. We might say that they are the three dimensions the height, width and depth in which the Christian life is lived.
The Source of Faith
Faith is the virtue by which we entrust ourselves-mind and will-to God, believing what He has revealed because of who He is (CCC, nos. 143, 1814). How is the Eucharist the source of faith? Like all the sacraments (CCC, no. 1123), the Eucharist is a sign which instructs us. It nourishes and strengthens our faith by what it signifies: the wisdom, love and power of God manifested to us by Christ in His Real Presence and in His Sacrifice. In this respect, the Eucharist is the sacramental "sign of the covenant" par excellence, beckoning us to enter into communion with God by accepting in faith God's saving deeds on our behalf supremely, the death and resurrection of His Son. The Eucharist should move us to deeper faith by reminding us what God has in fact done for us: manifesting His trustworthiness.
But the Eucharist also fosters the virtue of faith insofar as it signifies the one faith of the Catholic Church. This faith is objectively grounded in the official proclamation of the Word of God in the Eucharistic liturgy, and celebrated in the Eucharistic Sacrifice offered by those in Holy Orders who, possessing apostolic succession, in communion with their bishop and the successor of Peter, legitimately exercise apostolic authority.
The Source of Hope
The Eucharist is also the source of hope. "Hope," the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, "is the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ's promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit" (no. 1817). The basis of this hope is the salvation won by the death and resurrection of Christ and the gift of His Holy Spirit poured out in our hearts (cf. Romans 5:5-11; 8:23-25; Titus 3:6-7), which is sacramentally present in the Eucharist.
As an efficacious sign of Christ's salvation, the Eucharist gives us hope in God for the grace to live in His friendship in this life and to inherit eternal life in heaven. The Eucharist nourishes our hope, at once pointing back to God's salvific deeds, especially Jesus' death and resurrection, which provides the firm ground for our hope; and forward to what we hope for, the coming of the kingdom and eternal life of communion with the Triune God.
The Source of Charity
Finally, the Eucharist is the source of charity. As Pope John Paul II wrote: "Christian life is expressed in the fulfilling of the greatest commandment, that is to say, in the love of God and neighbor, and this love finds its source in the blessed Sacrament, which is commonly called the sacrament of love. The Eucharist signifies this charity, and therefore recalls it, makes it present and at the same time brings it about" (Dominicae Cenae, no. 5).
We have already considered how the Eucharist sacramentally signifies and makes present the love of God manifested in Christ and in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and how the Eucharist is Christ Himself, love incarnate. But the Eucharist is also the source of charity in that it may lead us to love God and His Son Jesus in the Spirit. Seeing what God has done for us in Christ, who is present with us in the Eucharist, we should love God in return, and in the Spirit pour out our hearts to Him through the Eucharistic Christ.
Read Part Two of "The Eucharist: Source and Summit of Christian Spirituality"
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