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Part Two of "The Eucharist: Source and Summit of Christian Spirituality" | Read Part One

Through the Eucharist, then, we enter into a deeper participation in the life of the Triune God, who is charity itself (1 John 4:16). In turn, this deepened love for God leads to a greater love of neighbor for the sake of the love of God, because "whoever loves God must also love his brother" (1 John 4:21). We love others because Christ first loved us.

Furthermore, Christ's Eucharistic offering of Himself "becomes of itself the school of active love for neighbor," as Pope John II has written, [4] by revealing to us "what value each person, our brother or sister, has in God's eyes, if Christ offers Himself equally to each one, under the species of bread and wine."

Finally, as the source of grace, the Eucharist is the "source" of charity insofar as grace is necessary for genuine obedience to God's commandments, without which we cannot truly love God (cf. 1 John 5:3).

The Eucharist As The Summit Of Christian Spirituality

We have seen how the Eucharist is the source of Christian spirituality – how the Eucharist brings about the Christian way of life in us. We consider now how the Eucharist is the summit or highpoint of Christian spirituality or, as St Thomas Aquinas put it, "the consummation of the whole spiritual life."[5] In other words, how Christian living leads up to and culminates in our participation in the Eucharist.

The Eucharist is the summit of the spiritual life in the sense that other aspects of Christian living, including the other sacraments (CCC, no. 1324),[6] are ordered to the Eucharist – to Christ's offering of Himself to the Father in the Spirit for us and to our participation in Christ's offering. In other words, the same profound sacramental link between the Sacrifice of the cross and the Eucharist that makes the Eucharist the source of Christian spirituality also makes it the summit or high point of Christian spirituality.

Christ's Sacrifice, Our Sacrifice

As we have already seen, the Eucharistic Christ not only gives Himself to the Father for us, He is offered to the Father by us in the Spirit, through the indispensable ministry of the sacrificing priest acting in persona Christi – in the person of Christ our high priest Himself and through our union with Christ as members of His Church.[7] But, as also mentioned above, it is not only Christ who is offered to the Father in the Eucharist; the Church also offers herself in and through her union with Christ in the Spirit:
In the Eucharist the sacrifice of Christ becomes also the sacrifice of the members of his body. The lives of the faithful, their praise, sufferings, prayer and work, are united with those of Christ and with his total offering, and so acquire a new value (CCC, no. 1368). The self-offering of the Church in the Eucharist is central to the Church's identity as a priestly people. This is, in fact, an important way in which the faithful exercise their baptismal priesthood, offering the sacrifice of themselves in Christ.[8]

Moreover, the Eucharistic offering of the Church is both corporate and objective, and individual and subjective. Corporately and objectively, the Church's offering of herself is constituted by the action of the ministerial priest who, precisely because he acts in persona Christi capitis (in the person of Christ the Head of the Church), also acts in persona Ecclesiae (in the person of the Church) and in the name of the Church (CCC, nos. 1552-1553).[9] The priest represents the Church before God because he represents Christ who is head and bridegroom of the Church.

At the same time, members of the Church offer themselves individually and subjectively in the Eucharistic liturgy, insofar as they unite themselves by intention and action, with the Eucharistic offering of Christ's Sacrifice. In other words, they make Christ's offering for them as individuals their own offering of themselves through Christ. They surrender their minds and hearts, their very lives, to God through Christ's act of self-surrender made present on the altar.

We have already considered the Eucharist as the source of the spiritual life, which we noted is a life of grace lived through the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. Since the Eucharist is also the summit of Christian spirituality, the individual and subjective offering of ourselves in the Eucharist also necessarily entails the basics of Christian spirituality – repentance from sin and death to self, as well as a positive growth in the life of grace and the theological virtues. We look now at these things from the vantage point of the Eucharist as their summit or highpoint, rather than their source.

The Need for Repentance

Since all the various ways we give ourselves to God are directed to the Eucharist, this includes repentance from sin. Consequently, if we would offer ourselves to God through the Eucharist and receive from Him the Bread of Life, we must pass through the door of penance. To enter into communion with the all-holy God through the Eucharist, we must, following the general pattern of the spiritual life, undergo purgation. As Pope Pius XII wrote:
"While we stand before the altar ... it is our duty so to transform our hearts that every trace of sin may be completely blotted out, while whatever promotes supernatural life through Christ, may be zealously fostered and strengthened even to the extent that, in union with the Immaculate Victim, we become a victim acceptable to the Eternal Father" (Mediator dei, no. 100). When Christ came proclaiming the kingdom of God, He preached conversion and faith. "Repent," He said, "and believe in the gospel" (Mark 1:15). Not surprisingly, then, there exists a special link between the Sacrament of Penance and the Eucharist. Pope John Paul II has written of this:
The Eucharist and Penance thus become in a sense two closely connected dimensions of authentic life in accordance with the spirit of the gospel, of truly Christian life. The Christ who calls to the Eucharistic banquet is always the same Christ who exhorts us to penance and repeats his "Repent." Without this constant ever renewed endeavor for conversion, partaking of the Eucharist would lack its full redeeming effectiveness and there would be a loss or at least a weakening of the special readiness to offer God the spiritual sacrifice in which our sharing in the priesthood of Christ is expressed in an essential and universal manner (Redemptoris hominis, no. 20).

The Eucharist, then, is the high point of repentance because it is the supreme sacrament of Calvary. All other acts of penance prepare for our participation in the Eucharistic Sacrifice, our supreme rejection of sin and turning toward Christ and communion with Him.

Offering Ourselves in Faith, Hope and Charity

But Christian spirituality is not simply a life of repentance and purgation; as we have seen, it also includes growth in faith, hope and charity. So, too, our Eucharistic offering, as the summit or highpoint of Christian spirituality, involves the theological virtues. Indeed, acts of faith, hope and charity are specific ways in which we offer ourselves to God in the Eucharist, thereby entering into communion with Him through the highest act of sacrifice possible.

Faith, as we have seen, is an offering of oneself – the response of man to God's gracious initiative in Christ – in which one freely submits intellect and will to God and His Word (CCC, nos. 143, 1814). In the Eucharist, man submits by faith to the Divine Word by which bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, and indeed to the whole Catholic Faith of which the Eucharist is the greatest sacramental sign because it is Christ Himself. This is at least one of the ways in which we can speak of the Eucharist as the "Mystery of Faith."







Furthermore, in receiving Holy Communion in faith one bows before this mystery which only the person of faith perceives: "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you shall not have life within you ... For my flesh is true food and my blood true drink" (John 6:53, 55). In this way, a person offers himself to Christ in faith, saying, "Yes, Lord. I believe what you said."

Most importantly, man's act of faith is supremely realized in believing and receiving what God has done for him in Christ on Calvary. And God's saving act in Christ is supremely realized in the Eucharist, which makes Calvary present.

But the faithful's Eucharistic self-offering is also an offering of hope. Again we note that, by the virtue of hope, a believer trusts in God's promised grace in the Eucharist and that "he who has begun a good work ... will bring it to completion."

In hope, the believer acknowledges God's sufficiency and his own insufficiency. Offering oneself to God in the Eucharist is a profound act of hope in that the Eucharist, as Christ Himself, is God's more-than-sufficient provision for our sins. Indeed, it is only because of Christ, who as priest and victim is present in the Eucharist, that we can hope that any offering of ourselves will be acceptable to God. There remains no greater means by which we hope in God than by the Eucharistic Sacrifice.

To unite ourselves to Christ in the Eucharist, then, is to acknowledge our own insufficiency and our reliance on God's goodness to bring us to eternal life with Him. Through the Eucharist, which is "the pledge of future glory" (CCC, nos. 1402-1405, 1419),[10] we hope in God to provide us with the grace necessary to be faithful here and now, and to attain eternal life with Him in the age to come. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church has it: "There is no surer pledge or clearer sign of this great hope in the new heavens and the new earth 'in which righteousness dwells' than the Eucharist" (no. 1405).

Perhaps most importantly, the Eucharist is the summit of Christian spirituality because it is the "sacrament of love." Primarily, of course, this means it is the sacrament of God's love for us. At the same time, there is a sense in which the Eucharist, by God's gracious work in us, is the sacrament of our love for God and for our neighbor.

Through charity, man embraces God Himself, who is love. By offering himself to God through his union with Him in the Eucharist, man's love for God reaches a climax: he gives himself to God in the only way possible – through the Father's own Son, Jesus. In this way, God's gracious invitation to communion with human beings is answered through communion with the Eucharistic Christ.

"Greater love has no man than this," the Master taught, "than that he lay down his life for his friends." Through the Eucharist, we join ourselves to Christ and "lay down" our lives in loving union with Jesus' supreme act of obedience to the Father's will. As Christ prayed in Gethsemane that the Father's will be done, so we, in uniting our lives to Christ in the Eucharist, say to the Father, "Thy will be done." As Jesus was obedient "unto death" as an expression of His love for the Father and for us, in the Eucharist we participate in Christ's love of His Father, surrendering ourselves to the Father's will through Jesus, by surrendering our wills "unto death" of ourselves.

But charity is not offered to only God in the Eucharist; love for one another is also expressed and realized therein. Surrendering our wills to God in charity means wanting to please Him – to do what He asks. And what, after the First Great Commandment, does He ask of us? "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Our Eucharistic Sacrifice, then, must include the sacrifice of ourselves in love of, and service to, our neighbor because, as we saw earlier, whoever loves God must also love his neighbor (1 John 4:21).

Love of neighbor means, among other things, that we offer Jesus' great prayer of love to the Father not only for ourselves but for others – for those visibly united with the Church and for others as well, living or dead. The Christian life of intercession for others is supremely expressed and realized in the Eucharist, the greatest prayer that can be offered and the sacramental re-presentation of that Sacrifice by which all other prayer is effectual.

The Eucharist, then, is supremely the sacrament in which we as members of Christ's body are united in faith, hope and charity. We are united by faith, hope and charity with Christ in the Eucharist. And we are united by faith, hope and charity in Christ through the Eucharist, with one another.

In this way, as members of Christ and one another, we become "one body, one spirit in Christ," sharing imperfectly on earth in the heavenly liturgy and in that communion with God which is the goal of the Christian life. Or to put it another way, the Eucharist is the earthly anticipation of the eschatological Wedding Supper of the Lamb, when Christ and His espoused Church fully experience the "one flesh" reality of their spousal and corporeal union.

Conclusion

Let us summarize what we have considered. The Eucharist is both the "source and summit of Christian spirituality." It is the source of Christian spirituality in that, as Christ Himself and as the sacramental re-presentation of Christ's Sacrifice on the cross, the Eucharist is God's gift of Himself in Christ through the Spirit to us. We, as members of Christ's Church, receive this gift by grace and, through grace, grow in communion with God by turning from sin and increasing in faith, hope and charity, to which the Eucharist, as a sacramental sign, gives rise in us.

At the same time, the Eucharist is the summit of Christian spirituality because, as the greatest sacramental sharing in Christ's Sacrifice, it is the greatest gift of ourselves in Christ, corporately and individually, to the Father by the Spirit. As individual members of Christ's body/bride, the Church, our Eucharistic self-donation includes death to ourselves and repentance from sin, and is made complete through our submission to God in faith, hope and charity, by which we are united to Christ's Eucharistic Sacrifice.

Pondering and making our own these great truths about the Eucharist in the Christian life should illuminate our spiritual path and give us more reasons to love the Eucharist, and in this way, help us to grow closer to God and to each other in Christ. Thus will we know evermore deeply that through the Eucharist we receive from the Father the gift of Himself in His Son and that in the Spirit-inspired, loving response we join ourselves to the Son's gift of Himself back to the Father.

Endnotes:

[1] See Dominicae Cenae, no. 7.
[2] A succinct statement of Catholic doctrine on this point can be found in the Instruction on the Worship of the Eucharistic Mystery (Eucharisticum Mysterium), #3, c., issued May 25, 1967, by the then Sacred Congregation for Rites.
[3] See Redemptoris Hominis, no. 5; Dominicae Cenae, no. 4.
[4] Dominicae Cenae, no. 6.
[5] Summa Theologiae III, q. 73, a. 3
[6] See also Presbyterium Ordinis, no. 5.
[7] See Mediator Dei, nos. 80-97, Daughters of St. Paul edition.
[8] Cf. Lumen Gentium, no. 11.
[9] See also Inter Insigniores, part 5.
[10] Cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 47.

[This article was originally published in the May/June 1996 issue of The Catholic Faith.]



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