The Eucharist: Source and Summit of Christian Spirituality | Mark Brumley
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
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
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
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,
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
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, 
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." 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),
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. 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
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,
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.
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).
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
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
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), 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
"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
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
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.
 See Dominicae Cenae, no. 7.
 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
 See Redemptoris Hominis, no. 5; Dominicae Cenae, no.
 Dominicae Cenae, no. 6.
 Summa Theologiae III, q. 73, a. 3
 See also Presbyterium Ordinis, no. 5.
 See Mediator Dei, nos. 80-97, Daughters of St. Paul edition.
 Cf. Lumen Gentium, no. 11.
 See also Inter Insigniores, part 5.
 Cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 47.
[This article was originally published in the May/June 1996 issue of
The Catholic Faith.]
Mark Brumley is President of Ignatius Press.
He is the author of How
Not To Share Your Faith, and contributor to The
Five Issues That Matter Most. He is also a regular contributor to
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