Source and Summit of the Christian Life (2023)

“To revere the sacred mysteries of your body and blood.” This is what St. Thomas Aquinas asks of the Lord Jesus in his collect prayer for the great feast of Corpus Christi. This oration summarizes in a few words what should be the great desire of our hearts: to adore Christ in the Eucharist—there through Christ to worship the Father “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23-24)—that, as the collect continues, “we may always experience in ourselves the fruits of your redemption.”

In this way, we begin to anticipate the pervading joys and blessedness of heaven and in fact have a prelude to heavenly worship itself. It is no wonder then that the Church exalts the most Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist as the “source and summit of the Christian life”: as the presence of Christ himself among us, the Eucharist is the reality from and toward which all of the Church’s activity flows.

It is no secret that eucharistic faith has declined drastically in recent years. There have been many causes: irreverent liturgies, poor catechesis, and a lack of available times for confession and adoration are only a few. But simply to bemoan the sad state of things is not my purpose. I rather seek to laud the mysteries of Christ so that we can see the beauty of the eucharistic Lord anew, and, like the disciples on that first Easter evening, draw near to him with hearts set on fire by his presence (Luke 24:32).

Why did God become man? In other words, what was the purpose of the Incarnation, and what impact does it have on my life? This question should arise in the heart of every believer, because by asking it one is forced to wrestle with the almost incredible truth that God is one of us (Matt. 1:18-23, Luke 1:26-38); that in his Incarnate Son, God chose to humble himself to be like us (Luke 2:1-7, Phil. 2:6-11), to live with us (Luke 2:39-40), to have needs (Luke 19:31), and even to undergo temptations (Matt 4:1-11, Luke 4:1-13), suffering, and death (Matt 26-27, Mark 14-15, Luke 22-23, John 18-19). The more one meditates on these facts and passages, the more he is forced to recognize the “marvelous exchange” that takes place in Christ: the Creator becomes a creature so as to show creatures the way back to the Creator.

Many saints and doctors of the Church have had varying answers to the why of the Incarnation, and each gives a glimpse of the whole truth. The Church has summarized all of these into four essential points. The Word became flesh:

  • in order to save us by reconciling us with God (I John 4:10, 4:14, 3:5)
  • that we might know God’s love (John 3:16, 1 John 4:9)
  • to be our model of holiness (Matt 11:29; Mark 8:34; 9:7; John 14:6, 15:12)
  • to make us partakers of divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4).

In each of these reasons we see God’s desire to unite us to himself so intimately that he became one of us. No greater gift could be given, and as humble recipients of such a gift we should always seek to make some return to the Lord for all his goodness to us (Ps. 116:12). This happens, of course, in our prayers of thanksgiving and praise and by our way of life, which is meant to reflect Christ to the world (Gal. 2:20). It also happens, principally and par excellence, in the Mass.

He became like us in all things but sin

Another question that has been asked since the beginning of the Christian era is, “How far did the Incarnation go?” In other words, to what extent did the Son of God truly become one of us? The answer is straightforward: while remaining fully God, he was also fully man, truly becoming like us in all things but sin. The implications of such an answer are immense. 

First, let’s examine what it means to be fully human. It means having a body composed of bones, muscles, flesh, and tissues. It means having a rational soul that has powers of memory, intelligence, and volition. It means having emotions, feelings, personality, and the like. More than all this, it means we are created as male or female in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:26-27). 

This summary of human nature already gives us a deep insight into Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God. In becoming one of us, he took on all of this. As the Gospels clearly show, and as the early councils of the Church defended, he truly was a man who had his own flesh, body, mind, and soul.

This means he had hands that healed the sick and feet that ached as he walked the ancient pathways of Galilee and Jerusalem. He had hair that grew and teeth that chewed his food. He also had emotions and a personality, which he expressed in ways just like us: he was sorrowful at the death of Lazarus, and he rejoiced when the disciples returned successfully from their first mission.

Likewise, as a man, he had friends and family. He even underwent temptation throughout his life, though he never fell into sin. His life was a genuine life, his suffering was bloody, and his death was as real as it gets. He was like us in all things. 

It is easy to see how essential the Incarnation is to our redemption. Without it, we would still be lost in our sin. Without it, Christ would not truly have suffered, died, and been raised. And, as St. Paul puts it, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. . . . But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:17, 20). For this reason, we can join Paul in saying, “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:57).

“I am with you always”

Matthew’s Gospel begins and ends with a striking parallel. In the first chapter, we hear that Jesus is the fulfillment of an Old Testament prophecy from the book of Isaiah: “‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called ‘Emmanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’)” (Matt. 1:23; cf. Is. 7:14). Then, at the end of the book, Jesus who is Emmanuel tells his disciples just before his ascends to the Father, “Behold, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Matt. 28:20).

What we can draw from these two passages is the fact that Jesus, even after ascending to the right hand of God in heaven, never abandons his people. He does not leave us orphans, as we hear in John’s Gospel (14:18). Rather, he promises to stay with us always—he promises to extend his Incarnation in this world in some way.

He does this, of course, through his Church, his Mystical Body. Even more particularly, he does this in the most Blessed Sacrament, which is his glorified body and blood hidden under the appearances of bread and wine.

This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh (John 6:50-51).

In these two verses, Jesus summed up the teaching on the Eucharist that he gave to the people who had come to Capernaum after the multiplication of the loaves and fishes (John 6). His words on this occasion shocked his listeners. Though we usually see Jesus consoling those around him with words or actions, here he spoke in terms that left many confused and scandalized. They thought he was speaking of cannibalism, since they misunderstand the way in which he would leave us “his flesh” to eat: under forms of bread and wine.

Jesus did not water down his teaching in this moment but rather reemphasized it: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53). He even allowed many of his listeners to walk away because they were unable to accept his words (vv. 6:60-66). This shows the importance he placed on this essential reality of the faith. (See the article “Jesus Meant What He Said About His Body and Blood,” p 38.)

From that day to this, the Church has seen many occasions of confusion and misunderstanding when it comes to the Eucharist. One example of this came shortly after the Second Vatican Council. Pope St. Paul VI foresaw that there were some who, in an effort to renew the liturgy and our understanding of the Blessed Sacrament, were in danger of misrepresenting the Church’s teaching on the Eucharist. To correct this, he wrote the encyclical letter Mysterium Fidei (“The Mystery of Faith”). 

In that letter he refers to the Eucharist in the first place as a “mystery.” Now, a mystery for Christians does not refer to something we cannot know but rather to something we seek to know ever more, the depth of which goes far beyond what we can understand with our senses and intellect alone. It is something that can be illuminated only by faith.

Aquinas said this about the Eucharist in one of his eucharistic hymns, Tantum ergo: “Let faith supply for the defect of the senses.” One implication of this is that our language will always fall short when we try to describe the Blessed Sacrament. 

Over the centuries, however, as it has sought to understand the full meaning of the faith, the Church has been able to express the truth of the Eucharist in a clear and consistent way. It is important to review this teaching regularly and to renew our understanding of it often, both so that we can stay in the fullness of truth in Christ and so that we can continually go deeper into the depths of the sacred mysteries.

His body and blood given in sacrifice

Throughout the Old Testament, the blood of sacrificed animals can be encountered on nearly every page. From the moment of the Fall, when God clothed Adam and Eve with the skins of animals (Gen. 3:21), to the thousands of lambs sacrificed in the temple every year at Passover, many animals died as a constant reminder of our sin as well as the death that is the result thereof. The trouble with all these sacrifices was that they did not change those who offered them. The people remained unaffected by the sacrifices of animals, and their hearts stayed rooted in sin. 

In the course of time, God worked through his holy prophets to teach his people that bloody animal sacrifices are not the true way to worship—that this is not the true way to sacrifice. In other words, he called them to interior worship of the heart, a worship that obeyed God’s word. This understanding finally began to take hold in times of distress for the Israelites, particularly during the Babylonian Exile, when they could not offer sacrifice in the temple, which had been destroyed.

Consider, for example, the prayer of Azariah, which expresses the idea that true sacrifice to God would come from the suffering of the people themselves and that their prayers would take on the nature of sacrifice: 

At this time there is no prince, or prophet, or leader, no burnt offering, or sacrifice, or oblation, or incense, no place to make an offering before you or to find mercy. Yet with a contrite heart and a humble spirit may we be accepted, as though it were with burnt offerings of rams and bulls, and with tens of thousands of fat lambs; such may our sacrifice be in your sight this day, and may we wholly follow you, for there will be no shame for those who trust in you (Dan. 3:15-17). 

One difficulty remains: since human hearts are not pure and unblemished, the sacrifice given to God would not be whole and complete. It would not be perfect. And so even though the Old Testament was beginning to see the importance of proper worship and sacrifice, the people in it could not accomplish such a thing. God himself had to provide the answer.

This is where the sacrifice of Jesus enters in. We see hints of it already at Capernaum, where Jesus spoke about “the bread that I shall give.” As the bread of life himself (cf. John 6:35), he was referring to his passion and death, when he would give himself up for our salvation. Later, at the Last Supper, Jesus fulfilled this promise when he took bread and wine and said, “This is my body . . . this is my blood of the covenant” (Mark 14: 22-24, Luke 22:19-20, 1 Cor. 11:23-24).

His words evoke the sacrifices of the Old Testament, but there is something new here: to these words Jesus adds, “which is given for you . . . poured out for you and for many.”  There is a reference in these words to the Suffering Servant songs (cf. Is. 50:4-7, 52:13-53:12), which helps us understand them more deeply as signifying a redemptive sacrifice, one which forgives sins and converts hearts to God.

With these few words, Jesus fulfills what he promised in the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel by giving us his flesh under the appearances of bread and wine—and anticipates the passion and death he would undergo the next day. More than this, he shows that his death is meant to be understood as a sacrifice, and that the Eucharist—his very body and blood given up and poured out—is that sacrifice.

This helps us understand why he commanded his disciples to “do this in memory of me”: so that they could always enter into that sacrifice made “once for all” (Heb. 10:10). This is also why we say that the memorial of the Eucharist at Mass re-presents the sacrifice of Jesus to us, now in an unbloodied way, upon the altar.

The Eucharist is therefore a sacrifice. In truth, because of the resurrection of our Lord, the Eucharist is the “living sacrifice” of the of the Lamb of God who was slain for the sins of the world (cf. Rom. 12:1, John 1:29, Rev. 5:12), and it is this Lamb of God, offered eternally to the Father, whom we worship and adore at every Mass. 

Our daily bread

The Eucharist is not only the memorial of Christ’s sacrifice for us but also a meal given for our nourishment. We can consider this analogy: whatever normal bread does for our physical bodies, from sating hunger to providing strength and growth, the Eucharist does for our souls. 

One of the best places we can go to understand this is the Lord’s Prayer, which begs the Father to “give us this day our daily bread” (Matt. 6:11). The Catechism of the Catholic Church summarizes what these important words mean:

“Daily” (epiousios) occurs nowhere else in the New Testament. Taken in a temporal sense, this word is a pedagogical repetition of “this day,” to confirm us in trust “without reservation.” Taken in the qualitative sense, it signifies what is necessary for life, and more broadly every good thing sufficient for subsistence. Taken literally (epi-ousios: “super-essential”), it refers directly to the Bread of Life, the Body of Christ, the “medicine of immortality,” without which we have no life within us. Finally in this connection, its heavenly meaning is evident: “this day” is the day of the Lord, the day of the feast of the kingdom, anticipated in the Eucharist that is already the foretaste of the kingdom to come. For this reason, it is fitting for the eucharistic liturgy to be celebrated each day (CCC 2837).

Thus, even while there are a few ways to understand this phrase, the primary and most exalted way is in reference to the bread of Christ’s flesh given to us in the Eucharist. This helps us to make sense of Christ’s actions at the Last Supper: he chose bread as something that can be eaten daily and changed that bread into himself so that it can be our heavenly, “super-essential” subsistence.

The real presence of Christ

Pope St. Paul VI distinguished at least eight ways that Christ is present to us in the Church. These “presences” of Christ are real and should be venerated by all the faithful, and they include “where two or three are gathered” in his name, the various works of mercy that the Church performs in his name, and his presence in the word of God and in each of the sacraments.

St. Paul VI continued:

There is another way in which Christ is present in his Church, a way that surpasses all the others. It is his presence in the sacrament of the Eucharist, which is, for this reason, “a more consoling source of devotion, a lovelier object of contemplation and holier in what it contains” than all the other sacraments (Mysterium Fidei 38).

The saintly pontiff calls the Eucharist a “real” presence, not because the others are not real but “because it is substantial and through it Christ becomes present whole and entire, God and man” (MF 39). The Eucharist is therefore the presence of Christ “par excellence,” a presence to which nothing else in this world can compare.

Let it be said in absolute terms: the Eucharist does not simply “represent” Jesus. He is not present in the Blessed Sacrament merely as a symbol. Rather, the Blessed Sacrament is the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ. It is he who truly, really, and substantially present in this sacrament.

Additionally, he is not present in the bread and the wine, since after the consecration the bread and the wine no longer exist. Just as in the Incarnation his humanity hid his divinity, so too in the consecration the appearances of bread and wine hide his glory. When we are before the Eucharist we are before a great, miraculous event and mystery: even though we see and taste what appears to be bread and wine, we are in fact in the very presence of God.

Since Christ is present in the Eucharist, God is truly present. This means that we give to the Blessed Sacrament the worship and adoration that we give to God alone. We see this especially in our liturgies, when we kneel and genuflect only before the Blessed Sacrament: these are postures that are due to God and only to God as signs of adoration.

Holy Communion, with God and man

When we look at the Latin roots of the word communion, we see that it means “in union with,” or “one with.” This is why “Holy Communion” is such an appropriate title for the sacrament of the Eucharist: it unites us to Christ and makes us one with him and his Church, both in heaven and on earth. In other words, we receive his body in the host and are therefore united to his Mystical Body the Church. Think here of Paul, who said, “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor. 10:16-17).

This all takes place by the power of the Holy Spirit, who makes Christ present in the Blessed Sacrament and unifies us as his Church. Whenever we receive Holy Communion, therefore, this unity is strengthened, and we are more wholly and integrally united to Christ. Additionally, since the Eucharist is the memorial of Christ’s passion and death, receiving Communion unites us intimately to Christ’s redemptive act, bonding us in his charity.

In addition to doing all we can to maintain our communion with God, we must also try to foster unity within the Church and avoid those things that go against it (cf. e.g., Gal. 5:19-21). Consider the mandate of Jesus: “if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matt. 5:23-24).

Our Lord makes it a requirement that we be at peace with those around us before approaching the altar. This is because communion with God requires communion with our neighbor. Otherwise, we become whitewashed tombs for whom communion has no meaning or effect in our lives or in our hearts.

O sacrum convivium

As is so often the case, the saints can say briefly what it takes us pages to say. Aquinas does so in a single antiphon from his Office for Corpus Christi. I will take up his words here to help to summarize what I have said in this part on the most Blessed Sacrament:

“O sacrum convivium! in quo Christus sumitur: recolitur memoria passionis eius: mens impletur gratia: et futurae gloriae nobis pignus datur.”

“O sacred banquet! in which Christ is received, the memory of his Passion is renewed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us.”

May this prayer help us to reflect in our hearts and in our lives that great and beauteous treasure that is Christ in the Eucharist and to receive him there with utmost fervor and devotion!

This article is adapted from Bishop Wall’s recent apostolic exhortation Sacra Mysteria Venerari (“Revere the Sacred Mysteries”). Do yourself a favor: read it in its entirety online.

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