What Happens in the Eucharist?

During my sophomore year of college, I decided to stop by an adoration chapel in downtown Saint Louis, MO, on vacation. I don’t remember much about what I was contemplating during this time, but I don’t think God was much a part of it. I had questions. Lots of questions.

“Will I finish college at this university? What will I do after college? How are my old high school friends doing? Will the cute girl in my poly-sci class go out with me?”

I was a bundle of questions, you could say. But I thought, “Well, I could do worse than stop by an adoration chapel to spend time with the Lord.” So I did.

To my surprise, a few minutes after I entered, an older gentleman – perhaps 90 – decided it was time to leave, and he slowly genuflected and left the chapel. I knew for me, genuflecting was something I did with relative ease. A quick lowering of my knee. Bam – it’s done. As a cradle Catholic, I guess I took it for granted. But for this man, I could tell it took lots of physical effort to simply bend his knee down to the ground and then stand back up. He was obviously recovering from a recent surgery, but he made it a priority to spend time with the Lord in adoration. He was there for God. I was there for answers for my selfish world.

That man became a witness to me. Even to this day, I think of this man, who had decided somewhere along his journey that to have focused time in front of the Eucharist was a priority for him. It was obvious he knew something I didn’t. He knew that what was happening in the Eucharist, though veiled from our senses, was something more important, not less, than the worries and anxieties in his own life.

Years later, I want to share a few thoughts as to what this man knew: the Eucharist is not an inert thing to which we superstitiously pay homage. The Eucharist is alive, and though, admittedly, these mysteries are hidden from our physical senses, they are nonetheless real. In fact, there are operations that take in our midst every time we spend time in front of the Eucharist. They are taking place all the time, wherever a consecrated host is present.

By exploring Christ’s operations of adoration, love, and obedience, which take place continually in the Blessed Sacrament throughout the world, we gain greater insight into the fact that the Eucharist is alive, thus making it the focal point of our entire lives.

Adoration

Have you ever noticed that Disney and Dreamworks movies love themes of royalty? Why? Certainly not because commoners take great delight to be put in their places by despots looking to control, one would think. Rather, these movie creators get the felt need in all of us to honor what is beautiful. In this case, the regal queen or noble prince give viewers the sense that it is possible to be both good and beautiful, and even to be generous.

When Christ took on human flesh, he became fully man while losing nothing of what he already was: The second person of the Holy Trinity. Therefore, in the Blessed Sacrament, he is giving honor and adoration to his Father – on behalf of humanity, yes, but also because that’s what he does, or rather, who he is. It’s a ceaseless activity that he does, adoring his Father, because, quite simply, his Father is worthy of adoration.

If you were infinite Being and infinite Love, you would be worthy of adoration too. But you and I are mortal; we will die. There was a time when we were not, and there will be a time when our mortal bodies perish. But this is not so with God. From all eternity, he is alive, with perfect love. Perfect happiness. His eternal activity can actually be defined as perfect love. Therefore, the Eucharist is a big deal – in fact, the biggest of deals. As the Council of Trent states:

“If, on the other hand, we compare the sacraments in terms of dignity, we immediately recognize the Holy Eucharist as far and away superior to all others.” 1

So, when we come before Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, one aspect of what is going on is the adoration Christ is giving to his Father, which he does on behalf of the world but also because it’s his eternal delight to do so. This is a mystery, to be sure. But for us Catholics, mystery is a good thing.

Love

This is a word that has been dragged through the mud with sentimentality, manipulation, and even commercialization. Nonetheless, no other word will do. When we drop into an adoration chapel and behold the Eucharist – even in some architecturally impoverished chapel in Terra Haute, Indiana, perhaps – we, in faith, behold Christ’s eternal activity of loving his Father.

In the Gospel of Luke, we read, “But he withdrew to the wilderness and prayed.” 2

During his public ministry, Jesus was constantly praying. Constantly in intimate, loving communion with the Father. This is nothing other than a visible manifestation of what he does for all eternity – loving his Father. The same reality happens in the Eucharist – yes, veiled to our physical senses, but real.

Have you ever just had a really good day when you felt particularly generous, grateful, and focused on others? That’s a loving day. Though perhaps rare, that is a small taste of the infinite love that takes place in the Blessed Sacrament – Christ’s love for His Father, and God’s love for us. When our own concerns and anxieties weigh us down, perhaps it’s time to simply rest in the love that is present in the Blessed Sacrament. The first sentence of the Catechism says:

“God, infinitely perfect and bless himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life.” 3

Catechism of the Catholic Church, Paragraph 1

In the Eucharist, he condescends to share his life with us through humble means. His life – life being defined as the principle of movement in a thing (Aquinas) – is literally an eternal movement of love. This is the love we behold with the eyes of faith in the Blessed Sacrament.

Obedience

“Oh no!” you may say. “Not obedience! Any word but that deferential, self-sabotaging, controlling word.”

Not so, says the Church, and says Christ. For Christ, his obedience to the Father is his joy. When you have a good workout, does your body regret the fact that you were obedient to the laws of the human body that cry out for healthy activity? When you buy your spouse or girlfriend a bouquet of roses, do you regret that you were being obedient to the law of human nature that makes being cared for a good thing? When you care for someone who is broken and going through something difficult, do you wince because you were obedient to the Golden Rule? Probably not. Obedience, rightly understood, is a great thing and perhaps the most important word for Catholicism in our present age.

In the Eucharist, Christ is ceaselessly offering obedience to his Father in his human and divine natures: “Then he said, ‘Lo, I have come to do your will.’” 4

“All things have been delivered to me by my Father…” 5

When we, even for a moment, come into the space of his obedience to the Father, we learn that to say yes to God is the most fulfilling thing we can do. He shows us the way. He does it ceaselessly. When we realize that this is taking place every time we encounter the Eucharist, we, too, are transformed.

FOCUS missionaries are commissioned to spend daily time in front of the Eucharist. They encourage others to do the same. The reason for this is not because it’s a pious exercise to do in order to hopefully avoid more nefarious human activities. The reason they do it is that they desire to enter into fuller communion with Life itself. In this case, God in the Blessed Sacrament.

So, the next time you have the opportunity to spend time in the front of the Blessed Sacrament, perhaps you too will have the realization of that older gentleman I happened upon in a St. Louis chapel. He knew that what was happening in the Blessed Sacrament was something more weighty, dignified, and beautiful than he could even imagine. And you can know this too.

  1. Quoted in “The Eucharist” by Dr. Lawrence Feingold. Emmaus Academic. 2018. Page 32.
  2. Luke 5:16 RSV
  3. Catechism of the Catholic Church. Paragraph 1.
  4. Hebrews 10:9 RSV
  5. Matthew 11:27 RSV
John O'Brien
John O'Brien
John O’Brien currently serves as the Executive Director of the Aquinas Forum in Denver, Colorado, a nonprofit dedicated to providing adult Catholics with formation for an integrated life. He formerly served for seven years as Director of Faith Formation for Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver.

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