Straining, searching, wondering – not unlike a pilgrim in a dark wood. These words fairly describe the experience of many a faithful Catholic during these days of COVID-19. What with reasons to be cautious of the spread or COVID, together with the assurance that our Eucharistic Lord waits for us in the tabernacle, the combination makes for a kind of lonely pilgrimage – trying to be faithful to making a visit to the Blessed Sacrament. Even in so-called normal times, one can normally count on the fact that a prayer time in front of the Blessed Sacrament will not be a crowded affair. But now – if one can find an open church or chapel in the first place – it is almost assuredly rather sparse.
What Happens in the Mystery of the Eucharist?
The current lull in the practice of adoration leads me to a question: what exactly is happening when we receive the Eucharist during Mass or pray in front of the Eucharist in the Blessed Sacrament? Is it worth our time? Is something good and real taking place is or is it hocus pocus?1 These are good questions and with all honesty they should be asked. Yet when we really take a look into what happens in the mystery of the Eucharist, I submit to you that we discover a reality more important and enduring than we can even imagine.
We will examine Christ’s:
This way, we can better understand why we as Catholics can say that the Eucharist is the center of the world. In doing so, Divine Love makes himself available as the deepest answer to the human heart. Knowing this, how could we not adore?
The Eucharist is Christ’s Presence
First let’s look at what we mean when we say that the Eucharist is Christ’s presence.
Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament…There you will find romance, glory, honor, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves on earth, and more than that: Death.2
J. R. R. Tolkien (letter to his son)
For Tolkien to refer to the one thing on Earth to adore, it’s not a bad idea to note what he’s saying.
I remember in my sophomore high school English class sitting next to a girl and taking the time to write long letters of how beautiful — inside and out — she was. Now when I look back on what I was doing I realize two things. First, they were cheesy letters. But also second, I was made to encounter beauty. In my very nature I’m made to behold, adore, and rest in beauty. But earthly beauty is always changing – indeed change is part of its very structure. This begs the question, is there something more enduring and constant than earthly beauty?
Yes. But wait, can we encounter this beauty even now on Earth? Again, yes. How so? Let me explain.
As Catholics we believe that the Eucharist actually transforms from simple gifts of bread and wine into the substance of Jesus himself — by the power of the Holy Spirit and the correct words of the priest. It’s called transubstantiation.
The presence of eternal beauty is made present under the appearance (or accidents) of bread and wine.3 But here’s the rub: with our own eyes and physical senses it looks like bread, but it’s not. By faith see “get it, see!” So when, by faith, we see that the Eucharist is Jesus himself we understand that to encounter, adore, and rest in his beauty in no small thing.
If more people understood that the Eucharist is the presence of God himself – His love, mercy, providence, and beauty – perhaps adoration chapels and places where the Mass is celebrated would be packed. But maybe not. Jesus himself overturned the Roman Empire eventually, and only through 12 men. But these 12, especially after Pentecost, truly saw that while earthly beauty is always changing, the eternal beauty of God never changes. Yes, our Lord himself still worked slowly and built up a small group of followers that He wanted to show the most important things – including his Presence of the Eucharist. What is most important is for those who truly do KNOW what they are encountering in the Eucharist — to be mindful of the Lord’s presence there and to joyfully make it the center of their lives.
Christ’s Sacrifice is Made Present in Every Mass
Second, the Eucharist makes Divine Love present to us is through the one Sacrifice of Christ being made present in every Mass.
How so? Lawrence Feingold, in his book on the Eucharist, puts it like this:
It is fitting, however, that the New Covenant not be without a sacrifice. But how can this be if the sacrifice of Calvary puts an end to to sacrifice. The divine answer is that the New Covenant should have a sacrifice that is the same as Calvary, one by which the Church offers herself in offering her Lord.4
In every Mass, the one sacrifice that Christ offered on Calvary is made present. Indeed, it is only one sacrifice, to think otherwise would put us back into the Old Covenant where we continually offer sacrifices to God. However, He’s done it. He’s ended the need for different sacrifices to be made by His people in that He allows his people, no doubt mystically, to be standing at the foot of Calvary in a spiritual sense, (though in America in the 21st century perhaps in a rather boring Mass even.)
Here’s the issue: it’s not a repeated bloody sacrifice in that Christ gets killed again. Instead, it’s an offering that Christ does to his Father, the same offering he made while at Calvary, yet made present to his people wherever they are celebrating the Mass.
We tend to think of sacrifice involving death. But In its root sense, and what we are talking about here, we mean sacrifice as offering – whether internal or external or both. And The Eucharist is both. So in every Mass, during the words of consecration, what you are experiencing is the one sacrifice of Christ, made present for you! This is done in an unbloody manner (no death happens when the bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ). Yet the one death of Christ, ended and in the past, is sacramentally made present and is offered to the Father through the Eucharist.
The Eucharist is a Memorial
And finally, the Eucharist is a memorial. We have already discussed how the Eucharist is a true Sacrifice, but to come to a fuller understanding of what this means we need to look at the word “memorial.”
When the Eucharist is being consecrated and offered to the Father at every Mass, you may think you are simply engaging in a standard Mass and thinking about brunch afterwards, but you are actually in a time machine. Or, rather, by God’s miraculous power and love, he is transporting to you the greatest treasure on earth: His love for you made present.
When the Israelites of old celebrated the Exodus, they were not merely to think that it happened sometime in the past only but that they were participants in the Exodus. In the same way, as Catholics, we should not merely recall that Christ died over 2000 years ago to share his divine life with us and save us from our sins. We need to realize that right now we are participating in his saving love. And there is no higher time to commemorate his saving love than in the Eucharist, which is an anamnesis (to make present) of the greatest act of love: The death and resurrection of Christ.
In the modern world we tend to think of time as merely past, present and future, or chronos. But there’s a different sense of time – kyros – in which the eternal can actually be made present in the now. And to understand the Eucharist as memorial is definitely the second type. Indeed all of God’s saving actions before us, from the flood, to the call of Abraham to establishment of David’s throne in Jerusalem, and every detail in between, become in some way spiritually mysteriously present to us in addition to the Eucharist at every Mass.
It’s no wonder J. R. R. Tolkien had such powerful words to share with his son about the reality of the Eucharist. Christ’s Presence, Sacrifice, and Memorial are present to us if we have the eyes to see at every Mass, and every time we encounter him in Eucharistic adoration. It’s one of the reasons FOCUS makes sure their college missionaries get daily sustained times of silence in front of the Eucharist. For in beholding the Eucharist, they are beholding everything.
Perhaps our Masses and adoration chapels might be more crowded if more people knew this: Divine Love made present in the Eucharist. The goodness and beauty we are made for.
- Hocus pocus is a derogatory term used against Catholics in previous centuries/playing on the words of the Eucharistic consecration Hoc est Corpus Meum “this is my Body.”Matt Fradd – online article for Catholic Answers. “JRR Tolkien: 3 Amazing Quotes on the Eucharist.” 4/23/2013
- Matt Fradd – online article for Catholic Answers. “JRR Tolkien: 3 Amazing Quotes on the Eucharist.” 4/23/2013
- Saint Thomas Aquinas says that beauty is intimately linked to the Good, which is why the Eternal Word made flesh is so beautiful – indeed beauty itself.
- Lawrence Feingold “The Eucharist. Emmaus Academic Press 2018. P 335