The Second Vatican Council famously stated that the Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian Life.” (Lumen Gentium 11) As source the Eucharist is the font of grace to live fully the teachings of Christ. It is also the high point or summit of our life as Christians. The other sacraments are oriented toward the Eucharist. Baptism, for example, finds its fulfillment in the Eucharist. We see this at First Communion Masses. The boys wear a white shirt and the girls a lovely white dress which recall the white garment that covered them after their baptism. Penance and Anointing of the Sick exist in order to restore a person to the Eucharistic table. Marriage is sign of the wedding banquet of the Lamb. And of course priesthood takes its meaning from the Eucharist. The priest is not a counselor or a social worker or a CEO – although he might be called upon to for those jobs. But the heart of the priesthood, its raison d’etre, is the Eucharist – to gather the God’s family around the Eucharistic table.
When reverence for the Eucharist wanes*, the other sacraments also decline: less baptisms, less confessions, fewer young people seeking sacramental marriage and a drop in vocations to the priesthood. By way of contrast, sectors of the Church that have promoted a devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, have been blessed with vocations. The Archdiocese of Guadalajara has 1700 seminarians! Not coincidentally, the city also has an enormous church called the Expiatorio (Church of Expiation) with Eucharistic Adoration day and night. Here in the United States certain dioceses have a good number of vocations. One thing they have in common is Eucharistic Adoration. For example, Atlanta has promoted Eucharistic Adoration in its parishes and has seen an upsurge in priestly vocations. Even here in Seattle we can trace a connection between vocations and devotion to the Blessed Sacrament.
Reverence for the Eucharistic is the key to authentic renewal in the Church. Unfortunately, we easily lose that crucial reverence. St. Paul had to remind the Corinthians: Brothers and sisters, have you forgotten that the communion cup is a “participation in the Blood of Christ”? And that “the bread we break is a participation in the Body of Christ”? (I Cor 10:16) St. Paul was not making this up. He was simply “handing on” what he had received: the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
Eucharistic “realism” had been the constant teaching of the Church. In the year 110 A.D. St. Ignatius, bishop of Antioch and therefore successor of Peter, warned about those who “do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior, Jesus Christ.” Those people, he said, “deny the gift of God,” and “are perishing in their disputes” (Letter to the Smyrnaeans 6:2–7:1 [A.D. 110]).
I could give you a long list of quotes from early Christian writers regarding devotion to the Eucharist, but it is not necessary. The Church historian J. N. D. Kelly (himself a Protestant) sums it up: “Eucharistic teaching,” he wrote, “at the outset, was...unquestioningly realist, that is, the consecrated bread and wine were taken to be, and were treated and designated as, the Savior’s body and blood” (Early Christian Doctrines, 440).
A saint who promoted devotion to the Eucharist was Anthony of Padua. You have no doubt heard about him. He is the patron of childless couples and of young women seeking a good husband. A very popular saint! Anthony often preached about the Eucharist and sometimes after Mass would place the Blessed Sacrament in monstrance for a Eucharistic procession. Everyone would make a reverent bow or kneel as he carried Our Lord through the plaza and streets of the city. One man, however, held back with a look of cold disdain on his face. Afterwards, Anthony approached the man and asked him why he did not bow to the Sacrament. The man replied that he believed it was nothing more than bread. Anthony, according to one account, challenged the man to a test. Anthony would fast for three days and the man could also have his donkey eat nothing for three days. They then met in a town square where the man placed a bale of hay twenty feet from the hungry animal. When untied, the donkey walked toward the hay. St. Anthony then exposed the Blessed Sacrament and called to the donkey, “Mule, in the name of the Lord our God, I command you to come here and adore your Creator!” The donkey stopped as though someone had pulled him by a bridle, turned, and walked to St. Anthony. The donkey bent his forelegs, bowing to the Blessed Sacrament with his head toward the ground.
This story may be something of a legend, but it illustrates an important point. As St. Anthony taught, even a dumb animal – in its own way – pays homage to its Creator. What about us? Sometimes we behave worse than a mule. We do not properly honor the One who made us, who saved us.
This Sunday I want to make a couple of suggestions to show greater reverence for Jesus in Eucharist. When you come forward for Communion, make a reverent bow when the person before you is receiving. When the priest or Eucharistic minister holds up the Host saying, “The Body of Christ,” you will respond, “Amen,” which means: Yes, I believe, it is so.
Before receiving the Eucharist, we have a little rite called the Sign of Peace. It can be a beautiful preparation for Communion. We Americans, unfortunately, have taken this ancient gesture and turned it into a social event. Instead of saying “Peace be with you,” people begin striking up a conversation: “How you doing. Good to see you.” No, the Sign of Peace is meant to express our desire for pardon and reconciliation before receiving Christ.
From time to time I will notice some guy acting like a candidate for governor. He wants to shake twenty or thirty hands. “Vote for me.” Again, that is not the point. One of the early Christian writers said, “Each of us gives the kiss of peace to the person next to him, and so in effect gives it to the whole assembly.”** Give the Sign of Peace to your neighbor, the person next to you or behind you – and thus you give it to all.
We need sensitivity in giving the Sign of Peace to others. People in our parish come from many different cultures. For those brought up in the United States, a handshake is probably the most common gesture. Others prefer to join their hands together and make respectful bow, while others will exchange a ritual embrace (like the Holy Father does at a papal Mass.) If your wife or sister is next to you, you may give her a kiss – but I would not recommend it indiscriminately. You could get into trouble!
Whatever gesture you use, do it with deep respect for the person next to you. When done correctly the Sign of Peace can bond us deeply with each other and prepare us to receive Jesus in the Eucharist. St. Cyril of Jerusalem expressed it this way:
“Do not assume that this is the customary kiss exchanged by friends in public. No, this kiss joins souls together in search of complete forgiveness from one another. So the kiss marks the fusion of souls, and the expulsion of all resentment from wrongs.” (Mystagogical Catecheses 5.3)
When the choir begins the Lamb of God, we should focus our attention on Jesus, truly present in the Chalice and in the Bread, now broken on the altar. He alone can form us into a community. Sure, we must do our part, but ultimately it is Jesus who unites us. As he said, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.” (Jn 6:53) His flesh is “real food,” his blood “real drink.” By eating his flesh and drinking his blood, we remain in him and he in us. Today we ask Jesus to help us grow in reverence for this magnificent gift.
*This often happens in a seeming sincere manner. Reverence for the Eucharist is counter-pointed “finding Christ in other people” or “in the assembly.” Who can argue with that? The problem is that in practice it results in a kind of vague pantheism - or disappointed cynicism. It is better to say (with St. Augustine) that, yes, the image of God exists in every person, but that image has been distorted and clouded over by sin. Thus each of us has an absolute need of God's grace to restore the broken image. So we turn to the only thing here on earth that we can worship - the Blessed Sacrament.
**Here is a more complete quote:
"This kiss that all exchange constitutes a kind of profession of unity and charity that exists among them. Each of us gives the kiss of peace to the person next to him, and so in effect gives it to the whole assembly, because this act is an acknowledgment that we have all become the single Body of Christ the Lord and so must preserve with one another that harmony... loving one another equally, supporting and helping one another, regarding the individual’s needs as the concerns of the community, sympathizing with one another’s sorrows and sharing one another’s joys." (Theodore of Mopsuestia, Baptismal Homily 4.39)
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