The Catechetical Review - Communicating Christ for a New Evangelization

The Eucharist Makes the Church

Authored by Fr. Phillip Jones in Issue #30.4 of The Sower

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Catechesis on the Eucharist, the Priesthood and the Laity

In this Year of the Priest, this article examines the importance of the Eucharistic Prayer in catechesis. This is a unique prayer because only the priest can say this prayer, and yet the prayer involves all of us. When the priest recites the prayer all of God’s People are taken up into this prayer and do extraordinary holy actions. In the central part of the Mass we remember Jesus who died for us and we become part of his sacrifice. The usual way to present the Eucharist and the Church is to say that it is the Church that makes the Eucharist. But in his encyclical on the Eucharist and the Church, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, John Paul II pointed out that we can also say that the Eucharist makes the Church. I would like to outline some of the important implications contained in this ancient formula for catechesis. In the first part of this article we shall focus upon memory and in the second part upon sacrifice, following the words of the Second Eucharistic Prayer: ‘In memory of his death and resurrection, we offer you, Father, this life-giving bread, this saving cup.’   

I. The act of obedient remembering

At the last supper, Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Do this in memory of me.’ In giving them this command Jesus is teaching them that theirs is no private religion: they cannot go their separate ways if they are to be his disciples. They are commanded to come together to celebrate the Eucharist. Already we see how it is that the Eucharist makes the Church.

The Easter Vigil

The Eucharist makes the Church is played out for us in a very special way during the Easter Vigil. We see that the first act of the catechumen after being baptised is to join in the celebration of the Eucharist. This is his or her first act of obedient faith. We can ask what kind of act is this act of obedience. There has to be a content, a ‘something,’ a ‘what.’ There is always an object. We never just think or remember or say. We always say something, remember something or think about something. When we obey we perform an action we have been told to do - or we avoid one forbidden to us. In obedience there are always at least two actions: there is the act of obeying someone and there is the content - the particular action to be done. So we can see in the words of Jesus, ‘Do this in memory of me’, that there are two actions being asked of us - obedience and remembering. All this may seem to be so simple as to be almost trivial. In fact we may be tempted to say that the newly baptised catechumen is only doing now what he did before his baptism when he came to Mass with his wife and children and followed the prayers of the mass. The big difference is that he now receives Holy Communion. As for these two acts of obedience and remembering Jesus Christ - he has been doing these actions for some time.

The action of the Holy Spirit

To answer this question properly we need to consider what really happens when the catechumen is baptised. The catechumen receives the gift of the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit has a direct effect upon our ability to remember Jesus Christ:

‘The Advocate, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all I have said to you.’[i]

The Holy Spirit empowers us individually and collectively as the family of God to remember Jesus Christ with integrity. In the Holy Spirit we receive the power to be faithful to Jesus Christ; to remember him with faithfulness and love. It is most of all in the celebration of the Eucharist that this power to remember Jesus Christ is realised. What we have just seen will prove very helpful in the next section where we consider the words in the First Eucharistic Prayer, ‘We, your people and your ministers, recall his passion, his resurrection from the dead, and his ascension into glory.’ These words tell us that this prayer, although it is only said by the priest, is not his private prayer but the prayer of the whole assembly. Moreover, a more literal translation of the original Latin would help us to appreciate even more the special character of the Eucharistic action.

‘Nos Servi tui et Plebs tua sancta’ 

If we take ‘We your servants and your holy people’ as a more literal translation of the Latin text two new points come to light. First the priest is a servant and secondly the people are holy. We can ask: in what way is the priest a servant? and why are the people described as holy? A very early witness to the faith, St Ignatius of Antioch, provides us with the simple answers. As he was on his way to martyrdom in Rome he wrote short letters to the Christian communities. In these letters he tells us that the priest is a servant of God because he looks towards God and is intent on doing God’s will. Therefore he is able to lead the community in prayer: he can speak for himself and the assembly. In the Eucharistic prayer he expresses the obedient faith of the people of God. Secondly, the people are not just God’s people but his holy people. They are holy because they do holy things. They are the obedient faithful; they are faithful to the memory of Jesus Christ. This is the power of the Holy Spirit at work in them individually and collectively. So the priest says the prayer, but the people are not spectators. It is their prayer as well: it is their act of obedient faith. It is their act of remembering Jesus Christ. The priest and people are united in this central act.

Belonging to a living tradition of Faith

In catechesis and in preaching it is important to emphasise the extraordinary character of our participation in the Eucharist. It is particularly important to stress that these central actions of obedience and faithful remembering of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist have remained the same throughout the centuries. A fine illustration of this living tradition of faith is to be found in the last two catechetical lectures of St Cyril of Jerusalem. They are only a few pages long; but, nevertheless, we can compare what we are doing today with the Eucharist as it was explained in an Oriental Liturgical rite to catechumens in the middle of the fourth century, more than sixteen hundred years ago. We find that the structure is the same - even little rites like the priest washing his hands at the offertory and praying for cleansing from sin. One exception is the sign of peace which was given at the beginning of Mass rather than before communion. But the prayers the people say are the same: the responses at the beginning of the preface, the Sanctus and the Our Father are all the same. The content and the order of the acts of thanksgiving and intercessions in the Eucharistic Prayer are the same. And most important of all, the explanation of the change of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ is the same. The fact that all this has not changed since the fourth century is an amazing historical reality. Apart from the Jewish festivals it would be hard to find anything in the history of the world in which people come together to celebrate an historical event which comes complete with a coherent interpretation that has in essence and in clarity remained unchanged.

 II. The Sacrificial Prayer of Jesus Christ

Let us now turn to the sacrifice of the Mass. In each of our four Eucharistic Prayers after the consecration the act of remembering Jesus is coupled with his sacrificial offering, the sacrifice of the Mass. This is Christ’s sacrificial offering on Calvary and it is also our sacrificial offering. It is at this point that we arrive at the central insight into the declaration that ‘the Eucharist makes the Church’. It is here that we see ourselves most clearly: we share in the sacrifice of Christ. This is how we belong to him. This is our calling. Therefore in our catechesis and our preaching, we need to emphasize remembering and sacrificing as defining actions of the people of God. Within each Eucharistic Prayer there is a narrative that takes us back to the Last Supper. The historical event is briefly called to mind: ‘The day before he suffered…’  Then the priest recites the words of Jesus over the bread, ‘This is my body…given up for you’, and again over the wine, ‘This is the cup of my blood…shed for you’. Clearly these words refer to Our Lord’s death on the cross and they tell us that the death of Jesus is not something that just ‘happened’ to him. It is Jesus who gives up his life, who sheds his blood. On Calvary Jesus offers himself to the Father. This act of self-offering is a kind of living prayer. As we enter more deeply into the mystery of Our Lord’s death we come to realise that the prayer of Jesus on Calvary is our prayer, too. In his prayer Jesus makes us one with him. In this prayer we share his life. We can explain this using the image of the vine and the branches, which we find in the Gospel of John.[ii]

Dwelling in Christ

The image of the vine and the branches is an image of the Church. It is a simple one and the point it makes is fundamental: like the branches of a vine, we live in Christ - cut off we die. Christ is at the centre. He is our centre. And at our centre Jesus is doing something - an action. We are part of his action. As the branches are living parts of the vine, so our actions belong to the action of Christ. Action is the important word here because it is a sign of life. Only living things act. Dead things are moved from here to there. They do not move themselves - but we do. We are alive. At Holy Mass we are alive in Jesus Christ. Christ is our centre, and his action is the action of a prayer of self-offering. It is described for us like this in the letter to the Hebrews:

‘During his life on earth he offered up prayer and entreaty, aloud and in silent tears, to the one who has the power to save him out of death, and he submitted so humbly that his prayer was heard’.[iii]

It is the Father who hears the prayer of Jesus. It is the Father who attends to his Son. This is the Father’s action and it is reflected in the Eucharistic Prayer. We can say that the Eucharistic Prayer is not so much about how we see God but rather how God sees us. It may seem odd and out of place - in fact it may seem very forward of us - but during Holy Mass we ask the Father to look at us. We use the words ‘look’ and ‘see.’   It is not unusual to ask someone to look and see: ‘Look over there. Tell us what do you see.’ Looking is noticing, taking notice of something, recognising that it exists. Seeing is more than this. Seeing is understanding what we’re looking at. So we ask the Father, ‘Look with favour on your Church’s offering.’ This is the ‘please look here’ request. And now we tell the Father what he is seeing when he looks at us at this moment: ‘and see the Victim whose death has reconciled us to yourself.’ The Father sees Jesus Christ in the midst of us, and he sees him as his Son who offers himself for us and the world. This self-offering of Jesus is his prayer, and we are part of this prayer.

Catechising on the death of Jesus        

We do not keep difficult truths about Jesus to ourselves. Jesus himself tells us how he wants us to understand him: ‘The world must come to know that I love the Father and that I am doing exactly what the Father told me’.[iv] Let us for a moment consider ourselves as part of this world that ‘must come to know.’ Jesus died on the Cross so that our sins might be forgiven. In his death on the Cross Jesus is saying ‘sorry’ to the Father. He is saying sorry for us, for our sins. It is a sincere ‘sorry’ because it is filled with the Son’s love for the Father. In our world it is often difficult to say sorry to someone we don’t know very well. In another world - an ideal world - perhaps no one would ever need to say sorry to anyone. In the film Love Story, there was a famous line: ‘Love is never having to say sorry.’ This line expresses a deep desire how we would like the world to be. It’s our ideal world, a world full of love. We dream that perhaps there is a love somewhere that will release us from this world, with all its necessities and obligations; release us especially from having to say sorry if fences are ever going to be mended and broken bridges repaired. In this ideal world we would know each other so well, and accept each other as we are so that these awkward moments in life will be eliminated entirely from the scene. We can all just be ourselves and everyone will be happy. But our real world isn’t like that, and so love in our world is not like that either. In his letters St John, the beloved disciple of Jesus, tells us about real love. ‘God’s love for us was revealed when God sent into the world his only Son so that we could have life through him.’[v] Here is the promise of new life, of a life based simply on love. But then comes the next bit, when St John defines this love: ‘This is the love I mean. Not our love for God, but God’s love for us when he sent his Son to be the sacrifice that takes our sins away.’[vi]

Sacrifice

The word ‘Sacrifice’ has an uncomfortable ring to it. It doesn’t fit into our ideal picture of life at all. Killing animals as a religious act seems grotesque. And as for God allowing his only Son to be killed - that’s unbelievable to our world. Can it be so difficult for God to put everything right in our world that he has to sacrifice his only Son? But in a sense sacrifice is something we are familiar with. To give up something so as to get something better is an everyday part of life. And it’s not a duty or an obligation. It’s a free act; what we decide to do. Something matters to you a great deal and in order to get it or to keep it you are prepared to make a great sacrifice. What is unbelievable is indeed the sacrifice that God made for us. God gave up his Son. He is one of us: he belongs to us and was part of our world. When he died on Calvary they laughed at him: ‘If you are the Son of God come down from the Cross’.[vii] But Jesus stayed on the cross, stayed with us and one of us to the very end. God’s sacrifice is the real mystery, the only mystery. How could the Father love us so much, that knowing all there is know about us and our world, he gave us his Son? But this is what God did; and in the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus we who believe understand that from now on we belong to Jesus Christ. Good Friday is the last day in the history of our world. Up to the moment of his death Jesus belonged to our world, belonged to us. But now our world has changed. From now on it is we who belong to him.  

NOTES
[i] Jn 14:26.
[ii] Jn 15:5.
[iii] Heb 5: 7.
[iv] Jn 14:31.
[v] 1 Jn 4:9.
[vi] 1 Jn 4:10.
[vii] Mt 27:40.

This article is originally found on pages 9-11 of the printed edition.


This article is from The Sower and may be copied for catechetical purposes only. It may not be reprinted in another published work without the permission of Maryvale Institute. Contact [email protected]

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