The Second Vatican Council document, Lumen Gentium, declared the Eucharist as “the source and summit of Christian life”.
The word Eucharist comes from the Greek word eucharista meaning thanksgiving. When we gather to celebrate the Mass, we give thanks for all that God has done for us in Christ, especially for his death and resurrection.
According to St Thomas Aquinas; “In this sacrament is included the whole mystery of our salvation”. Our Christian hope is that, just as Christ has risen, we too shall share in his resurrection once our life on earth is ended. This is the mystery of salvation remembered each time we gather to pray the Mass. In our communion with Christ we are in communion with the one whose love has overcome death.
The centre and highpoint of the Mass is the Eucharistic Prayer – the prayer of thanksgiving and sanctification. The priest calls on the people to life up their hearts to the Lord in praise and thanksgiving. The meaning of this prayer is that the whole congregation of the faithful joins with Christ in confessing the great deeds of God and in the offering of sacrifice. Confident of God’s faithfulness, that God is true to his word, we pray asking God to send the Holy Spirit to change the bread and the wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, so that we can all receive Christ in Holy Communion.
There are two main parts to the Eucharist, the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. However, these are so closely interconnected that they form one single act of worship. When the Sacred Scriptures are read in the Church, God himself speaks to the congregation. The word of God speaks to us of God’s faithfulness, and God’s great love for each one of us.
Catholics use the term ‘transubstantiation’ to explain the mysterious change which occurs. However, human words can never adequately explain it. What we do know, and accept in faith, is that while the bread still looks like bread, and the wine like wine, they have now been consecrated and have become for us the body and blood of Christ.
Nobody is worthy to receive, however, as St Alphonsus Liguori wrote, if only those who are worthy can receive; “who would ever be allowed to approach Holy Communion? Only Jesus Christ could worthily receive the Eucharist since only God could worthily receive God.”
Each celebration of the Eucharist is a reminder not only of the last meal Jesus shared with his disciples but also of all the meals Jesus enjoyed during his lifetime. The Gospels speak to us of Jesus’ practise of non-discriminate table fellowship – “seeing this the Pharisees said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Matthew 9:11).
In the early Church, it was the practise for everyone to also receive from the chalice, as the Eucharist takes a fuller form when it takes place under both kinds. The recovery of reception of Communion in this way has been recommended by the bishops as expressing powerfully the sacrificial nature of the Mass.
When we receive Christ in the consecrated species, whether we receive in our hands or on our tongue, we should do so with great reverence. St Syril of Alexandria offered clear advice: “Make your left hand a throne for you right since your right hand is about to welcome a king. Cup your palm and receive in it Christ’s body, saying in response ‘Amen’”.
As we celebrate the Eucharist we remember not only the Last Supper of Jesus but also his sacrificial death on the cross and his glorious resurrection. Each Eucharistic meal is a reminder of our hope that God will raise us to eternal life. In this sense the Communion we share is the foretaste of the eschatological feast, the heavenly banquet we shall all share in the Kingdom of God. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day” (John 6:54).
However, Christ’s presence during the Mass is not limited to the consecrated bread and wine. Christ’s presence is also to be recognised in the person of his minister, the priest, in the Word of God in which God himself speaks to his people and in the gathered community. We respond with wonder and awe at this presence of God among us, and go forward with thanksgiving in our hearts.
St Augustine challenges us to be “a member of Christ’s body, then, so that your ‘Amen’ may ring true.” To make our ‘Amen’ ring true our communion with Christ urges us on to live and build our communion with one another, to continue his saving work with the poor and vulnerable, the lonely and the weak.
The Mass, the celebration of thanksgiving, the Eucharist, is a continual reminder of God’s infinite love for his Church. In Sacramentum Caritatis, Pope Benedict XVI teaches that the Eucharist is where “the Lord meets us, men and women created in God’s image and likeness (Gen. 1:27), and becomes our companion on the way”.
Beyond this Christians have a duty to live Eucharistically in the world. While Christ is made present in the Eucharist, it is the responsibility of his followers to make his presence felt. After all, the people of the Church make up the body of Christ, we are Christ’s body. Therefore, to receive the Eucharist is to receive our own mystery. We say amen to what we are.