Swimming the Tiber 17: The Sacraments: The Eucharist (Part Two)

I was once, five or six years ago, taken by some friends to have dinner with Mary McCarthy and her husband, Mr. Broadwater. (She just wrote that book, A Charmed Life.) She departed the Church at the age of 15 and is a Big Intellectual. We went at eight and at one, I hadn’t opened my mouth once, there being nothing for me in such company to say. The people who took me were Robert Lowell and his now wife Elizabeth Hardwick. Having me there was like having a dog present who had been trained to say a few words but overcome with inadequacy had forgotten them. Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater said when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the “most portable” person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.

– Flannery O’Connor, in a letter to “A.,” 16 December 1955

No doubt this quote from a famous Catholic author is scandalous. How dare someone use such terms about Holy Communion, right? But that’s the whole point of what I talked about last week: without the Real Presence, it’s just bread and wine (or grape juice). If that’s the case, there’s not much communion, and it’s not particularly holy. It has some benefits–it can focus the mind on God, and help us remember the sacrifice of Christ. But so too can reading Scripture, hearing a good sermon, singing a hymn or a worship song, attending a prayer group, or watching a sunset. Is the Eucharist not worth more than these things?

And, of course, many Protestant denominations have realized this. How do I know? Frequency. Most Baptist churches I attended as a child had communion once a month–some only once a year (on Good Friday, ironically,1 or on Easter). Songs and Scripture readings and sermons, on the other hand, were every week, and encouraged among the faithful every day. These were easier to understand, and thereby, easier to participate in. I couldn’t comprehend the oddity of Holy Communion as a child, so I embraced the Scripture, teaching, and singing to encounter God instead. So it didn’t bother me that we didn’t receive communion very often; to my mind, it wasn’t more special than any other encounter with God, and no one had ever tried to convince me otherwise.

Catholics, of course, still can’t comprehend the Eucharist. (It is a mystery, after all.) But the Real Presence means that partaking of the Eucharist is a truly Holy Communion, uniting finite man to infinite God. As I said last week, reading Scripture and hearing sermons and singing hymns is an encounter with God, but it pales next to the Eucharist. And again, this explains why we’re so careful about partaking of it (alongside Matthew 5:23-24 and 1 Corinthians 11:27-29; consider also Romans 7; 1 Corinthians 6:15-17). It is absolutely essential that our souls be prepared before encountering God in this way. (We’ll talk about how to get prepared next week, when we talk about the sacrament of confession.)

What does all this mean, though? What does the Eucharist actually accomplish for us? It’s quite nebulous to say that it’s an encounter with the living God and leave it at that.

Well, I’ve already said that the Eucharist is the third step of the rites of Christian initiation. This sacrament unites us to the Body of Christ by allowing us to partake of his Flesh; by extension, uniting us to the Church seems a simple and small matter indeed. What began in baptism and was furthered by confirmation is now brought to the full in the Eucharist, bestowing on us graces to overcome evil and turn to the Lord. As our bond to the Lord is strengthened, we are also enabled to love others more freely and more fully in the Body of Christ.

The Eucharist is also the first sacrament we’ve looked at that can be received more than once. Baptism happens once (Ephesians 4:5); confirmation happens once (throughout Acts, no one receives the Holy Spirit more than once, though they are filled with Him several times); but the Eucharist can be received many times. Of course, the sacrifice only happened once (on the Cross; see 1 Corinthians 5:6-8; Hebrews 7:26-28; 10:1-25), but the priest (in persona Christi, in the person of Christ, who is the perfect high priest) makes that sacrifice present for us in the Mass. This repetition, even ubiquity, means that we can keep gaining the graces of the Eucharist, which converts us continually to the love of God.

I keep mentioning “graces,” and you’re probably saying, “What graces? You talk about them like they’re enumerated.” Well, they sort of are. Graces are, first and foremost, the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), which obviously direct us toward God (and make us holier). Part of making us holier, of course, is forgiving sins, which is why receiving the Eucharist can forgive venial sins (but not mortal;2 if you’ve forgotten the difference, look back over my post on that subject).

You may say that this sounds suspiciously utilitarian. “You mean you just eat this bread and get grace from God? That’s a little too quid-pro-quo to be Christian.” Well, of course, there’s no magical formula here. You can’t chant your way to a sacrament, nor can you buy the secret ingredients for any price (Acts 8:14-24). The mystery of the Eucharist being as great as it is, I’m not about to rule out that it could be efficacious even if you didn’t believe in it, but that would be an extraordinary means of grace (a phrase you may be growing tired of by now); the ordinary means of grace through the sacrament requires us to unite ourselves spiritually with God. Christ sacrificed himself once for all, and the priest makes that sacrifice present at the Mass, but the Church sacrifices herself daily to be united to the Lord in spirit and in truth (Psalm 51:17). That sacrifice repeats.

I don’t have much more to say on the subject. Accepting the Eucharist was all too straightforward once I studied the history of the sacrament, and even easier in light of the transcendence of Christ’s resurrected Body (Luke 24:36-49; John 20:19-29). As a result, this post is (as promised) rather short. If you want to read more about the Eucharist, of course, the Catechism of the Catholic Church talks about it in some detail, with references to still more texts on the subject. You could probably spend years studying the Eucharist; I’m trying to limit this blog series to just one, so I’m going to move on to more sacraments. Next week, as I said, is confession. Look forward to it!

1 This is ironic because Good Friday is the one day a year Catholics don’t celebrate the Mass (that is, the consecration of the host as the Eucharist). In commemoration of Christ’s death, we fast absolutely. There are no church bells, no songs, and any services are quiet and respectful. Sometimes the Eucharist is received on Good Friday, but the host comes from the Mass on Maundy Thursday. Except for Good Friday, Mass is being celebrated at every hour somewhere in the world. It is the constant prayer of the Church.
2 Mortal sins are the sort of things warned against in Matthew 5 and 1 Corinthians 11. We ought not receive the Eucharist unworthily, but we are not perfect; our concupiscence does not keep us from the Eucharist, but can actually be healed by It.

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  1. […] but say to themselves that they have no need of anything! We should want to dine with him and he with us, but if we consider ourselves good enough, he must spit us out. What more would we let him do in […]

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