Uncovering the Eucharist
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Dear Friends,

In our previous catechesis, we considered the Most Blessed Sacrament as a sacrifice. Therefore, it is pertinent to consider the “second way” of experiencing the Holy Eucharist as the pivotal sacrament of the Altar. This second dimension is to see the Holy Eucharist as a veritable spiritual nourishment that enables us to be in communion with God and with God’s holy people. Our presentation is in line with St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), who sees the Eucharist as “Communion” in so far as it promotes union with Christ and ensures ecclesiastical unity (Summa Theologica, III, 73, 4. c.). The Eucharist is a sacrament of oneness, inclusiveness, and togetherness. St. Paul reminds us in his letter to the Galatians, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:27-28). Thus, the cup of blessing which we bless, is a participation in the blood of Christ. The bread which we break is a participation in the body of Christ. Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread (1 Corinthians 10: 16-17).
To partake in this one bread invokes a deeper understanding of the Eucharist as a sacred meal. In the Hebrew Bible, we appreciate the love of God who established a meal that united the whole people, gathering them in their households, around a common table, and a common food. God declared that this act of unity must be repeated down through the ages as a defining gesture of the Israelite nation. The Passover meal (Exodus 12:18-27) was a recovery of the unity and fellowship of the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:15-17). In Eden, God hosted a banquet at which our first parents partook as a way to share the life of our God and in extension, to share life and love with each other. Later on, in Genesis 14:17-24, the beautiful narrative of the priest Melchizedek who offered bread and wine for the life of Abraham and his troops is narrated. Therefore, the Eucharist is foreshadowed in the bread and wine offered by Melchizedek, the eating of the Manna (Exodus 16:35), the Passover meal (Exodus 12: 18), and the multiplication of loaves (John 6:1-14). It is celebrated as the breaking of bread (Acts 2:46), the feast of the Lamb (Revelation 19: 6-10), and as a Paschal banquet (CCC 1402). These different ways of understanding the Eucharist support our argument that the Blessed Sacrament is not only a sacrifice, but also, a communion. It is not only a remembrance of what took place in the past but also the celebration of what is taking place now. Jesus, who offered Himself on the Cross, is still at work in our lives as we break the bread of salvation, eat His Body, and drink His Blood.

In the time of Jesus, bread was a basic source of sustenance. At every meal, people were first served bread. At table, the father of the family would take bread and offer a prayer of thanksgiving to God saying, “Blessed are you Lord, our God. You are the Lord of all created things. Thanks for the fruits of the earth.” After this prayer, the father of the family breaks the bread and shares it with all those present. In his pastoral letters, St. Paul also presented the Eucharist as a meal. To the Church in Corinth, he asked them, “When you meet together, it is not the Lord’s Supper that you eat?” (I Corinthians 11:20). In his two books, The Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel according to St. Luke, the Evangelist Luke described the Eucharist as the breaking of bread (Acts 2:42; Luke 24:13-35). This action of breaking bread implies unity among the brethren and communion with all those who partake in the heavenly banquet. To eat together in biblical times and in our own time is a sign of love and unity. Thus, the Eucharistic meal is a profound sacrament of love, just as St. Thomas Aquinas articulated: “The Eucharist is the sacrament of love; it signifies love, it produces love. The Eucharist is the consummation of the whole spiritual life.”

St. Pope John Paul II, reflecting on the birth of Jesus associated Bethlehem, where Jesus was born with the transforming event that took place at the Last Supper, when Jesus instituted the Eucharist. The Polish Pope has this to say, “Bethlehem, the city where Jesus was born in fulfilment of the Scriptures, in Hebrew means ‘house of bread.’ It was there that the Messiah was to be born, the one who would say to himself! “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35, 48). In Bethlehem was born the One who, under the sign of broken bread, would leave us the memorial of his Pasch. On this Holy Night, adoration of the Child Jesus becomes Eucharistic adoration. We adore you, Lord, truly present in the Sacrament of the Altar, the living Bread which gives life to humanity. We acknowledge you as our one God, a little child lying helpless in the manger.”

The Blessed Lord instituted the Eucharist as a communal meal to be shared by all who believe in him. To eat it is to have life in Jesus: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” (John 6:53-56). Thus, when we receive Holy Communion, we are intimately united with Jesus Christ. Also, by taking Holy Communion we express our union with all Catholics who believe in the real presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. At the table of the Holy Eucharist we are united with the Church from the Apostolic times to the present moment.

In A.D. 155, St. Justin the Martyr described how the Mass was celebrated and how Holy Communion was distributed: “On the day we call the day of the sun, all who dwell in the city or country gather in the same place. The memoirs of the apostles and the writings of the prophets are read, as much as time permits. When the reader has finished, he who presides over those gathered admonishes and challenges them to imitate these beautiful things. Then we all rise together and offer prayers for ourselves…and for all others, wherever they may be, so that we may be found righteous by our life and actions, and faithful to the commandments, so as to obtain eternal salvation. When the prayers are concluded we exchange the kiss. Then someone brings bread and a cup of water and wine mixed together to him who presides over the brethren. He takes them and offers praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and for a considerable time he gives thanks (in Greek: eucharistian) that we have been judged worthy of these gifts. When he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all present give voice to an acclamation by saying: “Amen.” When he who presides has given thanks and the people have responded, those whom we call deacons give to those present the sacred species and take them to those who are absent” (First Apology, 66).

The fact that the Eucharist is a food and a spiritual sustenance causes this great sacrament of the Church to appeal to people of all different walks of life. St. Thomas Aquinas called the Eucharist Alimentum Espiritualis (spiritual food), which in my local Igbo language is translated Oriri di Nso (sacred food). People of vastly different cultural backgrounds and beliefs can all appreciate that food is not only a basic human need but also something that brings people together. In most traditional societies, to eat together means to live together. It is a way to connect with one’s community, with traditional wisdom and local practices, and more importantly, with the ancestors. Eating together affirms the dignity of a given community and their willingness to promote life and wellbeing through hard work and resiliency. Also, eating together provides an enabling social context where each person can celebrate who each other is and by so doing, celebrate their oneness in a given community. For example, in his seminal book, Things Fall Apart, the renowned African writer and novelist, Chinua Achebe, pinpoints the social dimension of eating together in these words, “A man who calls his kinsmen to a feast does not do so to save them from starving. They all have food in their own homes. When we gather together in the moonlit village ground it is not because of the moon. Every man can see it in his own compound. We come together because it is good for kinsmen to do so” (Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart, Part II Chapter 19, p.118).

This socio-cultural dimension of eating together makes it possible for us to whole-heartedly welcome the Eucharist as Communion and Viaticum. Furthermore, eating together was used to establish bonds of peace and reconciliation among warring villages. In traditional Igbo culture, it was used to seal the bond of marriage and to ratify covenants in the Igba ndu ceremony. If that bond was ruptured, the person (s) who broke it is said to have committed the sin of oriko (non-holy communion), which could lead to the death of an individual or an entire community, depending on the number of guilty parties. What the Church teaches about the Eucharist as sacrifice, covenant, communion, and Viaticum bears resemblance to how the Igbo people see and celebrate with food and other cultural fanfares.

In our next catechesis, we shall consider some of the spiritual benefits of partaking in the Eucharist meal as Holy Communion. We shall explore why it is important to see Catholicism as an embodied religion, where the body is revered as against the gnostic heresies of the postmodern world, which uphold dysfunctional anthropology of the human person with its concomitant transgender ideologies.

Ad majorem Dei Gloriam

Father Benedict Nwachukwu-Udaku, VF, is Pastor of Sacred Heart Church, Rancho Cucamonga and the Vicar Forane of the Diocese’s West End Vicariate.