Some of my childhood memories include returning from a funeral or wedding that took place in a non-Catholic Church and hearing my parents comment on how empty the church felt because of the absence of the Blessed Sacrament. The great feast we celebrate today confirms that this feeling is more than just imagination and that the presence of the Eucharist in the tabernacle is something that the spiritually sensitive heart can intuitively sense and experience. Accordingly, entering our churches on Good Friday and Holy Saturday—those two days when the Blessed Sacrament is not reserved—is a significantly different experience; a definite sense of emptiness and even abandonment.
And this highlights something of the mystery of Corpus Christi, because as much as we may sense a special presence when the Blessed Sacrament is reserved in our churches, our faith teaches us that no church—and indeed no place—is ever empty of God and that Christ himself is present everywhere, even in churches where the Blessed Sacrament is not reserved. Similarly, when we come forward to receive the Lord Jesus in communion, he already abides within our hearts and it is not by receiving the Eucharist that he enters—he is already there. So too, he doesn’t depart from us when the Eucharistic species is consumed and assimilated by the body.
Although one doesn’t hear it so much nowadays, Christ’s presence in the Eucharist has often been referred to as the “real presence.” This is against those who believe that the Eucharistic species remain merely bread and wine and do not truly become the Body and Blood of Christ. However, this does not mean that the other presences of Christ are any less real. Post-Vatican II liturgical theology has reinforced the teaching that Christ is also present in his Word so that when the scriptures are read it is Christ who speaks. So too, Christ is in the officiating priest who acts in his name as well as in the assembly gathered for the Eucharist; for he himself said where two or three of you are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of you.
And yet if this is the case, what is the purpose of receiving the Eucharist if it doesn’t make Christ more present than he already is? Does partaking of the consecrated bread and wine give us anything we don’t already possess? These questions are important and have been implicated in concerns about certain aspects of mysticism whereby sanctifying and saving grace seem to come by way of personal prayer and contemplation and that seem to render sacraments like the Eucharist superfluous. In answer, our Catholic faith asserts that the Eucharist does communicate something unique and this is not simply a more real presence of the Christ who already dwells within our hearts.
In this regard we are familiar with our Catholic belief that the mass makes present on the altar the one sacrifice of Christ enabling us to enter into his sacrifice, offer ourselves with him, and in that act of worship and adoration, be slowly purged and healed of our sinful human condition. And thus Saint Thomas Aquinas can say: No other sacrament has greater healing power; through it sins are purged away, virtues are increased, and the soul is enriched with an abundance of every spiritual gift.
This is to affirm that although those who approach the Eucharist should never not be in a state of grace, the Eucharist is not the prerogative of the saints and the sinless. It is not the reward for virtue but rather the sustaining food and merciful healing remedy of the humble and repentant sinner. For in the Eucharist Jesus once again insists that as the physician of our souls he comes in search of the sick and the wounded. The body that died and the blood that was shed are at the very heart of his saving death, and receiving these under the forms of bread and wine incorporates us into the heart of this saving mystery in a way that is unique and that radically heals and transforms us in the great work of divinization whereby we share the divinity of the one we receive. And so we might find ourselves agreeing with Saint Thomas Aquinas who notes, Yet, in the end, no one can fully express the sweetness of this sacrament, in which spiritual delight is tasted at its very source, and in which we renew the memory of that surpassing love for us which Christ revealed in his passion.