The Eucharist occupies a central place in our life as Christians and as monks. This evening’s readings bring out something of the complexity of this great sacrament which is a sublime mystery whose depths we can never fully comprehend or even experience. Not surprisingly, then, the Eucharist has been the subject of theological and spiritual controversy at regular junctures over these last two millennia. Even before Jesus was crucified his teaching on the Eucharist was the occasion for many of his disciples abandoning him and walking with him no more. In the early church Christians were sometimes accused of cannibalism through a distorted understanding of this most precious gift of God.
The nature of the mass as a sacrifice in which the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ was also a matter of passionate debate and disagreement during the time of the Protestant Reformation. In the Catholic Church of the Counter-Reformation period restricted notions of the purpose of the Eucharist reinforced the practice of infrequent reception of this great gift which was deemed the privilege of the holy and the perfect. In our own time, questions of intercommunion among various Christian denominations and the vexing question of communion for the divorced and remarried witness to the importance of this sacred banquet, in which Christ is received, the memory of his Passion is renewed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us.
As with other mysteries and dogmas of our faith, it is when one dimension of this multifaceted mystery is accentuated to the detriment of the others that our understanding of its God-given purposes becomes distorted. Yes, it is a meal, but not just a meal and not only sustenance for the body. Yes, it is a sacrifice making present Christ’s one saving sacrifice on Calvary, but it is not only a sacrifice. Yes, this heavenly food is eminently sacred and most fittingly received by those worthy to do so; but it is also a spiritual medicine that can heal sin at its very roots deep within the human heart. Yes, it is an abiding and unique presence of the Risen Christ who is worshipped and adored in our tabernacles and who blesses us at Benediction; and yet when devoutly and worthily received, our very partaking of the Eucharist becomes yet another act of worship and adoration.
And because the Eucharist is all these things—food, a sacrifice, grace, medicine, manna for the journey, an act of worship—its effect in our lives is similarly multifaceted. And yet although multifaceted, it is oriented towards a single goal: our entering personally into its mystery by ourselves continuing and completing what began in baptism—dying and being buried with Christ so as to rise with him, be transformed, and ultimately divinized. This is not to suggest that our dying with Christ in any way matches his own violent death or allows us to save ourselves—even were we to die the same death he underwent. Rather, it is to acknowledge that growing conformity to Christ only comes through the long and painful process of dying to self and living to Christ. And as we grow in likeness to Christ we are increasingly exposed to some of the kind of persecution and suffering that he endured. For as Jesus warned: No slave is greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. And whereas it is possible that this persecution may include the ultimate sacrifice of martyrdom, it is more likely to incorporate more ordinary forms of persecution experienced in everyday life. Some of which will even come from fellow Christians whose envy or resentment at a holiness that shows up their mediocrity may lead them to treat those perceived to be holier than themselves with unkindness, injustice, and even contempt.
And so as we praise and thank God for this great gift of the Eucharist we cannot forget Saint Peter’s exhortation, namely, Christ left you an example that you should follow in his steps. And should our growing conformity to Christ bring us persecution, let us recall the same apostle’s words: When he was insulted, he returned no insult; when he suffered, he did not threaten; instead, he handed himself over to the one who judges justly. Only through the forgiving, healing, regenerating, and sustaining power of the Eucharist will we be able to imitate Christ in this way—let us therefore avail ourselves of this great gift so that in receiving Christ and being transformed by him we may become Christ to others and to a world that stands in such dire need of him.