Give Us This Day: The Eucharist

seven sacramentsWe come now to a turning point in the Our Father, and in the sacraments. Our first four sacraments named permanent states of life. Baptism at the beginning, and then Confirmation as we reach some kind of adulthood, initiate basic membership in the Church. Holy Orders and Holy Matrimony initiate the two principle offices, or forms of service, in the Church.

But the next three sacraments mark the way we live out those vocations: the Eucharist as our daily bread, Confession when we fall, and Anointing of the Sick when we enter the most fundamental suffering.

So too there is a turn in the Our Father. The first half of the Our Father is all “thine”: thy name, thy kingdom, thy will. (It begins with “our” Father – but it names him, not us, reverences who he is instead of asking anything for us.) The second half of the Our Father is all “ours”: our daily bread, our trespasses, deliver us.

The linchpin is “give us this day”: here we turn from the long-term to the specific struggles of our day to day.

And the lead-off point is “our daily bread”: we turn now from long-term vocations to our daily struggle.


The Eucharist is in many senses the center of the sacramental life. The only other sacrament with such a claim to centrality is Baptism, the beginning and doorway to the sacramental life.

And in many senses, the two petitions that go with these two sacraments sum up all the rest. To call God “Our Father” is everything. If we could pray nothing else all day, we would have everything. Or rather, every other prayer – including the other petitions of the Our Father – spell out for us what it means to say “Our Father.

So too, “give us this day our daily bread” contains everything. It is the simple realization that everything is a gift. Calling God Father and asking for bread both point to the deepest gift, the gift of life itself – the life given us by our parents and sustained by our daily bread.

Our petition this week has two parts, each illuminating the other. “Our daily bread” points to the simplicity, the fundamental reality, of the gift of grace. It is our very sustenance. But we might just as well say nothing but, “give us this day, give us this day, give us this day.” “Our daily bread” sums up that absolutely everything is included in “give us this day.”


Our reading of the Our Father with the seven sacraments is meant to help us draw from the sacraments. St. John says, “the anointing which you received from Him abides in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as His anointing teaches you concerning all things, and is true and no lie, and as He has taught you, abide in Him” (1 John 2:27).

There is something here akin to Eucharistic adoration, but with the other sacraments. By “the anointing” he means Baptism, and also Confirmation. We are meant to “dwell in,” or “abide” (two translations of the same word, so central to St. John’s vision) in our Baptism, and all the sacraments, to make a “spiritual Baptism,” as we make a spiritual communion. The sacraments are there – marriage and the priesthood, confirmation, and all the rest – waiting for us to let them penetrate us, waiting for us to let the oil seep into our souls.

When we pray “thy will be done,” for example, we dwell in our anointing, we call on the grace of our Confirmation to penetrate us.

But the most central of all these spiritual acts is, of course, spiritual communion. Jesus comes to us under the appearance of our daily bread so that we can learn to make “give us this day” our constant prayer. All is contained in those words. In that act of spiritual communion is also our spiritual confirmation, our spiritual baptism, our drawing on the priesthood and marriage and the others.

And again, the other words are there to spell out these ones – to help us see the completeness of the grace of the Eucharist. In the Eucharist he gives us the grace of marriage, the grace of confirmation, and all the rest. “Give us this day” is a prayer that contains all the others – and all our other prayers help us spell out what we mean when we pray to receive “this day” from him.


St. John also says, “what you heard from the beginning, let it abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning remains in you, you will abide in both the Son and in the Father” (1 John 2:24). Let us soak in the words of this prayer, steep in these words that we have “heard,” till the grace of the sacraments penetrates and transfigures us.

How could your prayer life express constant dependence on our Father?

Twenty-first Sunday: A Spiritual Communion

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

JOS 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b; PS 34:2-3, 16-17, 18-19, 20-21; EPH 5:21-32; JN 6:60-69

This Sunday is our last week reading through John 6 and Ephesians.

In John 6 we come to the conflict: Jesus said to his disciples: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”  When many of his disciples heard this, they said: “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”  But Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

As Catholics we know we stand with St. Peter, who accepts Christ’s teaching on the Eucharist, against those who reject it.  But as we did last week, let’s try to go deeper, and see what it means to accept this teaching.


Jesus’s response to those who are scandalized points us to the heart.  “It is the spirit that gives life,” he says; “the flesh is useless.  The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”

This is a curious response, when he has just been insisting on eating his flesh: “the flesh is useless.”  On one level, obviously he means that in order to believe the Eucharist is his flesh, we need to rely on more than our fleshly eyes.

But he says more than that.  What makes the Eucharist powerful?  How does it give us “life”?  As we saw two weeks ago, the Holy Spirit is the leaven of the Eucharist; by eating the Body of Christ, we receive the Spirit of Christ.

The tradition of the Church – St. Thomas, for example, and the Council of Trent – talks about a “spiritual communion” in a way different from how we talk about it today.  Today, by spiritual communion we often mean, not physically receiving – as if the spiritual was deficient.  But traditionally, the Church talks about spiritual communion primarily as a good communion: the sinner might receive Christ physically, but not spiritually; we want to receive him physically and spiritually; we want our every communion to be spiritual.


Our reading from Joshua gives a metaphor for this spiritual receiving.  Joshua tells the people, “choose this day whom you will serve.”  The people “forget not all his benefits”: they say, “it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. . . .  He protected us.”

As our Psalm says, they have tasted and seen the goodness of the Lord.

The Exodus is a metaphor of the Christian life.  God has saved us, taken us out of slavery, brought us to the promised land – so that we may live in relationship to him, so that we may serve him.

One way to think of a truly spiritual communion is that we give thanks to the Lord for all his goodness to us, and so we pledge our lives to him.

More deeply, before we give our lives to him, we receive our lives from him.  At the communion rail, he gives us life – and we go out with that life within us.  To receive him spiritually is to let his life penetrate into us, to be transformed by the gift we receive.


Again, the greatest image of this is in our reading from Ephesians.  This week it is the famous second half of Ephesians 5, on husbands and wives.  But note, before we start: Paul doesn’t just talk about husbands and wives.  Rather, he uses husbands and wives as a model of all kinds of relationships.  This is a teaching on marriage – but it is also a paradigm of the Christian life.

The Lectionary, then, rightly introduces the teaching on marriage with a few lines from the beginning of the chapter, where Paul is speaking more generally: “live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.”  This is true spiritual communion: to receive the love that Christ gives us, and to be transformed by it.  This is the whole of the Christian life.

As I am sure you know, he begins with the infamous words about wives – “be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord” – but spends much more of his energy on what the husband should be like.

In fact, he concludes his words on wives by saying Christ is the head because “he is the Savior.”

The first model of the husband’s love he gives is as Savior: “just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy.”  This love is self-sacrificial, yes – but with a purpose.  The husband is to have received Christ’s saving love, and so to live only to bring holiness to those around him.  Because true love focuses on the only real happiness of the other: holiness.

So the second model he gives is of the body: “For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it.”  True love sees the other’s good as my own.

To both spouses – and to all of us – he says, seek not your own advantage; seek not worldly pleasures; but be transformed by the love of Christ, the Spirit you receive in Eucharistic communion.

What is one way you could be more Eucharistic to someone close to you today?

Twentieth Sunday: Bread of Life

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

PRV 9:1-6; PS 34:2-3, 4-5, 6-7; EPH 5:15-20; JN 6:51-58

This past Sunday was the culmination of our reading from John 6, the Bread of Life discourse.  There will be one more concluding week of our tour through this discourse, but this is the height.

Now, there’s a small danger for Catholics when we read John 6.  We can get stuck in apologetics.  Yes, apologetically, John 6 is a nice place to go if we want to prove to non-Catholics that Jesus really does want us to eat his real flesh and drink his real blood.  And there are times for that conversation, for proving that our faith is indeed the Biblical faith.

The danger is that we reduce our faith to winning arguments, reduce our faith in the Eucharist to another way to say other people are wrong.  The danger is that we can fail to draw life from the Eucharist, and from Scripture, because we’re so busy trying to win arguments.

Pope Benedict said, “the only true apologetic is the beauty of holiness and the holiness of beauty.”  Thomas Aquinas actually says something similar.  A key argument of this web page is that the intellect is part of our faith – because the intellect is part of contemplation, not because it is an instrument of winning arguments.  Let us focus on being made holy.


Jesus says in this Sunday’s reading, “the one who feeds on me will have life because of me.”  To really understand the Eucharist, we have to understand not just that it is Jesus’s body, but what it means to draw life from it.  If it does not make us part of his body, we do not really know what it means to say it is his body.

Jesus uses one of John’s favorite words, “remain” (also translated “dwell”).  “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.”  We dwell within him, and he within us, when we receive communion.  We practice this at adoration – but we dwell with him by eating him.

And finally, “Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me.”  When we go forth after Mass, it is like the Son going forth from the Father, full of the life he received, and bringing that life to the world.


Our short reading from Proverbs again emphasizes the contemplative element, the enlightenment we receive from communion.  “Wisdom has built her house . . . she has spread her table. . . . To the one who lacks understanding, she says, Come, eat of my food, and drink of the wine I have mixed!”

Just as John calls Jesus the Logos, the Word of the Father, God’s intelligence and wisdom, so here the one who feeds us is Divine Wisdom, and what she feeds us is understanding.

We enrich the images we just saw in John 6.  We dwell in the house of the Father and the Son, and from dwelling there, we receive their wisdom.  We are sent out full of that wisdom – the Eucharist penetrates to the way that we see the world.

And so our reading concludes, “Forsake foolishness that you may live; advance in the way of understanding.”  We live differently – we have new life within us – because our perspective is changed from this deepest form of contemplation, Eucharistic communion.


But again, the deepest wisdom of the week is from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.

First, “Watch carefully how you live, not as foolish persons but as wise.”  Ah: live by that wisdom we receive in the Eucharist, from dwelling in the house of the Father and the Son.

“Making the most of the opportunity,” he adds, “because the days are evil.”  If it were up to me, we’d maybe read the King James Bible, a Protestant translation with imperfections, but very literal and such rich language.  Not “making the most of the opportunity” but “redeeming the time.”  What rich language!

We are called to be redeemers.  Literally, it means “buying back” each day, purchasing it for God, by bringing his divine wisdom into it.  Transforming the evil days into the time of Christ.  That’s what we are sent forth from communion to do.

And, as we saw last week, we are to “be filled with the Spirit,” but he adds, “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.”  As God’s Wisdom, God’s Love, God’s Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us through communion, we should become living hymns of praise, “giving thanks [in Greek, eucharist-ing] always and for everything.”

How could you draw deeper life from the Eucharist as you go forth into the world?



Corpus Christi – “The Blood of the Testament”


EX 24:3-8; PS 116:12-13, 15-16, 17-18; HEB 9:11-13; MK 14:12-16, 22-26

This Sunday we celebrate the Feast of Corpus Christi.  In the simplified liturgy after Vatican II, it is called “The Body and Blood of Christ,” though in the past there was a separate feast for the Blood, July 1, and there is still a tradition of thinking about the Eucharist in June and the Precious Blood in July.

The Gospel reading takes us back to Holy Week.  This year we are reading Mark, so we get Mark’s account of the Last Supper.  This backward reference is the liturgical key to the feast.  Holy Thursday is a busy day: such an important feast, and there are so many things to think about.  So a separate Thursday was set aside to think just about the Eucharist.  But we celebrate Easter for seven weeks, and then Pentecost for a week after that, so really, this week is the very first free Thursday.  (That’s kind of funny.)

Yes, it should be on Thursday, and yes, the Bishops always transfer it to Sunday.  But until we have been bishops (that is, never) let us lay off criticizing their prudential judgments.  That could be a nice way of remembering the feet-washing part of the Eucharist: Christ doesn’t give us his body so that we can tear one another apart.  Let us focus not on our judgment of the bishops, but on this great gift to us.


This year, the readings focus on the Precious Blood.  In the Gospel, let us just notice two points.  First, in the Synoptic Gospels, the Last Supper is introduced with “when they sacrificed the Passover lamb.”  We imagine the blood of Christ shed.  Perhaps when we hear “a man will meet you, carrying a jar of water” we should think of the union between the blood of Christ and Baptism – and Baptism as our preparation for the Eucharist.

Second, Jesus’s words about his blood are more complicated than those about his body.  First he simply says, “Take it; this is my body.”  But then he says, “This is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed for many.  Amen, I say to you, I shall not drink again the fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”

The Roman Canon used to make it clear, too, that the blood specifically is the “mystery of faith.”  The blood is significant. . . .

And so in the reading from Hebrews, too, we hear, “he entered once for all into the sanctuary, not with the blood of goats and calves but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.”  What is going on with this “blood of the covenant”?


The richest reading this week is perhaps the first, which tells us of the original Passover, in Exodus.  This is the symbolic world that Jesus perfects with his own blood.

At the end of the reading, Moses “took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, saying, ‘This is the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you.’”  When in Matthew’s Gospel the Jews says, “His blood be on us, and on our children,” they are not embracing their guilt.  In the Jewish tradition, this is about accepting Christ himself.  Those are the words we should say.


Now, there’s a bit of a controversy about translation.  Nowadays we often use the word “covenant,” which talks about mutual relationship.  That’s definitely present in this reading.  The people say, “We will do everything that the LORD has told us.”  They offer sacrifice.  And the book of the Law is called “the book of the covenant.”  “Covenant” nicely describes how this is a two-way relationship.

But we can learn something from the older usage, which translated the same Greek and Hebrew word as “testament.”  Testament seems above all to refer to a will, a promise to give an inheritance to someone when you die.  The New Testament often invokes exactly that idea.  A testament is not a two-way relationship: one side gives, the other receives.

We could almost translate this as “promise”: God’s promise to us.  And then we might think of our moral obligations, and our obligation to sacrifice, not as upholding our half of the deal but as our inheritance.  The Law is not what we give to God – it is what God gives to us, sheer gift.

So too the Eucharist.  It is not our end of the deal.  Christ’s Precious Blood is given to us as sheer gift, his “testament” to us.  The Mass is something we do – and something we give thanks for getting to do.  Thank God we have been given his blood to “splash on the altar.”  His blood be on us and on our children!

How could we express greater gratitude for the Mass in our daily life?


Mass of the Lord’s Supper


Ugolino di Nerio, Last Supper

Ugolino di Nerio, Last Supper

EX 12:1-8, 11-14; PS 116:12-13, 15-16bc, 17-18; 1 COR 11: 23-26; JN 13:1-15

Tonight we celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. Each of the readings takes us into a different aspect of the Eucharist, and our Eucharistic faith.

The reading from First Corinthians is the most straightforward. It’s worth noticing that Paul reports the Eucharist. It is one of the few things reported in all the Gospels. Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell us the story straight. John, as always, gives a commentary. And then Paul reports it as something central to Christian worship. Even the birth of Christ is not so centrally reported in all parts of the New Testament. For the early Christians, this was the center of the Church’s life.

“On the night he was handed over, he took bread.” Paul underlines the connection between Holy Thursday and Good Friday. The Eucharist is not just something Jesus did at some point in his life. It is directly connected to his death. “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” This is our entrance into the shedding of Christ’s blood, our communion with his death.

“As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord, until he comes.” This is our memorial, our form of worship, always tied back to Good Friday. Christian worship revolves around the remembrance of the Cross, made present to us through the Eucharist.


But we gain deeper insight into this when we know the Old Testament setting. In fact, the whole of the Old Testament culminates in the Eucharist. When he says “this is the new covenant,” for some reason modern translators have decided to obscure the matter, but what he is really saying – it’s not obscure in the Greek, or the Latin – is “this,” the Eucharist, “is the New Testament,” the fulfillment of the Old Testament. “Covenant” is another translation for the Hebrew and Greek words for “Testament.” Everything in the Old Testament can tell us about the New Testament, the Eucharist.

But most central of all is the Passover, the setting in which Jesus situates his death and his institution of the Eucharist. So the first reading for tonight’s Mass of the Institution of the Eucharist is the Institution of the Passover, in Exodus.

“This day,” too, “shall be a memorial feast for you.” Just as the Eucharist remembers the death of Christ, the Passover remembers the death of the firstborn in Egypt.

“This is how you are to eat it: with your loins girt, sandals on your feet and your staff in hand, you shall eat like those who are in flight.” The Passover is a celebration of flight, of leaving Egypt behind. This is also why it is eaten in the family home, not in a big festal gathering, and why the lamb is slaughtered that very evening, and roasted, the simplest, fastest way of cooking, with bread that has not had time to rise. The Israelites are on the run.

They are leaving behind the land of death. They eat the passover with “bitter herbs,” a reminder of the bitterness of Egypt. The sacrifice of the lamb saves them from the death that passes over Egypt.

For us, the Passover is a reminder that Jesus saves us from the world of death. His death is our flight from the land of death. Our reminder of the bitterness of the world of sin, and of the possibility of escape – not out of the world, but out of sin.


John’s Gospel, with exquisite poetry, shows us what we escape to. John is like a commentary on the other Gospels. Where they give the multiplying of the loaves, he has John 6, the bread of life discourse: a deepening of our understanding that the true provision is in the Eucharist, which saves us from death: “if any man eat of this bread, he shall have eternal life.”

And where the other Gospels tell the Last Supper story straight, John gives us other details. He gives the long farewell discourse (chapters 13-17), where Jesus promises to prepare a place for us, says he is the vine and we are the branches, and promises to send the Spirit. All of these teachings reveal the depths of what he gives in the Eucharist.

But tonight we read about the washing of the feet. This is the promised land. Through the Eucharist we flee Egypt, but go to the land of love. “He loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end . . . I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, should also do.” This is the fruit of the Cross.


Do you take time to remember the good things Jesus does for us in the Eucharist?

The Sacramental Life

Seven Sacraments Altarpiece, Rogier van der Weyden

Seven Sacraments Altarpiece, Rogier van der Weyden

Over the last several weeks we have considered how each of the seven sacraments can serve as a model for our spiritual life. Today in conclusion let us consider how our whole life can be sacramental.

The sacraments are sacred signs. They show Christ’s presence in all the key moments of life: birth, death, coming of age, community leadership, the most basic relationships of family, our daily struggle to love better, and, in the Eucharist, our daily life in communion with the God we worship.

The sacraments confer grace. They penetrate us with the life of Christ. But it would be too little to think that grace comes only “after” we receive them. It is grace that draws us toward them, grace that leads one to ask for Baptism, grace that leads the sinner to repent and go to Confession, grace that makes us long for the Eucharist, divine, sanctifying, transforming grace that leads us to consecrate our lives in marriage or the priesthood.

The sacraments, we could say, confer grace “in both directions.” They “go before us,” drawing us on, pulling ourselves to them, just as the people of his time were drawn by the magnetism of grace to Jesus. Grace does not leave us as we were before; grace makes us want to do something, to come to Jesus. Grace makes us want to express our new life through the sacraments. All of our life, the Holy Spirit is driving us to the sacraments.

In the sacraments we consummate that grace, we live it out in its fullest way. In Confession, we become no longer just sort of penitent, but true, sacramental penitents; no longer just vaguely thinking of Jesus, but uniting our sufferings to his in the Anointing of the Sick, etc. The sacraments show what grace does in us. And when we come to those perfect moments in the life of grace, when we act like graced people by truly participating in the sacraments, the sacramental life of grace is fulfilled and renewed in us, and so the sacraments drive us forward, as well.


St. Patrick’s fabulous prayer, “the Breast Plate,” sums up the sacramental life admirably. Toward the end, it says

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ within me
Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ at my right, Christ at my left

To live the life of the sacraments is always to be running to Christ, and to know that it is Christ himself who has given you the grace to run to him. Christ before me, Christ behind me.


At the heart of the sacraments is the Eucharist. They all revolve around the Eucharist as around the sun.

We receive Christ in communion. On the one hand, our life is profoundly united to him. He comes to dwell in us, and draws us to dwell in him. Our whole life is consecrated by union with Jesus.

On the other hand, we receive this union as a gift – purchased at a price we did not pay. We know that union with God is not something we can grasp at, but something he freely offers to us. We express this everytime we come running to communion – every time, even in prayer and at a distance, we long to come running to communion.

We offer Christ on the altar. He is the priest, offering perfect thanksgiving to the Father – and we unite ourselves to his perfect prayer. He is the victim, the sign we offer of how precious the Father is to us. He is the altar, upon which we offer ourselves. By joining our worship to his, we not only accept him as the perfect worship, but say that we want to give our life as fully to the Father as he did.


To live the sacramental life is to be all Eucharistic. It is to love this sign, this culmination and fulfillment, this source and summit of our perfect prayer and perfect self-offering in love. And it is to love that culmination of the life of grace in such a way that it penetrates all of our life. To be all Eucharistic.

The other sacraments show our whole life ordered to the Eucharist. Our new birth is our entrance to the Eucharistic Church, our coming of age is our commission to preach this perfect union. Even our marriages are calls to show the true, interpersonal love that is Jesus, and to order all our lives to helping others to love him better.


What parts of your life seem the least sacramental, the least Eucharistic? What would it mean to let them be filled with sacramental, Eucharistic grace?

Bl. John Paul II on Heaven and Earth

pope-john-paul-IIIn his encyclical on the Eucharist, John Paul reminds us that the Eucharist points us forward to eternal life with all the saints in heaven – and that our longing for eternal life “increases, rather than lessens, our sense of responsibility for the world today.”


The acclamation of the assembly following the consecration appropriately ends by expressing the eschatological thrust which marks the celebration of the Eucharist (cf. 1 Cor 11:26): “until you come in glory”. The Eucharist is a straining towards the goal, a foretaste of the fullness of joy promised by Christ (cf. Jn 15:11); it is in some way the anticipation of heaven, the “pledge of future glory”. In the Eucharist, everything speaks of confident waiting “in joyful hope for the coming of our Saviour, Jesus Christ”. Those who feed on Christ in the Eucharist need not wait until the hereafter to receive eternal life: they already possess it on earth, as the first-fruits of a future fullness which will embrace man in his totality. . . .

The eschatological tension kindled by the Eucharist expresses and reinforces our communion with the Church in heaven. It is not by chance that the Eastern Anaphoras and the Latin Eucharistic Prayers honour Mary, the ever-Virgin Mother of Jesus Christ our Lord and God, the angels, the holy apostles, the glorious martyrs and all the saints. This is an aspect of the Eucharist which merits greater attention: in celebrating the sacrifice of the Lamb, we are united to the heavenly “liturgy” and become part of that great multitude which cries out: “Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Rev 7:10). The Eucharist is truly a glimpse of heaven appearing on earth. It is a glorious ray of the heavenly Jerusalem which pierces the clouds of our history and lights up our journey.

A significant consequence of the eschatological tension inherent in the Eucharist is also the fact that it spurs us on our journey through history and plants a seed of living hope in our daily commitment to the work before us. Certainly the Christian vision leads to the expectation of “new heavens” and “a new earth” (Rev 21:1), but this increases, rather than lessens, our sense of responsibility for the world today. I wish to reaffirm this forcefully at the beginning of the new millennium, so that Christians will feel more obliged than ever not to neglect their duties as citizens in this world. Theirs is the task of contributing with the light of the Gospel to the building of a more human world, a world fully in harmony with God’s plan.

. . . Significantly, in their account of the Last Supper, the Synoptics recount the institution of the Eucharist, while the Gospel of John relates, as a way of bringing out its profound meaning, the account of the “washing of the feet”, in which Jesus appears as the teacher of communion and of service (cf. Jn 13:1-20). The Apostle Paul, for his part, says that it is “unworthy” of a Christian community to partake of the Lord’s Supper amid division and indifference towards the poor (cf. 1 Cor 11:17-22, 27-34).

–Bl. John Paul II, Ecclesia de Eucharistia

The Eucharistic Life: Communion

seven-sacraments-rogier-van-der-weyden-bigLast week we considered how our whole Christian life can be summed up in relation to the Eucharist understood as sacrificial worship. But there is a second element to the Eucharist. The Eucharist is sacrifice as Christ lies on the altar, but it is also communion as we receive him in our mouths. Communion, too, is a good way to define the whole of the Christian life.

First, let us understand what happens at Mass. Christ becomes present on the altar. But he becomes present as bread, “the living bread come down from heaven” (John 6, vv. 33, 41, 50, 51, 58: Jesus rather repeats himself on this point). He comes to nourish us, to be our daily bread.

The imagery of the bread is nice. On the one hand, yes, by eating we are united to him. But even deeper, by eating, he becomes our strength. We live with his strength. John’s Gospel gives us a whole series of images for this in Jesus’s teaching at the Last Supper. As Jesus institutes the Eucharist, he teaches us that he will send his Spirit into our hearts (John 14); that he is the vine, and we are the branches (John 15); that we will be one with him (John 17) – and more. In short, in Communion, he becomes our strength, our soul, our life.

But when we are united to him, we are also united to everyone else who is united to him. The “body” of the Eucharist creates the “body” of the Church. Thus he begins his Last Supper discourse with the washing of the feet (John 13), and ends with the prayer “that they may be one” (John 17).

It is popular among orthodox Catholics to pooh-pooh the idea that the Eucharist is a community meal. But it is! The problem is that people fail to appreciate the depths to which this communion among believers goes. We’re not just hanging out. We are being nourished by the one Body and Spirit of Jesus; we are united with one another by our union with him. That’s why the sign of the Peace is really a profound moment in the liturgy – even if (I know, I know) it can be done inappropriately.


All of this takes us to the depths of the commandment to love God and love our neighbor. In fact, that commandment, the very heart of the Christian life, sums up Eucharistic communion. It is a command to live Eucharistic communion. The Church’s discipline surrounding communion – the necessity of being visibly a member of the Church, and of not being in mortal sin, that is, of being in friendship with God – is precisely an affirmation that Eucharistic communion means nothing if we don’t live that communion, with God, and with those who are in communion with God through Jesus (i.e., the Church), in the rest of our life.


How can we practice devotion to this Communion? First, of course, by our love of the Eucharist: by daily Mass, by spiritual communions (even a fervent prayer of “give us this day our daily bread”), by making visits to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.

But again, the point is that Eucharistic communion doesn’t make sense unless it expresses itself in the rest of life. Two ideas.

First, we can practice devotion to communion by obeying the law. Strange idea! But the Church is very insistent that the only reason for laws within the Church is to nurture communion. We have liturgical rules, for example, as a vivid expression that we do not celebrate the liturgy alone, but in union with the rest of the Church.

Law does two things: first, it means submitting my view to someone else’s. There are lots of non-legal ways to do this, of course, but see how obeying law is a way of expressing that mine is not the only opinion in the world that matters.

Second, it means submitting myself to the good of the community, doing what works for everyone, instead of just what works for me.

Think about this, for example, the next time you get in the car . . . .


Second, communion is precisely the key to the Church’s “preferential option for the poor.” This is what Mother Teresa meant by her strange claim that she saw the poor as “Christ in his most distressing disguise”: she saw that union with Christ means union with every human being, for whom he died.

But we express that union most powerfully when we live it out in union with those who have nothing to give to us in return. “If you love those who benefit you . . . do not even the tax collectors do that?”


How do you live communion?

Eucharist: The Sacrificial Life

seven-sacraments-rogier-van-der-weyden-bigEach of the sacraments provides a way to think of the whole Christian life. In the past two weeks, we have seen how Baptism helps us think of “the life of rebirth” and Confirmation “the apostolic life.” The Eucharist, greatest of the sacraments, actually gives us two central images, according to the two things we do with the Eucharist: sacrifice and communion. (Technically, the Eucharist gives us an exterior act, sacrifice, because Christ becomes present on the altar, and not only in our souls.) These two aspects of the Eucharist, like all of the sacraments and all of the Christian life, are inextricably entwined. But we can talk about them one by one: sacrifice this week, communion next week.


There is some confusion about what “sacrifice” means. In modern English, sacrifice means something like pain for a higher good. If we work hard to go to college, we call that sacrifice.

But when the Church calls the Eucharist a sacrifice, that just isn’t the way we are using the word. (It’s unfortunate that we have to do this – to give a Catholic definition of words that is different from the “normal” definition. But we live in a culture that doesn’t understand worship, so there are going to be problems of language.)

The Catholic definition of sacrifice differs from the normal English one in two ways. First, sacrifice is not for just any good. By sacrifice we mean “only for God.” Sacrifice is what you only do for God. In that sense, “sacrificing for college” is just a contradiction.

Second, pain isn’t the point. For God is the point. Sacrifice does not always involve pain. In the Bible, some sacrifices are holocausts – up in smoke – but some are feasts, the very opposite of pain. The sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, because it involves both death and resurrection, is actually both: both pain and celebration. But what makes something a sacrifice, in the Bible, in Augustine, in Thomas Aquinas, in the Catholic understanding, is that we do it for God.

The sacrificial life is a life ordered to God.


The heart of sacrifice is thanksgiving – which is why the most important name for the Eucharist is not “communion,” but “Eucharist,” the Greek word for thanksgiving. At Mass we give thanks to God: for his goodness that we read about in the Bible, for all of creation, for our lives (both the nice things and the hard things), and above all for the grace he pours out on us in Jesus.

Jesus left us a “memorial” of his passion: he left us a way, a concrete practice, of giving thanks. The heart of the Eucharist is simply to recall what he has done, and do the thing, the sacrifice, that he gave us as the perfect way of calling to mind and giving thanks for his goodness to us.


Sacrifice is not about pain. It is about justice – “it is right and just.” It is about doing what is right, what we ought to do. “Make justice your sacrifice,” says the Psalm (4:5), and the refrain runs throughout the Bible, in a thousand ways. When we do what is right, purely because it is the right thing to do, we make justice our sacrifice. We give thanks to God by embracing the life and the duties he has given us. (We deny thanks to God by refusing the duties he has given us.)

This is where pain is relevant to sacrifice. Often our duties, the right thing, is not what we feel like doing. A right sense of mortification focuses not on how we can hurt ourselves – which is hardly part of an attitude of thanksgiving – but on doing the right thing even when it hurts. It is good, and right, to rejoice at the suffering when we know that it is because we are doing what is right. The pain – even the little pains, like getting up to help when we’ve just put our feet up – are a reminder, not of the goodness of pain (pain is not good in itself!), but of the goodness of doing what is right and just.

We could make our life thanksgiving, make our life Eucharistic, just by adopting that line from the Mass, “It is right and just!”


Thanksgiving longs for expression. The tradition calls the most important part “interior sacrifice”: truly being thankful. But we physical beings need to express that through “exterior sacrifices”: acts of thanksgiving.

How do you give thanks in your day? How do you make your life a sacrifice of praise?