The Meaning of the Holy Eucharist

Foto: Eric Mok, Unsplash

The Eucharist is the real representation (repraesentatio) of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. The sacrifice of the cross consists in the abandonment of his life for our sake. In the thanksgiving offering of the sacrifice of Mass the crucified and risen Lord becomes present in his dedication for us. The Eucharist is offering (oblation), union with Christ and transformation of the celebrating faithful, who take part in it.

1. The Eucharist as the Oblation of the Church

The faithful who participate in the Mass, can join themselves to the offertorium of the priest by entering in the offering of the gifts. It is Christ who includes us in his thanksgiving and his dedication to the Father. In this sense the celebrating participants of the Mass gain not a merely passive, but active participation in the oblation of the priest. God has given us his Son. And we give him in the Eucharist back to God the Father.

The Eucharist is an oblation in the form of thanksgiving and memorial. This presupposes admittedly the special gathering at the eucharistic altar, at least if one not adheres to a phenomenology of gift, which gets by without a presence. Such phenomenology has been outlined by Jean Luc Marion, who points firstly to the dimension of reality, that goes beyond the visible phenomena, but then turns to the non-presence of the gift. In the way his phenomenology of giving would have it, the gift is given without any presence.[1] But one cannot build on it a theology of the Eucharist – as less as on Jacques Derrida, who deconstructs the unity between identity and presence.[2]

The Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann stated that since patristic times liturgy has been understood as the real presence of the coming Kingdom of Heaven in the world of the present.[3] Schmemanns and Joseph Ratzinger’s arguments in his book “The Spirit of the Liturgy” were similar to each other despite some differences in dogmatics.[4] Ratzinger focuses on the great significance of concrete space and bodily circumstances, when he emphasizes that man even needs a concrete physical direction of his prayer, because liturgy is a place of God’s revelation. And this revelation relates to the fact that God spoke to man in the language of his body, gestures and signs. For Ratzinger it is even important that the priest and the faithful are oriented in one and the same direction, which points to the liturgy as a space for God’s action. It protects the liturgical prayer in the sacred space from too much human activity.

2. Participation in the Sacrifice of the Holy Mass and Presence

In our days we must be aware of a certain inability for liturgy on part of people. People are used to have non-stop-entertainment; they are exposed to a constant overstimulation of the senses, to experience a flood of changing images and noises. Therefore, the Church must search a way that allows to overcome such inability to collect oneself, to get quiet, to listen, to marvel…

The Second Vatican Council wishes in SC, that the faithful do not attend the Eucharist like spectators, but participate actively and bring, together with the ordained priest, the oblation:

“The church earnestly desires that Christ’s faithful (…) should take part in the sacred action conscious of what they are doing, with devotion and full collaboration (…) by offering the Immaculate Victim, not only through the hands of the priest, but also with him, they should learn also to offer themselves; through Christ the Mediator.”[5]

It is what St. Paul already writes to the Romans: “I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship.” (Rom 12,1)

The bodily dimension of this sacrifice requires the presence with mind and body at the eucharistic altar. The body needs to take part in the prayer and the act of offering the gifts to God. This aim cannot be fulfilled from a living or dining room chair, in front of a monitor, which marks an intransgressible border during a home-office conversation or the consummation of a video.

3. Holy Communion and the Fruits of the Holy Mass

With the holy communion the sacrifice of Mass finishes. The meal of sacrifice consummates the thought of vicarious substitution and above all, of unification, which accompanies the whole sacrificial act. By this innermost unification with the sacrificed lamb, which has taken his place, man can give himself more perfectly as a sacrifice to God. The consecrated wafer is holy; it has been “deified”. As man consumes it, he obtains the divine power which inhabits since the transubstantiation in the oblational gift.

In the Holy Mass, Christ himself – the Godman – is the sacrifice. Therefore, holy communion is the deepest and most true union with God, the most perfect participation in the fruits of union with divine life, which come forth of the sacrifice of Christ.

Holy Mass is not just a presentation of the sacrifice of the cross; we don’t find in it just the value of a mere memorial(-celebration). It is a real sacrifice, which prolongs that of Calvary, and turns its fruits to us. The Holy Mass is a source of confidence and forgiveness. When the memory of guilt for our sins represses us and the anxious question arises, how to expiate in a fully valid way, so that the chastisement for sins will be taken away, there will be no more effective means than the Holy Mass.

“The Lord, appeased by the oblation thereof, and granting the grace and gift of penitence, forgives even heinous crimes and sins.[6]

The Holy Mass contains in itself superabundant and effective graces, that illuminate the sinner and move him to acts of contrition and penitence so that he gets led to the sacrament of reconciliation and renewed in his friendship with God.

The Holy Mass is not only an offer of praise, or a memory of the sacrifice of the cross; it is a real sacrifice and expiation, instituted by Christ, for that “its salutary virtue be applied to the remission of those sins which we daily commit”.[7] The holy sacrifice reconciliates us with God and renders us his grace.

When the priest remembers before consecration all those who he wants to recommend in a special manner to God, he enumerates at the end also all who are surrounding (the altar), with reference to the preparation of their hearts: “et omnium circumstantium quorum tibi fides cognita est et nota devotio.”

From these words, we can deduce that the graces of the sacrifice of the Mass are distributes to us according to the degree of the intimacy of faith and the devotion of our hearts.

4. The Meaning of Frequent real Participation

Through the Eucharist we are incorporated into the mystical body of Christ.[8] “This sacrifice is so decisive for the salvation of the human race that Jesus Christ offered it and returned to the Father only after he had left us a means of sharing it as if we had been present there. Each member of the faithful can thus take part in it and inexhaustibly gain its fruits.”[9]

In these words, we find the dogmatic doctrine of the application of the fruits of salvation as an effect of Holy Mass.[10] The sacrifice of the Mass includes an absolute fulness of grace which could derive to the heart of who is attending. But due to our connection with original sin, the results of personal sins, weakness and distraction, our receptivity of grace in a certain moment is finite. Though the graces are offered by God in an overabundant measure, they cannot be received by us in that way. Therefore, it is necessary for us to approach Mass as often as we can. The application of its saving power to our personal life relies on a frequent participation in the holy mysteries. The memorial and the presence of Christ’s death gains importance in our life when we are ready and disposed to receive it constantly as a present during Holy Mass.

For obtaining sacramental grace the Church had all time adhered to the principle of the “hic et nunc”, that is necessary for it reflects that our faith is incarnational. An expression of this truth is given by the words of Cyprian: “Caro cardo salutis.” In Catholic faith, which is that of incarnation, the body cannot and should not be set in ‘remote’ mode, and separated from reality by screens and internet, apart from serious reasons such as verified “contagiousness”. Body and soul belong together, they are one. Similarly, it was never considered, that someone would receive the sacramental absolution by phone. It presupposes the physical presence at the same place.

The NT knows a concreteness in touching Christ when saying in Lk 6:17ff.: “A large crowd of his disciples was there and a great number of people … with their diseases and troubled by impure spirits. And the people all tried to touch him, because a healing power was coming from him and healing them all.” The touching of his vestment has found an expression also in the nowadays extraordinary form of the Roman Rite of Mass when the altar server immediately before the consecration kneels down behind the priest and seizes the extreme border of the chasuble with his fingers.[11] Thereby this gesture opens the eyes of faith to recognise Jesus Christ as the one proper acting during Mass.

April 21, 2024
Dominica IV Paschæ

Prof. Dr. habil. Michael Stickelbroeck

[1] Cfr. Jean-Luc Marion, Etant donnée. Essai d’une phénomenologie de la donation, Paris 1987, 80.

[2] Cfr. Helmut Hoping, Mein Leib für euch gegeben. Geschichte und Theologie der Eucharistie, Freiburg 2011, 11, 443f.

[3] Cfr. Alexander Schmemann, Liturgical Theology, Theology of Liturgy, and Liturgical Reform, in: T. Fisch (ed.), Liturgy and Tradition, New York 1990, 56.

[4] Cfr. Pawel Beyga, Prayer towards the East in the thought of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI. The twentieth anniversary of The Spirit of the Liturgy, in: R. Voderholzer / C. Schaller / F.-X. Heibl (Hgg.), Mitteilungen Institut Papst Benedikt XVI., 13/2020, 59–68, 67.

[5] SC 48.

[6] Concil. Trid. Sess 22, cap. 2 (DH 1740).

[7] Cfr. Concil. Trid. Sess 22, cap. 1 (DH 1740).

[8] Cfr. Hilarius, De Trin. VIII, 16; Cyrill Alex., In Joh. IV, 2; XI, 11.

[9] Pope John Paul II., Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 2003, nr. 11.

[10] Cfr. Council of Trient, Session 22, cap. 1 (DH 1740f.).

[11] Vgl. Martin Ramm, Zum Altare Gottes will ich treten. Die Messe in ihren Riten erklärt, Thalwil 62018, 155.