The International Pontifical Theological Commission was once asked by the Pope to describe what gives Christians their identity, what distinguishes Christians from other people? Their insightful answer was:
"What gives Christians their identity and makes them different from other people is their remembrance and expectation of Jesus Christ. The memories and hopes of the pilgrim People of God in time and space give them their own unique identity and special character, protecting them always and everywhere from the dangers of dissolution and loss of identity. Through its shared memory and expectation of Jesus Christ, the people of God knows by faith, truths and realities that other peoples neither know, nor can ever know, about the meaning of existence and human history."
These words express well the uniqueness of Christianity, and the special significance of the Eucharist. The Holy Mass is "the summit and perfection of all Christian worship" because it contains all the key memories and expectations of the People of God. "All the treasures of Christianity are contained in the Eucharist" (Vat.II, Presbyterorum Ordinis, n.5).
The Eucharist is, therefore, the first great source of power for daily Christian living. Millions of saints over the last 2000 years (canonized and anonymous), have drawn from it their inspiration and strength to live a dedicated life under the Lordship of Jesus. Even in the most adverse human conditions (persecution, trials, etc.), Catholic Christians have insisted on celebrating the Eucharist, because they personally have experienced the truth of Christ's words:
"Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life" (Jn.6:53f).
1. Encountering the Risen Lord!
The Mass, or the Eucharist, has the best credentials among all the practices of Christianity! St.Paul tells us about the belief of the early Christians, that through the Eucharist they actually encountered the risen Jesus:
"For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, 'This is my body which is for you; do this in remembrance of me'. In the same way also the cup after supper, saying, 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me'. For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes." (1Cor.11:23-27)
For St.Paul, "proclaiming" the Lord's death in this liturgical way meant making it spiritually present, by faith, so that thereby one actually takes part in it (and does not just recall it as a past historical event). The early Christians believed that by their obedience to the Lord's command: "Do this in memory of me", the sacrament of the Eucharist was bringing them a faith-experience (in the historical present), of the salvation achieved centuries ago by Jesus' death and resurrection.
Generations of Jews, including the Holy Family (Joseph, Mary, and Jesus), had understood that when they gathered together every year for their Passover meal, it wasn't merely to remember a long-ago event of the Exodus, but to share here and now in its benefits: namely, to personally become beneficiaries of God's covenant with his People. In a similar fashion, but far more effectively under the action of the Holy Spirit, the early Christians understood that each time they participated in the Eucharist, they were sharing personally in Jesus' saving death and resurrection, which was made present to them in this sacramental way.
Jesus instituted the Eucharist during the Passover meal, the Old Testament "memorial" of the Exodus event (see Mt.26:17-19). By this he was showing his clear intention to substitute it - so that in the future, his disciples would participate no longer in the Jewish Passover Meal but in a Christian Passover Meal, in which He himself would be "the Lamb that was slain". His disciples would now remember, not the Old Testament-marvel of God using Moses to lead his People out of Egyptian captivity, but the (greater) New Testament-marvel of God using Jesus, the new Moses, to lead humanity to a "new covenant" of grace, freedom, and eternal life (see Col.1:13).
2. The Living Bread
"I am the living bread which came down from heaven… Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him" (Jn.6:51-56).
Here Jesus is very candid about his being "living bread" and about his disciples having to eat his flesh and drink his blood. As a result, in Galilee, many disciples left him (v.66). But Jesus did not therefore water down his teaching, saying he was only talking symbolically! Instead, he challenged the Twelve: "Will you also go away?" (v.67).
Jesus' words still challenge Christians today. Belief in the Eucharist calls for faith, and ever since the first century, Catholic Christians have continued the tradition of the early Church, steadfastly believing that when they receive "holy communion", they are really, in faith and obedience to his own will, eating and drinking, sacramentally, the very body and blood of Jesus. [Note that Jesus' words about eating his flesh and drinking his blood are not as crude as some of his Jewish listeners thought! In the Eucharist, his flesh and blood is not his pre-resurrectionphysical body, but that same body, risen and glorified and transformed by the action of the Holy Spirit!]
3. One and the same Sacrifice
The term, "the sacrifice" of the Mass, expresses an important truth, that the very same sacrifice which Christ freely and lovingly made of himself, once and for all, on Calvary, is sacramentally made present here and now on our altars. (It is not a new and oft-repeated sacrifice, as though Christ could be killed over and over again - see Heb.10:12). The sacrifice on Calvary is historically in the past, but spiritually always present in the new world where he lives at the right hand of God, forever interceding for us as "our High Priest" (Heb.7:24). The Eucharist puts the believer in contact with this Jesus, who lives forever in his condition of Victim, or Lamb of God.
Catholic theology uses the term "transubstantiation" (change of bread into Christ's real body, and of wine into Christ's real blood), not to explain how this happens, or to reduce a mystery of faith to magic, but simply to affirm that Jesus' words are literally true. In the Eucharist, Catholics worship Jesus, whom they believe by faith to be alive and present in the host, because He said so!
Through the priest who offers the Eucharist, Jesus makes the ordinary food of his time (bread and wine) his own "flesh and blood" in the condition of Victim. Each time this is done, Christians "proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes again" and gratefully acknowledge the marvels of God, of which the greatest is the sacrifice of his Son to restore eternal life to humanity.
4. The Community Dimension
Precisely because Christ is truly alive and present in the Eucharist, a disciple is required to eat his body and drink his blood "worthily", or else suffer condemnation! St.Paul writes:
"Whoever therefore eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord... Whoever eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died" (1Cor.11:27-30).
Therefore, the Eucharist is not just an act of private devotion, but part of community worship. By baptism, each of us has become a part of the Church, a member of the body which has Christ as its head (Col.1:18). We make a mockery of our membership in the Church (and so, a mockery of Christ himself) when we refuse to forgive the brother/sister who has sinned against us, or refuse to express acts of love and service of neighbor, or refuse in other ways to witness to the new life of the Spirit in our daily behavior and relationships. Therefore St.Augustine would say to each person (when distributing holy communion), "Eat what you are, and become what you eat"!
The wonderful consequence of participating in the Eucharist as united, authentic members of the Church is that "we become what we eat", we become more truly part of the Body of Christ, we become even more truly "branches of the true Vine" (Jn.15:5). The Eucharist transmits to us the awesome power of the Holy Spirit which the death and resurrection of Jesus released (Jn.7:39), and this unites us into a fellowship. By this holy meal, the Spirit changes disciples into the likeness of the risen Christ, and they are strengthened in holiness. Healing too takes place in the Eucharist because of this power of the Spirit, and people become empowered to serve the Body of Christ in more fruitful ways.
5. The Personal Dimension
Every disciple of Christ is called to be "crucified with Christ" so that he/she can say, "it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" (Gal.2:20). By participating in the Eucharist, we unite our daily dying to self with Jesus' sacrifice on the cross, and thus we become "a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God" (Rom.12:1).
The Second Vatican Council therefore exhorts all Christians to practise a Eucharistic spirituality:
"Their work, prayers and apostolic endeavours, their ordinary married and family life, their daily labour, their mental and physical relaxation if carried out in the Spirit, and the hardships of life if patiently borne - all of these become spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. During the celebration of the Eucharist, these spiritual sacrifices are most lovingly offered to the Father, along with the body of the Lord. Thus, as worshippers whose every deed is holy, the lay faithful consecrate the world itself to God"(LG, 34).
From this, we can conclude that the Eucharist is really a power-house of grace for the believer. As the two disciples on the road to Emmaus on Easter Sunday experienced (Lk.24:13-35), Christ becomes alive for us in the Eucharist, and gives new life and ongoing power for daily Christian living to those who, believing his words in scripture and the teaching of his Church, frequent the Eucharist with deep love and childlike faith.
6. Boring, or action-filled?
Fr.Michael Gallagher, SJ has this perceptive comment about people who find the Mass boring:
"The Sunday celebration is meant to be the crown of a Christian life lived elsewhere than in the Church building. If Mass is the only time of the week when there is any kind of gesture towards God, it would be surprising if it were not often boring or hollow. When people complain about boredom at Mass, a fair bit of it is imported by them across the Church porch!" (Help my unbelief, GSP, India, 1987).
If Christians are not, in fact, being the Body of Christ during the week (instead, they show a sorry lack of personal prayer, of unity with one another, and of active service of neighbor), then when they come to communion at the Sunday Eucharist they will be eating what they are not. Obviously, therefore, they will find it boring or hollow, since they are coming without vibrant faith and love. They may even, as St.Paul warns the Corinthians, be eating "judgment" upon themselves: "That is why many of you are weak and ill and some have died" (1Cor.11:29f).
Disciples who come to the Eucharist "with empty head, empty heart, and empty hands" cannot complain if they fail to experience the power of the Eucharist. To come to the Eucharist with wrong beliefs, or for merely social reasons, is to come with an "empty head". The Mass is not a mere ritual, nor an empty memorial service, nor just a symbolic fellowship meal, but a sacrament which draws its power and efficacy from the creative word of Jesus, who instituted it for his disciples. Functioning like a "spiritual time-machine", it transports the believer across time and space to the saving event of the death and resurrection of Jesus, and brings the believer to a real faith-encounter with the Risen Lord. One must come therefore with an expectant faith, believing in the trustworthy testimony of the Church and the written word of God.
Again, if during the week there has been no real contact with God through personal prayer, one cannot expect to have a spiritual experience by just entering within a church building! One must come rather with a disciple's "heart", which throughout the week has been hungering for and surrendering itself to the Lord. And a Christian comes to the Eucharist with "empty hands" if he/she has lived a selfish life during the week, and ignored every opportunity of grace to help some needy person in word or action; in practice, he/she has refused to die to self in order to put other persons first. For such a person, coming to the Eucharist is a mere formality. St.Paul warned Timothy about such people, whom he called "lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding the form of religion but denying the power of it!" (2Tm.3:5).
The beautiful side of the story is, of course, that if we come with the right dispositions, we will "become what we eat". If we come to the Eucharist with head, heart and hands full of faith, hope, and love, we will go away strengthened, and grow even more in faith, hope and love. The Holy Spirit, and the Risen Christ, will jointly work to give believers "a share in his divinity, as he humbled himself to share in our humanity." Thus, on the personal level these disciples will become more like Christ, and on the social level the Body of Christ will get built up and strengthened in unity.