This prayer, offered quietly by the deacon or priest at Mass, often goes unnoticed. It is the prayer said in preparation of the cup of wine that will soon become the cup of the very blood of Jesus. This simple prayer expresses succinctly our Catholic belief concerning the Real Presence of Jesus in the sacrament we call the Eucharist. It is also—not coincidentally—a powerful expression of the meaning of the sacrament and why we have it.
Of all the sacraments, only the Eucharist is described by the phrase “Real Presence.” It is not that the other experiences are not real presences of God, but only in the Eucharist do we have the very body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ.
While the other sacraments have as their origin the Paschal Mystery of Christ, only the Eucharist is the Sacrament of the Paschal Mystery itself. The Eucharist is thus the “source and summit” of the Church—all her activities flow from the Eucharist and lead us to a full participation in it. Accordingly the Church has recognized a certain hierarchy concerning the different ways that God is present to us. The Eucharist is the supreme presence of Christ and, therefore, the “Most Holy Sacrament.”
As a bishop, I am particularly concerned that we effectively witness our belief in the eucharistic presence. Parish mission statements, if they are used, should clearly state in some way the centrality and importance of the Eucharist for the local parish—for in fact the Sunday Eucharist is a parish’s reason for being. The Eucharist should be the principle by which parishes and institutions evaluate the propriety of their activities. All activities of the parish and every diocesan institution, no matter how popular or unpopular, great or small, must in some way help people to live out the meaning of the Eucharist. The very way in which we structure our churches should communicate clearly that we are a eucharistic community, a eucharistic people. The altar should thus be prominent, as the symbol of the eucharistic action.
Obviously, the place of reservation for the Eucharist itself should be worthy of the eucharistic presence, with ample room for prayer and meditation. If the tabernacle is not directly behind the altar, then it should be easy to find from the main entry of the Church.
While baptismal fonts in our churches are to be given their due prominence, they should not distract from the central importance the altar is to have visibly. Baptism, the other central sacrament, we call the “primary sacrament,” for only through it can we begin sacramental initiation and receive the other sacraments. But even baptism finds its perfection in the eucharistic offering.
While fully exploring the significance of baptism with our children and converts, we must not neglect sharing with them the Good News that the greatest benefit of the sacrament of baptism is that it allows one to participate fully in the Mass. In this time of renewal in our Church, when we are rightfully rediscovering the importance of the sacrament of baptism, we must not forget the supreme nature of the Eucharist. For in our participation in the Eucharist, our sacramental initiation becomes complete and we utilize all our baptismal gifts.
By the mystery of this water and wine…
John tells us in his gospel that blood and water, symbolizing the sacraments that make the Church (most especially baptism and the Eucharist), flowed from the side of Jesus when they pierced His side on the cross. Jesus chose bread and wine, two quotidian elements, as the materials that form the sacrament of the Eucharist. Each sacrament has a material element because it is for humans, neither for God nor the angels. Since human beings relate and know things through the senses, it is only fitting that Christ would take natural elements, those that are very common in our experience, and use them to mediate His loving presence to us. In the offering of bread and wine by the priest to our heavenly Father, Christ is present to us in a special way. Let me make it very clear: In the Eucharist, Jesus Christ is immediately present to us, in His body and blood, soul and divinity. At this moment, the bread ceases to be bread, and the wine ceases to be wine.
Though our eyes are limited in what they can convey to our minds, the eyes of those who have faith recognize the humble presence of our resurrected Lord and Savior, whom we believe to be fully present in His humanity and divinity. While we also believe that God is present to us in other ways, the Church has always taught that the presence of God is mediated to us in a supreme manner in the seven sacraments. Even more, this communication of God’s presence to us is necessary for our salvation (as with baptism). Thus we cannot equate our personal experiences of God with that of the sacraments. While we may be reminded of God in a work of art or in the brilliant colors of the setting sun and feel close to God, the sacraments are of a different order of Christ’s presence. For, in the sacraments, Christ is immediately present to us.
May we come to share in the divinity of Christ…
Christ humbled Himself in order to save us, in order to bring us into the presence of God that has been destined for us from the very beginning. And He gave us the sacrament of the Eucharist so that we could participate in His self-offering to the Father. We enter the presence of God through Christ’s death and resurrection, which not only purify us from our sinfulness, but also transform us into children of God. At baptism we receive the washing of our souls from sin, and we receive the Holy Spirit that makes us children of God and members of Christ’s body, the Church. We become coheirs with the Son of God, sharers in the divinity of Jesus, our Brother and Lord. Our involvement in this transformation is not merely passive. As Jesus was totally obedient to His Father in heaven, so we are called to be obedient children of the Father. We are invited to join in Christ’s once-and-for-all sacrifice. We do this by enduring faithfully the hardships we encounter in following the way of Jesus. When we have Mass, we don’t simply “watch” Jesus coming to us again.
But with hearts full of gratitude, we long to join with Him in His self-offering, giving our broken hearts along with His. We desire to be obedient to the Father in our daily lives, and we offer our sacrifices, pains, and joys involved in living the Gospel life in our daily lives with those of Christ. This all takes place through the hands of the priest, who is essential for the Eucharist, and who has given his entire life to the service of helping those in his charge to offer more perfectly this sacrifice of praise. It is for this reason that the lack of priests is such a painful experience. There are no replacements for priests. We must continue to beseech the Lord for more priests.
We must also be careful about holding a static concept of the presence of Christ in the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. The honors that we grant the eucharistic presence (the veneration in benediction services and hours of adoration, personal visits we make throughout the day, the genuflections, the spruced-up attire we wear at Sunday Mass), while all of these are important, none can make up for our “doing” the Eucharist with Jesus. In the Eucharist, Jesus is as humble as bread, as nourishing as bread, and as broken as bread. If we desire to share in the gift of the Eucharist, we are called to be humble and nourishing, even in our brokenness. We are called to be humble in our attitude toward others, looking to serve their needs instead of expecting to be served. We are called to be nourishing when we give of ourselves for the good of others. When we suffer the injustices of others for their good and the good of all, then our brokenness is made life-giving.
The martyrs are the most obvious examples of life-giving brokenness. In imitation of Christ, they sacrificed their own lives for the Good News of God’s love for us. When we approach the minister of the Eucharist at Mass for communion, we respond “Amen” not only to the Real Presence that we are about to receive, but also “Amen” to the requirements of this presence in our lives. Thus the Eucharist is more than an object that is Christ’s body and blood, it is also the action of Christ in His self-offering. It is our action in which we give ourselves, though the hands of the priest in the sacrifice of Christ, to the Father.
All our devotional activities, while expressing and safeguarding our true faith in the Real Presence, also serve their purpose in motivating us to live the Eucharist beyond the altar by placing our gifts at the service of our brothers and sisters. Our devotional and liturgical practices do not replace our call from the Lord to join Him in making sacrifice in daily life for one another.
There are many reasons why many Catholics lack faith in the eucharistic presence. Some of our problems with the reality of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist are rooted in a self-constructed reality in which we do not want God to come too close. We are tempted not to believe in the Real Presence because we would rather not accept the full reality of God’s love for us. Like Adam and Eve, who hid from God after they sinned, I am at times tempted to keep God comfortably at arm’s length. I know that if I accept the closeness of God in the Eucharist, if I accept that God does indeed love me to such an extent that He empties Himself to be immediately present to me in such a humble form, then what kind of a response would I be moved to give?
How might this recognition of God’s love for me provoke changes in the way I live my life—changes that I would rather not make? We may want God to be close, but we don’t necessarily want Him too close. How are we to stand in God’s presence, knowing that we will never be able to love God to the same degree that He loves us? The consequences of our faith in the eucharistic presence are at once terrifying and exhilarating. Whenever we consciously enter the eucharistic presence, we may experience the purifying love and presence of God. We not only kneel, out of respect and humility, but we also come to stand in His Presence, as we do at the “Our Father” during Mass. Our God is a loving God, who longs for us to join Him and take part in His life and in His love, to be His children.
Who humbled Himself to share in our humanity…
In his letter to the Philippians (2:6-11), St. Paul recorded a hymn that eloquently expresses the depth of the Son’s love in coming to save us, that “He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness…becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.” Jesus “emptied himself” to overcome the great divide between sinful humanity and God.
The book of Genesis tells us that from the beginning, God intended for us to be with Him forever. In the sin of Adam and Eve, we turned away from God’s presence, hiding from Him in the shame of our sinfulness. Only God Himself could overcome the great divide brought about by original sin. Even if we desired it, we could not reach God’s presence, but God can reach into our sinful world. And God did. He reached over the great divide in the gift of His Son; this is the mystery we celebrate every Christmas. In becoming man, the Son of God breached the great divide of both our sinfulness and our creaturehood. The truly amazing thing is that we are even closer to God now than before the sin of our first parents. Such is the power of God’s love that He is able to bring such a wondrous good out of evil.
In the bleakest moment of Jesus’ earthly life, when He willfully allowed Himself to be put to death by crucifixion, God experienced the greatest rejection of His saving presence in the world. But in the midst of that darkest hour, the mystery of God’s love overcame the darkness of the human heart and won salvation for all humanity through the death of His only Son. It was in fact His plan all along, a plan born out of His love for us. Though we were sinful and without merit, God chose to share His life and love, His very presence, with those who believe in His Son. Through this Paschal Mystery, in which the Son of God became man and obediently accepted the will of His Father, Jesus overturned the sin of disobedience that kept all humanity from God’s presence. In His resurrection Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. In each of the seven sacraments, the way, the truth, and the life of Jesus are given to us. Indeed, in these key moments of life, Jesus is personally and immediately present to us.
Let us fully recognize this divine presence in the Eucharist in our lives. As we continue to give the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist all of the ritual displays of glory, honor, and veneration, the reason Christ comes to us in this sacrament must be remembered. We are able to go back into our daily lives fortified as children of God to share the sacrificial love of Christ with whomever we meet.
This article originally appeared in the June 1999 issue of Crisis Magazine.