In Evangelii Gaudium Pope Francis reminds us that the Eucharist is “not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.” Amen to that. It is also true, however, that the Eucharist is not magic dust. The Eucharist, like Jesus during his ministry, “works” in relationship with the faith of the recipient. Again and again Jesus heals, telling people “your faith has healed you” (MK 10:52) and where there is no faith, as in his hometown, “he could do no miracles there” (MK 6:5). There is the miraculous self giving of Jesus and the acceptance of that gift by the recipient of the miracle. This is, as Henri De Lubac reminds us, not magic, which works independently of the will of the person but grace, which works with the person, perfecting nature not annihilating it. The Eucharist is grace, not magic.
Because it works in relationship with us, the Eucharist works partly in anticipation of its reception. What I mean is that we know something of who Christ is, not least through scripture and tradition, and that we, in anticipation of union with Christ in the Eucharist, work to conform ourselves to him. The transformative potency of the Eucharist, as “medicine,” is predicated, to an extent, on the work of the person in preparation for it. Christ gives himself to us and we work towards this christification. Such acts, looking to conform ourselves to Christ, are moral actions. These moral actions are not simply understood as actions in keeping with God’s law, thereby earning credit. They are an embodied acceptance of God’s will for union with us, as Christ, through the self giving of the Holy Spirit. They are “yeses” to grace, “yeses” to the Holy Spirit, “yeses” to conformity and communion with Christ.
For example, I am a glutton. My desire for food is disordered. If I say, “I’m fine eating far too much in a world marked by hunger,” I’m refusing communion with Christ, who cares for those who hunger by virtue of my overconsumption. Christ wills to embrace me in communion, but I frown and fold my arms. I know what Christ wants (not least because the Church told me!) and yet I say, “No, I’m going to consume more, even though others will receive less.” The Church tells me my gluttony is wrong, but I effectively reply that I know better, and commit to living at odds with who Christ is, as the Church understands it. In so doing I refuse, in my actions in the world, the self giving of the Father, as Christ, through the Spirit. I am refusing Christ, and therefore do not commune with him and cannot be one with the body as I consciously refuse this oneness in my life.
The truth, of course, is that I do yearn to be in communion with Christ through his body the Church. I do realize that my gluttony is a sin, and I repent of it and, crucially, work to overcome it. I work to see food as a gift from God. Such moments allow me to experience the love and grace of God, who is the source of all, and to see, through God the Son, the broken and hungry to whom he bound himself. This challenges my gluttony, enables me to commune with God and the hungry through food as an icon, rather than an idol, that is, as a pathway to cheap endorphins, blinding me to God and the needy. These actions to overcome it are embodied expressions of my desire for oneness with Christ. They are embodied acceptances of Christ’s self giving to me through the Holy Spirit, and are made possible through faith, hope, and love. And because of these actions, repenting of my gluttony and accepting God’s will for me to change, I receive the Eucharist. Not because I’m perfect, but because, even as a glutton, I repent and yearn for God. Despite my gluttony, my repentance and actions accept God’s self giving. These actions participate in the transformation that the Eucharist effects in my life. They facilitate the christoformity made possible through the Eucharist. They facilitate the medicinal healing that it is.
The Eucharist is an embrace, and involves an embracing God and a person who opens their arms in bodily acceptance of that embrace. The Eucharist transforms me by virtue of what it is as God’s self giving to the world and my actions, which are an embodied (not merely mental) acceptance of this gift. If it is a prize for being perfect, then I can’t have it. But, as the Holy Father says, it’s medicine and it works, in part, by virtue of my acceptance of the sinfulness of my gluttonous acts; an acceptance which is ontologically necessary for communion.
The theology of the Eucharist is central to conversations Pope Francis is inviting us to have leading up to the upcoming Synod on the family. It is a synod which is not simply about the family, but also about who should receive the Eucharist. As such, it is about what the Eucharist is, and how it works as a sign, but also as an instrument, of our salvation.
It is against this backdrop that Mo Rocca’s key role in the Mass at Madison Square Garden is especially significant. Mo Rocca is a first class comedian and an openly gay man who read the first reading at the Mass. I’ve only seen him interviewed a few times but I have no doubt that he’s a good Christian and tremendously well deserving of his key role. What interests me is not Mo Rocca himself, a good Christian who I assume is in a great relationship with God. What interests me is what Mo Rocca’s key role at the Mass in Madison Square Garden means in terms of the upcoming synod. Francis does not speak in theological treatises as his predecessor did. He speaks in actions, in symbols. What, then, does the central role for Mo Rocca that Friday night, as a gay man, signify, given that the synod on the family was the central reason, as Pope Francis often reminded us, for his trip?
It could well be the case that Mo Rocca is in agreement with the Catholic position on sexuality and lives his sexual life in a manner in keeping with God’s will, as the Church understands it. If so, then his participation does not invite any analysis of its symbolic significance. So too if he didn’t receive the Eucharist. But let’s say he did. Let’s say he did and he’s committed to ongoing sexual actions opposed to, in the Church’s understanding, God’s will and has no intention of seeing them as morally problematic or ceasing them. Let’s say it was me with my gluttony, unwilling to see overconsumption as a problem and unwilling to change, despite what the Church has always proclaimed. Let’s say I was committed to over consuming with the resultant impact on the world and assumed that this is wholly in keeping with God’s will and the Church, poor luddites that they are, just don’t get it and never have. Would this, should this, impact my communion with the body of Christ at the Eucharist? Would my holding such positions matter to Pope Francis or does he hold that I can be opposed to acting in oneness with God, as the Church understands it, and still be one with the Lord despite my ongoing commitment, against the Church’s teaching, to actions which are embodied refusals of God’s will to give himself to me?
The issue is far from trivial. Salvation represents an acceptance of God’s self giving as the Holy Spirit. This acceptance changes us, changes the very stuff we are, it heals (salve) us. This acceptance is embodied in our actions. Moral actions are not acts which conform to an arid legalistic checklist against which God judges us, they’re the very means by which we accept union with the all loving, all forgiving God. This union is consummated, however briefly, at the Eucharist. The Eucharist is a sign of this union, but also an instrument, it invites us to conform to God in our actions, to accept his self giving in them.
Does Mo Rocca’s participation say anything about whether Francis agrees with this? Or, when Pope Francis says the Eucharist is medicine, does he mean that it heals irrespective of our actions? Maybe he’s saying that while the Church has always taught that actions in conformity with Christ, actions which accept God’s self giving, are “x” it’s still perfectly fine to think they’re “y”? As if we decide individually what God’s will is and work to conform ourselves to that, irrespective of whether we agree with the Church or not?
Again, this may not seem like a very significant issue. It may seem fine in relation to gluttony or sexuality, but what about other things, monstrously different from Church understandings—as if I was working towards murderousness in conformity with a Christ reflecting the will of a bloodthirsty God? I am not, of course, comparing my gluttony, or my (or anyone else’s) sex life to murder! I am noting that the Eucharist “works” on the basis of our actions in conformity to Christ. And if I decide that Christ is x (in this extreme example, an expression of the will of a genocidal God), does the fact that this is in contradiction of the Church’s position impact whether I receive the Eucharist? If the Church thinks that my actions are refusing God’s self giving to me, should it lie and implicitly affirm them by acknowledging my communion at the altar?
Make no mistake, “the Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect” is a great line, but no one in the history of the Christian religion has held that perfection is a pre-requisite for reception of the Eucharist. The point is not that we’re perfect but that we’re acting in ways coherent with God’s will. In such acts we are accepting God’s self gift as Christ, whom the Spirit conforms us to, makes us one with. I can’t imagine that Francis or anyone is saying, contrary to centuries of Eucharistic theology, that our actions do not matter. If not, if we can act any way we want, crucially without repentance and any desire for change, then the Eucharist seems less a gift of God’s self, accepted in our body, but magic dust, which makes us like Christ unbeknownst to us, apart from our will, understanding, acts, faith—in short, apart from our humanity. In such an understanding, the Eucharist is not grace, nor, really, is it medicine, which requires our actions (stopping the actions that damage our heart, lungs, and so on) to work. In such an understanding, the Eucharist is magic dust.
I am not speaking here about any particular moral issues and have not offered moral analysis of my eating or anyone’s sex life. I’m sure Mo Rocca is a lot closer to perfection than I am (although, in fairness, that’s a pretty low bar). I have simply noted that such acts (my eating, Mo’s sex acts) are acts which, in the Church’s traditional understanding, reject God’s self giving and so need to be repented of in order to be in full communion with God. Explicit affirmation of participation in the Eucharist without such penitence signifies either a change in the Church’s understanding of the moral coherency of such actions (which is unlikely), or an unspoken but nonetheless radical alteration of the Church’s understanding of the Eucharist.
As we approach the synod on the family, perhaps this is one of the very few times that theologians may be of some use. Our use, at this time, may be to note that the upcoming synod is not just about the family. It’s not just about mercy or pastoral care. It’s also about the Eucharist, what it is and how it functions in the economy of salvation. And in terms of significance, nothing Pope Francis has done on his trip to the U.S, nor anything he has ever done in his life, comes close.
Editor’s note: The image above titled “Communion of the Apostles” was painted by Justus van Gent between 1473 and 1475.