In the Eucharist Our Redemption is Accomplished
Sep 19, 2023
Daniel Drain, Ph.D. (Cand.)
“Do this in memory of me.” So Christ says to His Apostles gathered around Him at the Last Supper, and so we hear at every celebration of the Liturgy of the Eucharist. But what is this? And what do we do?
Some of the substance of what the Church teaches regarding these questions can be answered by averring to the Second Vatican Council, particularly within Sacrosanctum Concilium, its “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.” Within this magisterial font, we find affirmed the following central truth of our faith: to fulfill God’s universal salvific will (1 Tim 2:4), and to culminate the prophetic missions within the Church (Heb 1:1), Jesus Christ is sent to us, and “His Humanity, united with the Person of the Word, was the instrument of our salvation” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 5). That same conciliar document makes quite clear that it is in the Eucharist in particular that our redemption is accomplished. In the Eucharist, the “victory and triumph of His death are again made present” (SC, 6).
What the Second Vatican Council seems to be doing here is joining together our concepts of redemption, Christ’s humanity, and the Eucharist. It is Christ’s humanity which is our salvation, and it is the Eucharist that makes Christ’s humanity present in our midst. Our very redemption, our purification, divinization, and participation in God’s own triune life are at least in some sense accessible and real in and as the Eucharist.
That’s one answered question: we participate in Christ’s self-offering of the Eucharist and we do so in His memory. This in itself is quite a beautiful reflection on the relationship between memory and presence: in remembering Christ’s life through the celebration of the Mass, that very same life is not just nostalgically reflected upon, but made really and sacramentally present through Christ’s own ministerial priesthood in the confection of the sacrament. As Pope Francis recently wrote, “the salvific power of the sacrifice of Jesus, His every word, His every gesture, glance, and feeling reaches us through the celebration of the sacraments” (Desiderio Desideravi, 11).
But there's yet a further question still left unanswered: What is it that we do in the Eucharist, and what is it that we do in the Eucharistic celebration? Hans Urs von Balthasar, one of the most prominent theological voices before and after Vatican II, offers (somewhat surprisingly) a rather pithy list of verbs that answers this question. We see, believe, and eat.
Seeing and Believing
One great obstacle to Eucharistic devotion is, I would argue, not so much a “bug,” to speak in the language of computer programming, but in fact a “feature.” That is, we don’t see Christ in the Eucharist, do we? Precisely what is sensible are those accidents of bread and wine that remain, despite the transubstantiation that has miraculously occurred. Christ’s farewell discourse in the Gospel of John is positively loaded with this language of seeing and believing. The context, however, is typically of a negative seeing: “Yet a little while and you will see me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see me again” (Jn 16:16). Time and again, Christ indicates that His departure – from the Apostles, from this life, and even eventually from this world – will be in service of an even more comprehensive presence. That is, we will see Him again after the Resurrection.
But this post-Resurrection vision of Christ is one in which sight and belief are and must be co-incident. The Apostles, Balthasar writes, “see Him now, and will see Him later, because they bear in themselves Christ’s life and word, and this fulfilled seeing is not endangered by the abyss of non-seeing in the Passion" (“Seeing, Believing, Eating,” Explorations in Theology, vol. IV, 493). Something like this dynamic is illumined by what we already pray regularly in the context of the Eucharistic liturgy. When we proclaim the mysterium fidei, the mystery of faith, precisely what we proclaim as a mystery of faith – a mystery of belief! – is Christ’s death, His absence from this life and descent into the darkness of Sheol.
What we are tracking here is a moving dynamic where what is not seen by the physical senses is perceived by the spiritual senses. The case I would like to make in light of the above is that this is, in fact, the whole point of the Eucharist. In the Eucharistic species, our eyes glimpse only bread and wine. But it is in the Eucharist that the whole Christ is made present: body, blood, soul, and divinity. It is therefore precisely the job of the Christian to learn to see more, to see beyond sight, to perceive with our spiritual faculties the infinite density of the Lord of the Universe having distributed Himself as food. It is true that we don’t see Him with our eyes, but it is precisely that absence of vision that generates in us the spiritual desire – the desire of our whole being, which takes up and synchronizes mind and matter – to perceive and thereby unite ourselves with the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
Given what we’ve affirmed so far, it would seem that Adoration would be the model for our participation in Christ’s sacrifice. Once again, Christ Himself went to rather extreme lengths to make clear that something more is required than sight. We consume the Eucharist, mysteriously, because it will open unite sight and perception into spiritual worship:
“When the Risen One returns from the dead to break the bread for the disciples at Emmaus, and for His disciples who had gone back to fishing for fish and not for people on the Sea of Galilee, that gesture of breaking the bread opens their eyes. It heals them from the blindness inflicted by the horror of the cross, and it renders them capable of “seeing” the Risen One, of believing in the Resurrection” (Desiderio Desideravi, 7).
It is perhaps well known that in the Bread of Life discourse of John’s Gospel, Christ has an opportunity to soften or backpedal on His command that we should eat His flesh and drink His blood and thereby have His life within us. Rather than sentimentalize or spiritualize the issue, Christ makes the matter more physical. Not phagein, to eat, but trōgein, to gnaw or to chew: this is how we are to relate to Christ’s flesh and blood. It is therefore actually quite the dramatic mercy for our palates that he presents Himself to under the guise of bread and wine.
Pope Francis expresses this quite beautifully in Laudato Si’ (236, which references Sacrosanctum Concilium, 8):
“It is in the Eucharist that all that has been created finds its greatest exaltation. Grace, which tends to manifest itself tangibly, found unsurpassable expression when God Himself became man and gave Himself as food for His creatures. The Lord, in the culmination of the mystery of the Incarnation, chose to reach our intimate depths through a fragment of matter.”
We would misunderstand Vatican II’s call for fuller participation in the Eucharistic celebration if we failed to see it in any other way than this: in the Eucharist, our redemption is accomplished; take, therefore, and eat.