With our young people making their First Holy Communion this weekend, I thought it would be a good opportunity to speak about what we believe about the Eucharist.
We call the Sacrament of the Eucharist Holy Communion, coming from the Latin, com-unio meaning “to be one with.” It is a sacrament, coming from the Latin “sacrarae,” meaning to consecrate, which is very close to the word “sacrifice,” which is a compilation of the words sacrum and facio, meaning literally “to make sacred.”
Words are important to us. They reveal a deeper meaning to what is happening to us. Also, they are living signs, meaning they signify something deeper, that God’s grace is available to us through them. Grace is what is given to us by God so that we might attain eternal life; it is impossible for us to attain eternal life apart from God’s grace, and it is solely due to God’s grace that we can be saved and enter into Heaven. There are two kinds of grace that a given person can receive.
One is called “actual grace.” Actual grace is given to us when God acts in a particular moment in time; it is not continuous and does not stay with us. An example of this would be a particular form of enlightenment you may receive about an issue during a moment of prayer to God. It is an instantaneous experience that pushes you to act.
The other kind of grace is called “sanctifying grace”. Sanctifying grace develops inside of us. Unlike actual grace which is a momentary act, sanctifying grace is a state of being that our soul becomes infused with by the Holy Spirit on account of Christ’s sacrifice for the remission of our sins. It is sanctifying grace that is the basis for our salvation and is infused in us upon our Baptism. Now can we receive sanctifying grace in the Eucharist? Yes, if we are in a state of grace when we receive.
The Church refers to the Eucharist as the “sacrum convivium,” meaning sacred meal. It is a sacred meal celebrated by those who share a common identity. So the Eucharist is not a “come one, come all” meal. It is a Holy Banquet for those who wear the wedding garment. The garment is righteousness and those who refuse to wear it are cast out (cf: Matt 22:11-12 & Rev 19:8). It is a meal shared by those who are seeking to live in holiness.
The Eucharist is nothing less that the Risen Lord Jesus, given to us under the mysterious signs of bread and wine, that have become the Body and Blood of Jesus. For us as Catholics, to share the Eucharistic banquet means that we believe what the Lord Jesus has revealed to us: “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” (John 6:41) Not only this, but Jesus tells us:
“Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat
the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood,
you do not have life within you.. Whoever eats
my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life,
and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh
is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever
eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in
me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me
and I have life because of the Father, so also
the one who feeds on me will have life
because of me.” (John 6:54-57)
And if Jesus is the “Bread of Life,” then wouldn’t we want to live in His grace which gives us eternal life? Wouldn’t we want to do everything possible to receive that grace that saves us and raises us up on the last day?
That is why, from earliest times, the Eucharist has been preceded by a discernment. What does this mean? St. Paul warns the Corinthians in his first letter to them to discern carefully before receiving the Eucharist, because if we receive holy communion in a state of mortal sin, “we receive unto condemnation.” (I Corinthians 11:27 ff).
Not only this, but one of the earliest documents of the Church outside the New Testament, called “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles” (the Didache) written at the beginning of the 2ndcentury, takes up this apostolic tradition and has the priest, just before distributing the sacrament saying: “Whoever is holy, let him approach, whoever is not, let him do penance” (Didache 10).
“Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks
the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to
answer for the body and blood of the Lord.
A person should examine himself, and
so eat the bread and drink the cup.
For anyone who eats and drinks without
discerning the body, eats and drinks
judgment on himself.” (1 Cor. 11: 27-29)
So what’s the point? Well, what the Scriptures and Church are reminding us is that to be a Eucharistic believer is a great gift, and a great responsibility. It means that parents who are not bringing their children to Mass on Sunday are not only in grave sin themselves, but also causing scandal to their children – who learn that Mass is arbitrary and only necessary on our terms, and not a responsibility and a gift.
It means that all of us who come forward on Sunday to receive Our Lord in holy communion are challenged to discern carefully their lives, their choices and if necessary to repent and turn away from those things that are harmful for the soul.
This is also a reminder to all of us to ask the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts and minds, so that we can appreciate in a new way what a gift and grace Mass is. It is also a reminder to all of us to prepare worthily to receive the Lord, by fasting one hour before holy communion, by praying – preferablly as well, to pray with the readings of Sunday’s Mass, and to do everything within our power to be in the Lord’s grace.
Jesus spoke to us in last Sunday’s Gospel, “in this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.” (John 15:8) May the Lord help all of us to recommit ourselves to seek God’s grace and to be transformed by His love in the Eucharist – His gift to us until He comes again.
God bless, Fr. Dennis