Institution and Nature of the Holy Eucharist
Our Lord promised the Jews at Capharnaum that He would give them His flesh to eat and His blood to drink (John vi.).
After the miraculous multiplication of the loaves arid fishes the people went in search of Christ, and found Him in the synagogue at Capharnaum. They wanted Him to give them bread again; but He promised to give them the bread of immortality. When they asked Him for it, He answered: “The bread that I will give is My flesh.” And when they refused to believe His words, He added: “Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink His blood, you shall not have life in you. He that eateth My flesh and drinketh My blood, hath everlasting life, and I will raise him up at the Last Day. For My flesh is meat indeed, and My blood is drink indeed” (John vi. 52-56).
Our Lord fulfilled this promise at the Last Supper; He changed the bread into His body, and the wine into His blood and gave it to the apostles (Matt. xxvi. 28).
The apostles did not, however, see the body of Christ under the appearance of flesh, for the accidents of the bread remained, i.e., its color, taste, smell, weight. Nor did they see His blood otherwise than as wine, because the accidents of the wine were retained; the sub stance only was changed. So the shell of an egg remains the same while what is contained within it is changed into a living bird.
1. The body of Christ under the appearance of bread, and the blood of Christ under the appearance of wine, is called the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar.
Here again we find the three essentials of a sacrament. The visible sign is the form of bread and of wine, the audible sign is the words of Christ; the invisible grace is the reception of the body and blood of Christ; the institution of this sacrament took place at the Last Supper. The visible form portrays the invisible grace: the bread prepared with water and the flour of wheat, and baked with fire, represents the body of Christ which was subjected to cruel suffering; the wine, the juice pressed from the grape, represents the blood of Christ, which flowed from the wounds of His sacred body. The bread is unleavened, to denote the purity of Christ’s body; it is round in shape, because it conceals Him Who is without beginning and without end (Heb. vii. 3). Water is mixed with the wine, to signify the intimate union of the Godhead and manhood in His person. Bread and wine being the principal means of nourishment for the body, signify that the body and blood of Christ are the chief sustenance of the soul. This Sacrament is called the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar, because the change of substance takes place upon the altar; it is called the Blessed Sacrament, because in it not only are the graces of the Sacrament received, but the Author and Giver of all grace; and it is besides the most exalted and sublime of all the sacraments. It is called the Bread of heaven, the Bread of angels, because Our Lord comes down from heaven to be our food, a food which makes men like to angels.
We speak of this Sacrament as the Sacrament of the Altar, because the priest, standing at the altar, does the same by Christ’s command which He Himself did at the Last Supper.
Our Lord commanded the apostles: “Do this for a commemoration of Me” (Luke xxii. 19). On this account the priest pronounces exactly the same words over the bread and wine which Our Lord uttered at the Last Supper, thereby changing the bread into the body, and the wine into the blood of Christ.
The Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar is reserved in the tabernacle in every parish church.
The tabernacle, which stands in the middle of the high altar, is made of wood, marble or brass, gilt inside, and lined with white silk curtains. In earlier times it was situated beside, not above the altar. The name of tabernacle, or tent, is given to it, from the sacred tent of the Israelites; and the mysterious cloud that accompanied them on their journey, was a type of the tabernacle of God in which He dwells with men (Apoc. xxi. 3). A lamp is kept burning continually in the sanctuary before the tabernacle, to indicate the place where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved, and also to symbolize the Light of the world. It is, besides, emblematic of the perpetual adoration the angels pay to the God present upon the altar. In the Temple at Jerusalem there was a candlestick with seven branches in which lights burned continually. Our divine Lord is thus ever present with mortal men; as He Himself declares: “I am with you all days, even to the con summation of the world” (Matt. xxviii. 20). He is as truly present with us as with the saints in heaven; the only difference is that they behold Him face to face, whereas He is hidden from our sight be neath the eucharistic veils. The manna preserved in the ark was a type of the hidden God present in our tabernacles (Exod. xvi. 33).
2. The presence of the body and blood of Christ under the appearance of bread and wine is a mystery, because our feeble reason cannot comprehend it.
Our Lord conceals Himself under the appearance of bread and wine in order to test our faith, whether we believe His words rather than the testimony of our senses. If we saw what we believe, faith would have no merit. Moreover, if we were to behold Our Lord in all the majesty of His glorified body, radiant with light, we should be struck with alarm, and dazzled, as those are dazzled who look with the naked eye on the noonday sun. Even the apostles could not bear the unveiled brilliance of the glorified body at Our Lord’s transfiguration, for they fell to the ground upon their faces. And Moses covered his face, when God appeared to him in the burning bush. We cannot trust our senses even in natural things, for they often deceive us. For instance, an oar half in the water looks as if it were broken; objects seen from a distance appear quite small. Faith teaches us to believe that as the food we eat is assimilated to our body, as the moisture of the earth is changed into the sap of the vine and the juice of the grape, even so, and far more, by the power of His word, can Christ change bread into the substance of His body, and wine into His blood. He, Who by His almighty power can create things out of nothing, can surely effect a change in what already exists. He Who can cause the earth to bring forth bread, can change that bread into His own body. Many different heretics have contested the truth of this doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the Sacrament of the Altar, and endeavored to attach a different meaning to Our Lord’s words: “This is My body.” But in the course of centuries almighty God has worked many striking miracles in confirmation of the truth. Consecrated Hosts have remained unconsumed in the midst of fire; they have remained suspended in the air without support; the place where they were concealed has been disclosed by a bright light hover ing around it; blood has flowed from the sacred Host during Mass; Our Lord has appeared in it in the form of an infant, etc.
It has been the firm belief of Christians in all ages that the bread and wine are converted into the body and blood of Christ.
St. Augustine says: “Our Lord held Himself in His own hands, when He gave His body to the disciples.” St. Cyril: “If Christ changed water into wine on one occasion, He can also change wine into His blood.” And when He asserts that it is His body, who shall dare to gainsay it? It was a calumny commonly brought against Christians by the heathen that they killed and ate the flesh of a child at their ceremonies.
3. It is most true that under the species of bread, as also under the species of wine, Christ is present, God and man, whole and entire.
Where the body and blood of Christ are, there He must be present, not in part, but in His whole person; for now He hath risen from the dead to die no more, and consequently the body can no more be separated from the blood than the body and blood can be separated from the soul of Christ. Our Lord’s words: “This is My body which is given for you,” and: “This is My blood, which shall be shed for many,” demonstrate that it is His living body, His living blood, that are present under the appearance of bread and wine, and therefore the living, not the dead Christ Who is present upon the altar. As a whole landscape may be seen in the pupil of the eye, so Christ is contained whole and entire in the sacred Host.
4. Our Lord is present in every particle, however minute, of the consecrated bread and wine.
We have seen that Christ is present in every Host, and when the priest breaks the Host, He is equally present in every fragment of it. If a magnet be broken in pieces, each part forms a separate magnet with the property of pointing to the north. And if a mirror is broken, in each portion one’s face is reflected. But the body of Christ is not multiplied; His body is but one, animated and pervaded by His divinity, which fills all space. It is not increased by each fresh consecration, nor diminished by the numbers who receive it. As the light of a candle is not lessened, however many other candles are lighted at its flame, so Our Lord’s body suffers no diminution when it is given to thousands of communicants. Thus St. Andrew said to the proconsul at Achaia: “I daily offer upon the altar to the almighty and true God the immaculate Lamb of God. And when all the faithful have received His sacred body, the Victim that was slain is yet alive and unconsumed.”
5. Christ is present in the consecrated elements as long as the accidents of bread and wine remain.
Our Lord is not only present in the Sacrament of the Altar at the moment of communion, but both before and after the Host is consumed. Had this been otherwise, He would not have said: “Take and eat this, for this is My body.” And He is present in those who receive the sacred Host as long as the accidents of bread remain unconsumed. Thus after communion we bear in our body the body of Christ.
6. The duties of the Christian in regard to the Holy Sacrament of the Altar are these: He ought to visit it frequently, to adore it, and to receive it.
We ought to visit the Blessed Sacrament frequently. In this respect the shepherds and the three kings, who came to worship the Infant Saviour in the manger, set us an excellent example. The saints spent many hours in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. Cardinal Bellarmine, when a student, was accustomed whenever he passed by a church to go in and say an Our Father. When asked why ho did this, he replied: “It would be ill manners to go by a friend’s house without a word of greeting.” He was distinguished while yet a youth for his great wisdom. Access to Our Lord is not denied us; the church door stands open, and from the tabernacle the voice of Our Lord calls to us: “Come unto Me, all you that labor and are burdened, and I will refresh you” (Matt. xi. 28). St. Teresa declares that Our Lord in the Adorable Sacrament of the Altar affords us far more satisfaction than can be derived from the whole world, with its festivities and pleasures. In His presence the sorrowful are comforted, the foolish learn wisdom, the feeble are strengthened, and the poor are enriched. Wheresoever the body shall be, there shall the eagles also be gathered together; and in like manner the faithful should hasten to the Blessed Sacrament, the food of the soul. The saints loved to drink of this river of paradise, as the hart pants to quench his thirst at the fountains of water. Unwise indeed are they who in the hour of need, choose rather to seek human aid, to pour their troubles into a human ear; they do not betake themselves to the church, to Christ, Who is so willing, so able to help them.
The Church admonishes us to pay homage to the Holy Sacrament of the Altar by the sanctuary lamp; by the bell rung at Mass and when the Viaticum is carried to the sick, by the processions of Corpus Christi, and by frequent Expositions of the Blessed Sacrament.
It is customary on entering or leaving a church to genuflect before the Blessed Sacrament; to kneel down reverently at the consecration, and when benediction is given with the Blessed Sacrament. In former times people used to kneel whenever they met a priest carry ing the sacred Host to the sick; it is related cf Rudolph of Haps- burg that once when he was out hunting, he met a priest going to give communion to a dying man; immediately he dismounted, and kneeling by the roadside, gave his horse to the priest; nor would he allow the animal to be again used except in the service of the Church. Before receiving holy communion, we ought to make an act of adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Unhappily many among us possess no living faith; they pass by the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar with cold indifference. The procession of Corpus Christi was instituted by Pope Urban IV. in 1264, with a view to increase our faith in the presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, and the Exposition of the Forty Hours has the same object. The Confraternity of the Perpetual Adoration is intended to keep up the worship of the Blessed Sacrament uninterruptedly; each member has to spend at least one hour every month in adoration before the altar. This Sacrament was instituted by Our Lord immediately before His death in order to give it greater importance in our eyes, as we treasure more the last gift of a dying friend. If the Jews were not permitted to behold, much less to touch, the Ark of the Covenant, which was a type of the Adorable Sacrament of the Altar, what dread ought we not to feel in presence of the reality!
Christ invites us to receive the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar when He says: “Except you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you shall not have life in you” (John vi. 54).
The reception of this Sacrament is known as communion, that is, union with Christ. In communion we receive Our Lord, as Zacheus did, into our house. In the Scriptures there are many types of the Holy Eucharist; for instance, the tree of life in the midst of paradise, which gave immortality to our first parents; the manna; the paschal lamb; the bread that gave Elias strength to go the forty days journey to Mount Horeb; the miraculous multiplication of the loaves; the water made wine at the marriage of Cana. And holy communion is itself an earnest of the spiritual food wherewith we shall be nourished in heaven.
The faithful receive the Holy Eucharist under the form of bread only; the priest alone, at Mass, receives it under both kinds.
The priest at the altar oilers an oblation, the very same as the. one Christ offered on Calvary. On the cross Christ shed almost all His blood, so that His body and blood were separated one from the other. The two several species of bread and wine in the Mass signify this separation of Our Lord’s body and blood. The faithful, on the other hand, do not sacrifice the Victim, but receive the Sacrament; it is un necessary for them to receive the chalice, as Our Lord is contained wholly under either species. He Himself says: “He that eateth this bread shall live forever” (John vi. 59). There are many reasons for withholding the chalice from the laity; the precious blood might easily be spilled in passing from one to another; there is the difficulty of procuring wine in some places; the difficulty of reserving it and bearing it to the sick; and some people cannot bear the taste of wine. Communion in both kinds was, it is true, enjoined on the laity by the Holy See in the fifth century, but this was only done to combat the error of the Manichees, who declared wine to be an invention of the devil and wholly to be avoided. And in 1433 the chalice was for a time given to the laity, to induce the followers of Huss to return to the unity of the Church.
This article, Institution and Nature of the Holy Eucharist is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
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