THE MEANING OF THE EUCHARIST
Ex 24:3-8; Heb 9:11-15; Mk 14:12-16, 22-26
Today is the feast of CORPUS CHRISTI — Body and blood of Christ. The three readings today help us to reflect on the meaning of the Eucharist. The Eucharist is A SACRIFICE and A SACRAMENT. As a sacrifice, it is the new covenant of the body and blood Christ that leads us to God. As a sacrament, the Lord Jesus Christ is present in the Holy Eucharist, under the appearances of bread and wine, offered, and received. The whole Christ is really, truly, and substantially present in the Holy Eucharist. This means that in the Eucharist we encounter the person of Jesus Christ. To understand the meaning of the feast of the Corpus Christi, we need to begin from the Old Testament.
1. THE SACRIFICE OF THE EUCHARIST
a) The 1st reading of today talks about the covenant between God and the people of Israel. Having failed to keep the promises made at the time when God freed them from slavery in Egypt, the people of Israel swear that they want to renew their relationship with God. “We will do everything that the LORD has told us” (Ex 23:3). This covenant had to do with blood of animals. Let us take particular note of the liturgical order followed by Moses. It is very much like during the Holy Mass—Moses read the law of God to the people, and explained it, while they listened (THE LITURGY OF THE WORD AT MASS); the people renew and professed their faith in the One God (THE CREDO) “Taking the book of the covenant, he read it aloud to the people, who answered, “All that the LORD has said, we will heed and do.” Next, the people turned to the altar of sacrifice where they shared the sacrificial victim as food (THE LITURGY OF THE EUCHARIST). This sacrifice of Moses for the people was the sacrifice of expiation, that is, for the forgiveness of the sins of the people, for their reconciliation with God. This sacrifice called for faithfulness, on the part of the people, to the promises that they were making to God. He would be their God, and they would be his people. It is not just some simple covenant; it is a covenant that involves blood. It is very serious!
But as we know, most often, the people betrayed God by not keeping their own side of the deal. They started flirting with other gods. They were weak as human beings often are. They failed to keep their own part of the deal. That is what we often do: we receive Holy Communion, and then go out and start covenanting with other churches, with witch doctors, with occultism, with pagan practices, etc.
b) This brings us to the 2nd reading (Heb 9:11-15), which continues to further explain the SACRIFICIAL aspect of the Eucharist. Because the old covenant could not work, God gives his people another chance, in Jesus Christ. In Jewish religious practice, there was the Feast of Expiation (The Day of Atonement – Leviticus 23:27-28), also known as Yom Kippur) when the High Priest went into the Holy of Holies to renew the covenant of the people with God (Leviticus 16:1-34). He presented the people before God asking for their forgiveness. This symbolized the need for mankind to be cleansed of sin. This ritual was done every year. It was not until Jesus came to make the “ONCE FOR ALL” sacrifice that the need for cleansing ceremonies ceased. “He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself” (Hebrews 7:27). The Letter to the Hebrews further states: “He entered once for all into the sanctuary, not with the blood of goats and calves but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption” (Heb 9:12). The blood of bulls and goats could only atone for sins if the ritual was continually done year after year, while Christ’s sacrifice was sufficient for all the sins of all who would ever believe in him. Jesus used his own blood, not some impersonal blood of animals. This is something unimaginable! When his sacrifice was made, he declared, “It is finished” (John 19:30). He then sat down at the right hand of God, and no further sacrifice was ever needed (Hebrews 10:1-12).
c) On the cross, Jesus offered the sacrifice once and for all. The Eucharist as a sacrifice calls on each believer to be generous, and to make sacrifices. On the altar, we see God who sacrificed everything that he was for the sake of humanity: for your sake and for my sake. Like Christ, we are called to sweat, to shed our blood for others. Unfortunately, as human beings, we are generally selfish. Selfishness makes heroism absurd in our time. But we cheat. We lie. We steal. We shun sacrifices and would want to reap from where we did not sow, by obtaining false certificates, receiving salaries for no work done, scamming innocent people of their hard-earned resources, etc. The Eucharist is teaching us a lot of lessons on what it means to sacrifice.
2. THE EUCHARIST IS A SACRAMENT
A sacrament is a visible sign of a spiritual reality, of invisible grace. On the altar we see the bread and wine, the EUCHARIST, as a sign of Jesus Christ who gave his everything for our sake. THE CROSS AND THE EUCHARIST ARE INSEPARABLE. That is what Jesus presents to his disciples at the Last Super. It is something unfathomable. It is too great for our imagination.
In the book of Exodus, we read about the exploits of the people of Israel in the desert, after their liberation from Egypt. God gave them manna, an unexpected gift of God that gave life to the people of Israel during their suffering in the desert. God gave the manna for 40 years (Ex 16:36), so as to keep them alive. God remained faithful to his people according to the covenant that he swore to them before Moses. Similarly, the Gospel presents a gift immensely superior to manna; it is the bread that gives eternal life. It is the bread given to the people of God in their journey to eternity (“viaticum” or“chop for road”)
In the gospel of today, Jesus further tells his disciples to take and eat. “This is my body. This is my blood, poured out for many”. It is poured out for all those who are ready to make sacrifices. The One body and the one blood are shed for us all. It is a sacrament of oneness. It is a sacrament of healing. Jesus is present with us here and now, and everywhere we celebrate him in the Eucharist. In the Holy Eucharist, under the appearances of bread and wine, the Lord Jesus Christ is contained, offered, and received. The whole Christ is really, truly, and substantially present in the Holy Eucharist. This means that in the Eucharist we encounter the person of Jesus Christ.
On the feast of Corpus Christi, feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, we recall the words of Jesus on Holy Thursday when he said: “This is my body … this is my blood.” Today we celebrate the fact that these words are repeated all over the world every day; that Jesus is present on our altars all over the world. Christ lives here. The Holy Land is present everywhere the sacrament of the Eucharist is celebrated. Here on this altar, we have Bethlehem made present. Jesus is born right here in every Holy Mass. This is Nazareth: Jesus grows up right here in our lives. Jesus works miracles right here, spiritual miracles. He heals us of the leprosy of sin. He heals spiritual cripples so that they can walk in his way. He gives sight to those who cannot see the things of the spirit. He forgives sins right here in our confessional.
This church is the ‘large upper room’ described in the gospel today where Jesus spoke the words of consecration for the first time. No land could be holier than this! This is Cana. Jesus attends every marriage in our church. He attended funerals in his homeland. He is right here when we bury our beloved. This is the temple at Jerusalem. Christ teaches right here through his priest and through the parents of his children. Jesus was present in the villages, the synagogues, the streets, the fields, the lakes, the hills and above all in the homes of the Holy Land. He is present in our homes too.
3. SIGNIFICANCE OF THE EUCHARIST IN LIFE OF A CHRISTIAN
The Eucharist is the life blood of Catholic faith. It forms the basis of our belief and, as a matter of fact, without the Eucharist, which is a continuous reliving of the sacrifice on Calvary, there should be nothing like the Church. This is the major gap between the Catholic Church as the Church to which Christ handed all authority and the other Christian denominations. Catholic Christians believe that after the words of consecration, what we have on the altar is no longer bread and wine, but the body and blood of Jesus Christ (TRANS-SUBTANTIATION as against TRANS-SIGNIFICATION, as believed by many protestant churches. The preacher can briefly explain the meaning of trans-substantiation, and trans-signification). He is present in a mysterious way under the forms of bread and wine. Christ gave himself to us in the form of bread and wine not just to perpetuate his presence among us, but he wants us to consume him in the form of the two species. We believe that in either form, he is present fully in his HUMANITY AND DIVINITY, SOUL AND BODY. That is why we adore and worship him in the Blessed Sacrament.
Christ wants to come into us and live in us and transform us into himself. As God, he does not force himself unto us; he requires faith so that in believing, it will be out of convinction that we receive (Thus the need for saying ‘AMEN’ during the reception of Holy Communion). Remember: he said ‘take, eat, this is my body’ and ‘take, drink, this is my blood’, so that we eat and drink believing in faith that he is actually therein. On the other hand, from scientific point of view, WE KNOW GENERALLY THAT WE BECOME WHAT WE EAT. What we consume eventually becomes transformed into our flesh and blood. That is why Christ wants us to eat his body and drink his blood so that we can be transformed into him. Being transformed into Christ, we become his image the more. It is no long us living again, as St Paul puts it, but Christ living in us (Gal 2:20) Thus, we become new creation (2Cor 5:17).
However, this food and drink is not that Christ give is not the type that one can simply wash his/her hands and eat. It is the type that also requires that we wash our hearts, souls and minds before eating. It is not the type that is digested and absorbed in the intestines and stomach for bodily health alone. It is the type that is absorbed for the life of the soul, for spiritual enrichment. Before consuming the bread and wine, we purify ourselves in order to be worthy.
4. ABUSES AGAINST THE EUCHARIST
Being the sacrifice and the sacrament of Christ, the Eucharist ought to be handled and received with optimum respect. When it is not treated with reverence, that constitutes an abuse of the Eucharist. Every abuse of the Eucharist is a sin. There are two main abuses of the sacrament of the Body and blood of Christ: a) UNWORTHY RECEPTION, b) WRONG USE OF THE EUCHARIST
a) Unworthy reception:
The Church stipulates that: “Anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to communion” Canon 1385. “Anyone” means that even deacons, priests, bishops are included. Some of these sins would include receiving the Eucharist in the following situations: (The priest needs to explain these situations briefly)
i) Those Cohabiting: (those living together and have a sexual relationship without being married.
ii) Polygamists (persons who have more than one wife or husband at the same time).
iii) Those who ALLOW or even FORCE their children to cohabit (Parents who receive bride prices for their children and even boast of how their children are ‘married’, living with a man, while they have not yet blessed their union in church. Such parents should stop receiving communion until those children married in church. However, this should be clearly distinguished from the case of a child who disobeys his/her parents and goes off with a boy/girl.)
iv) Those who have refused to forgive (those who have sworn never to forgive some particular person)
v) Sacramentally married couples who have separated, but have been authorized to receive communion by a priest or bishop, after hearing both partners.
vi) Those who have joined a sect, or left the Catholic Church to another Church, and have not yet been readmitted into the Church (N.B. Some sects even encourage ex-Catholics to go and “receive” communion and bring the sacred species to them for occult practices)
vii) Those practicing “mono-polygamy” (‘deuxiem bureau’: having an official wife or husband, but keeping other partners outside their marital homes)
b) Receiving the Eucharist with inattention:
i) Joining the communion cue just because it is ‘your turn’ in the sitting position (without prior plan/intention to receive communion). Receiving communion for fear of what people may say if you fail to follow the cue.
ii) Failure to keep Eucharistic fast (coming straight from eating ordinary food and receiving holy communion); Chewing (kola nuts or chewing gum) right to the foot of the altar (e.g. having a tooth pick in the mouth).
iii) Jumping off from one activity to receive communion and then continuing immediately after reception (e.g. conducting a choir and jumping off to receive, and then returning immediately to conduct, without any brief silence or meditation)
iv) Receiving with dirty hands.
v) Failure to respond AMEN, when the priest says “ the Body of Christ”. etc. etc.
The Son of God is right here in our midst. The Body and Blood of Christ are with us. Let us pray during this Eucharistic celebration that we may be fully aware of the presence of Jesus among us. May we show respect for him in everything we do and say.