All love demands union; the more ardent the love, the more complete the union it seeks. The love of our Lord for us is no exception. As St. John Chrysostom tells us, our Lord instituted the Blessed Eucharist so that we might become one entity with Himself, united to Him as the head is united to the body, as food is united to one that consumes it, “for this is the desire of the ardent lovers.” We spoke in the last chapter of the Church as the bride of Christ. St. Paul cites the marriage union as a symbol and shadow of the still more intimate union of Christ with His Church: “they shall be two in one flesh” (1 Cor 6:16); and St. John tells us of the repeated prayer for union that our Lord uttered at the Last Supper when He instituted the Sacrament of the Blessed Eucharist, which very sacrament is His means of effecting that union.
It is difficult to write either soberly or distinctly of the Blessed Eucharist. Perhaps our best plan is to quote the Council of Trent as follows: “Our Savior, when about to depart out of this world to the Father, instituted this sacrament, in which He poured forth, as it were, the riches of His divine love towards men, making a remembrance of His wonderful works; and He commanded us in the participation thereof, to venerate His memory and to show forth His death until He come to judge the world. And He willed also that this sacrament should be received as the spiritual food of souls, whereby may be fed and strengthened those who live with His life, who said: ‘He that eateth me, the same also shall live by me’(Jn 6:58) and as a antidote, whereby we may be freed from daily faults, and be preserved from mortal sins. He willed furthermore that it should be a pledge of our glory to come, and of everlasting happiness, and thus be a symbol of that one body, whereof He is the Head, and to which He would fain have us as members be united by the closest bonds of faith, hope, and charity, ‘that we might all speak the same things, and there might be no schisms amongst us.’”
In this sacrament, then, under the appearance of bread, our Lord and Savior gives us His Flesh and Blood, for the food of our souls. It was not enough for Him that He should become one of ourselves by adopting a human nature like our own. It was not enough that He should share the hardships of a life like our own—that He should suffer and die and atone for our sins, in our name. He loved us, and He would not rest until He should be completely united to us. And in His love He devised this most extraordinary method of union, in which He Himself becomes our food! Truly a tremendous lover!
The first thing to realize about the Blessed Sacrament is that it really contains the Body and the Blood, the Soul and Divinity of Christ. At Mass, the priest takes bread into his hands and repeats the words of our Lord: “This is My Body.” As a result of these words, the substance of the bread is converted into the Body of Christ, while the accidents—that is, the size, the shape, the color, the taste, the physical and chemical properties, etc.—of the bread remain. As far as the words of consecration go, they affect the presence only of the Body. But because our Lord is risen from the dead and dieth now no more, His Blood and His Soul are also present. And because the human nature of Christ is forever united to the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, His divinity is also present in the host. The priest then takes the chalice of wine, and utters the words: “This is the chalice of My Blood, of the new and eternal testament; the mystery of faith; which shall be shed for you, and for many, to the remission of sins.” And as a result of these words, the substance of the wine is changed into the Blood of Christ, while the accidents of the wine remain. And for the same reasons as apply to the host, there is also present in the chalice, the Body, the Soul, and the Divinity of our Lord.
Jesus Christ, then, is really, truly, and substantially present in the sacramental species of bread, and also in the species of wine. There is one difference in the manner of His presence on the altar and that of the priest’s presence at the altar. The priest makes contact with the ground by the surface and size and weight of his own body; our Lord makes contact with the altar, by the surface and size and weight of the bread. The priest is localized by his own accidents; our Lord is localized by the accidents of the bread. These indicate and reveal His presence, but He Himself is invisible. There is no other example in nature of this sort of presence, and so no word can be borrowed from experience for it. The technical usage is to say that our Lord is sacramentally present. This involves real, true, and substantial presence, but it implies a difference of manner from ordinary presence. We labor the point only because it may help us to some understanding of the meaning of the Mass.
This is the wonderful food which our Lord had promised His disciples, some of whom found it such a “hard saying” that they walked no more with Him. His words are pregnant with meaning: “Amen, Amen, I say unto you: Except you eat of the flesh of the son of Man, and drink of 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 in the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood, abideth in me and I in him. As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father, so he that eateth me, the same also shall live by me” (Jn 6:54–58).
Here we have our Lord’s description of the effects of Holy Communion: We shall abide in Him, and He in us; we shall live by Him as He liveth by the Father. To understand the results of the reception of this sacrament, we can regard them as produced in three ways: by union with Christ, by spiritual nutrition, by its special signification of the Passion of Christ.
Let us consider just St. Paul’s words (as translated by Prat from the Greek): “The chalice of benediction which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? And the bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For there is only one bread, and we all make one body since we all partake of that bread” (1 Cor 10:16–17). St. John Chrysostom’s comment on these words is: “Paul does not say participation, but communion, because he wishes to express a closer union. For, in receiving Holy Communion, we not only participate in Christ, we unite with Him. In fact, as this body is united with Christ, so by this bread we are united into Christ. . . . But why do I speak of Communion? Paul says we are identically this body. For what is this bread?—The Body of Christ. And what do we become by receiving this bread? The Body of Christ: not many bodies but one only.”
We have quoted these texts from the Council and from the Fathers, who weighed their words with theological precision and had the assistance of the Holy Spirit in choosing them, lest our own attempt to express the intimacy of this union would seem merely metaphorical, an empty figure of speech. Let us be clear what the union in question is. It is not the fact that the sacramental species containing the living Body of Christ with His divinity are united to our body by the act of receiving the host. This is indeed a wonderful privilege, and while it lasts, we should not fail to make use of the unique opportunity to speak to our Lord and our divine lover to thank Him, to assure Him of our need and love for Him, to beg from Him the grace to love Him more and to live according to His will, and to entreat of Him to remake us and mould us to His heart’s desire. If there is any special time for making love to Jesus, certainly it is after receiving Holy Communion as long as this presence remains.
But this presence is only temporary; it ceases as soon as the natural processes of digestion change the species of bread. Once the qualities of bread disappear, the Real Presence is at an end. The presence of the Sacred Host in our bodies is only a means to something much greater, namely the union of our soul with the divinity of Christ—the incorporation of our whole being into His Mystical Body in which we are united to His in a new way, as to our Head. The whole of the earlier part of this book is a description of the union which is more fully established by the reception of Holy Communion. There we attributed it to baptism, but baptism is only the gate to Holy Communion and only gives us the germ of the divine life. Further, baptism presumes at least an implicit intention—vicarious, of course, for an infant—of receiving the Sacrament of the Eucharist, of which in fact some effect is received because of this desire. To quote Prat:
It seems that without the Eucharist which is “the sacrament of piety, the [efficacious] sign of unity and the bond of charity,” according to the famous expression of St. Augustine, the Mystical Body would not have all the perfection which is its due. Christians would neither be united with Christ nor with one another by that ineffable union which Holy Communion produces, and which the Lord meant for His Church when He instituted the Eucharist. If our incorporation into Christ by faith and baptism is sufficient for salvation, communion with Christ is indispensable for the social perfection of the Mystical Body of Christ and even, normally, for the individual perfection of the Christian. The consequence is evident to everyone who remembers that the Eucharistic food, unlike ordinary nourishment, has the power of transforming us into it.
Let us think again for a moment of our Lord’s own words: “He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood abideth in me, and I in him” (Jn 6:57), and let us remember the desire of the lover that they express. For when one loves, one goes forth as it were from oneself and enters into the beloved, and holds the will and the good of the beloved as one’s own; when one loves, one identifies oneself with the beloved, and wills and acts for the sake of the beloved as for one’s own sake, making the beloved another self. The tragedy of all human love, even in its highest forms, is that this complete identification is impossible. But with God all things are possible, and the loving Heart of Jesus has designed this ineffable manner of achieving this union and convincing us of its intimacy by means of Holy Communion. With St. Paul we can cry out: “I live, now not I: but Christ liveth in me” (Gal 2:20).
And who is it to whom we are thus united? Who is it that comes into our body under the sacramental species? Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity; He of whom St. John says: “All things were made by Him,” the maker of all things, and the model of all things. Every maker works according to an idea, an exemplar, a model. There is some thought in his mind to which he gives external existence in a concrete thing. The artist, the architect, the composer, the craftsman, the producer, and the poet all work in their own way to give external existence to their thought. So did God. When He created the world and gave all the inhabitants of the universe their existence and arranged their history, He worked according to an idea. There is an idea in God’s mind corresponding to each one of us and to what we should or could have been, for in arranging our history, He allowed us to cooperate by the use of our own free will, and, so to speak, to alter His plan for our life. But all things whatsoever preexist in the mind of God.
Now God has only really one idea, for such is His perfection that His one idea embraces everything. And God’s idea—or “Word” as the Greeks call it—is the expression of God’s knowledge of His own essence. And God in creating, sees how that one idea can be imitated externally in a limited way, in countless different forms, so that each creature in some limited way partly represents the idea of God and corresponds to it. Now this one idea of God is such a perfect idea—for God’s power of knowledge is infinite and perfect—that it is God, the Word of God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. And this Word of God comes to us in Holy Communion and makes us one with Himself!
Words fail us here, for all human words are useless; but if in desperation we may pick out one phrase, which rather than any other may be a fitting salute to the divine Guest of our souls, is it not: “My God and my all”? If we could only get some shred of an idea of the depth of truth that is in those two words: My all. He is all—for He is God; His is mine—for He has made me one with
Himself. What is there left for us to want? Why lose a moment’s thought over our own deficiency? Why be discouraged even if our life has been one of continual sin?—He is MY ALL! “Gladly will I glory in my infirmities that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” “Nothing is wanting to me in any grace.” “The Lord, my God, dwelleth with me, and I want for nothing.”
Truly, indeed, can one Communion make a saint. There is nothing in our selves or in our past that one Communion cannot more than repair—if we have but enough faith! Listen to St. Thomas:
This sacrament contains in itself Christ crucified [Christum passum]. Whence whatever is the effect of the Passion of our Lord all that is likewise the effect of this sacrament.
That is why we made so bold as to say above that even a lifetime of sins should not discourage us. Because whatever our sins have done to us, the Holy Communion can repair; and whatever our sins have done to God, the Mass—which is part of the Eucharist—can restore. We are indeed sorry for having offended Him, and our sorrow will grow as we realize His love, but our hope and our confidence will also grow as we see how willing that love is to use His infinite power to restore us in Himself.
There must be no limit to our confidence in the power of this divine lover. He is our Creator, and the spiritual life is a recreation. Our sins and our shortcomings have interfered with that re-creation, but here in Holy Communion we have our Creator, our Prototype, coming to unite us to Himself, full of a merciful love and an ardent desire that we “may have life and have it more abundantly.” There is nothing He cannot do—for He is God, and there is nothing He will not do—for He is our Savior, to make us men after His own Heart’s desire, if we but put no obstacle in His way. He is completely at our disposal!
One of the greatest moments possible in the life of a man is when, in complete self-abandonment, some one whom he loves surrenders himself completely to him for his own happiness. In Holy Communion God completely gives Himself to us—one might almost say, surrenders Himself to us—for our own good and happiness. It is no mere gesture. Before He comes to us in Holy Communion, our Lord has lived and died for us in hardship and humiliation, and has suffered for us a Passion that is unequalled in the history of pain. And He comes to us in Holy Communion to give us the fruit of all this. His abandonment and His devotion to our needs and to our happiness is not a momentary thing; it endured for thirty-three years on earth, and He still is always interceding for us in heaven. The idea beggars description and the fact challenges belief. Only the grace of God can make us realize the love of God for us in this sacrament.
In His love, He makes Himself the food of our souls. unlike ordinary food, however, which produces its effects by being changed into our substance, this divine food changes us into itself. It is the beginning of heaven, where we shall be united to Him for ever. Even here, we shall never cease to be ourselves—we shall never lose our own personal individuality—but we shall be renewed and remade in the likeness of God Himself. That renewal begins even here below in the reception of this sacrament. The Council of Florence tells us that:
Every effect which material food and drink produce in regard to corporal life—by sustaining it, by increasing it, by repairing it, and by refreshing it [delectando], this sacrament produces in regard to our spiritual life. . . . By it, we are withdrawn from evil, strengthened in good, and we progress with an increase of virtues and graces.
The Blessed Eucharist sustains the life of our soul by strengthening it against sin, for it gives us a permanent grace which enables us to overcome our self-love, and to live more and more for the love of God. In the same way it strengthens us against temptation, and it is a matter of daily experience that there is hardly any more effective remedy against the attacks of temptation than the devout and frequent reception of Holy Communion. It increases the life of our soul, for not only are grace and the virtues increased, but they are even excited to action. It is this increase of grace in our soul that constitutes the true growth in spiritual life. We have, of course, to use that grace and not let it be dormant, but the love of Christ shown to us in this sacrament “presseth us” and urges us on to fervor and love. Like ordinary food, the Blessed Eucharist repairs our losses. There is a continual weakening of our spiritual strength and fervor through daily venial sins and imperfections. Holy Communion can remove these; it can even lead to the remission of the punishment due to them, but for the fullness of this effect, we must cooperate by our own dispositions. The other effect mentioned by the Council, of producing delight and refreshment, is one of which we are not always conscious. It can be hidden by spiritual torpor, or bodily illness, or it may be postponed by God for His own wise and loving purposes. There are times of aridity when all feeling of fervor and devotion is dead; but true devotion consists in the alacrity of the will and the normal tendency of this sacrament is to increase the promptitude with which we conform our will to the will of God.
All the sacraments have an intrinsic efficacy by which they produce their principal effects independently of the devotion of the recipient, provided, of course, that the dispositions necessary for valid reception are present. To receive Holy Communion lawfully, one must not be conscious of mortal sin; for it is a sacrament of the living, and therefore, mortal sin should be removed by confession before going to Holy Communion. But if a person in good faith, believing his sins to have been forgiven or mistakenly judging that he is in the state of grace, approaches this sacrament with imperfect contrition for any mortal sin he may have committed, then this sacrament will forgive any sin upon his soul even though it be mortal, although it does not remove the obligation of confessing such mortal sins later. This, however, is not the normal purpose of this sacrament, for like all food, it presupposes life.
And just as corporal food only produces its full effects when properly digested, so this eucharistic food may be frustrated from producing the fullness of its effects by lack of proper dispositions in the soul of the recipient. Faith, hope, charity, humility, and submission to the will of God are the fundamental dispositions required. Torpor of the will, negligence, distraction, or affection for some venial sin are the usual failings which interfere with the effects of this sacrament. Hence the need for a proper preparation before receiving it. The ideal thing is to receive it at the proper time during Mass, and to remain for about fifteen minutes afterwards making a proper thanksgiving. under conditions of modern life this is not always possible, and, on weekdays many of the laity have to receive Holy Communion before Mass. Care, then, is necessary to ensure that one is suitably disposed at the moment of reception. The best preparation is, of course, a good life, and a sincere sense of one’s need of God will lead to the proper disposition. But, as far as possible, some time should be spent in prayer and recollection before reception in order to avoid routine and to excite one’s fervor. We can do no more here than note the need and remind the reader that many graces may be lost if one is not properly disposed when receiving.
That Holy Communion is the proper daily food of the soul is obvious; and those who can approach the altar daily should do so. But that is not always possible, and it is well to remember that we have the authority of St. Thomas for the statement that the effects of this sacrament can be obtained by a sincere desire; but our desire is not sincere if we do not avail of the opportunity of reception. Those who are prevented from receiving sacramentally should appeal confidently to God, whose grace-giving action is not limited to the sacraments, and in a real sense of their need, with full confidence in His power and goodness, beg Him to give them those graces which He normally would give them in Holy Communion. Such a prayer can draw down innumerable graces, and should be the daily practice of those who cannot approach the altar.
The immediate effect of this sacrament is to unite us to Christ, but it also unites us to all His members, for we are all one body. It unites us to the Blessed virgin, to all the saints, to all the souls in purgatory, to all living members of the Church. It unites us in a special way to our relations and our friends, and still more especially, it unites husband and wife. In former times, this sacrament was celebrated at a supper to which all were invited in order that they might signify the union of charity that was theirs. We have previously noticed that it is the same virtue of charity by which we love God and love our neighbor; and it is only natural that this sacrament in increasing our charity should promote our union with one another.
All the sacraments owe their power to the Passion of Christ, but the Blessed Eucharist is the “perfect sacrament of the Passion,” for it contains Christ and the whole power of His Passion. This sacrament, therefore, is a pledge of our future glory because it was by His Passion that Christ opened for us the gates of heaven. Through its relation with the Passion it also arms us and strengthens us against the attacks of the devil. St. John Chrysostom exhorts us to remember that “leaving this sacred table we are like lions, breathing flames, and are made a terror to the demons.” The connection, however, of the Blessed Eucharist with the Passion is best considered in connection with the Mass.
If we may sum up the effects of Holy Communion in a few words, we would say it produces a “transforming union with Christ.” It unites us to Him, as we have seen; and although He is our food in this sacrament, and normally food is changed into body of those that eat it, yet here it is we who are changed into Him. This divine food was foreshadowed in the Old Testament by the manna, which each one found to be a complete nourishment and exactly suited to his own taste and needs. So it is in this Blessed Sacrament. In this food we find the exact complement of ourselves. The priest at Mass breaks the large host into three pieces. Any two of these three will completely and perfectly fit in with the other one to make the perfect circle of the host. We can take that as a figure of the union with our Lord in this sacrament. By our sins and infidelity we have broken ourselves off from the perfection He intended for us; we are incomplete and disfigured. In this sacrament we can find our full complement and restoration; Christ fits in perfectly with all our needs—with all the gaps in our self and in our life, whether they are due to our own fault or not. It does not matter how many or how great were our sins or our weaknesses. He can restore everything in Himself. We must never doubt that, and we must never forget it. He is our omnipotent Savior, and He does all things well!
We are here at the heart of the mystery of the Mystical Body. Obviously the sacrament, in which the Body and Blood of Christ become our food, is the principal artery that joins us to His Mystical Body. Its efficacy depends first of all on our use of it, for unlike the human body where the organs are in permanent connection with the blood supply, we are free, and must use our power of choice to attach ourselves by faith and by the sacraments to the vital circulation of Christ’s Mystical Body. Even when we do join ourselves to His stream of divine life, we shall still have to use our power of choice and decide to live by it and for Him, and not by ourselves and for ourselves. But the Blessed Sacrament is more than an artery. In a sense it is the whole Body—inasmuch as it unites us to our Head and to all His members—for it actually gives us Christ Himself, and changes us into Him. There is no limit to what we may hope for from this change. In it we can find the realization of all our wildest dreams. The pagan poet who sang,
Ah Love, could’st thou and I with fate conspire
To smash this sorry scheme of things entire,
Would we not shatter it to bits—and then
Remold it nearer the heart’s desire?
would have found the literal fulfillment of his wish in the Blessed Eucharist. It is indeed a conspiracy with love, to shatter all that is “sorry” in our self, and remold it to the desire of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. And it is a conspiracy that will succeed, if we but let our tremendous lover have His way. But—the eternal lament still echoes from those sacred lips—the eternal tears still glisten in the eyes of our divine lover—the gentle reproach still whispers in our ears: “Thou wouldst not!” Here, in these words, is the tragedy of the Heart of Jesus. He comes to us, daily if we will, in complete self-surrender. He gives Himself to us completely, He puts all His divine power at our disposal. He offers us complete union with Himself; and—“We will not!” We want to be ourself—we want to live our own life; we will not live by Him, as He lives by the Father.
Here, also, is our own tragedy. For there is no moment, no depth of sin or of failure, no loss or no disaster, in which we cannot still find all that we might have been, all that we would like to have been, all that God wants us to be—in a word—in which we cannot find literally all in the Sacrament of the Altar. And yet we are so self-sufficient, that we will not abandon our selves and put all our trust in Him. The saints go to Holy Communion in complete poverty of spirit. It is not a question of supplying for their deficiencies, of completing themselves—it is a question of replacing their nothingness by the fullness of Christ. Their past life—good and bad—their sins and merits, count as nothing in their eyes; their whole hope, their whole desire, their whole self, is found in the Blessed Sacrament. Like St. Paul they exclaim: “One thing I do: forgetting the things that are behind, and stretching forth myself to those that are before, I press towards the mark, to the prize of the supernal vocation of God in Christ Jesus! . . . We look for the Savior our Lord Jesus Christ, who will reform the body of our lowness, made like to the body of his glory, according to the operation whereby also he is able to subdue all things unto himself ” (Phil 3:13–21). Why? Because: “If then any man be in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things are passed away, behold all things are made new” (2 Cor 5:17).
We cannot believe our good fortune; we cannot realize the love and the bounty of God. We do not know the gift of God; we do not realize that God can give us all the desires of our heart. We still cling to our own selves and our own strength and put our hope in our selves. If we would be truly happy and find all that our heart longs to let us go to Communion in faith, hope, charity, humility, and complete abandonment to the will of Him who comes as our food and our tremendous lover. For we cannot do better than to adopt the device of St. Columban: “Christi simus, non nostri”—“Let us belong to Christ, and not to ourselves.”