CREEDS Retreat Conference II: The Eucharist and the Church

Scriptures: Matthew 26:14-30

Godspell: “Beautiful City” and “On the Willows”

The Eucharist is an amazingly complex event.  Ordinary food – bread and wine – become the very body and blood of our Lord and God.  Through the Eucharist we mere creatures are given the opportunity to take part in the very life of God our creator.  That life giving body and blood join to our own flesh and blood and raise us up from the base creatures that we are to become more like our divine Savior.  In some way, we become what we receive.  And each celebration of the Eucharist isn’t merely one of a vast number of disconnected events; instead it is what we call an anamnesis, a re-presentation or remembering taking part in the one event on Calvary that saved us all.

In this meal, we are fed and we participate in a sacrifice.  We are fed spiritually, given the strength to fight against evil, to reach out to the needy, to live our lives in holiness and grace.  The strength that the Eucharistic food gives us enables us to change our lives, becoming more than we were, becoming more that we might settle for, becoming all that God created us to be.  We participate also in sacrifice, not just any sacrifice, but the one saving sacrifice that reconciled us to God.

This holy mystery comes about through a similarly complex event, which is to say our celebration of the Mass.  Words are said – “this is my body,” “this is my blood” – the very words Christ himself used when he gave us this amazing sacrament.  These words aren’t magic “hocus pocus” words, because this event is much more than magic.  It’s not a mere change, it’s a re-creation, a re-creation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, and a re-creation of ourselves into the disciples God wants us to be.  And it’s much more than just the words: the bread and wine themselves are important, the priest as the minister acts in the person of Christ, the assembled body of believers brings their joys, sorrows, successes, failures, their riches and their poverty, their gifts and their brokenness, and lays all of it before the altar, in a great offering of faith.

We could get all caught up in the externals.  We want the best music, the nicest vestments and decorations.  But none of that means anything without the faithful act of the assembly, praying and participating, becoming one with each other and one with God.  Eucharist is thanksgiving for our many blessings, but most of all for the blessing of salvation and grace.  Eucharist is communion with Christ and with our brothers and sisters.  In Godspell, this is symbolized by the players having the face paint washed off before the breaking of bread: what had made them beautiful individuals in the sight of God is now an obstacle to communion, and so it is washed away as they come together as one community.

This is why we take such care with the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  We carefully prepare the bread and wine.  We pray the words as best we can in both word and song.  We bow before we receive the Body and Blood of our Lord.  We handle the Body of Christ and the Cup of the Blood of Christ with a care reserved for the most precious of gifts, which of course this is.  And when we are done, we meticulously collect and consume every crumb of Christ’s Body and every drop of his Precious Blood.  When I do that, there is a little prayer that the Liturgy has me say quietly: “May I receive these gifts with purity of heart.  May they bring me healing and strength, now and forever.”  Isn’t that wonderful?  Notice how it carefully refers to the tiniest of leftovers as gifts to be received with purity of heart.  Notice how even those fragments have the ability to bring me healing and strength now and forever!

And what those gifts do for me, they do for all of us.  We become a community strengthened by our participation in the Eucharist and our Communion with God and each other.  The Eucharist is the central act of the Church, because in the Eucharist, we become one and together we accomplish all that Christ wanted for the world: healing the sick, binding up the broken, reaching the lost and the marginalized, meeting the needs of the poor and homeless, helping prisoners find freedom in Christ, defending the infant in the womb, the child on the streets, the elderly on their sick beds, bringing the presence of Christ to the lonely.  As the song says, we can build a beautiful city, but only through our communion with Christ.

As incredibly complex as the Eucharist and our celebration of it is, we are blessed to be able to celebrate it every day of the week.  I remember in the first week of seminary, one of my friends on Saturday said, “Who wants to go to Mass with me tonight and get it over with?”  You’ve never seen men with such horrified looks on their faces!  That is because, whenever we gather, that is the best part of our day.  Our participation in the Eucharist makes all the rest of our lives possible, but not only possible but also better, more filled with grace.  And so, as the prayer says, may we always receive these incredible gifts with purity of heart.  May they bring us healing and strength, now and forever.