May 12, 2005
Across the oceans and the tides of time, at the heart of ancient Rome, there once stood a sports arena on the Vatican hill. In the year 37 A.D., the Emperor Caligula took an obelisk from Alexandria in Egypt and placed it on this spot. This stone rising 83 feet high and weighing 331 tons stood as a symbol of Roman power and the vast kingdom under Caesar. But, like every other kingdom, that great empire died with the death of the last Caesar.
Only once did a kingdom begin at the death of its king. At the death of Jesus, God’s kingdom was ushered in –in blood—in the blood of the Lamb slain for our salvation. With the resurrection of the Crucified Jesus, God’s kingdom began its march across the nations, lifting up the human family by the power of love. Now from every nation and race, there arises a kingdom—God’s kingdom vaster than any Caesar ever dreamed—a kingdom whose power will not die.
At the center of that kingdom is the source of its power. Not stone, not some empty symbol, but the Eucharist—the sacrifice and sacrament of love. As the Second Vatican Council teaches, “The Eucharist is the source and the summit of the Christian’s life” (
Lumen Gentium, 11). In fact, no Eucharist, no Church.
Each time we gather to celebrate this great gift of the Eucharist, we repeat the words Jesus spoke at the Last Supper. Like the diamond in a ring surrounded by emeralds, these words are at the center of the great prayer the priest prays at the heart of our celebration. “On the night he was betrayed, Jesus took the bread,…he broke the bread, gave it to his disciples, and said:…This is my Body which will be given up for you…When supper was ended, he took the cup, gave it to his disciples, and said: This is the cup of my Blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven” (Eucharistic Prayer III).
Four times, the New Testament records these words of institution (Mt 26:26-29; Mk 14:22-25; Lk 22:19-20; 1 Cor 11:23-25). When Matthew, Mark, Luke and Paul hand on to us these sacred words, they are doing more than telling us what Jesus did on the night before he died. They are giving us actual formulas used in the liturgy. And so Matthew and Mark give us what was being said as early Jewish Christians gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the Eucharist. And Luke and Paul, what Greek speaking Christians were saying when they met in Antioch.
How important this fact is! It means that from the beginning, even before the gospels were written, even before the earliest parts of the New Testament were penned by Paul, the Church was repeating over bread and wines the words of Jesus from the Last Supper. And by the power of the Spirit whom Jesus sent on his Church, the bread became his body and the wine, his blood.
Bread and wine. Bread and wine are significant. But, in the hands of Jesus, bread and wine are transformed not simply in meaning, but in fact. Bread broken, bread distributed—a sharing in food, a sharing in life. Wine—the blood of the grape, flowing as the grapes are crushed under foot like blood pouring from the defeated as they are trampled and trodden underfoot. Bread and wine—separate like the Body and the Blood separated in death on the cross.
Jesus spoke in images, taught in parables and healed by touch. At the Last Supper, he transformed bread and wine into His Body and Blood. The teacher, the healer is the Eternal Word whose power transcends our ability to fathom. In Aramaic, he says, “
den bisri--This is my flesh;
den idhmi—this is my Blood.” And it is his body. It is his blood. This is not the figurative language of human metaphor. This is the literal language of the divine Word.
There is no doubt whatsoever that the early Christians understood the Eucharist this way. Paul says, “Whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the Body and Blood of the Lord’ (1 Cor 11:27-29). John gives us Jesus’ words, “For my flesh is food, my blood is drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in Him” (Jn 6:53).
Symbols fade. Reason fails. Only faith—the faith of the Church going back to the apostles in the Upper Room beneath the paschal moon—only this faith illumines the gift we are given. Simply stated, the Eucharist is the Lord Jesus. How profound the mystery: Jesus suffering, dying for us on the cross. Jesus whose body was broken; whose blood outpoured for us sinners.
Every Eucharist makes us present to Jesus on Calvary as he dies for us. Every Eucharist makes us present to Jesus who is Risen and is Lord. In fact, in every Eucharist, we are touched by the Lord in every mystery of his incarnate life, from his Bethlehem to Golgotha, from the empty tomb to his final coming as Judge of the living and the dead. Here eternity touches time and our poor humanity is flooded with the gift of divinity.
In all our lives there are many deserts we must face. In his Mass of Inauguration, our Holy Father Benedict XVI listed a few. The desert of poverty. The desert of hunger and thirst. The desert of abandonment. Young or old, sinner or saint, we pass through many empty places where life is not valued, where love is not honored. There are moments in each of our lives where we sense loneliness, feel pain and hunger and thirst for more.
The Eucharist is our manna in the desert. As the Jews received the manna from heaven on their way to the Promised Land, we receive Jesus, the Bread of life.
He comes to strengthen us in our walk with God. He comes to dwell in us and share his life with us. We are never alone. Here is the meaning of communion in its deepest sense. As Jesus says at the Last Supper, “On that day you will realize that I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you” (Jn 14:20). In every communion, we are drawn up into life of God. Holy Communion takes us up into the holiest communion: the very life of the Trinity.
And since God is love, every communion impels us to love. Receiving within ourselves this great sacrament of divine love, we are moved to truly love one another. We are empowered to reach out to the lonely, the hungry, the hurting, to those close and those estranged. We are able to forms bonds of love that make us a community. So while we can say, “No Eucharist, no Church,” we can equally say, “Eucharist, Church.” And even now as we sit together as Church at the table of the Lord, there is already a foretaste, a sharing in God’s kingdom that will last forever.