“Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament… There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves on earth…” (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, p.53)
The one great thing to love on earth… The true way of all your loves on earth… Is this how we, along with Tolkien, understand the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist? With such profundity of awe and adoration?
Sometimes we need a well-timed refresher to reinvigorate our inner grasp of the sacramental mystery of the Eucharist. Though the “real presence” of Christ is surely a mystery, the great apologist Frank Sheed has reminded us that “a mystery is not something you can know nothing about, but rather, a mystery is something you cannot know everything about.” Furthermore, Sheed teaches, we must realize that in all of the seven sacraments instituted Christ we receive the life of Christ; but in the Eucharist—and the Eucharist alone—we receive not just Christ’s life, but Christ Himself in all wholeness. We must, then, seek to know and love Christ evermore in the hidden form of the Eucharist.
Now let’s ask ourselves a few questions about this Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar:
How ‘holy’ is the Eucharist?
To be “holy” means to be set apart. Blessed Mother Teresa and St. Thomas More, for example, were set apart because of the love of Christ they reflected so radiantly in their lives—and especially amidst suffering. Those who encountered them saw clearly that they were in the world but not of the world. It is, then, no surprise that the French translation of “holy” is “saint.”
How holy is the Eucharist? Infinitely holy. The Eucharist is the fullness of the second person of the eternal Blessed Trinity—body, blood, soul and divinity—though hidden behind a veil of bread and wine. The holiness of the Eucharist cannot therefore be measured by any matter of “degree” because the Eucharist is Holiness in its most pure and limitless form. The Eucharist is Holiness personified.
Is the Eucharist all of Jesus?
Yes. The Eucharist is the “source and summit of the Christian life” because it is Jesus—and the Eucharist is all of Jesus because it is the risen Jesus, whose glorified humanity and divinity cannot be divided.
How can we know Jesus is really present under the form of bread and wine? Because the highest and strongest authority according to St. Thomas Aquinas—divine revelation—says so (see Summa I, 1, 8). St. John’s Gospel reveals clearly that Jesus taught a real and literal “eating and drinking” of His body and blood (read all of John 6, especially verses 32-71). We know Jesus meant what He said and said what He meant because of:
A. The disciples’ reactions caused by such teachings such as “my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink” (Jn 6:55). Many left Him. This is the only instance in the Gospels that Jesus lost followers because of doctrine.
B. Jesus’ choice of wording. In the Greek, Jesus begins with the verb that translates “to eat” (as in “eat my flesh…”), but when His followers are scandalized by His teaching on the Eucharist, He begins to use the verb meaning “to gnaw” (as in “gnaw my flesh…”). He clearly elevates His language to emphasize the literal sense of His teaching.
C. Jesus made no attempt to “tone down” His teaching or indicate a “more tolerable” symbolic meaning. Unlike other times in the New Testament, Jesus makes no attempt to clear up misunderstandings.
The teaching of the Eucharist was a hard one and Jesus knew it. If there was any doubt or ambiguity remaining about what the “Bread of Life” teachings really meant, He makes Himself conclusively clear at the Last Supper when He holds up unleavened bread and says “Take, eat; this is my body” (Matt 26:26); from this point forward there was no question about what Christ meant by “eat my flesh” or “this is my body.” Jesus had instituted the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.
St. Paul and the apostles were spirited proclaimers of the Gospel of the Eucharist (see 1 Cor. 10:16–17, 11:23–29) and passed on this saving doctrine (1 Tim 4:16) to their own disciples.
A disciple of St. John, Ignatius of Antioch, wrote at the beginning of the 2nd century:
“I have no taste for corruptible food nor for the pleasures of this life. I desire the bread of God, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, who was of the seed of David; and for drink I desire his blood, which is love incorruptible” (Letter to the Romans 7:3 [A.D. 110]).
Around the same time this student of “the beloved apostle” and early Church bishop declared:
“The Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which that Father, in his goodness, raised up again. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes” (Letter to the Smyrnaeans 6:2–7:1 [A.D. 110]).
St. Ignatius understood that the Eucharist—that is, all of Jesus under the form of bread and wine—dwelled indeed within the Catholic Church; in his Letter to the Smyrnaeans the bishop also wrote, “wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”
Is receiving the Eucharist practical?
Could there be anything more practical than uniting ourselves to the God through who all things are possible? Indeed there is nothing more practical than receiving the Eucharist.
Do you need more time in the day? Receive the Author of Time.
Do you need more energy to accomplish your tasks? Receive the all-powerful God.
“I don’t need the Eucharist to receive Jesus”, a well-meaning Christian might respond, “I can just ask Him into my heart.” To which the Catholic responds, “Indeed you can!” But the difference between an encounter with the Eucharistic Christ versus an encounter with the non-Eucharistic Christ cannot be downplayed. For there is—as G.K. Chesterton has rightly pointed out—”a considerable practical difference between Jehovah pervading the universe and Jesus Christ coming into the room” (The Thing, p.180).
It is the inconceivable difference between being one-on-one with God versus being one with God.
Holy Mass is the most practical event on earth.
Can I encounter Jesus in the Eucharist outside of Mass?
Yes. If the little red light is on near the altar, “Jesus is in.” Stop by your nearest parish, even for 5 minutes, and rest before the Lord. “When you approach the Tabernacle”, as St. Josemaria Escriva reminds us, “remember that he has been awaiting you for twenty centuries” (The Way, 537).
Visit Jesus in the tabernacle (or in the monstrance) and you will always leave better than you came. This is what Matthew Kelly called the “classroom of silence.” What’s so special about this classroom? The teacher is omniscient; He is all-knowing. There is nothing He cannot teach you for He knows everything—past, present and future—now and for all of eternity.
“If I am to answer the question, ‘How would Christ solve modern problems if He were on earth today’, I must answer it plainly; and for those of my faith there is only one answer. Christ is on earth today; alive on a thousand altars; and He does solve people’s problems exactly as He did when He was on earth in the more ordinary sense. That is, He solves the problems of the limited number of people who choose of their own free will to listen to Him.”
How often should we visit Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament? Consider the words of Tolkien:
“The only cure for sagging or fainting faith is Communion. Though always Itself, perfect and complete and inviolate, the Blessed Sacrament does not operate completely and once for all in any of us. Like the act of Faith it must be continuous and grow by exercise. Frequency is of the highest effect. Seven times a week is more nourishing than seven times at intervals.” (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, p. 250)
Here Tolkien refers more specifically to the Holy Mass; but if we cannot make Mass, we ought to at least visit the “classroom of silence” for a couple intentional minutes of adoration, thanksgiving and prayer.
Is the “Body of Christ” found anywhere else on earth?
Actually, yes. The Church is the mystical Body of Christ (see Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, Colossians 1 and St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians). In fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “Christ and his Church thus together make up the “whole Christ” (795). What is the common seam that hold the fabric of the Church together? You guessed it—the Eucharist. We are what we eat.
Moreover, Christ taught that “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Mt 25:40). In other words, “Christian—when your neighbour stands before you in need, I Am.”
When a doctor puts her hands on a patient, she has put her hands on the body of Christ. When a poor man looks us needfully in the eye, Christ does. The Eucharist, thus, gives us strength to love our neighbours as we would love Christ.
The Eucharist—as the Hidden Manna—is “food for the journey”, but to receive the food and refuse the journey can be a deadly combination. The beloved Anglican philosopher and writer, C.S Lewis, observed:
Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object present to your senses.” (The Weight Of Glory)
The Catechism teaches clearly:
“The Eucharist commits us to the poor. To receive in truth the Body and Blood of Christ given up for us, we must recognize Christ in the poorest, his brethren” (1397)
Finally, St. John Crysostom drove this point home in the early Church when he wrote:
“You come to attend church services dressed in the finest silks which your wardrobe contains; and it is right that you should honor Christ in this way. But on your way, do you pass naked beggars in the streets? It is no good coming to the Lord’s table in fine silks, unless you also give clothes to the naked beggar – because the body of that beggar is also the body of Christ.”
How important is the Eucharist?
Nothing is more important for Christ’s importance to man is infinite and eternal. The Eucharist is salvation because it is the risen Christ, who is our salvation, dwelling on earth. That is why Christ says, “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever” (Jn 6:56).
Understanding his dependence on the Sacrament of the Eucharist, J.R.R. Tolkien reflects in another letter to his son later in life:
”But I fell in love with the Blessed Sacrament from the beginning – and by the mercy of God never have fallen out again: but alas! I indeed did not live up to it…Out of wickedness and sloth I almost ceased to practice my religion…Not for me the Hound of Heaven, but the never-ceasing silent appeal of Tabernacle, and the sense of starving hunger. I regret those days bitterly (and suffer for them with such patience as I can be given); most of all because I failed as a father. Now I pray for you all, unceasingly, that the Healer… shall heal my defects, and that none of you shall ever cease to cry Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini [Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord]” (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, p. 250)
Indeed—blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord and dwells among us!