The glory of the Eucharist

Christ’s gift of himself in every Mass is the ultimate thanksgiving feast

By Kevin Birnbaum

Turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie — for many Americans, these are the images called to mind by the word "thanksgiving." Come the fourth Thursday in November, we lay out Grandma's china, the good crystal and the silver, and guests arrive bearing specially prepared side dishes and desserts. We set aside a day to spend with family, to give thanks for the good things in life and to enjoy a sumptuous banquet. It's the great American feast.

Disputation of the Holy Sacrament

But for Catholics, the "Ultimate Thanksgiving Feast" isn't just an unattainable aspiration or a bad Food Network special. Every Sunday, we are invited to share in a feast infinitely richer than any earthly Thanksgiving spread: the Eucharist, "the source and summit of the Christian life," in the words of Vatican II.

Sharing in Christ's sacrifice
The word "Eucharist" comes from the Greek word for "thanksgiving," and at Mass we give thanks to God by joining our lives to Christ's sacrifice to his Father.

That sacrifice — Jesus' death on the cross, followed by his resurrection — is a historical event that occurred nearly 2,000 years ago, but it is an event "that does not pass away," said Benedictine Father Jeremy Driscoll, a professor of theology at Mount Angel Seminary in Oregon and the author of the popular book What Happens at Mass.

At every Mass, "the event of the death and resurrection of Jesus from the dead is made effectively present for us," Father Driscoll said. "The Mass is the effective means of contacting that event, of having communion in that event."

We share in Christ's sacrifice most fully by partaking of the Eucharist — the bread and wine that, by the power of the Holy Spirit and the words of the priest in the Mass, have been transformed into the very body and blood of Jesus.

Glorious, huge, terrifying
Catholics need to be constantly reminded what a big deal Mass really is, Father Driscoll said. In the Eucharist, "God is giving himself to the world in a total way — it's not just a little bit of God," he said.

"By definition, it is the biggest thing," he said. "It's glorious, it's huge, it's terrifying in a beautiful way."

And it should make a difference in the lives of those who share in it, because in the Eucharist Jesus gives us his very being, which is perfect, infinite love.

"The individual person that's trying to love needs to be aware that he or she has supernatural powers, that there's no limit to the love that one can give," Father Driscoll said. "We see that in the saints. You can't explain their great charity apart from this."

In a very real sense, the Eucharist is the source of our life, so much so that the church says that skipping Mass is a mortal sin.

"Let's think about the phrase 'mortal sin,'" Father Driscoll said. "It doesn't mean: Here's a rule — if you don't keep it, we're going to smash you. What it means is: mortal. If you don't do this, you'll die. Your soul will die. Your Catholic life will die. There's no Catholic life without regular access to this."

Worship worthy of God
But through the Eucharist, we are brought to life precisely by sharing in Christ's death on the cross.

"In the death of Christ, the reality of death and sin in the world is effectively dealt with," said Father Driscoll. "Death is the problem of human existence. Everything in us rebels against it — rightly so, because we're not made for death."

Death is the result of sin, of our saying "no" to God. But Jesus is God in the flesh, perfectly sinless — he does not need to die, but he submits to death out of love for us. Jesus thereby changes what death is and what it means.

"Death used to say 'human refusal of God's will.' Now death says 'divine love,'" Father Driscoll said. "Death becomes a door through which we enter into a total share in the divine life. This completely changes the meaning of human existence, so it's enormous."

By offering our lives to God in communion with Christ's sacrifice made present in the Mass, we give God thanks for "all that he's done in the dying and rising of Jesus," Father Driscoll said.

"In and of ourselves, it's impossible that we can offer a thanksgiving that's commensurate with his gifts, but through Christ and with Christ and in Christ, we offer a commensurate thanks — we offer something worthy of God's majesty and glory. That's effectively achieved in the Mass. That's what's magnificent about it. It's worship worthy of God."


Jesus instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper, as recorded in the Gospels: "While they were eating, Jesus took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and giving it to his disciples said, 'Take and eat; this is my body.' Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, 'Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins.'" (Matthew 26:26-28)

October 18, 2013