Living with Christ – Pastoral Letter on the Eucharist

Living with Christ
Pastoral letter on the Eucharist

The Eucharist is something wonderful. Someone who sees the start of Mass, immediately notices that something special is about to happen. The faithful are called by ringing church bells. The priest enters the church in a small or large procession; often a cross goes in front and the Gospel is carried in as a valuable sign. The priest and his assistants kneel or bow before the altar. After this homage an intimate gesture follows: the priest kisses the altar to greet our Lord Jesus. Even before anything has been said, these rituals have already expressed much faith: that Christ is our host, the living Lord who gathers us together. And not only the start of the Eucharistic celebration, but all of it is full of beautiful and meaningful rituals. Every part of the celebration is meant to bring us closer to God, to let us live more from Him, to unite us with Him and the entire Church. On Sunday, the day of the resurrection, the Eucharist gets a special touch: we share in the Risen Lord’s eternal life.
In this letter, I want to reflect on three questions: what does it mean to celebrate the Eucharist? How can the Eucharist influence our lives? What is a fruitful way of participating in the Eucharist?
God is with people in many ways, but in the Eucharist we experience His love in an especially intense way. No matter how unremarkable and everyday the Eucharistic gifts of bread and wine may seem to us on first sight, in these forms God gives Himself to us. That is an undeserved and exceptional gift from God. The Eucharist also has a special power that can renew our relationships with God and with others.
On 2 February 2011 the diocesan curia published the policy note ‘Pastoral-liturgical policies in the parishes of the Archdiocese of Utrecht’. Here, the diocesan curia has given the pastoral teams, the parish council and other volunteers in our parishes frameworks and concepts with help them to organise liturgical life in parishes in such a way that the celebration of the Eucharist in the parishes is guaranteed to remains source and summit of Christian life [1]. By now, every parish in the Archdiocese of Utrecht has a Eucharistic centre, where, without exception, the Eucharist is celebrated on Sundays, solemnities and certain feast days. This pastoral letter on the Eucharist, presented at the start of Lent, invites you to reflection on the value and  meaning of the Eucharistic celebration. I hope that reading and reflection on this pastoral letter on the Eucharist will contribute to an increased wonderment at this special gift of God and more receptivity to Him.

I. What does it mean to celebrate the Eucharist?

God wants to be known

Celebrating the Eucharist would be pointless if God would not have been willing to reveal Himself to people. From the first page the Bible makes clear that God does not only give life to people, but that He also gets into contact with us; first He speaks with Adam and Eve, then with Cain, with Noah and with Abraham, Isaak and Jacob. I high point in God’s revelation of Himself are the meetings with Moses in the burning bush and on Mount Sinai. Further impressive encounters could be mentioned. Through the angel Gabriel, he also speaks to Mary, the mother of our Lord Jesus. God primarily wants to be know through Him and comes to us in Him. In short, God created man to live in relation with Him and He constantly takes the initiative to friendship and covenant with us. In that relation God comes towards people and man would “share the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4). The community with God, to which man is invited, goes very far. The eastern ecclesial traditions, in this context, strikingly speak of the ‘divinisation’ of man. The entire celebration of the Eucharist is geared towards the encounter and union with God.

In the celebration of the Eucharist, the reading from the Bible has an important place. We listen to the old words to hear how God revealed Himself and still reveals Himself to us. In the Biblical words we read which way God went with people and what He asks of them. Like Jesus read the Word of God in the synagogue, so the Church reads the Bible in the liturgy. We hears the words from the Old Testament which were of great importance to Jesus and which allow us to enter into salvation history. In the Gospel reading we hear Jesus Himself and get to know Him closer. And with the readings from the Letters and other books of the New Testament our faith is deepened.

What will I in turn give the Lord for all the good that He does for me?

Celebrating the Eucharist is to thank God for all He has done and still does for us. The originally Greek word ‘Eucharist’ means thanksgiving. We thank Him for life. We thank our Creator, because He wants us to exist.

“We thank you, God. All life comes from Your hand.
You gave it to us and always desire to see us happy.”[2]

In unity with all the earth, we praise God. The Bible teaches us that all of God’s creation is called to praise Him; the animals of the field, all that crawls or flies, the inhabitants of the earth [3] and the angels in heaven. God is praised for the cycle of the seasons:

“You crown the year with your generosity, richness seeps from your tracks” (Ps. 65: 11)

Many saints also involved the earth in the praising of God. Saint Francis saw himself so closely connected to all of God’s creation that he called the sun and moon, wind and water, fire and earth, ‘brother and sister’ in his famous Canticle of the Sun:

“Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
and clouds and storms, and all the weather,
through which you give your creatures sustenance. […]
Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth,
who feeds us and rules us,
and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.” [4]

God has given us the world as a space to live and to meet Him in love and joy. We may realise that everything that God grants us is good. Bu thanking God for our world, we give Him the recognition that is His due. We owe God to thank Him for what we received from Him. God has created us to answer to His love with love in return; to praise and thank God makes our relationship of love with Him concrete.
Out of gratitude to God, the desire to give Him something develops:

“What return can I make to Yahweh for his generosity to me?
I shall take up the cup of salvation and call on the name of Yahweh.”(Ps. 116: 12-13) [5]

That is why we praise God and offer him the gifts of bread and wine, “the fruit of the earth” and “the fruit of the vine”, the work of our hands  [6], in our celebration.

The sacrifice of praise that we bring God is only possible through Christ. That is why we join our praise to that of Christ, who has praised His Father in a remarkable way with His entire life. “In the bread and wine that we bring to the altar, all creation is taken up by Christ the Redeemer to be transformed and presented to the Father” [7]. We owe our reconciliation with God to Christ; He returns us to the Father. That is why we thank the Father for all that Christ has done for us. That is why the priest joins Christ praising the Father, when, at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer, he elevates the host and chalice in a gesture of gratitude and dedication [8], and says:

“Through him, and with him, and in him, O God, almighty Father,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
all glory and honor is yours, forever and ever. Amen.”

Come, Holy Spirit

If God had not come to us, we would remain far removed from Him. God’s Spirit allows us to get into contact with God. Without the Holy Spirit there is no faith. Without the Holy Spirit we can see at most as a special human or as a prophet, but we will not recognise Him as the Christ and as the Son of God. Without the Holy Spirit Christ is also not present among us. Because we can’t make God be with us or even in us; only God Himself can do that. It is the Spirit who fulfills the work of Christ in the world.
The Holy Spirit has a ‘decisive role’ in the Eucharist [9]. Like Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, in the fourth century, put it succinctly in his Catechetical Lectures: “What has been touched by the Holy Spirit, is sanctified and completely changed” [10].
This is why, in the Eucharistic Prayer, there are two moments of prayer for the Holy Spirit. We first ask the Spirit to make bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, and then to change us faithful in such a way that we progressively and become the Body of Christ:

“Let your Spirit come upon these gifts to make them holy,
so that they may become for us the body and blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ.” [11]

And:

“Grant that we may be filled with his Holy Spirit,
and become one body, one spirit in Christ.” [12]

It is human to desire for change. The most profound change, by which we become truly happy, we are to expect from God. The Spirit van God wants to reside in us to change us from within. When we pray for God’s Spirit we open ourselves to the Spirit changing us in such a way that we can say, with St. Paul: “It is no longer I, but Christ living in me” (Gal. 2:20). For the spiritual life it is very important that we are aware that we need the Holy Spirit [13]. If we pray for the Spirit, we desire God to help us and we look towards the moment at which God ultimately redeems us. “We too, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, even we are groaning inside ourselves, waiting with eagerness for our bodies to be set free” (Rom 8:23).

“Take this, this is My Body”

Every time the Gospels relate of meals in which Jesus takes part, we notice that sharing a meal with Jesus is something special. Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinner, but He was also invited to the Pharisees’ table: He miraculously fed to satisfaction the crowds who had followed Him. Jesus’ friends Martha, Mary and Lazarus hosted a dinner in honour of Jesus. All these meals are special encounters: by eating with Jesus a form of community is created. The Gospels report that Jesus does four things at a meal: He takes the bread; He praises God (or blesses the bread); He breaks it and He hands it round. Later, after His resurrection, the two disciples in Emmaus recognise the risen Lord through these four gestures (Luke 24:30-31). When we celebrate the Eucharist, these gestures are also recognisable. No matter how special and meaningful the meals of Jesus before His Last Supper were, they are surpassed by the Last Supper which led to the celebration of the Eucharist, because Jesus offers Himself in it: “Take it, this is my body”(Mark 14:22). The Eucharist is a feast in which the Lord Himself is a gift to us, in order to unite us to God: “As the living Father sent me and I draw life from the Father, so whoever eats me will also draw life from me” (Joh 6:57).
Here, we are faced with a mystery. In the Eucharist we receive the living Lord. Saint Theresia of Lisieux, who had a powerful understanding of the loving bond that can exist between God and a person, put this mystery into words like this:

My heaven is hidden in the tiny host. And there my mild Saviour listen to me day and night. Oh, how happy is the moment when you change me, in your tenderness, in you. This unity of love is my heaven on earth, my unspeakable intoxication.”

On the entire way that God has gone with people, since Adam and Eve, He has time and again taken the initiative to come to people and reveal Himself and search for intimate union with people. This desire from God was given shape in a very special way when the Son of God descended to the limitations and struggles of our human existence and was born as a man. In the Eucharist this movement of God’s to people reaches an intimate high point because Christ makes Himself food and drink for His disciples. “The Eucharist reveals the loving plan that guides all of salvation history. There the Deus Trinitas [14], who is essentially love, becomes fully a part of our human condition. In the bread and wine under whose appearances Christ gives himself to us in the paschal meal, God’s whole life encounters us and is sacramentally shared with us” [15].
With “Body” and “Blood”, the human existence of the Lord is very concretely indicated. In the Eucharist, Jesus does not give ‘something’, but Himself. Hoe can He give Himself under the appearance of bread and wine? That remains a mystery. In faith – as fruit of the Holy Spirit – we recognise that it is the Lord Himself whom we receive, while the senses see or feel something different. Christ is really present in the Eucharist. In our mouths we taste bread, but with our faithful hearts we taste Christ.

It is typical for our Christian faith that the physical is valued so highly. God created the physical world as something good. The first creation story from the book of Genesis turns it into a refrain which returns at every day of creation: “And God saw that it was good”. When the Church arose in the Greco-Roman culture of the first centuries of our calendar she resisted the thought that the physical world alienates a person from his inner life and from the good.The body is not something from which we must be freed; no, we hope for the resurrection of the body! And we believe that God became man and that Christ had a body just like the one that we have now. John the evangelist uses language which is hard to misunderstand: God has become “flesh” (Joh 1:14). Physical reality carries God’s presence, because the eternal and invisible God became man in Jesus, His Son, who was born from the womb of a woman and who has lived among us in a body like ours. Although we will continue to be amazed that God makes Himself into food and drink for us, it completely fits into His esteem for our physicality to do so.

The unity with Christ in the Eucharist is not static. Like any community of love changes a person, so does this. “The Eucharist draws us into Jesus’ act of self-oblation. More than just statically receiving the incarnate Logos [16], we enter into the very dynamic of his self-giving.” Jesus “draws us into himself.” The substantial conversion of bread and wine into his body and blood introduces within creation the principle of a radical change, a sort of “nuclear fission,” to use an image familiar to us today, which penetrates to the heart of all being, a change meant to set off a process which transforms reality, a process leading ultimately to the transfiguration of the entire world, to the point where God will be all in all” (cf. 1 Cor 15:28) [17].

Partaking in Christ’s sacrifice, as if we had been there

In the Eucharist, Jesus gives Himself to the faithful as spiritual food; at the same the Eucharist is also a sacrifice, which is closely connected to Jesus’ suffering and death at Golgotha The word ‘sacrifice’  conjures up negative associations for many people. But the Christian understanding of sacrifice is not something negative. A sacrifice is a gift, given out of love. But because love and goodness in this world are not always met with appreciation and love in return, but with resistance and opposition, love is often accompanied by suffering. The negative is sometimes unavoidable. In our world, love requires therefore the willingness to sacrifice.
Christ came into our world to let people experience the love of God, and to profoundly conquer all resistance against God. In the mystery of Christ’s obedience until death, sin has forever been expiated for man. “In His crucified flesh, God’s freedom and our human freedom met definitively in an inviolable, eternally valid.” “Christ’s death on the Cross is the culmination of that turning of God against himself in which he gives himself in order to raise man up and save him. This is love in its most radical form” [18].
Because Christ was willing to give all for this radical love, He is like a sacrificial lamb. Already at the start of His public live, John the Baptist understood that Jesus had come for this; He spoke the words that are heard again in every Eucharist: “Look, there is the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world” (Joh 1:29). Later, both Peter and Paul describe Jesus as the Paschal lamb (1 Cor 5:7; 1 Pet 1:19-20), and Peter witnesses of the fact that this sacrificial lamb had been foreseen in God’s plan since the beginning of the world.

On the night before His passion and death, Jesus ate the Jewish Pesach meal with His disciples. During that meal Jesus instituted the Eucharist. Jewish Pesach or Easter is the memorial celebration of the liberation of people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. In the night of Pesach the people of Israel eat unleavened bread, meat of a one-year-old lamb and bitter herbs. The bread is unleavened because, in the night of the liberation, there was no time for the dough to rise. The lamb reminds of the blood of the Pesach lamb that the Jews smeared on their door posts on the night before the exodus, as a sign that safeguarded them from the deadly plague that struck the Egyptian people (Ex. 12).
Some important symbols of the Jewish Pesach meal were given a new dimension by Jesus. The unleavened bread that Jesus shared with His disciples, He made into His body: “Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had said the blessing he broke it and gave it to the disciples. ‘Take it and eat,’ he said, ‘this is my body.'” The cup of wine He made into  “my blood, the blood of the covenant, poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:26, 28). In the context of the Jewish Pesach meal this recalled memories of the blood of the lamb in the night of the exodus from Egypt. In this way, Jesus indicated, on the eve of His passion, that He was the new Pesach lamb, that would bring people freedom from sins with His own blood.

What Jesus shared with His disciples at the Last Supper, was what He would afterwards accomplish in His passion and resurrection. The institution of the Eucharist sacramentally preceded the events of the Paschal mystery. For us, living after Christ’s passion and resurrection, the Eucharist is a sacrament that brings us into contact – across the boundaries of time – with this mystery of His suffering, death and resurrection. It is more than reminding; the Eucharist makes the suffering and death of the Lord “once more sacramentally present”. By celebrating the Eucharist we can partake in the sacrifice of Christ, “as if we had been present there. Each member of the faithful can thus take part in it and inexhaustibly gain its fruits” [19] “By our communion with the Risen Christ, we become one with him in his giving of himself to the Father” [20].

The Eucharist was first celebrated “on the night the Lord Jesus was betrayed”. Through the sacrament we are with the suffering Lord. In this way the Eucharist confronts us with darkness and evil. Jesus’ violent death confront us with the lie and the destructive power in people. At the same time we experience in His death the mystery of God’s love for His enemies and His liberating willingness to become the least and to be there for all. “The institution of the Eucharist demonstrates how Jesus’ death, for all its violence and absurdity, became in him a supreme act of love and mankind’s definitive deliverance from evil” [21]. Who in the light of Easter lives from the Eucharist doe snot close his eyes for evil, violence, sin and death. On the contrary, living from the victory of Christ we face the evil in the world, in the faith that God’s mercy can transform and change all this.
Many faithful who have lost a loved one bear witness to this faith, because their sorrow is mingled with the expectation of the resurrection. In a very special way the martyrs confess that God will defeat the dark forces in people. Many of them were allowed to experience that you can face your suffering with inner peace, because you have your hopes in God.

Christ builds up the Church through the Eucharist

When Jesus entrusted the Eucharist to His disciples, the Church was born. Through the institution of the Eucharist, Jesus made the community of disciples which He had gathered around Him into a sacramental community. He gave His disciples a gift in which He entrusted Himself to them. In this way He gave them a new form of communion with God: the sacramental communion with Christ, which goes so far that Christ comes into us and we are in Christ.
Jesus called this new of communion between God and man the ‘New Covenant’ [24]. Like God had once freed the people of Israel from slavery, made a covenant with them on Mount Sinai and had given them the Thora, the holy rules of life, so that they could serve Him as a new priestly people in freedom and with dedication, so Jesus, through His words and actions at the Last Supper, laid the foundation for a new Messianic community, which was intended for all humanity. What is characteristic of this people of the New Covenant? [25] The special union with Christ. Christ gathers all people and brings them into an inclusive community with Him.

From the Apostles until the end of time the Church grows through the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the sacrament of unity, as St, Paul teaches us; it makes us faithful one with Christ and with each other; together with Christ, we form one Body:

“The blessing-cup, which we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ; and the loaf of bread which we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? And as there is one loaf, so we, although there are many of us, are one single body, for we all share in the one loaf” (1 Cor 10:16-17) [26].

Both the community of the Church and the Eucharistic bread are in the Bible called ‘Body of Christ’. That is not just a pretty metaphor, but indicates an essential unity: Christ is now present in the world under both appearances. Jesus gave His disciples not only the Eucharist, but made them into His own Body. Saint Augustine strikingly articulated the unity of both appearances of the Body of Christ when he told newly-baptised faithful about to receive the Eucharist: “Be what you see and receive what you are”. In another sermon he said: If you receive with dignity, you are what you have received” [27].

“If there is anyone who needs the Eucharist in the first place, it is Christ. The risen Christ needs to give Himself a body, so that He can reveal Himself  to the world today, and the Eucharistic gathering is exactly the place where the Body… is embodied” [28].

The gift of the Lord is meant to transform is into people who live as a part of the Body of Christ. We need it to “be completely remelted in the melting pot of unity, the Eucharist” [29]. That is why a prayerful presence, an inner agreement with what happens and the desire to experience its working, is of major importance for our participation in the Eucharist. Prayer gives room to God’s action. In prayer, we allow ourselves to be taken up by God’s  action and we start a cooperation with God, which unfolds all our lives.

“What matters is that, in the end, the discrepancy between the action of Christ and of us is lifted. That there is only one action remaining, which is at the same His and ours – ours because we have become ‘one body and one spirit’ with Him. What is unique about the Eucharist is exactly that God acts Himself and that we are pulled into this action of God” [30].

By entrusting the Eucharist to His twelve Apostles, Jesus made them priests. The Apostles did not only receive the task to remember the Lord, but at the same also the means to make Christ and His sacrifice present. The miraculous part of this service of the Apostles, and every bishop and priest after them, is that in what they do, Christ is the actually acting person. No one, after all, can say, “This is my Body” and with that ensure that Christ Himself is present, if Christ would not ensure that these words are spoken in unity with Him. The Church uses the expression ‘in persona Christi’ for this; this indicates that “specific sacramental identification with the eternal High Priest” by which the priest becomes a means and Christ “is the author and principal subject of this sacrifice of his” [31]. In this way the priest can say, “with the power coming to him from Christ in the Upper Room: “This is my body which will be given up for you. This is the cup of my blood, poured out for you…” The priest says these words, or rather he puts his voice at the disposal of the One who spoke these words in the Upper Room and who desires that they should be repeated in every generation by all those who in the Church ministerially share in his priesthood” [32]. In this way, the priest is at the same time both someone who may do great things in the name of the Lord, and a “servant” who “must continually work at being a sign pointing to Christ, a docile instrument in the Lord’s hands” [33].

“Awaiting the blessed hope and the coming of our Saviour, Jesus Christ”

We celebrate the Supper of the Lord in the perspective of the new life and the Kingdom of God. The Eucharist is “the security of the future glory” [34]. The Supper of the Lord is a sign of that community between God and man which one day come into full existence. Jesus has compared the Kingdom of God several times to a meal, for example in the parable of the wedding feast, where the invited guests refused to come, and the king ordered his servants to invite anyone they would meet, good and bad, so that the wedding hall would be full of guests regardless (vg. Matt 22:1-14). The prophet Isaiah already knew of a feast of rich foods and fine wines which the Lord of Hoists would prepare for all people, when He will remove the veil that covers all nations, destroy death and wipe away the tears from every cheek (Is 25:6-8). In the last book of the Bible we also read about the “wedding feast of the lamb” (Rev 19:9).
A huge crowd in heaven praises God:

“Alleluia! The reign of the Lord our God Almighty has begun;
Let us be glad and joyful and give glory to God,
Because this is the time for the marriage of the Lamb. His bride is ready.” (Rev 19:6-7)

When we celebrate the Eucharist “until He comes”, we do so as the bride who lives in expectation of the wedding feast of the lamb. The Eucharist offers us a foretaste of that feast. We join the heavenly crowd praising the Lord. “The Eucharist is truly a glimpse of heaven appearing on earth. It is a glorious ray of the heavenly Jerusalem which pierces the clouds of our history and lights up our journey” [35]. Amidst all the incongruities of our world, the Eucharist lets us taste something of that eternal joy that only God can give; in this way this sacrament feeds hope. We may already live in the perspective of the risen life [36].

II. How do we celebrate the Eucharist?

Fifty years ago, the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) wanted to promote the ‘active participation’ of all the faithful in the Eucharist. The Council Fathers called the faithful to not attend the Eucharist “as strangers or silent spectators”, but “conscious of what they are doing, with devotion and full collaboration” [37]. That appeal remains current.
‘Active participation is more than singing, standing and kneeling and saying ‘amen’; it also involves a deep awareness of the mystery that is being celebrated and of the relation that his with daily life. A person contributions to the Eucharist as singer or as lector, as acolyte or as sacristan are very valuable. But one can also actively participate without performing such a special liturgical service.
An authentic participation in the Eucharist requires personal preparation. Before the celebration of Eucharist we first consider our own live and ask ourselves, “What does God ask of me?  Have I lived accordingly? Do I realise what God gives me?” When you want to strengthen your bond with Christ and are willing to improve habits and want to serve Christ in your daily life, then you are open to communion with the Lord. When we realise that we may meet the Good God in the Eucharist, it will fill us with awe and desire and we are inwardly focussed on God.

The external forms of the liturgy helps us to increasingly open ourselves sup inwardly. In the celebration, there are various rites of preparation, such as the greeting of the altar mentioned earlier, the confession of guilt, short moment of silent prayer and the introductory dialogues before the Gospel and the Eucharistic Prayer. These rites focus our attention on what the Lord wants to give us. For example, before the Gospel we make a special gesture: we mark out three crosses on our forehead, mouth and chest. This is a wordless prater: that the Gospel may penetrate our thought, our speech and our deepest core. This way, we open ourselves up to Christ.
A respectful handling of the liturgical texts and act which the Roman Missal offers us, is of great importance. These are texts with great spiritual depth and a centuries old history of development. The liturgy invites us to inwardly move along with these texts (and the accompanying rituals en gestures). Now one element in the text will appeal to use, then another, all according to what resonates in us. Only slowly are we able to start feeling and understanding the interior richness of these texts.
A more profound experience of the Eucharist requires a deepening of our faith. Discussion and catechesis are important means to achieve that. In conversation with fellow faithful we discover how they reflect something of the mystery of Christ in their lives, and how they unite with His love and sacrifice; this stimulates us in our relationship with Christ and in living from His love. Catechesis may help us to better understand the connection between the liturgy and the events in the Old Testament and the life of Jesus and of the Church. Catechesis also makes us realise that our own lives are transformed by the celebration of the sacred mysteries of faith.

Sadly, in many parish churches the Eucharist can not be celebrated every Sunday. That makes it harder to discover the richness of the Eucharist. Due to lack of priests, word and communion celebrations are common. Although receiving Communion outside the celebration of the Eucharist has great value – many sick people, but also prisoners, rely on the reception of Holy Communion outside the Eucharist – but yet it is a serious lack when the faithful can not regularly pray the prayers of the Eucharist. Important dimensions which are articulated in these prayers, such as the sacrifice and the thanksgiving, and also the prayer for the Holy Spirit and the expectation of the Kingdom of God, are pushed to the background.

III. How do we live with and from the Eucharist?

The Eucharist can have great meaning in our lives. Blessed Mother Teresa said:

“Our lives must be woven around the Eucharist… cast your eyes to Him who is the Light, bring your heart closer to His divine heart, ask Him that He’ll give you the grace to know Him, the love to love Him, the courage to serve Him. Seek Him fervently.”

Gratitude

The gratitude that we express in the Eucharist does not stand by itself, but may permeate and carry our entire life. “Always and everywhere giving thanks to God,” the Apostle Paul advices (Eph 5:20). Gratitude is the realisation that we do not control our lives, but that much good is simply given to us.

“On you I have relied since my birth,
since my mother’s womb you have been my portion,
the constant theme of my praise.” (Ps 71:6)

When we live in faith in God, and let go of too much care about ourselves, the gratitude can flourish inside us. In the celebration of the Eucharist we thank God for the friendship He grants us and for the care He gives us.

Three evangelists [38] tell of a woman in Bethany, who poured a bottle of expensive balm over the head and feet of Jesus. Jesus’ disciples, and especially Judas, considered this a waste: the money would have been better spent on the poor. But Jesus judged differently; He did not deny the duty to serve the poor, but appreciated this anointing as a tribute to His body, in view of His burial. John the Evangelist writes that the smell of the oil permeated the entire house. That is not just some atmospheric detail, but a suggestion of how the Church could be: This gesture of charity and generosity should determine the entire atmosphere in the Church. When Cardinal Meisner, the archbishop of Cologne, gave his valuable bishop’s ring to Mother Teresa, she said, “The stone of this ring will be the Lord’s in a monstrance. Because when the Lord wants, the children starve” [39]. We can set the best apart for the Lord, and we can serve the poor with the same charity and generosity. Just as the woman in Bethany was willing to give much for the body of the Lord, we can lovingly care for the beauty of the church and the celebration, because the Lord is present therein. This love for the Lord has led, over the course of the centuries, to a great wealth of church architecture, design of tabernacles and altars, religious music, sculpture and painting. The beauty of these arts is a service to the faith. In our time, too, when many church communities are growing smaller and lack of funds troubles many parishes, this remains important. What matters is that we express that we wish the best for the Lord.

Christian life as a road of conversion

Authentic participation in the Eucharist is closely connected to moral change. The communion of the Lord which is given us in the Eucharist is a force which can change our daily lives.

“We give to God all that he first gave to us, all that we are and have, uniting ourselves with the self-giving of Jesus himself. Our sharing in the Eucharist should make us a sacrificial people, lifting up and laying down our lives in love for God and for one another, and sharing all that we have and are with those in need.” [40]

He who feels the power of God’s love within him and surrenders himself inwardly to Him, feels the desire to answer this love with his entire existence.

“We cannot live the Eucharist unless we are animated by the Spirit which led Christ to give his life for the world. … Sharing in this gift of himself to us, we place ourselves at the service of the Kingdom, fulfilling the words of the Apostle: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”” [41]

Through our participation in the Eucharist we become what we receive. When we normally eat food, it becomes part of our body. In the Eucharist the opposite happens: we become the food that we receive, Christ. By receiving the sacrament of the Eucharist consciously and with an open heart, we become similar to Christ, that is to say, we can also achieve giving ourselves in love. Through Christ, we become Eucharist.
Christ wants to carry our lives. If we want to enforce our focus on Christ, prayer, reading the Bible and reflecting on our actions are important means. When we serve God and our neighbours, the Sunday Eucharist is embedded in life.
In can be useful for the authentic participation in the Eucharist to first go to Confession. In our religious practice in the Netherlands, Confession, the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, is a forgotten sacrament. That is truly a shame, because feeling remorse [42] and receiving the Lord’s forgiveness puts your life back on track. It is liberating and healing. If we go to Confession before receiving Communion, we are much more open within to receive Christ [43].

Looking at the other from the perspective of Christ

“Eucharistic communion, includes the reality both of being loved and of loving others in turn. A Eucharist which does not pass over into the concrete practice of love is intrinsically fragmented” [44]. The Eucharist can lead us to see our neighbour like Christ sees man. In the Gospel we read many times that Jesus has a deep sense of pity for the suffering and sinners. Jesus tries to bring them to real life. In every celebration of the Eucharist we receive the sacramental presence of Jesus’ gift of self for us and for the entire world. “In the Eucharist Jesus also makes us witnesses of God’s compassion towards all our brothers and sisters. The Eucharistic mystery thus gives rise to a service of charity towards neighbour, which “consists in the very fact that, in God and with God, I love even the person whom I do not like or even know.”” “Then I learn to look on this other person not simply with my eyes and my feelings, but from the perspective of Jesus Christ.” [45]
Saint like Augustine and John Chrysostom [46] have pointed out that Christ, in His love, identifies Himself with people who suffer:

“Do you want to honour the body of the Lord? Then do not despise Him when He is naked. Do not honour Him here in the sanctuary with silk fabrics, only to despise Him outside, where He suffers cold and lacks clothing. He who has said: “This is my Body”, is the same who say: “You have seen me hungry and did not feed me” and “What you do for the least of my brothers, you have done for me.”” [47]

In our time, Mother Teresa often pointed out the same: “The Eucharist and the poor are one to me and my love.” That is why Mother Teresa started every day by participating in Holy Mass at 6 in the morning.

“Mass is the spiritual food which supports me. I would not be able to miss it for a day or an hour of my life. In the Eucharist I see Christ in the form of bread. In the slums I see Christ in the pitiful form of the poor – in the broken bodies, the children, the dying.” [48]

Father Damian De Veuster, too, working voluntarily as a priest in the leper colony on Molokai, one of the Hawaiian islands, in a time that there was no cure yet for leprosy, found the strength for his service to the lepers in the Eucharist:

“The Holy Eucharist is truly a stimulant for us all. Without the continuous presence of our Divine Master at the altar of my poor chapel, I would not have been able to risk my life with the lepers on Molokai.”

That the Eucharist means we have obligations to the poor en needy in our society, near and far, is recognised in the parishes of the archdiocese, everywhere where there is a fruitful interaction between the celebration of the Eucharist and concrete activities in the fields of caritas and the diaconate. Many are inspired by the power of the Eucharist to make an effort for others. It is heartening to see how in numerous ways, for example in participating in the Vastenaktie during Lent and by having special collections for diaconal causes, the faithful genuinely look after their neighbours. In the Eucharistic centres that our archdiocese now knows, the expression of the diaconal face of our faith community, also needs our care, attention and creativity.

Community

The Eucharist establishes and strengthens a special communion between the faithful: people who are together filled by the presence of God get a special bond with each other. Living from the Eucharist we are not faithful individuals, but members of the community of the Church, the Church on earth and in heaven. The Eucharistic liturgy expresses this community many times. In the Confession of Guilt we recognise that we have sinned as faithful to each other, and ask each another to pray for us [49]. And when we pray the Our Father, the prayer asks to forgive each other [50]. In the intercessory prayers we pray, among others, for all the faithful. In the Eucharistic prayer we pray with all the saints [51], recommend our fellow faithful on the other side of death to God [52] and pray for the community of the Church:

“Strengthen in faith and love your pilgrim Church on earth; your servant, Pope Benedict, our Bishop Willem and Theodorus and Hermanus, our auxiliary bishops.” [53]

Because we belong to the community of the Body of Christ, we are responsible for one another and we are called to bring more unity and community in our world. Aid to fellow faithful in our own environment and in other countries is therefore part of being Church.
A sacrament of community that is especially connected to the Eucharist, is that of Marriage. The Apostle Paul teaches us that marriage is a sacramental reflection of the union between Christ and His Church (cf. Eph 5:31-32). When a married couple realises the bond between both sacraments, it may strengthen the experience of these sacraments. In our time, when it is hard for many to keep the bond of marriage, there is special task for all faithful to support married couples where necessary.

Peace

The Eucharist is a “sacrament of peace” [54]. Christ wants to reconcile the peoples; we expect peace from Him. This is expressed in a  special way in the prayer for peace and the sign of peace. These allow us to experience some of the peace of Christ. We can only experience the peace with Christ when we share that peace with our fellow faithful.  That is why we wish each other the peace of Christ. Of old this was accompanied by a “holy kiss” (cf. Rom 16:16; 1 Cor 16:20; 2 Cor 13:12). We usually shake each other’s hand. Whatever gesture we use, the words and gesture express that our unity with Christ is the source of undivided community [55].
Living from the Eucharist, we are called to make an effort for peace, by praying for it, by being peacemakers ourselves and by working together for peace in the world.

The Sunday

Since the time of the Apostles, the Sunday is the day of the resurrection of the Lord and the day on which the Church celebrates the Eucharist. In the first centuries, the Sunday was not a socially accepted free day, but the Christians from a city and the surrounding countryside came together in one place on that day, as Saint Justin tells us at the start of the second century. Christians were recognisable by their Sunday gatherings. Why did they do that? Because they were convinced that they could meet Christ who was risen and who lives in the Eucharist. Later, partly because of the meaning of the sabbath, Christians made the Sunday into day on which one is free from daily cares. This day of rest is valuable because it shows us that “work is for man and not man for work” [56]. It is a feast day, the Day of the Lord, which gives rhythm to time and offers space to experience community. The Sunday as day of rest is often also appreciated by non-believers in our time.
But for us faithful it is important to rediscover the Sunday as the day of the resurrection of Christ. On this day we experience the presence of the Risen Christ among us. It is a day of joy, a little Easter. The communion with Christ and the human encounters en the friendship we experience on this day fill us with joy and hope. Here, something of the divine joy that Christ wants to give His disciples(John 15:11) shines through, and we know we are invited to follow the Lord in the giving of ourselves [57].

Adoration

The adoration of the Blessed Sacrament outside the celebration of the Eucharist has a special value. Many saints found strength in the sign of bread, the sacred Host, placed for adoration in a monstrance or kept in a ciborium. Pope John Paul II has experienced the beauty of spending “time in spiritual converse, in silent adoration, in heartfelt love before Christ present in the Most Holy Sacrament? How often, dear brother and sisters, have I experienced this, and drawn from it strength, consolation and support!” [58] Mother Teresa, too, has often spoken of the value that adoration had for her:

“To be alone with Jesus in adoration and intimate unity with Him is the greatest gift of love, the tender love of our Father in heaven.”

She has often recommended adoration to others. She was convinced that every parish should spend many hours “at the feet of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament:”

“The time you spend with Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament is the best time you spend on earth. Every moment spent with Jesus deepens your unity with Him, will make your immortal soul more glorious and beautiful in heaven and will contribute to eternal joy on earth.”

It is sometimes said that the Eucharistic bread is not for looking at, but for eating. The opposition that is in this way created between receiving Communion and adoration is incorrect. For when you realise that Jesus Himself is present in the Host, then you  can’t not adore Him in the Host.  Saint Augustine already said; “No one eats this flesh without first adoring it … we would be sinning were we not to adore it first.” [59] In adoration we can reflect on the way in which Jesus wants to be present in this world: He is there, as vulnerable as bread, with the devotion of love, in silence.

[Here follow some practical tips which are applicable to the specific situation in the archdiocese. I have left these out of this translation.]

V. Conclusion

In the Eucharist we experience that the Lord stays with us. With Him we are under way until one day God will be all things in all people.
I sincerely wish and pray that we allow ourselves to be touched more by the goodness of the Lord, who comes to us in the sacrament of the Eucharist, and that we may discover and experience more and more that participation in the Eucharistic sacrifice is source and summit of our entire Christian life [68]. Next to this Lent, the coming Year of Faith [69] will also offer a good opportunity to deepen our understanding of the Eucharist, so that this sacrament can strengthen us even more to live as Christians.
Let us thank the Lord for His continuous presence among us. Let us thank Him that He wants to nourish and sanctify in the sacrament of the Eucharist, that He wants to let us share in His gift of Himself, that He wants to make all people one in faith, one in mutual love and let us ask Him that He will recreate us to His own likeness through this sacrament.

Ash Wednesday, 22 February 2012

+Willem Jacobus Cardinal Eijk
Archbishop of Utrecht

————-

Footnotes

[Many of the sources cited here are Dutch. My translations of quotes are sometimes my own, due to the source’s unavailability on the Internet. I have tried to stay as true as possible to the Dutch source text. In the case of quotations from Eucharistic Prayer, I have sometimes used similar texts from other prayers than used in the original text.]

[As for missing footnotes, these were originally used in texts that were related to the pastoral letter, but not part of it. I chose not to translate these yet, for reasons of time and efficiency.]

[1] Cf. Lumen Gentium 11;Catechism of the Catholic Church 1324

[2] Eucharistic Prayer XI for celebration for children III.

[3] See Psalm 148.

[4] Translation: G.P. Freeman et al, Francis of Assisi – The Writings, Haarlem, 2006.

[5] Pope John Paul II referred to this verse in his encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia (N. 9).

[6] Prayer at the elevation of the paten with bread, the chalice with wine.

[7] Benedict XVI, Sacramentum caritatis, 47.

[8] Compare the elevation of sacrifices in the Old Covenant: Ex 29: 24, 26; Lev 14:12, 24).

[9] Pope Benedict XVI, Sacramentum caritatis, 13.

[10] Quoted by Pope Benedict XVI, Sacramentum caritatis, 13.

[11] Eucharistic Prayer II.

[12] Eucharistic Prayer III.

[13] Pope Benedict XVI expressly referred to this, see Sacramentum caritatis, 13.

[14] Translation: ‘the Triune God’.

[15] Pope Benedict XVI, Sacramentum caritatis, 8.

[16] Translation: ‘Word’.

[17] Benedict XVI, Sacramentum caritatis, 11, with quotations from his enclyclical Deus caritas est, 13 (2006) and his homily on the Marienfeld (21 August 20050.

[18] Pope Benedict XVI, Sacramentum caritatis, 9.

[19] Pope John Paul II, encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 11.

[20] Roman Catholic bishops of England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland, One Bread, One Body, London/Dublin 1998, N. 34.

[21] Benedict XVI, Sacramentum caritatis, 10.

[24] “This cup is the new covenant in my blood poured out for you.” Luke 22:20.

[25] Cf. Pope John Paul II, Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 21.

[26] Cf. Rom 12:5; 1 Cor 12:12, 27; Eph 3:6, 4:12 & 5:23, 29; Col 1:24 & 3:15.

[27] Augustine, Sermo 272, Sermo 227, 1: PL 38, 1099.

[28] Jean Pierre Cardinal Ricard, L’Eucharistie, défi et grâce pour une société sécularisée, lecture at St.-Félix, Québec, 21 June 2008.

[29] Henri de Lubac, Méditation sur l’Église, Paris 1952.

[30] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Der Geist der Liturgie. Eine Einführung, Freiburg 2000, p.149-150.

[31] Pope John Paul II, Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 29.

[32] Pope John Paul II, Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 5.

[33] Pope Benedct XVI, Sacramentum caritatis, 23.

[34] Magnificat antiphon for the second Vespers on the Solemnity of Corpus Christi.

[35] Pope John Paul II, Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 19

[36] Cf. Pope Benedict XVI, Sacramentum caritatis, 30.

[37] Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium, 48.

[38] Mat 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9; John 12:1-8l; cf. Pope John Paul II, Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 47.

[39] Cardinal Meisner, lecture on the Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, at Echt (Diocese of Roermond), 29 April 2004.

[40] Roman Catholic bishops of England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland, One Bread, One Body, London/Dublin 1998, N. 34

[41] Rule of the Religious Order of the Blessed Sacrament, N. 4.

[42] In the confessional we confess the actions and ommissions by which we harmed the love of God or of the neighbour.

[43] It is good that children, before their first Communion, also go to confession. In this way children learn how close the bond between daily life and the communion with the Lord is.

[44] Benedict XVI, Encyclical Deus caritas est, 14.

[45] Pope Benedict XVI, Sacramentum caritas, 88, en Encyclical Deus caritas est, 18.

[46] Circa 345-407. Born in Antioch in modern Turkey and, after a time as a hermit, ordained a priest there in 386; from 398 to 403 archbishop of Contantinople.

[47] John Chrystostom, Homily on the Gospel of Mark, 50: 3-4, in PG 58: 508-509.

[48] Raghu Rai and Navin Chawla, Mother Teresa, her life in work, word and image, Utrecht, 1997, p. 93.

[49] “I confess to almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned … and I ask blessed Mary, ever virgin,
all the angels and saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord, our God.”

[50] “and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

[51] In union with the whole Church we honor Mary, the ever-virgin (…). We honor Joseph, her husband, the apostles and martyrs Peter and Paul, Andrew, (…) and all the saints. May their merits and prayers gain us your constant help and protection.” Eucharistic Prayer I.

[52] “Remember our brothers and sisters who have gone to their rest in the hope of rising again; bring them and all the departed into the light of your presence.” Eucharistic Prayer II.

[53] Eucharistic Prayer VII.

[54] Cf. Benedict XVI, Sacramentum caritatis, 49.

[55] Cf. Benedict XVI, Sacramentum caritatis, 49.

[56] Benedict XVI, Sacramentum caritatis, 74.

[57] In his apostolic letter on the Sunday, Dies Domini (1998), Pope John Paul II distinguishes several aspects of the Sunday: the Sunday as the day of the Creator, the day of Christ, the day of the Church and the day of man.

[58] Pope John Paul II, Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 25.

[59] Augustine, Enarrationes in Psalmos 98,9: CCL XXXIX, 1385; quated in: Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis, 66.

[68] Second Vatican Council, Constitutions Sacrosanctum Concilium, 10 (4 December 1963) and Lumen Gentium, 11 (21 November 1964).

[69] Pope Benedict XVI proclaimed the Year of Faith “to give a new impulse to the mission of the Church”. It will start on 11 October 2012 and end on 24 November 2013. See the pontifical Motu Proprio Porta Fidei – On the proclamation of the Year of Faith, and the Note with pastoral recommendation for the Year of Faith, from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

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