As the Church leads us through the sixth chapter of the gospel of Saint John in these weeks, today we focus once more on the Most Holy Eucharist. Throughout the bread of life discourse the Lord delivers a rich catechesis on the nature of this sublime gift, the freely-given gift of himself, thereby nourishing our faith and strengthening our hope of heaven. As the reality of Christ’s presence in the Most Holy Eucharist and its centrality is revealed to us in the sacred scriptures, we now consider the intrinsic link between the Eucharistic oblation we make here in earth and the banquet prepared for those who are faithful in the kingdom of heaven.
The short text of the O Sacrum Convivium, attributed to Saint Thomas Aquinas and appointed as the Magnificat antiphon at Vespers for the feast of Corpus Christi, announces this truth in a succinct way: “O sacred banquet! in which Christ is received, the memory of his passion is renewed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory to us is given.” In the sacraments we receive not only a reminder of the sacrifice of Christ, from which all grace flows, but also an indication of what is effected in us by receiving that grace, and a foretaste of the fruit of that grace: the future glory given to us (ST III, 60. 3. c). This is seen in baptism when we are incorporated into the life of Most Holy Trinity by the sacramental washing of original sin made possible by the action of the cross. In this we are given grace enough to become saints, and are forever oriented toward the Promised Land: the beatific vision of our inheritance. Similarly, in the Most Holy Eucharist the sacrifice of Christ is re-presented for us on the altar in an unbloody manner, the fruit of that sacrifice is revealed (that is, union with Almighty God), and we are given an anticipation—a foretaste—of the heavenly banquet (CCC 1402). This means that at every offering of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, each time we come to the Eucharistic altar, we arrive not simply at Calvary, but through that at heaven itself.
This reality is itself prefigured in the Book of Proverbs. Here Wisdom has “built her house”, “set up her seven pillars”, and “set her table” (Prov. 9: 1-2). She has provided a perfect place for the feast, and now invites us: “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Leave simpleness, and live, and walk in the way of insight.” (Prov. 9: 5-6). In this we see not only an analogy of the Most Holy Eucharist, but also the heavenly banquet. In this we learn what the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom means when, at the moment of Holy Communion, it pleads: “O Son of God, bring me into communion today with your mystical supper.” So we might say that in the gift of Holy Communion we receive the panis viatorum (the bread of wayfarers) and the panis angelorum (the bread of angels).
In knowledge of this we can understand what the Lord means when he says, “he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (Jn 6: 54). In receiving the fullness of the risen life of Christ in Holy Communion we enter into an intimate union with him. Through this participation in his life we are joined to the sacrificial offering he has made once for all upon the cross, and thereby become beneficiaries of the fruits of that same sacrifice. Indeed, “[participation] in the Holy Sacrifice identifies us with his Heart, sustains our strength along the pilgrimage of this life, makes us long for eternal life, and unites us even now to the Church in heaven” (CCC 1419). It is for this reason that in her most ancient Eucharistic Prayer the Church prays, “We humbly beseech thee, Almighty God, command these offerings to be brought by the hands of thy holy Angel to thine altar on high, in sight of thy divine majesty; that all we who at this partaking of the altar shall receive the most sacred Body and Blood of thy Son, may be fulfilled with all heavenly benediction and grace.” The altar at which we gather for the offering of the Eucharistic sacrifice “is the symbol of Christ himself . . . both as the victim offered for our reconciliation and as food from heaven who is giving himself to us” (CCC 1383). Here, truly, we “have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (Heb. 12: 22).
If this is so, then our right disposition for participation in the Eucharistic offering is essential. If we are to be united with Christ in his sacrificial action, and catch a glimpse of the heavenly life which through that action is offered to us, then it is necessary that we are properly prepared for this encounter with our eternal Lord. This requires no small effort on our part. First, our remote preparation means preparing our souls by regular prayer and meditation on the word of God, and by an examination of conscience and sacramental confession of our sins. In the sacred liturgy the Church encourages this examination daily, seeking not simply an awareness of our failures, but of our reliance on the Lord’s mercy. She further teaches, “A person who is conscious of grave sin is not . . . to receive the Body of the Lord without prior sacramental confession unless a grave reason is present and there is no opportunity of confessing” (c. 916). We recall that we are obliged “to participate in the Mass” on Sundays and Holydays, receiving Holy Communion only when we are properly disposed so to do (c. 1247).
Secondly, our proximate preparation means preparing our bodies through gestures and clothing that “convey the respect, solemnity, and joy of this moment”, and by abstaining from any food or drink, save water and medicine, for at least one hour before Holy Communion (CCC 1387; c. 919). Whilst excepting the aged or infirm, by this law the Church helps us attain the correct disposition to receive the Eucharistic Lord, avoiding profanation of his Body and Blood (1 Cor. 11: 27-29). The Lord was born in a stable, true, but his revelation in the incarnation—the Word becoming Flesh—means that we are bound to ready in our selves a place befitting his divine person.
So may we be resolved to meet Christ in the Most Holy Eucharist as he deserves; may we become ever more conscious of the heavenly union with him offered by this divine gift; and, absorbed by this reality, may we be made fit to partake in the banquet pledged to us by his sacrifice on the cross that, one with him in this life, we may come to spend eternity with him in the life to come.
This homily is part of a series on the Bread of Life discourse, delivered in Washington. You can read the complete set by clicking here. Also see USCCB, “Happy Are Those Who Are Called to His Supper: On Preparing to Receive Christ Worthily in the Eucharist”, 14 November, 2006.