Malcom McMahon OP explains the power of the eucharist
The eucharist: God living among his people. The eucharist is God’s reply to our human need for him by which he addresses our poverty and nothingness without him. At the eucharist we are honoured guests of the Trinity at a banquet of ‘rich food and fine wines’ (Isaiah 25:6). Such delectable fare is not, of course, apparent to any of the senses. For we have seen that the eucharist contains our hidden God who alone can satisfy the hungry heart and quench the thirst of our yearning spirits.
From the eucharistic vantage point, we see the past, the present and the future, in the perspective of God’s ever-presence. For it is there that we are seated at table with our God: we hang on to his every word, which awakens and sustains life within us. He imparts to us his wisdom, which sheds light on our pilgrim path, saving us from many pitfalls and potholes. The eucharist is a veritable tour de force of the presence of God which engages us at every level of our being. Not only does Christ offer us the very gift of himself in the life-giving bread and the saving cup, but in our very gathering together we are already face-to-face with him in one another. At the eucharist, the Body of Christ—each one of us—comes in from its labours for the sake of the kingdom, for our meeting with Christ our strength.
At Mass, the priest and people together celebrate God’s presence made tangible in Christ, by the power of the Spirit who fills the universe. Having acclaimed the word of God, having listened to it with faith and welcomed it with a receptive and generous heart, those hearts should then be ready to welcome into their depths the Word who continues to be made flesh in our flesh, through the eucharistic gift of himself to us. The eucharist is truly a feast of God’s generosity, in which he gives us his own life superabundantly, that we might be fit, healthy of spirit and ready for action. For catholics, the celebration of the eucharist is of central significance and profound consequence to the Christian life. It is the fount and summit of our discipleship. At the eucharist, we are drawn by the Lord into the great mystery of his death and resurrection—what we call the paschal mystery. We become partakers in that mystery and are given power to live it out each day.
The term ‘paschal mystery’ describes the entire reality of Christian worship, prayer and living. Yet, for many it remains a mysterious concept. How can it be put simply?
The paschal mystery means that God is now one of us. He has found us, caught up with us at last and embraced us. Never again will he let us go! The paschal mystery is the reality that God is our companion, in Christ, who provides us with the eucharistic food of eternal life, as we walk en route to the kingdom, with the wind of the Spirit ever at our backs. The paschal mystery means that, with the risen Christ, we are able to step over all obstacles and barriers that keep us away from the fullness of life. Christ’s cross has demolished the wall of sin and death; and we, through baptism, are immersed in an unstoppable torrent of resurrected life which revives our human dignity, opening our eyes, once more, to the wondrous truth of who we are. The paschal mystery has swept death away forever and the joy of irrepressible life is renewing all creation. Our mission, as his partners and apprentices, is to be such springs of living water, as will flood the world and our communities with his presence. We, after all, are his agents, the living cells of his body.
At the eucharist, Christ is among us as one who serves, offering his life as a ransom for many (Luke 22:7; Mark 20:28). It makes present for us, now, Christ’s sacrifice of his entire self for us. And so, each time we eat the bread of life and drink from the blessing cup, we associate ourselves intimately with that offering of the Lord. We are saying ‘Amen, yes, so be it’ to his invitation to a life of committed and self-sacrificing love and service. For Christ has left us as example that we are to copy: an example expressed in the simple gesture of washing feet and a call to do the same for one another (John 13:1–15).
Strengthened by the gift of the eucharist, we can say ‘Amen’ to this challenge to die to self-love. We say ‘Amen’ to the reality that we too must allow ourselves to be broken, poured out and offered in service to’ all our sisters and brothers. The Christian life, after all, is a sharing in the life of Christ from the moment we are plunged into him in baptism. We were carried to the Church in the arms of our parents and, likely as not, borne away from the font howling for all we were worth; baffled at this sudden intrusion, this rude awakening, this splash of cold water. Yes, there is something in the experience of baptism that has all the connotations of a short, sharp shock. The word itself—baptism—derives from the Greek term for immersion or taking the plunge.
But that is how God always likes to work. He likes to seize upon people, take them by surprise, pluck them out of obscurity and thrust them into the light. Is that not how a young boy, David, minding his sheep and his own business, suddenly found himself grabbed and anointed king? And what of the unfortunate Jeremiah? ‘Ah Lord, I do not know how to speak. I am only a youth!’ And then one day, as Jesus walked along, he came across a man who had been blind since birth: without so much as a ‘by your leave’ and without asking his permission, Jesus gave him the light of his eyes (John 9:1–41). Sometimes, you see, love has to make the first move and that is what God has done with us; when we were baptised, he took the initiative in love: ‘For we were darkness once, but now we are light in the Lord; be like children of light, for the effects of the light are seen in complete goodness and right living and truth’ (Ephesians 5:8).
The Mass and our lives sharing the life of Christ inevitably entails sharing his suffering, so as to share his glory (Romans 8:17). Thus at the eucharist we offer our entire selves with Christ and we pray that our sacrifice will be acceptable to the Father. Through him, with him, in him: we unite ourselves to Christ so that, more and more, we might be transformed into his likeness. At Mass, we offer to God bread and wine, which earth has given and human hands have made. We thus offer him the raw materials of our existence which speak of the fruits of the earth, the sweat of our brow, our disappointments and successes, our achievements and failures, our tears and our laughter, our sorrows and our joys. We ask God to send the Holy Spirit upon the gifts of bread and wine and make them holy, so that they may become for us the body and blood of his Son. Just as we believe that the bread and wine is transformed into the risen Christ, with only the appearances remaining, so we pray that in receiving these wondrous presents of God’s love, we might also be changed in our substance and become more and more like him. Thus, we will be able to allow him to be really present in the world, on the streets of our towns, our neighbourhoods and in our homes, through the medium of our human lives of Christian witness and love. ‘It is by your love for one another that everyone will recognise you as my disciples’ (John 13:35).
Christ asks us to love one another as he loves us. The Spirit, who has been poured out on us so generously at our baptism and confirmation, makes it possible for us not only to live with God’s own life, but to love with his own love. Before he left our visible sight, Christ made it clear that ‘the world can never accept this Spirit of truth because it neither sees him nor knows him.’ But, he tells the disciples, you know him ‘because he is with you, he is in you’ (John 14:16–17). When Jesus was glorified in his death and resurrection, it soon became necessary for him to leave us in the material sense. He did this to our advantage so that his presence would no longer be confined within the limits of Palestine at that period in history. When his hour of glory dawns, he transcends his earthly body, so that his all-pervading presence might fill all that is; that God may be all in all (1 Corinthians 15:28).
His glory is now concealed from our eyes. We are now incapable, as we stand, of looking into his face. Yet still he assures us: I am with you always until the end of the ages. Therefore, we are asked to train the interior eye of faith, which alone can perceive the invisible realities of truth, so that we will be fit and ready to see him when at last he appears. The Spirit who lives in our hearts gradually works on the eyes of the heart and enables them to become accustomed to seeing through a glass darkly (1Corinthians 13:12). Through the indwelling of the Spirit, we are able to continue knowing Christ with the interior vision of faith. As receivers of the Spirit, we can therefore transmit Christ and present him in the world by our actions.
It is in this way that the Father’s will continues to be done by the Son; working through all those who are attuned to him; all those who are, even now, here on earth, in communion with the Trinity, by virtue of their being daughters and sons of the Father, along with Christ; the eldest of many brothers and sisters (Romans 8:30). We are united with him who is first-born from the dead (Revelations 1:5) and have received from him the spirit of adoption that makes us, in name and in fact, God’s own children and joint heirs with Christ, provided that we share his suffering so as to share his glory (Romans 8:14–17).
For the Church, the eucharist is the very source of our strength and the means by which we are enabled to be the Church. The eucharist brings us into direct contact—face-to-face, heart-to-heart, by faith, with Christ who is the head of the body, the Church, and we are his living parts (Colossians 1:18). The eucharist bonds us together in unity and love and is the well-spring of the Church’s vitality. By it, we are energized for our mission in the world, of continuing the work of God in Christ—a saving work, a healing work, a task of recreating, restoring and transforming, by the power of Christ and in his Spirit of love.
The post-communion prayer from the Liturgy for the feast of St Augustine (28 August) prays:
‘May partaking of Christ’s table sanctify us, we pray, O Lord, that, being made members of his Body, we may become what we have received. Through Christ our Lord.’
Help us to become what we have received. Literally, may we become holy communion to one another and all we meet. In other words, may our lives be a point of contact, a place of encounter with Christ, where his presence and his influence is felt in our practical action for justice; in the helping hand and the shoulder to lean on; in the gesture of forgiveness and the dismantling of barriers, which are the cause of distrust, fear and pain to the human family, both at global and local levels.
The eucharist requires that we make of our lives a living offering of praise and thanks, united with Christ; a life which holds nothing back. A life which proclaims the Lord’s cross and resurrection; a life which cries the gospel of death destroyed and life restored. At the eucharist, we celebrate the Lord’s deliverance of us from fear, self-love, sin and death itself; and in so doing, we relive our salvation. We share the food of life eternal, the bread which contains the substance of eternity and which nourishes our development towards that full stature and potential which will be ours in resurrection. We are a eucharistic people and, in the company of Christ, we are continuously passing over from death to the fullness of life.
At the end of Mass, we are exhorted, ‘Go in peace to love and serve the Lord!’ We are thus obliged to allow the eucharist access to all areas of our existence—it must overflow into my daily living. The privilege of having the holy eucharist reserved in our churches for contemplative adoration allows us to gaze constantly into the depths of the love of God; to look into the eyes of Emmanuel. The reality of our eucharistic Lord’s presence with us, however, is not only a mystery to be adored, but a drama to be enacted each day: a drama which unfolds in the daily scenes of our lives and in which we are the main players. Not that we are merely acting a part or playing a role, for we are radically engaged in keeping the reality of Christ to the forefront of every thought, word and action. Our lives are substantially changed into a living memorial of him, as we strive to live always through him, with him, and in him; manifesting in our life together as the community of faith, the unity of the Spirit, so that the world may taste and see the fruits of love and, therefore, come to believe in the Father. The eucharist is a celebration of our tangible companionship with Christ who walks with us, by word and sacrament, towards the kingdom. As we journey with him, we recount, in grateful thanks, his loving mercy and constant fidelity in the past; we sing joyful songs of his nearness to us now; and this enables us to look to the horizon of the future with trustful courage and confident hope. An image comes to mind of how, in the early Church, newly baptised members of the Church would sing Psalm 23 as they left the baptismal waters to approach the eucharist for the first time. They sang it with the water still dripping off them, with the sacred chrism still glistening wetly upon their heads:
‘The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. In meadows of green grass, he lets me lie. To the waters of repose, he leads me, There he revives my soul. He guides me by paths of virtue for the sake of his name. Though I pass through a gloomy valley, I fear no harm: beside me your rod and your staff are there, to hearten me. You prepare a table before me under the eyes of my enemies: you anoint my head with oil, my cup brims over. Ah, how goodness and kindness pursue me, every day of my life; my home, the house of the Lord, as long as I live!’
In the strength of this food, we will at last reach the house of the Lord, where the Father will dance and exult over us, on what will become a day of unending festival and a banquet of life to the full!
We are eucharistic people There is a very special happiness when family and friends enjoy a meal together. There is a pleasure not only in the food that nourishes the body, but particularly in the conversation and time spent together. Even after the dishes have been cleared away, it is not uncommon to find nurturing and feeding of a much higher level begin, as the guests relax, listen, converse and generally enjoy one another’s company. The eucharist is such a meal. It is the table dressed and prepared by the Father’s hand and served by the Son, from whom we receive the precious gifts and fruits of the spirit of love. The ingredient of the eucharist is no less than Christ himself, from whom we draw the fullness of life and all the necessary strength required for our mission of bringing him to others.
The love of God, however, has made the eucharist even more than a meal by which we are fed and sustained spiritually: it is also the sacrament of solidarity—for it is the real presence of Emmanuel, God always with us and at our side! It unites our human living with the endless life of God, by making us one with that sacrifice by which Christ has destroyed our death and restored our life.
The eucharist is the sacrament of gathering into one family the beloved daughters and sons of God—for just as many grains of wheat are required to form a single loaf, and countless grapes to produce one vintage, so all of us together are needed by God to be living cells of his presence in the world. We all form a single body in Christ, for we share the same supper; a common energy of love is generated, which empowers us to be the family of God.
Although we are many, we are, in fact, motivated by that one force of superabundant life and limitless love to be found in Christ. We are like countless sparks of one fire, sent to brighten the darkness of lives which no longer know, or have never known, the warmth of God’s touch. And because we are light in the world, bearers of God’s compassion for the people created and loved by him, we must be always tapped into the source of that fathomless love.
‘Cut off from me you can do nothing!’ says Christ. That is why the eucharist is the fount and summit of our Christian discipleship. It is the well-spring of our vitality. It provides the impetus, the ‘get up and go’ that is essential if our mission to others is to be effective in bearing fruit of lives changed, of sinners reconciled, of the broken and crushed, revived and restored. The eucharist is the sacrament of companionship. It is the abiding presence of God who loves our company—who is consumed with love for us—whose delight is to be in communion with us. If the eucharistic celebration is at the heart of our daily living and the means of our having spiritual life, then the real presence of our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament which remains after Mass, is the opportunity for ongoing communion of our entire being—heart, soul, mind and strength—with him, in this sacramental means by which his love has found an ingenious manner of remaining with us always, until the time is come for the veil to be removed.
Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament is the after-dinner conversation with our dear friend, in which we savour the fullness of life we receive from him in the actual liturgical celebration. The blessed eucharist reserved provides time for us to digest the word of life spoken by Christ; it allows us to contemplate the sublime reality beneath the sacramental signs.
The eucharist feeds the roots of our apostolate to a people hungry for substantial spiritual food. As he unites himself with us in the eucharist, Christ calls us by name and commissions us to go love and serve in his name. For he comes from the Father’s heart to make him known in the depths of our hearts. As he becomes present in our inmost selves through the eucharistic food, he replenishes the life of God we received in baptism and confirmation, refuelling the dynamic power of that Spirit who has made our mortal bodies his dwelling place. Our God is love that is infectious! A consuming fire. Once in the gospel, the Lord declared: ‘I have come to bring fire to the earth and how I wish it were blazing already!’ The work of Jesus Christ was to kindle that fire of God’s warm welcome for human beings, the glow of which sheds radiance on the full revelation of his love for us. Having been drawn to the Father’s heart by Christ, having been enthused and energized in that furnace of the Spirit, we are then invited to be the sparks and flames of God’s hospitality and generosity for all to whom we are sent.
Christ has given himself in the eucharist, not only for the spiritual growth of those who follow him, but also for the life of the world; so that the Church—all who believe—can be an efficient medium of his loving forgiveness, merciful gentleness and saving justice. Our having life from him should, therefore, be an advertisement that will attract others into his friendship. The eucharist is a call to become, more and more, what we receive—a challenge to allow Christ to transfigure the substance of our hidden selves so that, daily, we will become more clearly recognizable for our fellow pilgrims on the journey of life as signs of the presence of living God.
The essence of our vocation as a eucharistic people is to go out to all our sisters and brothers and share with them the bread of our companionship; to offer the cup of kindliness and refreshment; to be bearers of the basin and towel of selfless service.
The eucharist is a cry for justice; it is a demand for an end to oppression. It is the prayer of God who was himself victimized and brutally treated. It is the plea of Christ who was unjustly condemned to a shameful death, who laid down his life and who has now taken it up again forever (John 10:17). The eucharist is the reply of God to a hungry world; to a people deprived not only of material bread, but of their very dignity and livelihood.
At the eucharist we proclaim Christ crucified and risen until he comes. Thus at the eucharist, joys and sorrows, tears and laughter, are fused into a common thrust of resurrected strength which compels us to answer the cry of God—to respond to his command for a new civilization founded upon justice and mercy, truth and love. When we give our assent to God’s invitation: ‘Come and eat’ (Isaiah 55:1–3), we are taking into ourselves that very power of Christ who was dead and who now is alive for ever and ever (Revelations 1:17), he whose Spirit is endless life and love which is stronger than death (Song of Songs 8:6). Christ says to the disciples: ‘Give them something to eat yourselves’ (Matthew 14:16). He speaks thus so that those who follow him might never be tempted to send away those who are truly in need; or to turn a blind eye to the tears of the heartbroken; or to be deaf to the moans of the afflicted. At Mass, all the anguish and brokenness of the world is gathered up and joined with the sacrifice of Christ, the New Man (Ephesians 2:15), he who accompanies us amidst the ruins of so many destroyed and shattered lives.
For even in his very silence, God effectively addresses himself to the broken in heart and crushed in spirit. Christ after all, in his passion and death, was harshly dealt with but bore it humbly: ‘… He never opened his mouth, like a lamb that is led to the slaughter-house, like a sheep that is dumb before its shearers never opening its mouth’ (Isaiah 53:7).
So too he never opened his mouth but silently confronted the full horror of evil and the awful darkness of death; and in so doing he has brought about the means whereby all things will be made new and every tear, at long last, wiped away. Nothing can come between us and such love; no troubles, no worries, neither height nor depth, nor any power, earthly or otherwise—our trail of tears is transformed into a victorious march by the power of him who loved us (Romans 8:35–37).
The eucharist is a blessing to be shared and celebrated with thanksgiving; it is a sacrifice to be offered and participated in; it is a real presence to be worshipped and adored. It is also, however, a life to be lived; and in order to live a truly eucharistic life, one must be ever ready to receive those who come to us in whatever kind of need—those in need of time, of company, of friendship, love or support. In order to celebrate the eucharist worthily, we must be tuned into the pain of the world and actively involved in the struggle for a world in communion—a world where all, without exception, will be assured of a place at the table of those benefits, with which God has so richly blessed our earth, for the good of all.
Yes, the eucharist is God’s demand for such a world: a world that is no longer a lonely place but a habitation of solidarity and friendship. A world where human beings can give thanks together for the gift of life: where God and humanity are in communion and seated together at the table.
The Most Revd Malcolm McMahon OP is Archbishop of Liverpool. This talk was given at the Bread of the World Conference in
Liverpool on 31 August 2019.