The Liturgy

There are many ways to return to the Lord this Lenten season; many people will do things like fasting from food, coffee or soda. Others will carve out time to volunteer at their parish or other favorite charitable organization. Still others will take up other spiritual practices — daily Mass or refraining from bad habits like gossiping or complaining. One way you can renew your relationship with God is by spending time in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament.

While prayer before the Blessed Sacrament is a common, popular and beautiful form of worship, rarely do we pause to reflect upon the spiritual significance of adoration or its history. It is my hope this month’s article gives you a better understanding of this treasured tradition.

Exposition and Adoration

We begin our reflection by taking a closer look at a couple of terms the Church uses in the liturgical text “Worship of the Eucharist Outside of Mass.” They are “exposition” and “adoration,” two terms that we tend to use almost interchangeably; however, they mean two different things.

Exposition is the ritual action that opens a period of adoration. It occurs when a minister places the Blessed Sacrament (the consecrated host) in a monstrance or a ciborium (communion vessel), and places it on the altar. When the Eucharist is exposed, this simply means that the Blessed Sacrament is on the altar, and not reserved inside the tabernacle.

Adoration is how the Church speaks of the form of prayer in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. Adoration can be before the Blessed Sacrament exposed in the monstrance or reserved in the tabernacle, and the Church does not assign an essential difference between praying before the tabernacle or praying before the monstrance.

Spiritual Significance of Adoration

What is important to remember is that the Eucharist is a Real Sacrifice — it is Christ’s once-for-all, loving sacrifice for us, and through our participation in the liturgy, it is also our sacrifice — the loving surrender of our wills and our lives to God. When we receive Holy Communion, we are strengthened by Christ’s Real Presence so that we can do the Father’s will. The Mass, which perpetuates the unbloody sacrifice of Christ, strengthens us to live the sacrifices the Christian life demands. This is what the Church means in Lumen Gentium, which says the Eucharist is “the source and summit of the whole of Christian life.”

It is from this Real Sacrifice that the devotion toward the Eucharist in adoration flows. When we adore the Eucharist, we remember that Christ’s presence derives from the sacrifice of the Mass, and has as its purpose, both spiritual and sacramental communion. By spending time before the Blessed Sacrament in adoration, we are drawn into an ever-deeper share in Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection, and we are led to gratefully respond to the gift of Christ, who, through the Eucharistic sacrifice, continuously pours divine life into the members of his body, the Church.

Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament also offers us the opportunity for prayerful reflection on our call to a deeper devotion to the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, as well as a more faithful living of the Christian life. It provides us with an opportunity to become more aware of Christ’s presence in, with and among his people while inviting us to be in spiritual communion with him, and with his body, the Church. Therefore, as we pray before the Blessed Sacrament, we offer our very lives with Christ to the Father in the Holy Spirit, deriving from this union an increase of faith, hope and loving charity.

A Very Brief History

Reserving the Blessed Sacrament outside of Mass has been a tradition since early Christianity, when the practice was done primarily to administer Eucharist to those who were sick and dying. One of the first references to reserving the Blessed Sacrament is found in the life of St. Basil, who died in the year 379. Basil is said to have divided the Eucharistic bread into three parts — one to be consumed during Mass, the second to give to the monks and the third to be placed in a golden, dove-shaped container to be suspended over the altar to be used for distribution to those who were sick and unable to attend the Divine Liturgy.

By the 11th century, French theologian Berengar of Tours began an intellectual inquiry into theological matters, which eventually came into conflict with the Church over the doctrine of transubstantiation. In 1079, Pope Gregory VII required a public confession of him, which affirmed the belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. This profession of faith began a Eucharistic renaissance in the churches across Europe, and in 1264, Pope Urban IV instituted the feast of Corpus Christi. By the 14th century, devotions focused on the Eucharistic gifts as the presence of Christ.

Around the beginning of the 19th century, there was an increased emphasis on Eucharistic piety, devotions and adoration, especially in France, Spain and Cuba. In the mid-20th century, just a few days before opening the fourth session of the Second Vatican Council, on Sept. 3, 1965, Pope — now Saint — Paul VI issued the encyclical Mysterium fidei, in which he encouraged daily Mass and Holy Communion, and said that the faithful “should not forget about paying a visit during the day to the Most Blessed Sacrament (…) a proof of gratitude, a pledge of love, and a display of the adoration that is owed to Christ the Lord who is present there.”

After the Second Vatican Council, the Sacred Congregation of Rites issued the “Instruction on Eucharistic Worship” (May 25, 1967), which encouraged the practice of solemn annual exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, and in 1973, the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship published the “Roman Ritual Holy Communion and Worship of the Eucharist outside Mass,” outlining direction for the solemn exposition of the Blessed Sacrament to be in harmony with the liturgical principles decreed by the Second Vatican Council.