The Liturgy

The Eucharist has been at the center of the life of the Church since apostolic times. We know from reading the Acts of the Apostles that Christians met in one another’s homes for “the breaking of the bread.” (Acts 2:42, 46)

Although today’s Mass is quite different from those first early gatherings of Christians, there has always been a certain constancy in the celebration: the community comes together with a bishop or priest to hear the Word of God, to give thanks and remember the Death and Resurrection of Jesus, and to partake of the sanctified bread and wine that in faith have become the Body and Blood of Christ. In one sense, we could say that to be Church is to celebrate the Eucharist.

Just as our families gather to share stories around the supper table, the Eucharist is the meal at which the Christian family gathers to hear the stories of our salvation in Christ and to share a meal. No one is a stranger at the Eucharist — rich and poor, powerful and powerless, young and old — all who constitute the Church are united around the altar of the Lord, who feeds us again and again with his Body and Blood.

The relationship between the Eucharist and the Church is intimate and dynamic. The Eucharist is an active celebration when we eat and drink the Body and Blood of the Lord. This we see in the oldest text we have on the Eucharist, which is from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 11:23-26):

“For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in memory of me.’ In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat of this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.”

This passage also shows us that the Eucharist is first an action of Jesus himself in the shedding of his Blood to redeem us from our sins. In other words, it is the sacrifice of Christ that restored our relationship with God the Father. At the same time, by the command of Christ at the Last Supper to “do this in memory of me,” (cf. Luke 22:19) the Eucharist is also the action of the Church. At Mass, as the priest stands in the person of Christ, head of the Church, he offers the sacrifice on the altar. In turn, we, the Church, join ourselves to that sacrifice, and in accepting the invitation of Jesus to take and eat and take and drink, we enter into sacramental communion with the Son of God and become one Body of Christ. It is in gathering for the Eucharist that individual Christians become the Church, and therefore, we can say that the Eucharist makes the Church.

In the celebration of liturgy today, we sometimes forget that the Eucharist is not only the priest’s prayer of consecration over the bread and wine. Nor is the Eucharist only the consecrated host on the altar, in the tabernacle or exposed in the monstrance. The completion of the Eucharist is the community’s action. In other words, after the consecration, the bread that is broken and the wine that is poured — the Body and Blood of Christ — is returned to the people to be consumed by all.

Over the last several weeks, thousands of Catholics in the United States have prayerfully joined the Eucharistic processions across the country on their way to Indianapolis for the National Eucharistic Congress, which will take place July 17-21. And while these processions have been a great expression of what it means to be Church and united as one Body of Christ, like all “mountaintop experiences,” when they reach their destinations and the congress is over, the great challenge will be to keep this faith alive.

One way we can do this is to remember that every time we attend Mass, the Rite of Communion (that is, the Lord’s Prayer, the Sign of Peace, the Breaking of the Bread, the Distribution of the Body and Blood of Christ and Reception of Holy Communion) is the ritual that makes us the one Body of Christ here on earth. The procession to and reception of Holy Communion at Mass is a sign of the pilgrim Church — the body of those who believe in Christ on their way to the heavenly Jerusalem.

All of our lives, we who believe in Christ are moving in time toward the moment when we will be taken from this world by our own death and enter into the joy of the Lord and the kingdom that has been prepared for us. When we walk in procession to receive Holy Communion, we become a witness to, and a manifestation of, the pilgrim Church on earth. People sometimes say that when we receive Holy Communion, Christ enters into our hearts, yet that is only part of what happens. I challenge you to think broader: by receiving Holy Communion, we also become the Body of Christ in the world.