Last Sunday, The Basilica of Saint Mary began an Eight-part series on the Eucharist entitled, Source and Summit. The series seeks to explore the Eucharist from several perspectives and to delve into the rich theology and meaning the Eucharist holds for Catholics, including what it calls forth from those who follow Jesus. I began the series with an introduction to the Eucharist – comparing this gift to a multi-faceted diamond which can never be eclipsed in its depth and beauty. In this column, I present below how the Eucharist serves as a counterbalance to several American cultural trends – thus providing the opportunity for Catholics to help transform our contemporary society.
One quick caveat before I delve in: I have never been a priest who believes in the binary that the Church is perfectly pure and our present culture fundamentally bad. Not only is this untrue, it’s also naïve and unhelpful. The history of our nation and the Catholic Church manifests an admixture of good and harm – ways that we have been true to our founding principles and ways in which we have diverged from these principles. In the Catholic context, the Eucharist shines like a beacon calling us to embrace our truest selves and our highest ethics as we follow the one who gave his life so that we might have life to the full.
First, as St. Paul reminds us, the Eucharist, in its essence, is a commemoration in the great Pasch of the Lord – his passing over from death to life. It recalls the liberation of God’s people from Egypt and is a foretaste of the Heavenly Kingdom. If there is one characteristic of God that is most powerfully manifested through the Eucharist, it is mercy. We did not merit the the gift of redemption won on the cross nor do we merit the gift of Jesus’s body and blood in the Eucharist – it is pure gift flowing from the boundless mercy of God. We live in a decidedly unmerciful age where many often act with vengeance and anger in response to a transgression or perceived slight. This Sunday’s Gospel is clear and even sobering – as the Lord has forgiven us from a place of mercy so we are a called to do likewise to those who might be in our debt.
Second, one of the main effects of the Eucharist is to unite Catholics more strongly as the Body of Christ. The Eucharist also calls us to a life of solidarity and service to our brothers and sisters who suffer on the margins of society. Just as Christ is truly present in the Eucharist so too Christ is sublimely present in the poor and bowed down. The saints of the two millennia Catholic tradition consistently demonstrate a deep devotion to the Eucharist and and a deep love for the poor – for they see the face of Christ reflected in both. Our current age is deeply polarized based on political affiliation and many other factors. Contemporary American society is often afflicted by excessive individualism and the idol of autonomy. The Eucharist invites us to come to the table and come to the feast where we are one in the Lord – all empty handed before a God who gives us all we need to continue our journey of faith. Having been fed by our good and gracious God, he sends us forth to heal, unite, and to serve.
Third, we live in an age that has eclipsed the divine – an age which seems preoccupied, even fixed on this world. There seems to be little attention paid to God, God’s wisdom, or our ultimate end. Thus, we sojourn apart from God’s wisdom and light and this leads us down dead ends and dark alleys. I have said in recent homilies that a persistent idol we serve in American life is comfort – an idol we seem to worship and feed and all costs. The Eucharist provides the opportunity to find our North Star – to experience and seek transcendence as God calls us to reach beyond this world for the values of the Kingdom. In the Eucharist we meet our God who made heaven and earth out of nothing – a God who is all powerful and all knowing. We are invited to touch the very life of God in the Eucharist – to be transformed and transcend our earthly limitations as we reach for heaven and dare to dream about what God can do when we meet God in faith.
Finally, we experience the radical hospitality of God in the Eucharist we receive. God welcomes the sinner, the outcast, the least, the last, and the lost – he feeds us with his very life, the body and blood of Jesus. We are all on equal footing before God in the Eucharist. Certainly, we are called to be well disposed to receive the Eucharist in a state of grace – this manifests our respect for such a great gift. Notwithstanding this important ideal, most Catholics approach the Eucharist struggling to live as faithfully as they would hope. Pope Francis has said, in his evocative way, that the Eucharist is medicine for those in need not a prize for the perfect. Our current age suffers from the pathology of elitism – where there are winners and losers, those who amass more and more and isolate themselves from their brothers and sisters. In his letters to the Corinthians, Paul calls the community in Corinth to reject this elitism – which is antithetical to the Eucharist – and to embrace a life of charity, humility, and radical hospitality.
Borne of God’s self-giving love and grace, the Eucharist has the power to transform our lives, our communities, and to be a counterbalance to cultural trends which tempt us to be and become less than our true selves in Christ. May we never underestimate the power of such a great gift.
Fr. Daniel Griffith
Pastor and Rector, The Basilica of Saint Mary