Written by Nick Jones (University of Rhode Island) | Edited by Ariel Hobbs
As I write, the Church finds herself in the midst of celebrating the great feast of Corpus Christi, the Body of Christ. Naturally, this feast invites us to a deeper, more recollected contemplation of the Most Holy Eucharist. It is very easy for us to take such a central tenet all of our Faith for granted. By and large, those of us who seriously practice the Faith are able to recognize the fact that the Eucharist is really and truly Christ’s Body and Blood, as clearly as we might recognize our own names or that the sky is blue. But, again, it’s very easy and tempting to stop there and to convince ourselves that that’s all there is to it. Nothing could be further from the truth. Even all the greatest works of the greatest Eucharistic theologians and saints like John Chrysostom and Augustine and Thomas Aquinas cannot even scratch the surface of the wondrous Mystery of the Eucharist. And yet, we are called all the same to try and scratch it. One particular quote, to me, stands out as particularly useful in unpacking at least some of the truth of that Most Blessed Sacrament.
Paragraph 1324 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls the Eucharist “the source and summit of the Christian Life.” Aside from the texts of the Mass themselves, this quote has been the most fruitful in terms of my personal understanding of the Eucharist. To understand why the Eucharist is both the source and the summit, we must first take a closer look at what the Eucharist actually is.
The word Eucharist can denote many different things even within the Church. We might think of the actual, physical consecrated Hosts themselves or perhaps the act of receiving Holy Communion. For the purposes of this article, we will consider the Eucharist to mean the Sacrifice of the Mass. It is important to remember what the Mass and thus the Eucharist is and is not. When the priest celebrates the Mass, he does not merely conduct a historical memorial of Calvary. He is not the host of a banquet or meal. He is truly acting as an alter Christus, another Christ. When the Church gathers to celebrate the Eucharist, a new sacrifice of bread and wine is offered to God the Father and, being found acceptable by Him, they are transformed into the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ. That one perfect Sacrifice of Calvary, namely the death of the God-man Jesus Christ, is re-presented to God and its effects are reapplied. The Eucharist is our means of perpetually applying the graces of the Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension to the whole world. Now, bearing this all in mind, we can unpack the implications of the Eucharist as both the source and the summit of our spiritual lives.
Why is the Eucharist the source of our Christian life? To put it simply, but not even close to exhaustively, the answer is that we would have no Christian life if there were no Sacrifice of Calvary. The Eucharist is the wellspring of all sacramental graces. All of them, which form the bedrock of our lives in Christ, have their origin in His Sacrifice. While every sacrament dispenses grace, the Eucharist is also the One Who dispenses graces. Without Calvary, without the Eucharist, all of us are children of wrath (Ephesians 2:3). It is only through a participation in Christ’s Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension that we are able to possess Sanctifying Grace, God’s abiding presence within our souls (cf. Romans 6:4, Colossians 2:12). (Even the Blessed Virgin Mary, immaculate and sinless during her earthly life was saved by an anticipation of the salvific death of her son.) Through the Eucharist, we also receive the infused Theological and Moral Virtues, as well as the Gifts of the Holy Spirit. Truly, the Eucharist is our gateway to sharing abundantly in life with God.
Why then is the Eucharist the summit of our Christian lives? Again, the answer can be stated quite simply, but never exhaustively. Our Lord reminds us that there is no greater act of love than laying down our lives for our friends (cf. John 15:13). The Eucharist is the example of this Christian charity par excellence. A constant, recollected assistance at the Holy Sacrifice is our own way to requite God’s love for us. Just as He freely gave His life on the Cross, so too do we freely give of ourselves to Him. The Lord gave His all, and we try to reciprocate it as best we can by offering the same Sacrifice to the Father. Consider what Saint Peter Julian Eymard said: “Know, O Christian, that the Mass is the holiest act of religion. You cannot do anything to glorify God more, nor profit your soul more, than by devoutly assisting at it, and assisting as often as possible.” Christ left us this wonderful gift and commanded it to be offered until He returns. Because of His divine mandate, and because of how this celebration enables us to be refreshed spiritually, there is nothing more noble than to prayerfully assist at the celebration of the Eucharist.
We must weave the ideas of source and summit together. There is a great reciprocity and interplay at work here. The Eucharist is the source of all grace and is God’s great condescension to us. Yet it is also the greatest act of piety and devotion we can offer. It becomes for us the means of being uplifted to God. Both of these realities are constantly at work within us. May we never take them for granted and thus always allow the Eucharist to guide us home to Our Lord forever.
We are able to affect the world when the Spirit of Christ and its fruit are within us. Christ’s Spirit became available at Pentecost, after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. This is why Jesus said that “It is the spirit that enlivens; the flesh profits nothing” (John 6:63). The graces from the Father flow into us through Christ’s Spirit within us.