In the thirteenth century St. Thomas Aquinas composed a brief antiphon to be sung at vespers for the solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ. The angelic doctor’s select phrases summarized for his generation the fruit of twelve centuries of Catholic piety regarding the Holy Eucharist. Aquinas’ words are still as insightful and as pertinent today as they were in that most Catholic of centuries. Sometimes known by its first few Latin words, O Sacrum Convivium, St. Thomas’ choice words read, “O Sacred Banquet, in which Christ is eaten, the memory of his passion is recalled, the soul is filled with grace, and the pledge of future glory is given!” The terse phrases of this Dominican father celebrate first that the Mass is a banquet, a sacred meal. The friar then rejoices that Christ is truly present in the Sacred Host to be consumed by the faithful. The medieval doctor then delights in the Mass as a sacrifice recalling Christ’s passion and death on Calvary. This doctor of the Church relishes the communicant being filled with the gift of God’s sanctifying life. And finally, this noted scholar appreciates that the promise of eternal life on high with God in heaven is happily bestowed on the earnest believer.
The extensive Eucharistic theology of the Roman Catholic Church is here recapped in two dozen words! Now, St. Thomas did have the benefit of other ponderous thinkers and teachers who had piously and perceptively analyzed the mystery of the Blessed Sacrament during the previous twelve centuries. The friar was happily a good student who studied well his ancestors in the faith. He was also an insightful scholar who could add his own insights to the Church’s Eucharistic studies. Aquinas was a happy blend of student and teacher. Believers today might well rejoice in St. Thomas’ gifts, but the faithful today might also do well to celebrate and admire those very first generations of early Christians who had few resources other than Divine inspiration in shaping their beliefs about the Eucharist. St. Luke’s Gospel account especially reveals the incipient beliefs of the Christian community about the truths of the Eucharist.
Just as any believer might walk into a Catholic Church today and observe the Mass as a Service of the Word and a Service of the Bread so these two fundamental segments of Eucharistic worship can be found in St. Luke’s writings, and especially in this coming Sunday’s Gospel passage. Aquinas well noted that the Eucharist celebrated the memory of Christ as today the Scripture readings, the Service of the Word, certainly does. And the Dominican also observed that the Eucharist is a banquet, a meal, in which Christ is eaten just as the Service of the Bread at Mass reveals today. In this Sunday’s Gospel reading St. Luke stresses these same twin observations.
St. Luke happily records the touching story of the two disciples who unwittingly encounter the Risen Christ at the wayside inn. St. Luke records, “The two disciples recounted what had taken place on the way, and how Jesus was made known to them in the breaking of bread.” The disciples’ awareness of Christ’s unique manifestation is certainly a reference to the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. They knew him “in the breaking of bread.” Jesus had after all said, “This is my Body,” and “This is the Cup of my Blood,” and now the first Christians were thankfully taking these words seriously. This first act of faith in the Real Presence occurred at an inn during a meal. St. Luke similarly has the Risen Christ appear also to his astonished apostles at mealtime in the Upper Room: “While they were still incredulous for joy and were amazed, he asked them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of baked fish; he took it and ate it in front of them.” As Aquinas taught, the Eucharist is a banquet, a meal, to be enjoyed in company.
The tale of the two disciples exiting Jerusalem for Emmaus also noted that their hearts were burning within them as Jesus explained the Scriptures to them. In this Sunday’s Gospel reading, St. Luke also notes that Christ instructed his followers with God’s Word: “Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.” The triple Bible readings and homily heard at every Sunday Mass is certainly a continuation of Jesus’ intent to instruct his followers. Jesus intended that the “memory,” to use Aquinas word, of his saving actions should be preserved and proclaimed throughout the ages.
St. Thomas’ mention of grace, which blossoms into eternal life, is also suggested in St. Luke words this Sunday: “…he stood in their midst and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’” This peace is certainly the grace of God filling the soul now here on earth and fulfilling the soul completely later in heaven.
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