The Holy Eucharist: Sacrifice and Meal

Father John A. Kiley

Rothenburg, Germany, located on the Tauber River, about halfway between Nuremburg and Frankfurt, is the world’s supreme Christmas Tree Shop. The village abounds with brightly cloaked Father Christmases, ornamental pine trees and colorful wreaths for every doorway. While cousins bargained to ship some gilded ornaments home to America, I checked the town for various religious statuary apart from the omnipresent manger scenes. My quest was to no avail. One clerk informed me, “Oh, you have to go to South Bavaria for that.” Alas the dividing line between Catholic southern Germany and Lutheran northern Germany marks even commercial interests.
Even to his dying day, Pope Benedict, as a proud southern German and prouder Roman Catholic, feared the encroachment of Protestant practices into Catholic traditions. This was particularly true of the Eucharist, as the former Pontiff’s posthumous publications reportedly indicate. Pope Benedict rightly feared the loss of a sense of adoration during Mass as the Mass became increasingly appreciated as a meal. The Mass as worship and the Mass as supper was a conflict that personally troubled the late Pope as his many writings clearly indicate. He relished his daily Mass personally as his private devotion and worshipping experience, hence his termination of concelebrating his daily Vatican Mass. He also feared that the Mass as a mere meal could render the church building a plain meeting house and the priest simply a minister. At best, the sacramental would yield to the symbolic; but more likely the supernatural would eventually yield to the secular. And of course, the history of Protestantism has confirmed his suspicions.
The Eucharist could indeed sadly be viewed as simple fellowship, like the meals that Jesus shared with the Scribes and Pharisees in their homes on several occasions or the tasty repasts that Martha prepared when Jesus visited Bethany. Perhaps today encouraging non-Catholics to approach the altar with crossed arms to ask for a blessing might foster this notion of the Mass simply as camaraderie with fellow believers rather than Communion with God Himself. Protestant influences and communal considerations notwithstanding, the Mass remains for all time that “Sacrum Convivium,” that “Sacred Banquet, in which Christ is received, the memory of his Passion is recalled, the soul is filled with grace, and the pledge of future glory is given us,” as St. Thomas Aquinas summarily recalled in his antiphon for the solemnity of Corpus Christi.
The official Catechism of the Catholic Church employs Aquinas’ words in detailing the many splendors of the Mass: “At the Last Supper, on the night he was betrayed, our Savior instituted the Eucharistic sacrifice of his Body and Blood. This he did in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the cross throughout the ages until he should come again, and so to entrust to his beloved Spouse, the Church, a memorial of his death and resurrection: a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, a Paschal banquet ‘in which Christ is consumed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us’(n.1323).” Another writer for the Rhode Island Catholic wrote in his column in 2018, “The Eucharist is a meal, given to the Church at the Last Supper, a meal in which we eat the Body of Christ and drink his Blood, providing us with the spiritual energy we need to live out our faith every day.”
In this coming Sunday’s Gospel, St. Luke broadly commemorates the Mass as a service of the Word, a service of the Bread, and a celebration of intimate contact with Jesus himself. The hearts of the two disciples were eagerly “burning within” as Jesus explained the Scriptures while they walked along. This is clearly a Lucan reference to the reading of Scriptures at Mass. Then, St. Luke is careful to indicate that this early Eucharist was being celebrated in the context of a meal: “while he was with them at table he took bread.” Matthew, Mark, Luke and Paul would all report the Mass as being instituted at a meal. Then, St. Luke notes the consecration (“said the blessing”), the Communion (“gave it to them”), and the Real Presence (“they recognized him”). A mini-Mass, if you will, was celebrated while dining at an inn near Emmaus.
Pope Benedict is correct to fear a loss of awe and wonder as Catholics learn to appreciate the Mass both as a sacrifice and as a meal. The breadth might indeed overwhelm the height. The Emmaus incident reminds believers of the excellence of the Mass celebrated from both viewpoints: sacrifice and meal.