“We do not presume to come to this thy table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: grant us therefore gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.” We so often speak of the Eucharist and, in our theology, debate the intention of the words of the institution. Yet the Eucharist, the most sacred and intimate proclamation of the faith, surpasses all human understanding, and before it all voices and opinions, even the adoration of the holy angels and archangels, rightly fall silent. There is no place in this romance, for this is what it is, for dogmatism or debate; for the unity which the soul and body experience in communion with Christ at its reception evades all reason and intelligibility. This is why the holy Church, the faithful here and departed, along with the fellowship of Apostles, saints and martyrs, refers to the profundity of the Eucharist as a holy mystery. It can never be the task of this reflection to instruct others of the nature of the Eucharist, for this is a thing that can never be known. All that one wishes to achieve with this exposition is a sharing, not of what one knows, but of what one lives in the experience of the Eucharist.
Karol Józef Wojtyła, the late Pope John Paul II, quoting Lumen Gentium 11, wrote that “taking part in the Eucharistic Sacrifice, which is the source and summit of the whole Christian life, they [Christians] offer the divine victim to God, and offer themselves along with it (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 13).” It is this reflection which we shall use here as our point of departure. There are many contending interpretations of the theology of the Eucharist, from the symbolism of the reformed traditions to the literal and physical transformation of the orthodox traditions; but the object of this article, as stated is not to pronounce a definition of the feast. This is not a theology but a spirituality; speaking of the intimate and private relationship with which one has with one’s Lord and redeemer in the devotion to and reception of the life-giving bread and saving cup. Imagine a dear friend asking if one considers his or her beloved attractive or beautiful. This is, of course, a rude question not only because it may often put one in a position wherein one has to lie. The truth is always that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. When my sisters and brothers in Christ claim to see only a token of the life, death and resurrection of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, then who am I to question their relationship with the Sacraments of the Church? If they are happy to experience Christ in this fashion, then I am happy and rejoice with them. It is quite different for me.
In appreciation of the irony of discounting biblical literalism so often and accepting the literal understanding of Christ’s action in the Eucharistic feast, I cannot and will not offer an apology. It may be the most supreme example of a weak argument, yet I shall make no attempt to advance an argument. Thus this article is anything but an appeal to reason. Rather it is an appeal to another source of knowledge; that of a personal faith. Above all other things, the Eucharist is a communion; that is a sharing in unity and fellowship with Christ and the whole Church in a single action. It is in this manner that the collaboration of the Church with Christ, in perfect harmony and unity, can be spoken of. It is the actual participation of the Church in the single sacrifice of Christ on the Cross; that through Baptism and the life of the Sacraments the faithful suffer and die with him, and therefore also rise to the newness of life in perfect union with him. The mystic, Saint Julian of Norwich, expresses this intimacy in the language of a mother with her children, and as a hen with her brood. God is our mother who, in the Eucharist, gives the Church both succour and comfort. From Julian of Norwich we can more fully appreciate the image of the Church being fed by the breast milk of God, our Mother, in the celebration of the Eucharist. There is in this image the perfection of the image of the primal relationship. God is our Mother and our home; where our first origin is and the place of our final destination.
Continuing with this language of familiarity and intimacy, we can speak of the Eucharist also as the relationship between a loving couple. The Sacrament of Matrimony is introduced in the Christian liturgy as, “signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church.” This image also speaks of a perfect identification of Christ and the Church, for in the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony, “a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh (Genesis 2:24).” In the re-presentation of Christ upon the altar there is a consummation of the relationship between the bridegroom and his bride. It is in this manner that we are able to express the Eucharist in erotic language; there is a desire of one for the other which is fully expressed in the passion and the action of sharing one another. This is the most complete manifestation of the divine four-letter-word. Love is what brings Christ to the Church, and the Church to Christ. Love is what unites them and holds them one to another. Love is what drives the Church with Christ out into the world and ever brings it back in thanksgiving to its passionate love affair. Eucharist is what happens between Christ and the Church “behind closed doors.” To this end the Orthodox liturgy still maintains the instruction to the porters to close over the doors. This sanctuary is the place of intimacy where love is made. It never fails to amuse me that in a world so obsessed with the erotic, there is not more interest in the Church.
The Eucharist, like all romance, is a sacrificial offering. Offering all of one’s self wholly unto another, in the same way that Christ offers himself up to the Father, together with all of the Church’s sufferings and pain, in a single redemptive action which escapes place and time. There is no repetition of the cross, as this is not an event in time. The sufferings of the faithful and of the community are joined together in the suffering of Christ on the cross. This is made real on the altar with the prayers and thanksgiving of the whole Church. As we offer our souls and bodies freely to God in Christ, through the Spirit; he offers us his body and blood, soul and divinity in the form of life’s essentials. Like flowers to our lover, he offers bread and wine. Like the flesh in passion, he offers us his body and blood. It is both pleasure and pain, the experience of death and the wellspring of life eternal. In this way I live the Eucharist in a sacred love affair with my lover and my redeemer, my Lord and my King. It is real flesh and real blood in as much a way that human love is eros for the real flesh and blood of one’s beloved. It is real suffering like the real pain one suffers because one loves. It is real joy like the real joy one experiences in the joy and blessing of all human relationships.
Jason Michael McCann