The law of praying (7): Making God present
We are looking at a section from the Canon of the Mass each week, to learn what the ‘law of praying’ has to teach us about what we believe. You can find the previous posts in this series in our reflections archive.
On the day before he was to suffer,
he took bread in his holy and venerable hands,
and with eyes raised to heaven
to you, O God, his almighty Father,
giving you thanks, he said the blessing,
broke the bread
and gave it to his disciples…
Just as we begin to reach those pivotal words of the Canon, we have to pause. Because we are looking forward to the consecration itself with so much excitement, we might ignore the profound point being made in what we have just said. If we were to look for these words in the scriptures, we wouldn’t find them exactly. This is not simply an account of Christ’s actions at the Last Supper, but it blends in also elements from the feeding of the 5000. This shows us how the early Church read that miracle, where the Apostles distributed miraculous food to the crowds, food that came from Christ himself and that never ran out, even though all ate as much as they wanted. That event was understood to foreshadow the far greater miracle of Holy Communion.
During this most sacred part of the Mass, we also stop asking God for anything. It makes it clear that God is not responding to our cleverness. However beautiful or profound the rest of the words of our prayer may have been up to this point, at the heart of the Mass is simple obedience to Our Lord’s instruction to ‘Do this’. We don’t bring about the consecration because we impress God with our words. God brings it about when we do what he told us to.
And what exactly did he tell us to do? You might wonder why it is that the priest looks up as he says ‘with eyes raised to heaven’, but when he says ‘broke the bread’, the priest doesn’t break the bread he is holding. When Christ said ‘Do this’, clearly he did not mean ‘recreate this exactly’. We’re not taking part in a historical reenactment. We don’t require the priest and congregation to recline around a low table, to celebrate Mass in an upper room in Jerusalem, to speak in Aramaic and Hebrew, or to dress as first century Jewish men. Those who argue that the Mass should resemble the Last Supper exactly have missed the point, and are trying to do something impossible. What is possible — what is essential — is to take bread and wine, to consecrate them using the words Christ gave us, to offer his Body and Blood in sacrifice, and to receive it in Holy Communion.
The words of Our Lord that follow don’t match any of the biblical accounts exactly. It might be that they are part of an independent oral tradition that handed down these words of Christ from the Last Supper, but it is also clear that we continue to draw together references from many parts of the scriptures, stitching them together into a whole.
Take this, all of you, and eat of it,
for this is my Body,
which will be given up for you.
In a similar way, when supper was ended,
he took this precious chalice
in his holy and venerable hands,
and once more giving you thanks, he said the blessing
and gave the chalice to his disciples, saying:
Take this, all of you, and drink from it,
for this is the chalice of my Blood,
the Blood of the new and eternal covenant,
which will be poured out for you and for many
for the forgiveness of sins.
Do this in memory of me.
The mystery of faith.
These are the words at the heart of the Mass, the ‘words of consecration’. Before this moment, we have only bread and wine on the altar. From this moment on, there is on the altar Jesus Christ himself, present under the appearances of bread and wine. To mark the change, the priest raises the Host and the Chalice for all to see and adore, and genuflects himself in adoration.
This miracle we call ‘transubstantiation’: a change of the underlying substance of what the bread and wine are, without changing any of their external appearances. There is no change perceptible to the senses, and yet the bread and wine are bread and wine no more.
Bread and wine are consecrated separately, reminding us of the separation of Christ’s Body and Blood on the Cross. If a person’s blood is separated from his body, then he dies. So this apparent separation represents Christ’s death on the Cross. However, Christ is no longer dead. ‘For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.’ (Romans 6:9) Therefore, wherever his Body is, there too is his Blood, and the two can never be separated again.
In a similar way, the separation of body and soul is precisely what we mean by death. And so Christ’s Soul must also be wherever his Body and Blood are, and can never be separated from them. And ever since the moment of the Incarnation, when the Eternal Word, the Son of God, become man, he joined his Divine Nature inseparably to that human soul. So that after these words of consecration, whether we speak of what still has the appearance of bread, or what has the appearance of wine, they are each of them Jesus Christ himself, whole and entire, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, as the traditional definition of transubstantiation expresses it.
On that altar is found something more precious than anything else in the world. Indeed, St Peter tells us that the ‘Precious Blood of Christ’ is far more valuable than anything perishable like silver and gold (1 Peter 1:18). It is enough to ransom the whole world. What lies on that altar, what is contained in that chalice, is worth more than the entire universe. If we consider how carefully we would handle a priceless work of art that someone placed into our hands, how much more care should we take in handling and approaching that which is worth more than all those other treasures put together?
Christ uses words that are so simple, actions that are so simple, even bread and wine — everyday essentials in the ancient world — which are so simple and easily available, to make the greatest mystery ever encountered by man easily accessible. He makes himself present on Catholic altars across the world every day. Our response to this great mystery hidden under simple forms must also be simple. This moment of the Mass, when Christ becomes present among us, must be for us no only the focal point of the Mass, but the focus of our week — of each day if possible — and of our entire lives.