Most Catholics know that during the celebration of the eucharist, by the power of the Holy Spirit called down on the bread and wine, these gifts, which earth has given and human hands have made, are changed into the Body and Blood of Christ. What few of us know that a second change, one that is just as important, happens in our eucharistic celebration. We too are changed as we share in his body and blood.
In his March 21, 2018, catechesis on the eucharist Pope Francis highlighted this change (see the March 28 Prairie Messenger story). Pope Francis said: “Although it is we who move in procession to receive communion, . . . it is actually Christ who comes to us to assimilate us to him. There is an encounter with Jesus! To be nourished by the eucharist means to allow oneself (to) be changed as we receive. . . . Each time we receive communion, we resemble Jesus more, we transform more into Jesus. Just as the bread and wine are converted into the Body and Blood of Christ, those who receive them with faith are transformed into a living Eucharist. . . . Because when you receive the eucharist, you become the Body of Christ. This is beautiful, very beautiful. While it unites us with Christ, tearing us from our selfishness, communion opens us and unites us to all those who are one in him. This is the prodigy of communion: we become what we receive!” (Translation: Vatican Press Office)
This is not some new-fangled theory. Pope Francis quotes the fourth century St. Augustine who “helps us to understand it, when he tells us about the light received in hearing Christ say: ‘I am the food of strong men; grow, and you shall feed upon me; nor shall you convert me, like the food of your flesh, into you, but you shall be converted into me’ ” (Confessions VII, 10, 16: PL 32, 742). And recent popes — both St. John Paul II and Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI — have reiterated this in their own writings. It is a longstanding, but overlooked aspect of our understanding of eucharist.
We are converted into Christ. This awesome mystery both attracts me and terrifies me. Attracts, because there is nothing that can offer any human being more healing, more dignity, more life! Terrifies, because if I am converted into Christ, then I must live and be as he is: in self-emptying love that is stronger than death, in ongoing concern and compassion for the least among us. I live with all the baptized in the dance of love that is the Trinity.
This is the mystery of the eucharist that for centuries we have failed to hand on from generation to generation in any systematic way. Since the eucharistic debates of the Middle Ages, we have focused almost exclusively on the change that happens in the bread and wine. But if we listen to the prayers of the mass, and read the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, it’s all there. But, since we don’t expect it, we don’t see how this transformation is set out. At the Presentation of the Gifts, we bring our gifts: bread and wine, and ourselves. The General Instruction comments: “Even though the faithful no longer bring from their own possessions the bread and wine intended for the liturgy as was once the case, nevertheless the rite of carrying up the offerings still keeps its spiritual efficacy and significance.” How can we describe this significance? Emeritus Pope Benedict puts it well: “In the bread and wine that we bring to the altar all creation is taken up by Christ the redeemer to be transformed and presented to the Father (144). In this way we also bring to the altar all the pain and suffering of the world in the certainty that everything has value in God’s eyes” (Sacramentum Caritatis, 47). That of course, includes our own lives.
Just before he prays the institution narrative, the priest prays, “by the same Spirit graciously make holy these gifts . . . that they may become the Body and Blood of your Son . . .” Just after the Institution narrative, he prays again, “grant that we, who are nourished by the Body and Blood of your Son and filled with his Holy Spirit, may become one body, one spirit in Christ.”
This “coming into union,” into oneness, into communion, is a thread that runs through the whole eucharist. Listen for it! And then we who are being made one pray the Lord’s Prayer, to “Our Father”; we share the sign of peace, and pray “grant (the church) peace and unity.” Then we begin the communion procession which is to be accompanied by the communion song, “its purpose being to express the spiritual union of the communicants by means of the unity of their voices, to show gladness of heart, and to bring out more clearly the ‘communitarian’ character of the procession to receive the eucharist” (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 86).
Our common song during the procession makes audible the work of the Spirit who is fashioning us more deeply into the ecclesial Body of Christ as we receive the sacramental Body of Christ. Whether we sing in unity or in harmony, the voices of the whole assembly led by the music ministry proclaim our communion, our coming into deeper union with Christ and the other members of his body. This motley crew of saints and sinners is being transformed into the Body of Christ. We, too, are changed. This is the ultimate purpose of eucharist: to change us. We say Amen to the sacramental Body and Blood of Christ, and to our own reality as Body of Christ. We say Amen to letting go of anything that would keep us from being the Body of Christ in our world.
“Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life.” Suddenly, this mission with which we are dismissed from the eucharistic table at each celebration takes on new contours. We have not just received the eucharistic body and blood of the Lord. By that reception we are also transformed more deeply into his body. We were made members of that body when we were baptized; our sharing in the eucharist reconstitutes us as his body. The consequences of this sharing in communion are profound: we are sent forth to be his enduring presence in the tabernacle of the world; we are sent forth to act with him, and through him, and in him. To us can be applied the same verbs that we apply to the eucharistic bread. Like Christ, we are to be broken and given, poured out for the life of the world. To this we have said “Amen.”
Gasslein holds a license in sacred theology with specialization in pastoral catechetics from the Institut catholique de Paris. For the past 40 years she has been engaged in various liturgical and catechetical ministries, leading workshops around the country and is editor of Worship, a journal published by Liturgical Press. She and her husband live in Edmonton.