Fr John Hemer is a Father of the Mill Hill Missionaries and has worked in several mission territories, including Pakistan, Kenya and Uganda, preaching the Gospel. He is currently a lecturer in Scripture at the Diocesan Seminary, Allen Hall.
Fr Hemer preached at the Extraordinary Form Mass of Corpus Christi, which opened our annual Quarant’Ore Celebrations.
If we want to speak about the Eucharist, two obvious starting places would be either the last supper or John 6. but I’m going to start somewhere else, a few days before. According to Matthew and Luke, straight after Jesus makes his triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, he goes and throws the traders out of the temple. Part of what he does is to overturn the tables of the moneychangers. Why are there money changers? Because in order to pay the half-shekel Temple tax, you need to us special Temple money. Roman money had a portrait of Caesar on it, this was idolatrous and could not be connected with worship. The tax payed for the Tamid sacrifices, the daily morning and evening sacrificial offerings of sheep and goats, or pigeons and turtle doves. So by doing this he is basically calling time on the system of sacrifice that had been the purpose and heart of the Temple for about 1000 years. He clearly intends to bring it to an end and replace it with something else. He replaces it with the sacrifice of himself.
Listen to these words from chapter 10. Of Hebrews:
12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God,(Hebrews 10:12)
This verse is one of the classic arguments used by Protestants against the teaching that the Mass is a sacrifice. He’s done it once and it doesn’t need to be repeated would be the gist of the argument. If he’s offered one sacrifice for sin, why do you Catholics think you have to keep offering it over and over again?
Well, if you look at the way sacrifice works in the Bible, (indeed in just about every culture) typically an animal is sacrificed, that’s the deed done, but the sacrifice is not complete until people have eaten some of the meat. Jesus clearly connects the institution of the Eucharist with Calvary. If we want to take part in Christ’s sacrifice, we must somehow eat what is sacrificed. Remember what Jesus says in John ch. 6:
53 ……. unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; 54 he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. 55 For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. 56 He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father has sent Me, and as I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also shall live because of Me. This is the Bread that has come down from heaven; not as your fathers ate the manna, and died. He who eats this Bread shall live forever.(John 6: 53-59)
So if participation in the old sacrifices meant eating some of it participation in Christ’s final once and for all sacrifice must also involve eating. With the old sacrifices, they occurred daily. So today an animal is sacrificed, people eat its flesh, they are put in communion with God in this way, they partake in the covenant. But that only lasted a short while, these sacrifices had to be repeated again and again, you needed an endless supply of animals. That repetition stops with Christ; there is one sacrifice for all eternity. But the people of God still need to take part in it in order to be in (comm)union with God. That continues in the Mass. The entire purpose of the Mass is to make available to us the fruits of Calvary, to enable us to take part as fully as possible in the sacrifice of Christ.
This is explained or laid out by the Church’s practice of communicating people with hosts from the tabernacle. To be communicated from the Tabernacle with a host consecrated at a previous Mass reminds one that every Mass is the One Mass; that, as a plurality of Masses is “the same thing – the same essentially, the same numerically – not just a lot of different things of the same kind, but the very same identical thing … the one redemptive act which Christ, who died for our sins and rose again for our justification, perpetuates in the Church which is his Body through the Sacrament of his body and blood.” Perhaps a rather imperfect analogy would be people watching some great public event on the television – a world cup final or a royal wedding. There is only one event but it is present in millions of places and people take an active part in it. If it’s a football match they may well get worked up or be made sad. If it’s a royal wedding they may open a bottle of champagne in their living rooms. One event in which millions of people participate all over the world. The mass is similar but stretched through time as well as space and of course it’s not a digital image of Christ present but his very self, body, blood, soul and divinity.
So the Mass is first and foremost a sacrifice, then it’s a meal. All ancient sacrifices concluded with a meal – people ate what had been sacrificed, but the only reason there was a meal is that there had been a sacrifice first. This is what Vat II says about the purpose of the Eucharist:
At the Last Supper, on the night when He was betrayed, our Saviour instituted the Eucharistic sacrifice of His Body and Blood. He did this in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the Cross throughout the centuries until He should come again(Sacrosanctum Concilium 47)
Similarly the collect for Corpus Christi says:
O God who in this wonderful sacrament have left us a memorial of your passion,
Please note, a memorial of your passion, not of the last supper or of his last night on earth or anything of the kind. One of the biggest and I think deadliest misunderstandings of the Mass is that it is a commemoration of the Last Supper. We do that once a year, on Maundy Thursday. I think the idea is deadly because it’s led to some of the worst liturgical aberrations in the last 50 years, like saying mass at dining tables or even coffee tables because it’s a meal. And if it is a commemoration of that Passover meal, then the more we can recreate the conditions of that upper room in Jerusalem, then the more ‘authentic’ the celebration is. Stuff and nonsense. And we know that very quickly once you get into the “nice meal together” frame of mind then all notion of sacrifice is quickly forgotten. Yes, the last supper itself was a meal, but a meal that concluded a sacrifice. Every one of the million plus people who celebrated the Passover that night in Jerusalem ate lamb which had previously been sacrificed in the Temple, and that meal was the necessary conclusion to a sacrifice, it was their way of taking part in the sacrifice, it was the only way a lay Jew could take part in it. So at Mass we are not sitting around the table in the Cenacle, but standing at the foot of cross and receiving the Body of the Lord offered for our salvation.
The epistle is something we all need to hear. I did some work on this several years ago and thought to myself that the next time this appears in the Sunday readings I must preach on it. To my horror I discovered that in the present rite it does not appear at all, so even of you had been to Mass in the Novus Ordo every day for the last 51 years you will not have heard this read at Mass. So here it is in English:
28 Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. 30 That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. 31 But if we judged ourselves truly, we should not be judged. 32 But when we are judged by the Lord, we are chastened so that we may not be condemned along with the world.
Is Paul being superstitious here? Have people died because of careless communions? Probably he’s using this expression metaphorically. Because people take communion with the wrong disposition they become spiritually weak, even spiritually dead. This is a real possibility today. In other words, treating the things of God carelessly is always disastrous. Many older translations render the Greek more literally.
Therefore are there many infirm and weak among you, and many sleep.(DRA)
Sleep is often a metaphor for death, so likely Paul is telling his audience that some are spiritually asleep? At all events it becomes clear that playing games or being dishonest with God has dire consequences. If people take communion carelessly it makes them worse Christians, not better. To receive the Eucharist without real appreciation, preparation and thanksgiving is to take God’s greatest gift for granted. That’s why the Churched has developed various things like the Eucharistic fast to make sure people don’t do that. Also the insistence that if someone has committed a mortal sin they must confess before receiving the Eucharist again, they must formally make their peace with God. Many people today receive without paying the slightest attention to the state of their souls and they are doing spiritual damage to themselves.
Paul’s sense is that each Mass is such a close encounter with the living Jesus that it’s like a mini last judgment. Imagine how we will meet the Lord on Judgment day; well we have to be in that frame of mind every time we receive, or as we say, in a state of grace. The Eucharist presupposes a real desire for union with Christ and that a person is at least taking some of the steps, according to their own ability, to make that union real. If that isn’t the case then the person is acting out a close union with Christ that doesn’t really exist and they have no intention of bringing into existence. Sadly too many people treat the Eucharist as a right on not a great privilege. The Eucharist can prove toxic because a person without the right frame of mind can become self-righteous and not open to conversion, whereas it is designed to produce repentance, a contrite, humble, grateful heart. So the way we receive communion is very important. That’s why communion on the tongue kneeling is the most appropriate way to receive the Body of Christ. Yes, people can and do receive communion the modern way with great love and reverence. But so often I see careless reception.
So let’s make sure we treat this greatest of sacraments with the greatest of love and reverence, and let me give the last word to St. Thomas Aquinas, in the antiphon for this evening’s vespers, O Sacrum Convivium.
O sacred banquet!
in which Christ is received,
the memory of his Passion is renewed,
the mind is filled with grace,
and a pledge of future glory is given to us.