Two: "Penetrating the hearts of all things": Eucharist as Moral Fission
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Day of Reflection, Kenrick Seminary
I. Pulled in, sent out
This morning I attempted to draw a parallel between the transformation of the Passover meal into the Eucharist and the individual Christian’s transformation from being a person “about Christ” to being Christ. Pope Benedict sees the latter transformation into terms of Jesus transfiguring the foreshadowing of the Passover (the figura) into the truth of the Eucharist (the veritatem). Our Holy Father goes on to note that this transfiguration occurs through the Cross, bringing the promise of the Passover meal into completion, fulfilling the prophetic history of God’s people, and changing our memory of liberation into our liberation in truth. Picking up his mediation on the Eucharist in Sacramentum caritatis, I want to offer for your reflection this afternoon the following question: having shown us our final end with God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, and having accepted this end with our repeated “amen’s” at prayer, what are the moral implications of celebrating the Eucharist; in other words, now that Mass is over and we have been sent out, what do we do and how? Our Holy Father, in the most striking passage I’ve ever read in a papal document, writes that we are to become graced agents of a cosmic moral transfiguration, “a change meant to set off a process which transforms reality, a process leading ultimately to the transfiguration of the entire world, to the point where God will be all in all”(SC 11). The catalyst and the fuel for this radical change is to be found in the transubstantiation of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ.
II. Renewing history & cosmos
At the precise moment that Jesus identifies himself as the lamb of sacrifice in the Passover meal, “[he] shows the salvific meaning of his death and resurrection, a mystery which renews history and the whole cosmos”(SC 10). It is very important to note here that this is not just the renewal of a single people or a single tribe or race, but the re-creation of the cosmos and the re-vision of our history as prophecy fulfilled. We must be very cautious about giving a stingy interpretation to the revelation Jesus makes here. It is tempting to see this revelation as a metaphor, or as a clever way of warning his friends about his fate. Metaphors and clever warnings cannot serve as the re-presentation of Jesus’ sacrifice, what our Holy Father describes as “a supreme act of love and mankind’s definitive deliverance from evil.” I’ve come across a lot of metaphors in my 22 years of teaching English. Never met one that delivered me from evil! Jesus means precisely what Jesus says here. He is the lamb. The sacrifice. And he is the priest and the altar. He is the giver and the gift. When we receive what he offers—himself—we are transformed into a giver and a gift. So, in our service to others, we are not simply “using our talents” or “exercising our graces.” We are, literally, sacrificing self—making the self holy by surrendering the self to service. Remember: we are not baptized to be “about Jesus” nor are we called to be a Body of those who are “about Christ.” It is our re-created nature now to be Christ per se. For this to happen, Christ had to die on the cross.
Now, by taking such a sharp focus on the saving act of the cross and then expanding our view to include the whole of creation, Pope Benedict is both pulling us in and sending us out, pulling us toward the cross and Christ, and sending us out toward the world with Christ. Between being pulled in and sent out there is a space for growth and development. Our Holy Father says about this space: “By [Christ’s] command to ‘do this in remembrance of me,’ he asks us to respond to his gift and to make it sacramentally present. In these words the Lord expresses…his expectation that the Church, born of sacrifice, will receive this gift, developing under the guidance of the Holy Spirit the liturgical form of the sacrament”(SC 11). And it is the liturgical form of the sacrament of remembrance and thanksgiving that fills the space between being called to the cross and sent out from the cross. In other words, the Mass seduces us in, transforms us in sacrifice and communion, and sends us out to do the same to the world.
Now, we know that it is Christ’s death on the cross and his resurrection from the tomb makes it possible for us to participate in the divine re-creation of the world. But how do we, right here and now, actually participate in this divine work? Sure, we can run out to feed the homeless at the shelter, or protest in front of the abortion clinics, or help sort donations at St Vincent de Paul. These are certainly acts of charity. But even these acts of charity as “acts of charity” participate in a pre-existing habit of willing the good for others. Where do we get that will, that habit of loving?
First, our Holy Father notes that we, as the Church, must receive the gift of Christ’s death and resurrection. This only makes sense. Something given to you only becomes a gift once you have received it as a gift. Sacramentally, we receive this gift in the Mass every time we say “amen.” Second, it is not enough that we remember Christ’s perfect gift of himself for us. The Passover meal was a remembrance. We have been delivered from slavery; so, though we may remember our liberation, who we are is free, looking out and forward. Benedict writes, “The remembrance of his perfect gift consists not in the mere repetition of the Last Supper, but in the Eucharist itself, that is, in the radical newness of Christian worship. In this way, Jesus left us the task of entering into his ‘hour’”(SC 11). We enter into Jesus’ hour through the Eucharist. Quoting his own encyclical, Deus caritatis est, Benedict says, “The Eucharist draws us into Jesus’ act of self-oblation. More than statically receive the incarnate Logos, we enter into the very dynamic of his self-giving”(SC 11).
As followers of Christ, we go where he goes. If he goes to the cross and the tomb, so do we. If he gives himself in sacrifice for others, so do we. If he empties himself out in an act of selfless oblation, so do we. And when we do these things, these acts of selfless oblation, we are doing more than just “serving others;” we are connecting ourselves to the “dynamic of [Christ’s] self-giving.” We are also participating in setting the stage for the dramatic re-creation of the cosmos. Having accomplished the possibility of our salvation and having brought to consummation the prophetic history of God’s people and having drawn the Body, the Church into his service, Christ prepares us to do the most extraordinary thing: transfigure the entire world!
IV. Transfiguring the world
Our Holy Father’s focus in Sacarmentum caritatis is the Eucharist as the “sacrament of love.” For us, the Eucharist is a sign of Christ’s sacrifice on
The liturgical celebration of Christ’s sacrifice is not just a pageant that forces us to remember. Of course, we remember; but we also re-collect, re-store, re-new that which makes us perfect in Him—His likeness and image that makes us His sons. The work of the Eucharist is to make us God, to bring us into the perfected participation of the divine, to share His life intimately, passionately. Aquinas teaches us that we come to be “deiformed.” He says that “God become man so that man might become God.” Cyril of Alexandria says that we “become Christs,” we live the life of Christ. And as such, we are agents of a creaturely transfiguration. How?
Benedict, in a highly underappreciated passage in SC writes, “The substantial conversion of bread and wine into [Christ’s] body and blood introduces within creation the principle of a radical change, a sort of ‘nuclear fission’…which penetrates to the heart of all being…” As we are pulled into Christ’s self-oblation as members of his Body, we are transformed; then our transformed hearts and minds and bodies, once we are sent out, spreads out to all of creation. Literally, we take Christ to the world in our bodies. The principle of radical change introduced to creation is this: God is love, He is the Will that wills the Good, and we are His transfiguring instruments. However, we are not merely human instruments, merely agents of social change or cultural revolution, we are His Christs sent to offer ourselves in sacrifice for others. There is no half-participation, no means of simply playing along to play along. We change the world or we stay at home.
Benedict uses the phrase “nuclear fission” to describe what happens at the prayer of consecration. At that moment, the divine touches the human most intimately, and we are forever altered. The purpose of this transubstantiation is not merely ritualistic or symbolic or something akin to changing the meaning of the bread and wine for us. All of there are forms of weak participation, pale imitations of a wholly beautiful reality. Think for a moment: if all we are going in the Mass is redirecting our attention to our final goal or shifting the meaning of food and drink in order to build up community with a shared meal, then we have tragically limited the work of the cross and the empty tomb! In the same way, if we believe that what we are doing is simply remembering his sacrifice, recalling again his confession to being the sacrificial Lamb of Passover, then nothing substantial has taken place. We have jogged our memories, soothed our immediate need for comfort, and ignored the most powerful means we have for transfiguring the world.
Note again that Benedict describes the Eucharist as a “process leading ultimately to the transfiguration of the entire world, to the point where God will be all in all”(SC 11). Do we want God to be all in all as a symbol? As a shift in definition? As a re-set goal post? No! That’s not why Christ died. These are not worth the Passion and the blood of the cross. And what’s more, none of these sparks us out into the world like a nuclear fission. From the altar at the prayer of consecration the body and blood of Christ from the cross on
V. Now what?
If everything said here is true, then we have only one Path to walk, one Work to complete: we follow Christ doing what he did—preaching the Good News, teaching sound doctrine, admonishing the sinner, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, honoring the poor, and loving, loving, loving. And because the world is ruled for now by a dark spirit, we prepare ourselves for resistance, for enmity, and dissent. But because the world is a gift from Goodness Himself, we do not despair rather we work in joy and hope.
For your reflection: how am I a spark of the nuclear fission that flies from the altar of sacrifice? How do I contribute to the transfiguration of the world? Am I prepared to live in creation where God will be all in all?