For your Lenten reflection. . .
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Day of Reflection, Kenrick Seminary
St Louis, MO
April 24, 2008
I. Pulled in, sent out
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
II. Renewing history & cosmos
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.
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.
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 Calvary, pointing to and making present the once-for-all self-oblation of Jesus on the cross. When we step into the Eucharist as those redeemed by Christ’s sacrifice, we step out of history and into eternity. The Mass is not a re-sacrifice of Christ. Such a thing is wholly unnecessary because the man on those wooden beams is God. And since it is God incarnate who died for us, our flesh, our human nature, is “taken up” into his death and resurrection. Everything he healed, he assumed; which means everything about us is healed! Every
injury, every disease, every breach of the covenant since the garden,
every sin we have ever committed or will commit is cured, closed-up,
made fresh and new. And not only that—yes, there is more!—the whole of creation is brought back into “right relationship” with God’s plan.
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?
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.
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 Calvary splashes out, flies out to the “heart of being” and readies all of creation to receive its Creator. The sacrament of love—Who Is God Himself—can do nothing less!
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:
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?_____________________
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