Sunday, August 12, 2018

The Seven Sacraments and Their Liturgies, Part 4: Eucharist

Previous parts in this series:
Part 1: Introduction to the Sacraments
Part 2: Baptism
Part 3: Confirmation

The greatest of the seven sacraments is the Eucharist, also called Holy Communion. The Holy Eucharist is the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the outward appearance of bread and wine.

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle definedsubstance” as something that cannot be predicated of anything (meaning it is not a trait of something) nor said to be in anything (it is not a part of a whole). Substance is the thing in itself, its essence, independent from accidental properties. According to Aristotle, “human” itself is not a substance, but a particular human would be a substance. In this case, the substance of the Sacred Host is our Lord's Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, whole and entire. The other nine categories that Aristotle identified—quantity, qualification, relative, where, when, being-in-a-position, having, doing, and being affected—remain those of bread. These are the “accidents.” As far as the senses can tell, the Eucharist is merely bread and wine, and if someone were so sacrilegious as to put the Eucharist through a series of chemical tests, they would indicate by every measure that it is bread and wine. However, we know by faith that the substance, the thing in itself, is the Lord's Body and Blood.

The Church has held this position since the earliest times. St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote around AD 106, “I desire the bread of God, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ,” and, “Stand aloof from such heretics...they abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of his goodness, raised up again.”

Similarly, around AD 150, St. Justin Martyr wrote:

Not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Savior, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of his word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.

St. Thomas Aquinas, who lived from 1225 to 1274 and is nicknamed the “Angelic Doctor,” is the most prolific theologian in Church history. Nearly all of western philosophy and theology is based on his works. He made a philosophical argument for transubstantiation in his Summa Theologiæ (IIIa, Q. 75, A. 2). According to St. Thomas Aquinas, it is impossible for the substance of bread and wine to remain after the consecration, because for a thing to be in a place, it must have either been moved there or created there. Since it is implausible that the Body of Christ was moved from heaven to the altar, it follows that the Body of Christ must have been generated there. This implies that the Host can no longer have the substance of bread, since the substance of bread has been transformed into the substance of the Body of Christ.

In 1551, the Council of Trent condemned many heresies, commanding the Church's harshest punishment, anathema, against those who profess them. Anathema is an extreme and frightening form of excommunication in which the subject is completely cut off from the society of the faithful. Among the heresies punished by anathema are denying that the Blessed Sacrament is the true Body and Blood of Christ and asserting that the substance of bread and wine remain alongside the Body and Blood of Christ.

Thus, we can see that, from the earliest times and throughout all the centuries, the Church has firmly held her belief in transubstantiation. In Matthew 16:18, Christ promises to St. Peter that the gates of hell can never prevail against the Church of God. Those who deny transubstantiation hold that the Church has professed a wrong and heretical dogma. This implies that Jesus broke his promise and the gates of hell have overcome the Church of God, which is a contradiction.

The dogma of transubstantiation has no shortage of scriptural support. In the twelfth chapter of Exodus, God gave the Jews the mandate for observance of the Passover feast. A lamb is to be sacrificed and offered to God, and the Jews are to eat of this lamb. None of the lamb's bones are to be broken. The New Testament makes it very clear that the Passover foreshadows Christ's sacrifice of himself on the Cross at Calvary and that Christ is the true Paschal Lamb who was sacrificed for us. (It is for this reason that Christ is called the Lamb of God.) One of the only times the Gospel According to John references the Old Testament is in John 19:36, when the evangelist notes specifically that none of Christ's bones were broken when he was crucified, just as the Jews were forbidden from breaking any of the bones of the Passover lamb. In 1 Corinthians 5:7-8, St. Paul explicitly notes that Christ is the Passover Lamb, saying, “Purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new paste, as you are unleavened. For Christ our pasch is sacrificed. Therefore let us feast, not with the old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” (This is the Epistle at Mass on Easter Sunday.) The feast he refers to is the Mass, the Christian observance of Passover, in which unleavened bread transforms into the Body and Blood of Christ.

The first Mass was the Last Supper, in which Jesus said, “This is my Body,” and, “This is my Blood.” There are several peculiar things to note about what he is saying here. First, as I have stated, this was a Passover feast. When he says, “As often as ye shall do these things, ye shall do them in remembrance of me,” he is saying that they should continue to observe the Passover feast, but in remembrance of Christ. This Passover feast in remembrance of Christ is the Mass. Since Christ is the Passover lamb of the New Covenant, it follows that Christ must be present in the Mass. Second, the Greek phrase for “This is my Body” is “Touto estin to soma mou,” which means, “This is actually my Body” or “This is really my Body.” Protestants argue that Jesus was just saying that the bread represents his body. The Aramaic language that Christ spoke had over 30 words for "represent", but Jesus did not use any of them. He said, with every possible affirmation that it is the literal truth, “This is my Body.” Finally, when Jesus said that it was the Blood of the New Covenant, he echoed Moses' words from Exodus 24:8: “This is the blood of the covenant which the Lord hath made with you concerning all these words.” Moses was referring to the blood of sacrificed oxen. Since Christ's sacrifice on the Cross fulfilled all necessity of sacrifices, it follows that the Blood of the New Covenant is truly Christ's Blood. Thus, we learn from Jesus himself that the bread and wine are his true Body and Blood.

In John 6:35, 41, 48, and 51, Jesus refers to himself four times as the bread of life and the bread from heaven. He goes on to say in John 6:52, “If any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever; and the bread that I will give, is my flesh, for the life of the world.” In this and the following passage, our Lord makes it clear that he means literally eating his flesh. Jesus says in John 6:54-59:

Amen, amen I say unto you: Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath everlasting life: and I will raise him up in the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed: and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, abideth in me, and I in him. As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father; so he that eateth me, the same also shall live by me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Not as your fathers did eat manna, and are dead. He that eateth this bread, shall live for ever.

In these passages, the Greek words used are phago, which means to eat or to physically consume, and trogo, meaning to gnaw or chew. Such graphic language makes it very clear here that the bread and wine in the Mass are really transformed into his Body and Blood. Thus, the dogma of transubstantiation is incontrovertibly taught by both Sacred Tradition and Scripture.

Because of the sanctity of the Eucharist, there are restrictions on who may receive it. St. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 11:29, “Therefore whosoever shall eat this bread, or drink the chalice of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and of the blood of the Lord. But let a man prove himself: and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of the chalice. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh judgment to himself, not discerning the body of the Lord.” Likewise, St. Justin Martyr wrote in his First Apology (66), “And this food is called among us Εὐχαριστία [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined.”

In order to receive Communion, one must be in a state of sanctifying grace. This means first of all that one must be a baptized and practicing Catholic. If one has committed a mortal sin, one may not receive Communion until the sin has been absolved through the sacrament of Penance and sanctifying grace has been restored one's soul. Non-Catholics are not permitted to receive Communion in the Catholic Church.

A child's first Holy Communion is a major milestone, usually occurring around age seven after a period of preparation and after receiving the sacrament of Penance for the first time. Traditionally, Confirmation would precede first Communion, but today Confirmation usually occurs later in adolescence.

In addition, since early times, Christians have fasted before receiving Communion. This allows us to prepare for Communion by denying ourselves earthly pleasures and uniting ourselves better to our Lord. It also makes us truly hungry for our Lord and gives him the dignity of being the first food we eat in a day. St. Augustine wrote, “It has pleased the Holy Ghost that, to honor so great a Sacrament, the Lord's Body should enter the mouth of the Christian before other food.” In AD 393, the Council of Hippo decreed, “The Sacrament of the altar shall be offered only by those who are fasting.” Thus, the Church has always required fasting before Communion. For many centuries, fasting was required from midnight, so that Communion would be the first food of the day. In 1957, Pope Pius XII changed the requirement to three hours before Communion, and in 1964, Pope Paul VI changed it to only one hour before Communion, which is the requirement today. All Catholics are obligated to fast at least one hour from food or drink before receiving Communion. Water and medicine do not break the fast. If a medical condition makes it impossible to fast even one hour, then the obligation is dispensed. It is an excellent personal devotion to observe the traditional fast from midnight if one is able to do so.

Since the early Middle Ages, the Catholic faithful have customarily received Communion at least three times per year, at Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. The Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 decreed that every Catholic has the solemn obligation to receive Communion at least once per year at Easter. The Council of Trent (1545–1563) reaffirmed this obligation. Even today, every Catholic is obligated to receive Communion at least once per year at Easter. In the United States, this requirement may be fulfilled by receiving Communion any time from the First Sunday of Lent to Trinity Sunday. Other countries have different rules.

Even the tiniest particle of the Sacred Host or drop of the Precious Blood is God himself, whole and entire. Thus, every precaution is taken to ensure that no particle of the Blessed Sacrament is ever profaned. After the consecration of the Host at Mass, the priest keeps his thumbs and forefingers joined, so that in case a particle of the Host adheres to his fingers, it will not be profaned. The faithful receive Communion only on the tongue, never in the hand. A server holds a paten under the chin of each person receiving Communion in case the Host falls. After Communion, the priest inspects the corporal to make sure no particles of the Host remain on it. He then carefully washes his fingers and the chalice and ciborium with unconsecrated wine and water. After Mass, the chalice, paten, ciborium, and any other vessels that touched the Blessed Sacrament are rinsed in the sacrarium, a special sink that drains straight into the ground instead of into the regular sewer system. Deliberately profaning the Blessed Sacrament is not only a mortal sin, but carries a penalty of automatic excommunication.

In 1570, after the Council of Trent, Pope St. Pius V issued a decree titled De Defectibus in Celebratione Missæ Occurentibus (“On the Defects that May Occur in the Celebration of the Mass”) or simply De Defectibus. This decree, printed in every edition of the Roman Missal from 1570 to 1962, is a comprehensive and somewhat entertaining list of everything that could possibly go wrong in the Mass and how to handle it, so that the Blessed Sacrament will always be given the greatest possible honor and never disrespected. Among the situations listed in De Defectibus are:

  • If the church is invaded by enemies before the consecration, the Mass is discontinued. If after the consecration, the priest skips everything else and goes straight to the reception of Communion.
  • If a spider falls into the Chalice after the consecration, the priest should take it out, wash it with unconsecrated wine, burn it, and throw the ashes into the sacrarium.
  • If there is a sudden gust of wind and the Host disappears, the priest should take a new Host, offer it to God, and consecrate it.

Much of De Defectibus concerns the essential matter, form, minister, and intent of the sacrament of the Eucharist. The essential matter is bread made from wheat flour and water, along with wine fermented from grapes. If the bread is made from something other than wheat, such as rice flour, or if it made using rose water, then it is invalid matter. This means that a valid Host can never be completely gluten free. In the Western Church, the bread is always unleavened. The Eastern Churches customarily use leavened bread. Both are valid. If the wine has turned to vinegar, then it is invalid matter. In extraordinary circumstances, a priest, with the permission of his bishop, may use mustum, which is grape juice that has only barely started to ferment. This may be allowed if the priest is a recovering alcoholic or if, due to some medical condition, he is unable to consume alcohol.

The essential form of the sacrament of the Eucharist is the words of our Lord, “This is my Body,” and, “This is my Blood.” If the priest omits these words or replaces them with words that do not mean the same thing, then the sacrament is invalid. Historically, it has sometimes been ambiguous whether the essential form for the Blood also includes the words, “Of the New and Eternal Covenant, the mystery of faith, which will be shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.” In the Novus Ordo, the words “the mystery of faith” are omitted. Since Jesus himself did not say these words at the Last Supper, this certainly does not invalidate the Mass. However, until 2011, the official English translation of the Novus Ordo Mass replaced “for many” with “for all,” which severely corrupts our Lord's words and changes their meaning. Many people wondered if this constituted a defect of form that invalidated the sacrament. Fortunately, the consensus among theologians was that these words were not part of the essential form of the sacrament, so the Masses were still valid. However, it is still tragic that heresy was introduced into such a crucial part of the Mass. By the grace of God, the translation was corrected to “for many” in 2011.

A priest is the minister of the sacrament of the Eucharist. Anyone who is not a priest cannot offer the Mass under any circumstances. In case of necessity, a deacon may distribute Holy Communion at Mass or outside of Mass. The term “extraordinary minister of Holy Communion” or “extraordinary eucharistic minister” is probably familiar to many Catholics accustomed to the Novus Ordo Mass. In the Novus Ordo, lay people may be appointed by the pastor to distribute Communion at Mass as extraordinary ministers. However, the tradition of the Church since time immemorial has been that only the consecrated hands of a priest touch the Sacred Host. Extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion do not exist in the traditional Latin Mass.

While the usual ceremony in which the sacrament of the Eucharist is administered is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the Roman Ritual has a rite for distributing Communion outside of Mass. This is only done in case of grave necessity, such as bringing Communion to someone who is sick or homebound. The server says the Confiteor, and the priest gives absolution. The priest then invites people to Communion with the words “Ecce Agnus Dei...” like at Mass, followed by the usual threefold repetition of the centurion's prayer. After Communion has been distributed, the priest says the following antiphon.

O sacrum convívium, in quo Christus súmitur, recólitur memória passiónis ejus, mens implétur grátia, et futúræ glóriæ nobis pignus datur. O holy banquet, in which Christ is received, the memory of his passion is renewed, the soul is filled with grace, and there is given to us a pledge of future glory.

Like at Benediction, he says the versicle, response, and collect of the feast of Corpus Christi. The priest purifies his fingers in a bowl of water, and then gives a final blessing.

The sacrament of the Eucharist is the most important sacrament and the cornerstone of our faith. It has nourished the lives of Catholics for nearly two thousand years. We are never closer to God while on earth than when we receive his Body and Blood in Holy Communion. No matter how many articles I write on this blog about the Eucharist, there is only so much I can say. The Eucharist is infinite and transcends human understanding.

New terms
  • substance – The thing in itself, which cannot be predicated of anything nor said to be in anything, independent of any accidental properties. The substance of the Blessed Sacrament is the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ.
  • accidents – The properties of an object that we can perceive. The accidents of the Blessed Sacrament are those of bread and wine.
  • sacrarium – A special sink that drains directly into the ground instead of into the sewer system.
  • De Defectibus in Celebratione Missæ Occurentibus or simply De DefectibusA decree by Pope St. Pius V listing everything that could possibly go wrong in the Mass and what to do about it, particularly defects in the form and matter of the sacrament.
  • mustum – Grape juice that has barely started to ferment and thus contains almost no alcohol. It may be used in place of wine in the Mass with the bishop's permission.

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