THE HOLY EUCHARIST AS A SACRAMENT - NATURE OF A SACRAMENT
Without entering fully into details as to the nature of a sacrament, it would seem advisable at this point to say some few words on that subject, before treating the Holy Eucharist as one of the Sacraments.
The Penny Catechism tells us a sacrament is an outward sign of inward grace, ordained by Jesus Christ, by which grace is given to our souls. In this definition we find the three essentials of every sacrament, namely :—
1. Outward Sign. —By this we mean something falling under the cognisance of the senses, giving us a knowledge of something that does not fall upon them. For instance, a natural sign would be smoke issuing from the chimney. As we pass down the street and see this with our eyes, we are reminded of the fire within, which we cannot see. Yet we know it is there, for " where, there is smoke, there is fire." A footprint on the sands is a natural sign, by which we know someone has passed that way, though no living being be visible at the time when we find it. If on passing by a church we hear the strain of the organ, we are satisfied the organist is there, though hidden from view. A conventional sign is one that men agree upon, as a means of making known some unknown fact or wish. As an example, certain signboards indicate special trades or classes of business. On the battlefield, the bugle sounds in a definite manner, and the troops know at once what definite movements they must execute.
Now, this Outward Sign, which varies in the different Sacraments, consists of two parts, the matter and the form.
a. The Matter is the thing used and the using of it. In Baptism, the matter is water and the pouring of it on the child's head. In Confirmation, it is chrism and the anointing with it. While in the Holy Eucharist, it is the bread and wine, about to be miraculously changed into the Body and Blood of Christ.
b. The Form consists of the words uttered in effecting the Sacraments. They give life and energy to the matter ; for, the mere pouring of water is only a mechanical act, which has no value or meaning, till words accompany and interpret it. " I baptise thee," etc., are the words that constitute the Form in Baptism. They give vitality and power to the water to effect the cleansing of the soul, as it is poured on the head of the child, with the intention of doing what the Church intends us to do. In the Holy Eucharist, the Form consists of the words of Consecration pronounced over the bread and the wine separately, denoting and effecting the transubstantiation of them both. Thus the outward sign may be described as composite, that is, the material element needs a verbal complement to constitute the sign in its fulness.
2. Inward Grace is the second essential of every Sacrament, and every Sacrament is a channel of God's grace and help to the souls of those who receive it worthily.
a. Sanctifying Grace makes us pleasing to God; it is like a precious garment thrown over the soul to beautify and enrich it; and if we die in this grace, our salvation is secured. All the Sacraments give, or increase, this grace in the soul, and, if this were the only grace we could receive, one Sacrament would suffice to convey it. But Our Lord instituted seven, thus there must be other graces and spiritual helps to be given, and these we describe as—
b. Sacramental Graces, peculiar gifts of God's Bounty, according to the end for which each Sacrament is instituted. Thus the Sacramental Grace of Baptism is the cleansing of the soul from original sin, which no other Sacrament can effect, and the bestowing thereby of supernatural life for the first time in the soul. As we shall see ere long, the Sacramental Graces of the Holy Eucharist are very numerous and very precious.
3. Divine Institution, the third essential of all Sacraments. The material thing used in conferring them cannot of itself bestow grace. God alone can give grace, and He alone can fix the means by which it shall be conveyed to the soul. It is of faith that Our Lord has given the matter and the form, in substance at least, of all the Sacraments: the Council of Trent declares this (Sess. VII., De Sacr., Can. i.). His Omnipotence could alone impart to a drop of water the power of blotting out sin from the soul, or give to certain words, pronounced by the priest, efficacy to convert bread and wine into His own most precious Body and Blood. Thus has He acted in regard to the other Sacraments. In the case of the Holy Eucharist, we shall see this fully, in the chapter treating of Its institution at the Last Supper.
We read in history that some of the Roman emperors, on their accession to the throne, used to throw money to the people. It is said that one of them scattered slips of paper, signed by himself, and representing sums more or less considerable, which the State would pay to the bearer on presentation. The people, not realising the conventional value of these papers, despised them; but some, well advised, gathered up a large number of them, and became rich in a single day. If man can thus give value to what has no value in itself, how much more can God attach wonderful graces to common and simple elements, as Our Lord has done in the Sacraments!
We can never be sufficiently grateful to Almighty God for His marvellous Bounty in bestowing upon us all the graces and helps we require through life, and that, too, by means so simple and so well within the reach of us all, as are the Sacraments of the Catholic Church. They are fountains, whence we may draw at will the spiritual strength we need, to attain to eternal life; perennial springs, whence flow streams of grace to the soul; inventions of Divine Love, for which we should have the highest esteem and appreciation, for there is nothing greater or more excellent in Religion. The more we study them and understand their power and efficacy, the more shall we desire to receive them frequently and with worthy dispositions. This holds especially true of the one we are considering, the most Divine Sacrament of Holy Eucharist. " You shall draw waters with joy out of the Saviour's fountains" (Isa. xii. 3).
DEFINITION OF THE HOLY EUCHARIST.
From what has been said on the nature of the Sacraments, it is easy to see how the Holy Eucharist is truly one of them, for it contains the three parts essential to every sacrament. It will be sufficient for the present to merely state this, and, as we advance, to point out and develop at some length each of these three essentials as we come to them.
The Holy Eucharist is commonly defined to be the true Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ, under the appearances of bread and wine.
1. Body. —When we speak here of Our Lord's Body, we mean that physical body, which was born of His Immaculate Mother in Bethlehem, in the most lovable form, the form of a little child, whom she wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in the manger of
the stable. It was a body constituted of muscle and tissue, flesh and bone, like our own bodies, human in every respect. It is that body that travelled over Palestine, through the lanes of the country and the streets of its towns, seeking the lost sheep of the house of Israel, going about doing good to all, for virtue went forth from it, to heal the sick and the ailing (Luke vi. 19). It is that same body that suffered so cruelly for us at the time of the Passion, and was finally put to death on Calvary, amid excruciating sufferings and in deepest ignominy. Three days afterwards it rose gloriously from the tomb, in which it had been laid in death, while a few weeks later it ascended to Heaven in splendour and majesty, and is there one of the beauties that the Blessed contemplate for ever.
This, and no other, is the Body of Christ that we have in the Holy Eucharist, worthy of our humblest adoration, because it is the Body of the God-Man. We must enliven our faith in this doctrine, and bring home to ourselves the truth of it, so that we may approach to receive Holy Communion with all due love and becoming reverence.
In the fourth Book of Kings xiii. 21, we read how some friends of a dead man were carrying his body out to burial, when they were surprised by the sudden appearance of a roving-band of Moabites, a hostile tribe. In great haste they removed the stone from the tomb of Eliseus, which was near, and laid their dead friend in the sepulchre, in order to be free to escape from the enemy. No sooner had the corpse touched the remains of the Prophet, than the dead man returned to life again and stood upon his feet!
If such a miracle of Divine power was wrought on a dead man, by simple contact with the bones of a prophet, a mere man like ourselves, what wonderful effects may we not expect to find produced in our souls when we come to touch and receive within us, not the body of a mere man, but the Body of Christ, Our Lord, laid on our tongues in Holy Communion ? There can be no closer physical contact than this. With what awe, with what reverence should we approach to receive so great a gift, and what confidence should its nearness inspire!
When a poor woman, who had been suffering for twelve years, came full of confidence, touching merely the hem of Our Lord's garment, as He was passing by, she was made whole from that hour (Matt. ix. 21). And many other sick and diseased did in like manner, receiving a like mercy (Matt. xiv. 36). In Holy Communion we touch not His garment, but receive in very truth the Body of Our Lord. What graces, then, may we not hope for, if only we prepare ourselves reverently and carefully to receive it with sentiments of lively faith and confidence. As our daily food gives sustenance and support to our bodily life, so the flesh of Our Lord in this Sacrament feeds and strengthens the supernatural life of our souls.
2. Blood. —When Our Saviour instituted the Holy Eucharist, converting the bread into His own sacred Flesh, His body was living, as He is now also in Heaven. Now, a living body must have blood coursing through its veins. When, therefore, we receive the consecrated Host, we receive the living Body of Christ, and necessarily the Precious Blood, for the one is inseparable from the other. This Blood He took from the pure blood of Mary, His Mother, as He was conceived in Her immaculate womb. This same Blood He began to shed shortly after His birth, when on the eighth day He was circumcised, receiving the holy name of Jesus. At the end of His life, He shed it in His Agony in the Garden, when, realising the malice and evil of sin, and foreseeing the terrible sufferings awaiting Him that night and the following day, He was bowed down, and overwhelmed with anguish and grief; then the last drops of it He shed, as He hung in death on the Cross.
Hell fire, though burning for a whole eternity, cannot, with all its fierce vehemence and activity, consume a single mortal sin ; but one drop even of this Precious Blood is able to cancel the sins and crimes of ten thousand worlds, for it is the Blood of the Son of God, and therefore of infinite value before the Father.
Its wonderful power is well typified by the blood of the Paschal Lamb. God Almighty had already punished King Pharaoh for his obstinacy in refusing to allow the Israelites to depart from Egypt. But the various chastisements inflicted on him seemed only to harden his heart the more, and he refused to grant them their liberty. One further punishment God inflicted on Pharaoh and his people, and this was the death of the first-born in every house of the Egyptians. By the mouth of Moses, God commanded the Hebrews (Exod. xii. 7) to take a lamb by their families, and to slay and eat it in their homes, and then with its blood to sprinkle the door posts of their houses.
That same night God sent His Angel through the land of Egypt to slay the first-born of every Egyptian family, while he passed over the houses of the Israelites, on the door posts of which he saw the blood of the lamb had been sprinkled. A cry of anguish arose throughout the land next day, for death reigned everywhere. Filled with horror at the death of his own eldest son, and the plaint of woe that everywhere arose, Pharaoh sent for Moses and Aaron, and besought them to depart with their people from Egypt. Thus were the Hebrews saved from the common chastisement by the blood of the lamb.
How much more will our souls be preserved from the Devil and sin—as the angel was a type of the Devil, or probably was the Devil— by the Precious Blood of Our Lord in Holy Communion, concealed under the mysterious veils, and by it we were redeemed from the captivity of sin, when Our Lord shed it to the last drop on the Cross.
In Holy Communion, our souls are bathed in this Precious Blood, and the Devil, seeing them thus signed and washed, is less able to harm or injure them, just as the slaying angel was unable to harm the Israelites, when he saw their doors sprinkled with the blood of the Paschal Lamb.
3. Soul. —Once again, in Holy Communion we receive Our Lord as He is, that is, a living being. Yet a body cannot live, unless it be animated by the soul. It is the departure of the soul from the body that causes the terrible phenomenon we call death. Thereafter the body remains helpless as a mass of clay, soon subject to corruption, which makes us hurry to take it forth to burial, as unfit to remain amongst us. As, then, we receive the living Christ, we receive with His Body and Blood His Soul likewise. He had a soul like ours, for He was human like ourselves—soul, the most beautiful work of all God's creation, most perfect, and worthy of His Divine Son, for whom it was fashioned.
In the life of S. Catherine of Siena, we read how God Almighty permitted her to see, in some mysterious manner, the beauty of a soul in the state of grace ; and she tells us how the brightness and splendour of the sight dazzled and blinded her, how there was nothing in this world she could think of that could give any idea of what she had seen : neither the soft, sweet light of the morning, nor the dazzling beams of the noonday sun, nor the beautiful colours of rainbow or flower, for that soul surpassed them all, bright with the whiteness of
Heaven, such as is not to be found on this earth. If such be the beauty of the soul of a little child, in the grace of God, what must be the heavenly glory and splendour of the Soul of Christ, the Author of all grace, the very sanctity of God Himself!
It is this Soul of Our Lord that suffered the anguish of Gethsemani, oppressed with the weight of the sins of men, and with the thought of the sufferings He had to pass through, in consequence of their heinousness and guilt before God. It was the departure of this Soul from Our Lord's Body on the Cross that constituted His death, as is the case with us all. At that moment his beauteous spirit went down to Limbo, where were detained the souls of countless Saints of the Old Law, who could not as yet enter into possession of their Reward, for the golden gates of Heaven were still closed against them. On its arrival, that place of Rest was lighted up with incomparable splendour, the souls were filled with gladness and joy, joy intensified by the knowledge that now, at long last, the day of their deliverance was at hand, that soon they should pass into the Divine Presence for ever. For some thirty-six hours or so, the Soul of Our Lord remained in Limbo, and then reunited itself to the lifeless Body still in the tomb, rising together by a glorious resurrection in the early morn of Easter Day.
Now, it is this Soul of Our Lord, so perfect in sanctity, in beauty, and every perfection, that we receive in Holy Communion, its glory being hidden from our eyes by the sacramental veils. Would to God we realised the honour that is done to us, by the visit of such a guest to our hearts! and that we could draw from its presence within us all the graces it is able and ready to bestow ! Surely it is true to say that one Holy Communion is enough to make us Saints !
It is this Body and Blood and Soul that constitute the sacred Humanity of Our Lord, humanity like to our own in all things, without sin (Heb. iv. 15). In this human form He was able to show Himself to the eyes of men, to discourse to them, to suffer and die, thereby making reparation to God for the sin that human nature had committed against Him, in the person of our first parents and their descendants.
4. Divinity. —But Our Lord was not only man, having a human nature like ours, He was also God. The union of the two natures, human and Divine, in the one person of God the Son, was effected in the mystery of the Incarnation, at Nazareth, and is known by the name of Hypostatic Union, that close, intimate, and personal union of the Divinity and Humanity in Our Blessed Lord. He was, therefore, God as well as man, and it was the omnipotent power of the Divinity that He displayed on those occasions during His public career, when people brought to Him such as were sick of any disease, and He healed them by a mere word of His lips.
Before Him, the Incarnate God, the Angels in Heaven are ever prostrate to adore and sing-eternally " Holy, holy, holy," to the glory of His name. He whom we receive in this Sacrament is in very truth a Divine Person, Christ Jesus, Son of the living God, in His twofold nature, who created us, who redeemed us from hell, who, at the end of our lives, will be our impartial Judge, and for all eternity, let us hope, our unending reward. Yet this is truly what we do receive when we approach the Holy Table! Could God Himself bestow more than this—His own infinite Self—to us His sinful creatures? Can we, therefore, ever make a return of gratitude and love worthy of God, worthy of such a gift as we here receive! Yet how much better thanksgiving should we be able to make after receiving this Sacrament of Love, if only we tried to realise more fully who He is that comes to us therein, Our Divine Lord, truly God and truly man.
How thoroughly animated by a deep, lively faith was the pious Count of Hapsburg, of whom the following anecdote is related. He was one day hunting among the mountains, when he saw a priest much embarrassed to cross a stream swollen by the rains. He had to cross it, to carry the Holy Viaticum to a dying person. At once the Count alights from his horse, makes the priest mount him, and himself follows on foot in deep recollection. The priest afterwards wanted to give back the horse to the Count, but the latter answered : " I do not deem myself worthy ever again to remount a horse, which has had the honour of bearing the Lord of lords : it is from Him that I hold in fief all I possess." And so saying, he left the noble animal at the service of the priest and his church. The report of this edifying event soon spread in the neighbourhood, causing everywhere a pious joy among the people. May it not also teach us a lesson, and remind us how great is the honour Our Lord does us, when He comes into our hearts, leading us to show all reverence and respect to the Blessed Sacrament, so infinitely venerable and sacred to the eyes of a lively faith ?
In dealing thus far with the definition of the Holy Eucharist, an important word has been omitted, reserved for our consideration at this point, a word of the utmost importance. It is the word
True: the true Body and Blood, by which we mean that Our Lord is really and substantially present in the consecrated bread and wine ; this the Council of Trent has formally and solemnly declared. It is, therefore, of faith that in Holy Communion we receive the true, real and substantial Body and Blood of Christ, not a mere symbol, or representation or figure of them, but the substantial reality itself. Our Lord did not say, at the Last Supper : ''This is a figure of My body, or a reminder to you of My body," but He did say: " This is My Body: this is My Blood." Now, if words have any meaning at all, what other conclusion can we come to than the one just stated, that in this mystery we have nothing less than His Sacred Body itself, along with His Precious Blood. This is the plain and obvious meaning of the words He used.
The truth of this has been manifested many times by miracles during the course of the Church's history. The consecrated Host has been known to remain untouched and uninjured, when all around has been absolutely consumed and destroyed by fire ; or it has been suspended, and has remained without support in mid-air, in similar circumstances.
A well-attested miracle is recorded by the French writer, Fleury, who tells that, in the year 1290, a poor woman living in Paris, in order to purchase some food, pawned her cloak in a Jew's shop. A few days before Easter, she begged the Jew to lend it to her, that she might be able to go to church and fulfil the Easter precept. ''With pleasure," said the Jew ; "I shall not even require it back again, if you will bring me a little of the bread you call your God ; I wish to see if it be God." The woman agreed, and then went to receive her Paschal Communion. When it had been given to her, she, without being noticed, managed to conceal the Sacred Host, and took it, according to agreement, to the Jew. He, on receiving it, laid it on a table and cut it with a penknife. At once blood began to flow from it, and his wife became very much alarmed, and made every effort to prevent him from proceeding further in the sacrilegious work, but he would not be restrained. He now forced a nail into the Host, and again it bled. At last he dipped it into boiling water, which immediately appeared red, as it were, with blood. This extraordinary occurrence amazed the Jew, and he at length withdrew in bewilderment. In the meantime, his son said to some boys going to church, that there was no use in going to adore their God, as his father had just killed him. A woman, who was passing by, heard the jest from the boy and entered the house, where she beheld the Sacred Host, which, as soon as she appeared, entered into a small vessel she was carrying in her hand. The woman at once took it to the church and gave it to a priest. The Archbishop of Paris, being informed of what had taken place, had the Jew arrested, who, confessing his crime, received the punishment he deserved. His wife and children became Catholics, and were baptized. In the year 1295 a citizen of Paris built an oratory called the miraculous chapel, on the site where had stood the house of sacrilege.