How can human tongue ever undertake to speak in worthy accents of the great and adorable mystery of the most Holy Eucharist! To treat worthily of so sublime a subject, one would require the intelligence of an Angel, the fire of a Seraph, and the pen of an Evangelist, and even so, words would fail to express its unutterable dignity, its boundless charity, its inexhaustible wealth of Divine Grace.
The prophet Isaias, who lived some eight hundred years before Christ, declares how unworthy he felt to go and speak, in God's name, to the chosen people of Israel (Isa. vi. 5). In like manner, two hundred years later, Jeremias called himself a mere child, unfit and unable to speak, and it needed direct encouragement from God Himself, to make him go forth and proclaim the Divine commands (Jer. i. 6, 7).
Yet the work of these men of God was only to preach penance to the Jews, to warn them of the anger of God, if they did not repent, and to urge upon them the observance of the Law. How simple and easy such work, compared with the duty of explaining to the world the infinite mercy and boundless love of Our Lord, as manifested to us in the institution of the Blessed Sacrament!
Not to Angels and not to Cherubim, but to His Priests, frail human mortals, has Christ entrusted this Divine treasure of the Eucharist; and theirs is the duty and the privilege to diffuse Its light and Its fire, that is, Its knowledge and devotion, through the world. Let this be my plea for essaying so sublime a task, in view too of the reward promised to those who spread the knowledge of Divine Truth : " They that explain me shall have life everlasting" (Ecclus. xxiv. 31).
Order of the Sacraments
To many it may perhaps at first sight appear somewhat strange that, in the enumeration usually given of the seven Sacraments, Penance should be named after the Holy Eucharist, inasmuch as the Sacrament of Penance is usually received by the Faithful before they approach to receive Holy Communion. Yet there are good reasons for the order in which the Council of Trent names the Sacraments.
Baptism confers on the new-born child the supernatural life of grace in this world, to be preserved and followed by the life of glory in the next.
This life of grace is strengthened by Confirmation, and thus enabled to withstand more firmly the dangers that may beset it, and to overcome more easily the obstacles it finds in its path, just as the soldier is provided with rounds of ammunition, when he has to face the enemy of his country in war.
Then the Holy Eucharist is designed to feed and nourish the supernatural life of the soul, giving it daily the support it needs, just as our bodily life gets constant support from the food we take in our meals. Thus naturally, the Holy Eucharist follows after Baptism and Confirmation.
The Sacrament of Penance is, as it were, an episode, foreign to the normal course of the soul's life of grace, being intended, in God's mercy, to remedy the wounds it may receive by the way, through offences against the Law of God, especially through the commission of mortal sin.
The practice of the Church in the early ages was to administer Holy Communion even to Infants, just after their Baptism, when of course they were quite incapable of receiving the Sacrament of Penance, for they could have no personal sin to remit.
But, though the Holy Eucharist is thus placed third only in order, in the usual enumeration of the Sacraments, It is far and away first in dignity, the most sacred of them all, containing the very Author of all grace and sanctity, Our Divine Lord Himself.
Baptism is the most essential of all the Sacraments, as, without it, the others cannot be received with any effect; it is the one Sacrament that opens the gates of the soul for the reception of the other six ; thus, it is the most necessary of all, and always heads the list. But it must yield its place of pride to the Holy Eucharist, when we come to consider the dignity of the various Sacraments.
Names of the Eucharist
The great Sacrament we are about to study bears various names, by all of which It is known to the Faithful, the following being among the chief ones :—
1. Holy Eucharist. —Its ordinary name, Holy Eucharist, comes from the Greek, and means thanksgiving. When Our Lord, at the Last Supper, instituted this Sacrament of Love, He took the bread and the chalice into His sacred hands, as the Gospels remind us, and, raising His eyes to Heaven, gave thanks to His Father for having bestowed on Him the power of thus giving Himself to men. Moreover, He bestowed upon us this Divine gift, to serve as a Eucharistic sacrifice, through all ages, whereby man might be able to present to God an adequate and perfect thanksgiving for the untold graces and blessings of every kind which we receive from His hands. Thanksgiving is one of the ends for which the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is offered, as will appear, when that part of our subject comes under notice. Therefore according to the very meaning of the word, Eucharist is a most appropriate name for this Sacrament, which is the true expression of man's gratitude and thanks to God.
2. Blessed Sacrament is another name in most frequent use among the Faithful. It is the most holy of all the Sacraments, the source of holiness and of countless blessings to the Church, and to individual souls, who find therein the strength they need to do battle against their spiritual enemies, together with courage to practise the Christian virtues and overcome their evil inclinations. Of It we may justly say, Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, essentially holy and blessed in Itself, and thrice blessed in Its effects upon mankind.
3. Bread of Heaven is another familiar name. So Jesus Christ called It: " I am the living bread which came down from Heaven " (John vi. 51). It contains the real Body and Blood of Our Lord under the mysterious veils, and day by day He descends upon our altars to be the food of our souls, the spiritual bread of which they must partake, if they wish to preserve their supernatural life. This Bread from Heaven would require the purity of the Angels that we may worthily receive It, and the purer our souls are in so doing, the more do we become as angels in human flesh.
4. Holy Communion, meaning the union of the soul with Jesus Christ, is another of Its titles, because when we partake of It, we are united to Our Blessed Lord in a manner so intimate that we become with Him and with the Faithful but one body. The Holy Eucharist becomes thus the bond of union between us.
5. The Holy Table. —The Blessed Sacrament is a heavenly banquet prepared for the Faithful, and all the Faithful are invited to it, that they may have their fill, and thence carry away the spiritual fortitude and courage necessary to walk in the path of God's commandments.
6. The Real Presence. —This beautiful and sweetly expressive title refers, not so much to the Holy Eucharist in Sacrifice or in Holy Communion, but to the ever-abiding presence of God made man in the Tabernacle, where He fulfils His promise, " Behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world" (Matt, xxviii. 20) ; and where He invites the faint and the weary to this trysting place of Divine aid, " Come to me, all you that labour and are burdened, and I will refresh you" (Matt, xi. 28); and again, " My delights to be with the children of men " (Prov. viii. 31).
7. Viaticum is yet another title of this Divine Sacrament. It means food for the journey, and is Holy Communion given to those who are dangerously sick. They need special help on the perilous journey into the next world, a journey on which a whole eternity depends. Hence, the Church desires that all Her children, ere they depart this life, should be fortified with this food of the strong. So great, indeed, is this Her desire, that She then dispenses from the law of fasting, so that, no matter what be the hour of the day or the night, Her faithful children may be enabled to receive this food for their journey, for the strengthening of their souls, before they appear at the judgment seat of God.
How the Holy Eucharist differs from other Sacraments.
The Holy Eucharist differs in many ways from the other Sacraments.
1. By reason of Its sublime dignity, enshrining, as It does, the very God made man.
2. By the graces It confers upon those who receive It worthily; for, in Holy Communion, we receive the very Author of grace, the very fountain from which all Graces flow, so that there is no grace whatsoever, that we may ever stand in need of, that may not be obtained by a good and fervent communion.
3. The permanency of this Sacrament is a very remarkable feature that distinguishes It from all the others. For these are Sacraments only at the time of their administration and reception ; for instance, Baptism consists in the pouring of water and in pronouncing a set form of words. Once this is done, the Sacrament is given and no longer subsists, though of course its bountiful effects remain. The Holy Eucharist, however, is a Sacrament, not only in the act of reception by any of the Faithful, but even when reserved in the Tabernacle of the Altar, for their visits of love and adoration. This we call the Real Presence, which is permanent, so long as the species of bread remain. The Church, to express and emphasise Her faith in the permanence of the Real Presence, universally requires a lamp to be kept ever burning night and day before the Blessed Sacrament, wherever it is thus reserved. The oil in the Lamp must be oil of olives, unless, with the sanction of the Bishop, another kind be substituted, where oil of olives cannot be had. The continual burning of this Lamp is meant to typify the hearts of the Faithful, which should, as it were, be ever consumed with flames of love and gratitude, in return for so great a gift as the Real Presence always in our midst. It also serves to take our place, when, during the silent hours of the night, we are unable to be present in Church, to offer our prayer and adoration to our sacramental God, on His throne of the Altar. Too often, alas! it takes our place during the bright hours of the day, when we forget to go and pay homage to our King, and perhaps never so much as remember He is there, so near oftentimes to our very door.
4. A further characteristic of the Holy Eucharist is that, while in the other Sacraments the matter always remains the same, in this one it does not. In Baptism, for instance, the water remains water, before, during and after conferring the Sacrament. So too in Confirmation, the chrism remains chrism, after as well as before the anointing of the person confirmed. In the Holy Eucharist, on the contrary, the bread and wine, which are the matter of this Sacrament, are no longer on the Altar after the consecration, but we have in their stead the Body and Blood of Our Lord, into which they have been changed or transubstantiated. The appearances of the matter, or the species, alone remain, such as the colour, the taste, etc., of the bread and wine. In this respect, the Eucharist is quite unique, and diners altogether from the rest of the Sacraments, entirely excelling them all.
All the Sacraments have Reference to the Holy Eucharist.
These four points serve to distinguish very clearly the Holy Eucharist from all the other Sacraments, and make It stand out quite apart, as it were, so much so indeed, that all the other six may be said to have direct reference to It, under one aspect or other.
The great object Our Lord had in view, in condescending to place Himself under the lowly forms of bread and wine, was that He might be able in this way to unite Himself intimately to His creatures, by becoming part of their very being, whenever they approach to receive Him.
Baptism. —Now, that we may be able to effect this Eucharistic union with Our Lord in Holy Communion, we must first of all be cleansed from original sin, for He cannot enter a soul that is in the possession of His archenemy, the Devil. But the only Sacrament capable of removing original sin from the soul is Baptism, which thus has a most direct relation to the Holy Eucharist, in destroying the one great obstacle to Its worthy reception, and making us capable of the Eucharistic Union.
Confirmation makes us more fit and more worthy to receive It, by strengthening Divine grace in our souls, and adorning them with the gifts of the Holy Ghost.
Penance enables us to renew this Union, if unfortunately we have broken it by deliberate mortal sin ; for, by this Sacrament, sin is forgiven, when repented of, and the soul is thus able to contract the Eucharistic Union afresh,
Extreme Unction removes the obstacles to Holy Communion, which may remain in our souls, at the approach of death, when we most need to be united with Our Lord in this Sacrament of His Love, before we appear at the tribunal of His Justice.
Holy Order perpetuates the line of the Priesthood, whose privilege and duty it is to consecrate and preserve the Holy Eucharist on earth to the end of time. Were there no priesthood to consecrate the matter of the Sacrament, there could be no Sacrament; thus Order has a most intimate relation to the Holy Eucharist.
Matrimony perpetuates the lawful succession of the Faithful to receive Holy Communion, and to effect the Eucharist Union Our Lord so much desires.
Thus in one way or other, all the Sacraments have reference to the Holy Eucharist, the grandest and most exalted of all, the One for which all the others were given.
Types and Figures of the Eucharist.
Not unfrequently in the Inspired Writings of old do we find types and foreshadowings of the striking events and sublime mysteries of the Christian Dispensation. The grander the mystery, the nobler the person, the office or the mission, the more frequent and pointed is the ancient type. This is especially true of the Holy Eucharist, the grand mystery of Divine Charity. Quite naturally, we may expect to find, in the ancient Scripture, some objects or events pointing directly, as with a finger of light, towards this sublime mystery, preparing men's minds for the institution of this Divine Sacrament, and lighting up the hidden mysteries after the event. For, all the chief works of Our Lord were typified and prefigured before His coming. Hence the Old Law has been compared to the rose in the bud, and the New Law to the rose in full bloom. It could not then but be that the Holy Eucharist, His masterpiece, should have Its types and figures, to prepare mankind for Its bestowal. Let us now consider some of these.
I. a. The Tree of Life is a first figure, spoken of in Genesis ii. 9. This Tree was the work of God's Omnipotence, brought forth from the virgin soil of the Garden of Eden.—So was Our Lord's Body the product of the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of His holy Mother, who was a virgin.
b. The specific virtue of this Tree was to sustain and renew the principle of undecaying life, to make man immortal, so that, by eating of the fruit of it, he might live for ever, and, without tasting death, be in due time translated to Heaven. — Far more wonderful and effective than this is the Body of Our Lord in Holy Communion, which gives to our souls their supernatural food, to our bodies a glorious resurrection, and to both, at the end of time, the unending life of glory.
c. Had our first parents been obedient, God would have given them to eat the fruit of the Tree of Life, of immortality, and they never would have died.—Such, too, is the promised effect of the Holy Eucharist, worthily and frequently received. "He that eateth this bread shall live for ever" (John vi. 59).
d. The Tree of Life was seen only in the earthly Paradise.—Only in the true Church of God is the Blessed Sacrament worthily honoured and adored.
2. a. The Paschal Lamb (Exod. xii.) is another type of this great Sacrament. The Jews were required, by the express command of God, to offer to Him every year the Paschal Lamb, in memory of their marvellous deliverance from the slavery of Egypt.
b. The Lamb was to be sacrificed in the evening, and Our Saviour instituted the Blessed Sacrament the night before He died.
c. It was to be "roasted at the fire," to remind us how the true Paschal Lamb, Our Lord in this Sacrament, is all consumed with the fire of charity for men, while they, when they approach to receive Him, must do so, their hearts burning with love for God and their neighbour.
d. A distinct prohibition was made that, in sacrificing this Lamb, none of its bones were to be broken. In like manner, Our Divine Redeemer, the true Paschal Lamb of the New Law, had none of His bones broken, while He hung upon the Cross in death, as had the two malefactors who were crucified beside Him, to hasten on their death, before the Great Sabbath came in.—Though a consecrated particle may sometimes be divided into two or more parts, yet is not Our Lord broken or divided in any way, but exists whole and entire under each and every such part. It is but the appearance, the species of bread that is broken.
" Non confractus, non divisus,
—S. Thomas of Aquin.
" There is no breakage, no dividing,
Whole He comes to everyone."
— Galwey, "Watches," i. 321.
e. The Paschal Lamb was to be eaten with unleavened bread, which denotes the purity of mind and body with which we must approach the solemn banquet prepared for us in Holy Communion, while the lettuce, sharp and bitter to the taste, which was eaten with the flesh of the Lamb, is typical of the sorrow for sin and the spirit of mortification, (bitter to flesh and blood and to our natural inclinations), that should constitute our chief preparation for the eating of this spiritual food of our souls. And Our Saviour offered up the unbloody Sacrifice of the Lamb of God, on Holy Thursday evening, at the institution of the Holy Eucharist. These are some points of resemblance to be found between the Paschal Lamb and the Holy Eucharist, which help to show how really the former is a striking figure and type of the latter.
3. The Manna (Exod. xvi.) affords a further type, if possible even more telling than the previous one. After the delivery of the Chosen People from Egypt, and their wonderful passage of the Red Sea, they entered upon the sandy desert that lies on its eastern shore. Here food began to fail them, and Moses, their leader, had recourse to God in the difficulty, Who promised to feed His people with food from Heaven. The very next morning this promise was fulfilled, for, at an early hour, the neighbourhood of the camp was covered with a sort of dew or hoar frost; this was the manna, which, as we shall now see, was one of the most admirable figures of the Holy Eucharist.
a. Even in appearance the manna resembled the Divine Eucharist, small and white, like hoar frost on the sands, but being in reality something very different.--So the Blessed Sacrament resembles bread, but is in reality the Flesh and Blood of Jesus Christ. The manna had to be gathered in the early morning, when men were fasting; so too the Holy Communion.
b. The manna was to be the daily food of the body for the Jews, in their wanderings through the wilderness, till they arrived at the Land of Promise. — The Holy Eucharist is the spiritual food of our souls in our exile through life, till at length we reach the true Land of Promise, the Kingdom of Heaven.
c. This food in the desert fell from the clouds each morning, as snow and rain fall upon the earth, and it fell daily, except on the Sabbath.
—The Holy Eucharist is Our Blessed Lord, who day by day comes down from Heaven upon our altars at the bidding of His own creatures, the priests of the Church, as they pronounce the words of consecration in the Mass. Referring to this heavenly food, King Solomon exclaims (Wisd. xvi. 20), Panem de cӕlo prӕstitisti eis, words so familiar to our ears at Benediction : " Thou gavest them bread from Heaven." The Church has adopted these words, originally written of the manna, and applies them to the spiritual bread which we receive in Holy Communion.
d. It was to the Jews alone that this manna was given, and that, too, only after they had passed through the waters of the Red Sea; they had it not in Egypt, nor did other nations ever receive it.—The Holy Eucharist is only for the people of God in the true Church, and for them, only after they have passed through the waters of Baptism, being thereby delivered from the slavery of the Devil, who held their souls in the bondage of original sin ; they may not lawfully nor effectively receive it ere this.
e. Furthermore, this wondrous manna had every kind of agreeable taste, as each one who partook of it might desire. "It was turned to what every man liked" (Wisd. xvi. 21). As it was to be the daily food of the people for forty years, we can well imagine how monotonous, and even nauseous, the one kind of food must become. But the goodness and power of God provided against this, by imparting to it a variety of tastes ; thus to one it had to-day the taste of bread, to-morrow the taste of flesh-meat, while another day it would have the flavour of fruit, and so on, according to the wishes of each one who partook of it. Hence again, King Solomon said: Omne delectamentum in se habentem: " having in it all that is delicious."— Was there ever food like to this? Yes, it is found in Holy Communion, to which the Church applies these further words also; for the Holy Eucharist has the same power of supplying the varying needs of the multitudes that come to receive it. Thus, It strengthens one, brings comfort to another; It enlightens the mind, or inflames the heart. Our soul, desirous of being humble, will soon become so, by worthily eating this Divine food. Another, striving after purity of heart, will soon acquire the virtue, on partaking frequently of this Bread of Angels. As the manna, then, had every taste according to each one's wish, so has the Holy Eucharist the power of satisfying all the spiritual wants of souls, according to the needs of each.
f. The manna fell only in the desert, and ceased when the Israelites reached the Land of Cana. Among the sands of the wilderness nothing could grow, so God provided this strange nutriment for them. But, when their needs were met by the fertility of the Promised Land—land flowing with milk and honey—the manna was no longer needed, and then it ceased to fall. Curiously enough, the desert was called the "Desert of Sin" (Exod. xvi. i).—Truly is this world of ours a desert, and a desert where sin and its occasions abound, where the weary pilgrim sadly needs a Divine food to brace him for his journey to eternity. As long as we are in this land of exile, it provides little food for the soul, hence the Holy Communion is daily provided for it; but when at length, through God's grace, we reach the true Land of Promise our home in Heaven—the Holy Eucharist will no longer be needed as our spiritual food. We shall then see and possess Our Divine Lord as He is, no longer hidden under the sacramental veils, but face to face for all eternity. It is sometimes said, however, that one consecrated particle of the Blessed Sacrament will, at the last day, be carried by Angels' hands to Heaven, there to be an unceasing joy and delight for the Angels and Saints to love and adore, especially for those souls who loved It much in the days of their earthly pilgrimage. But It will not be then their food, for none other will they there require than the eternal possession of Him whom they loved, adored, and received so often, as exiles on earth. Who can fail to see how true and perfect a type this manna of the Old Law is of the heavenly food given to our souls in the New ? Our Lord Himself quoted the manna as a figure of the Blessed Sacrament (John vi. 59).
4. Coming now to the New Testament, we find, at the marriage feast of Cana, a further figure of the Holy Eucharist in the miraculous change of water into wine. This is an admirable type of the Blessed Sacrament, food being the matter in both instances, and transubstantiation being likewise effected (at least we may presume it took place at Cana). Both type and antitype are presented to us through the medium of Our Lady. It was from Her that Jesus received the Divine Flesh which we have in the Holy Eucharist, and it was through Her prayer that water was changed into wine at the marriage feast. The incident is well known, being read to us on the second Sunday after the Epiphany, from the second chapter of S. John's Gospel. The Fathers of the Church see in this display of Divine power a type of the miraculous change of bread and wine into Our Lord's Body and Blood, effected for the first time by Himself at the Last Supper, and, by His command, continued daily on the altars of the Catholic Church throughout the world, every time the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is offered.
5. One more type we may consider, the multiplication of the loaves for the multitudes. This miracle we read, from the sixth chapter of S. John's Gospel, on the fourth Sunday of Lent; it is likewise related in the fifteenth chapter of S. Matthew's Gospel. It is figurative of the spiritual food of the Holy Eucharist, inasmuch as it suffices for the souls of all men, no matter where living, and foreshadows the multiplied presence of Our Saviour, in His mystical form, in every portion of the earth.
Promise of the Holy Eucharist, and Fulfilment.
It was after working this last miracle that Our Lord took occasion to promise His future gift of the Holy Eucharist, and to unfold the doctrine of the Real Presence to the wondering multitudes that followed Him.
He, on the day following the miracle, was found by the Jews, from whom He had fled, because they intended to proclaim Him king in the synagogue at Capharnaum. This was the place, this the occasion, memorable for all time as witness of the solemn promulgation of the doctrine of the Blessed Sacrament. In words chosen for their very simplicity, force, directness, and absence of ambiguity, He expounded the truth of the Holy Eucharist, even the very form under which men should receive it, as also the Divine effects it should produce, namely: reunion of the soul with Himself: "abideth in Me and I in him"; preservation of the supernatural life of the soul : "shall live for ever " ; attainment of the life of glory hereafter : "hath everlasting life"; glorious resurrection of the body : " I will raise him up in the last day."
One might have thought it impossible for human ingenuity to be able to distort such simple words from their natural and literal meaning. Be it said of the Jews to their credit, they understood Our Lord aright, but refused to believe His doctrine. It would seem as though, like heretics of a later date, they had made up their minds to have none of the Blessed Sacrament, and deliberately set to work to constrain His simple words to mean anything but the Holy Eucharist.
In S. John's Gospel, vi. 54-59, we read as follows : "I am the living bread which came down from Heaven. 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. . . . Except you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink His blood, you shall not have life in you. . . . 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 this discourse, Our Divine Redeemer promises a special kind of food, clearly not bread, for bread is not living ; therefore it must be something living, though under the cover or form of bread ; and, to make it more clear, He identifies Himself with this food, " I am the living bread." He, therefore, and the living bread are one. Clearer still and put beyond all doubt is His meaning, when He adds: " My flesh is meat indeed." This living bread was to surpass even the manna, itself a wonderful food, as we have already seen. Our Lord often repeated that it was His own flesh and blood He intended to give to the world, and it was this literal meaning that His hearers attached to His words. Some of them, indeed, found this promise so hard a saying, that they ''walked no more with Him." Yet Our Lord did not correct the interpretation they put upon His words. Thus we are left to accept them in their simple and literal sense. Here we have the promise of the Real Presence, under the mystic forms of bread and wine, as the food and drink of our souls.
The fulfilment of this promise Our Lord gave in the institution of the Holy Eucharist, on Maundy Thursday, the eve of His death, after eating the Paschal Lamb with the Apostles, according to the ordinance of the Old Law. This institution of the Blessed Sacrament, as recorded by four of the Inspired Writers, will be fully treated, when the word " Sacrament" comes to be explained further on.
The preceding pages may serve as a sort of introduction to the Simple Instructions that are to follow. The Eucharist is a great and sublime subject for consideration and study, and it naturally falls under two headings, which require to be treated separately, viz., as a Sacrament, to be received by man, for the sanctification of his soul; and then as a Sacrifice, to be offered to God, by which we pay adequate homage to the Divine Majesty.