Second in a series
EARLY IN HIS book “Our One Great Act of Fidelity: Waiting for Christ in the Eucharist” (New York: Doubleday, 2011), Ronald Rolheiser stresses that the Eucharist is a great mystery that we will never completely understand. He confesses that in his studies he took excellent courses on the Eucharist, but in the end he realized that he did not understand the Eucharist. He writes the following:
“The fault, which is not a fault at all, lies in the richness of the Eucharist itself. In the end, it defies not just theology professors, but metaphysics, phenomenology, and language itself. There is no adequate explanation of the Eucharist for the same reason that, in the end, there is no adequate explanation for love, for embrace, and for the reception of life and spirit through touch. Certain realities take us beyond language because that is their very purpose. They do what words cannot do. They also are beyond what we can neatly nail down in our understanding.
“And that is true of the Eucharist. It has multiple layers and multiple faces.” (pp. 9-10)
I take Rolheiser’s words as a kind of warning. Writing this series of columns about the Eucharist will not lead to a complete comprehension of the meaning of the Eucharist. All Catholics should remember that the Eucharist is a tremendous mystery. Words will always be inadequate to explain the Eucharist clearly and completely. However, that does not mean we can know nothing about the Eucharist, or that we are incapable of making true statements about the Eucharist’s meaning. Because it is a mystery, we can see more and more into the Eucharist and be refreshed, renewed and inspired by its depth, beauty and truth. We should not think of the mystery of the Eucharist as a door that is closed and locked, but rather as a door open, inviting us to enter, contemplate and embrace the mystery, and allow the mystery to embrace us.
Stressing that as wonderful as words are, they cannot adequately explain the Eucharist, Rolheiser points out that Jesus eventually went beyond words. Rolheiser writes the following:
“His words, like all words, had a certain power. Indeed, his words stirred hearts, healed people, and affected conversions. But, powerful though they were, in time they too became inadequate. Something more was needed. So on the night before his death, having exhausted what he could do with words, Jesus went beyond them. He gave us the Eucharist, his physical embrace, his kiss, a ritual within which he holds us to his heart.” (p. 32)
I love the idea that the Eucharist is Jesus’ physical embrace, Jesus’ kiss. Catholics do not believe in an Aristotelian God, who is not at all involved with humanity. The Greek philosopher did not think that God loved us. In fact, Aristotle thought that God did not even know of our existence because any kind of relationship with us, even a relationship of recognition, would have lessened God’s greatness. Catholics do not believe in a distant God. No, we believe in a God Who sent His Son to become one of us, redeem us and win for us by His death and resurrection an eternal love relationship with God. We believe in a God whose power is unlimited love, and Who is essentially a gift-giver. The greatest gift God gives is Himself. This is one of the many meanings of the Eucharist.
To stress that the Eucharist is an embrace from God emphasizes, at least implicitly, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. It also emphasizes God’s desire to be with us on life’s journey toward an eternal love relationship with God. Heaven must be an eternal love embrace.
A priest friend once told me of a conversation he had with someone who claimed to be both Catholic and an atheist. No one could tell him that he was not a Catholic even though he did not believe in God. The atheist did not seem to understand that to be Catholic involves a commitment to God.
I think the Eucharist calls us to commitment and to the obligation of trying to express with our lives what we express liturgically in a Eucharist. The meaning of a Eucharist comes primarily from God, and we try to express eucharistic love in our lives.
Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, and author of “Pope Francis’ Spirituality and Our Story” (Resurrection Press).