In our last issue we stated that the Eucharist is both a sacrament and a sacrifice, and that these two concepts cannot be separated without an incomplete notion of each of them; for they are two inter-related aspects of the same reality: the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ.
As St. Thomas Aquinas points out, the Eucharist "has the nature of a SACRIFICE inasmuch as it is offered up: and it has the nature of a SACRAMENT inasmuch as it is received" (III,79,5). Through the sacrifice of the Eucharist the Church on earth offers fitting worship to the Blessed Trinity; through the sacrament of the Eucharist the faithful receive the graces of the incarnation and redemption. In the divine plan, then, the mystery of the incarnation and redemption is extended through the centuries by means of the Eucharist, for the purpose of giving glory to the Father, and for the sanctification and salvation of souls.
It is important to see the close relationship between these two aspects of the Eucharist - offering to God (through sacrifice) and receiving from God (through Holy Communion) - for the more we are one with Christ in the offering of the sacrifice of His Body and Blood, the more we receive from God in the sacrament of His Body and Blood.
We can see, then, how much one would lose of the fruits of the Mass, if he saw it merely or mainly as a meal, with only a superficial participation in the sacrifice that Christ renews. The Mass is an action - an exchange of gifts, and Holy Communion is only one side of that exchange. If there is little giving of self on our part in following Christ, there will be little giving of Himself (through grace) in the reception of Holy Communion.
Speaking in 1986 of some basic differences between some Protestant Churches and the Roman Catholic Church, Rev. Mons. Desmond Connell, Dean of the Faculty of Philosophy and Sociology in University College, Dublin, commented:
In our previous issue we looked at the Eucharist as the ritual sacrifice of the Body and Blood of Christ that He instituted the night before He died. Our aim in these reflections is to consider the Eucharist as the sacrament of His Body and Blood, and the wonderful fruits enjoyed by those who receive it worthily. We will see some of the fruits of Holy Communion for those who receive it with the proper dispositions, and what is needful in order to have those dispositions.
1) It Nourishes and Causes Growth:
The sacrament of Holy Eucharist was instituted as food ... spiritual food. "My Flesh is real food, and My Blood is real drink." (Jn.6:55) That is why Jesus instituted this sacrament under the signs of bread and wine.
As in baptism, the outward sign (a washing with water) confers grace that cleanses the soul, so in the Eucharist the outward sign (bread and water) confers grace that nourishes the soul, thereby fortifying and causing spiritual growth. We see, then, the meaning of the expression that the sacraments effect what they signify, namely, that Holy Communion rightly received does for the soul what material food does for the bodily life.
There is a notable difference in this, however; for the food that we eat is assimilated by the body, and changed into our own substance, i.e. into tissue, muscle, bone, etc. that make up the body. Yet when we consume the Host in Holy Communion, the Lord we receive is not transformed into us, but rather we are transformed into Him. That is, through the grace we receive, we more intimately share in His divine life, making us more Christlike, more submissive to His will, more open to His truth.
Consequently, when we receive Holy Communion, this brings about not merely a physical union or nearness between ourselves and Jesus in the sacred Host, which nearness is only temporary, lasting only as long as the species of bread and wine lasts. It brings about a deeper and enduring spiritual union between the soul and Jesus through divine grace.
To use an expression of theology, this sacrament produces grace in the soul "ex opere operato," that is, by the very sacrament itself, independently of any effort on our part; and it produces grace in the measure that we do not place obstacles in the way. Our part in this is removing the obstacles, i.e. pride, greed, lust, envy, sloth, etc., which are sources of attachments or aversions that close the soul in on itself.
An example might help to understand this. When I lift up the shade to allow the sunlight to come in through the window, I do not cause the light, the sun does. I merely remove an obstacle. Yet my action is necessary to increase light in the room.
In a similar way, in the reception of Holy Communion I do not cause the increase of grace, God does; yet my action will have much to do with the amount of grace received. My remote preparation for Holy Communion will include a striving to remove the obstacles which enslave the heart and keep it from surrendering to God. It is in this sense that the sacraments give grace "ex opera operantis," i.e. according to the sincerity and generosity of heart in making the sacrifices and applying the discipline needed to bring about that detachment.
Since in this sacrament we not merely receive grace, but Him who is the very source of all grace, there is no limit to the amount of grace that one Holy Communion can bring, i.e. no limit on the part of God. It is ourselves who place the limits by our selfishness and worldly attachments that keep the heart from opening up and surrendering to the Divine Person we have received.
This truth can be expressed by another example: If I walk to the edge of an immense lake to carry away water, the amount of water I bring away does not depend on the lake, but on the capacity of the container I have. So with each Communion, the amount of grace we receive doesnít depend on the Lord, who wants to give His gifts infinitely more that we want to receive them. It depends on the extent that we strive to lessen those worldly attachments, that lessen the capacity of the soul to receive Godís gifts. Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, O.C.D. speaking of the increase of grace and charity in receiving Holy Communion, states:
Yet, as we saw in a previous issue (Vol. 42, n.2), "the detachment of the heart of man from created goods is primarily the work of divine grace . . . yet God demands a definite cooperation on our part." So, if we continually strive to remove these attachments, Holy Communion (regularly and devoutly received) will invariably - though gradually - bring an increase of those cleansing and strengthening graces, effecting a closer union with Christ . . . a greater sharing in that divine life of Love and Truth that He is.
2) It Restores Our Daily Losses:
Both in the natural order and in the supernatural, there is need to repair and replenish body and soul for the losses and setbacks of various kinds.
For example, in the natural order, the human body is in a continual process of expending and replenishing its supply of energy. After a hard dayís work the body experiences fatigue, lack of pep, etc. Something has been used up, burned up (as fuel in a car). This has to be restored, otherwise strength and efficiency is lessened, discomfort and irritability often increase, and resistance is lowered as regards certain sicknesses.
What has been used up has to be restored by food, by proper nourishment. The body has a wonderful capacity of assimilating food, so that the fuel supply burned up by labor and activity is now replenished. After a period of rest, one is ready to go anew.
There is a certain parallel to this in the supernatural order. There can be a gradual growth in grace in spite of the little losses each day due to human frailty. For example, there can be moments of jealousy, greed, vanity, impatience, laziness, unhealthy curiosity, etc. Each of these can have a detrimental effect on spiritual growth, for each of them can come under the category of venial sin.
Because of human frailty and the manifold inclinations of self-love, along with the fatigue and pressures of daily life, and the enticements of the world, it is almost inevitable that, in spite of oneís spiritual struggle, he will be guilty of some of these failings in his daily routine.
Yet, when in Holy Communion one receives with fervent love the Body and Blood of Christ, the Divine Victim immolated for the remission of sin, that encounter can remit the guilt of those venial sins for which he has true sorrow, and even the punishment due for them - in the measure of the fervor of oneís love at the time of Communion. That is why the Council of Trent stated, referring to the Eucharist, "its salutary strength is applied to the remission of the sins that we daily commit." (n.747) (Cf.St.Thomaís,111,79, a.2 & 3)
This is not to say that venial sins need not be confessed in the sacrament of reconciliation, for added sacramental graces are given therein that are a further aid in overcoming those weaknesses. Too, the more one neglects sacramental confession (e.g. many months), the more insensitive he becomes to the little failings of each day and therefore less concerned about them, the less becomes the fervor of charity, and the less fruitful the reception of Holy Communion.
As Fr. M. M. Philipon, O.P. states in his work The Sacraments in the Christian Life,
This sacrament does not, however, remit mortal sin; nor should one in that state ever receive Holy Communion. You do not give food to a dead person; and one in mortal sin is spiritually dead. The reception of this sacrament in such a state not only does not cleanse and strengthen, but further aggravates oneís guilt and debt of punishment before God.
3) It Diminishes Concupiscence:
The Eucharist is not only a food that nourishes and strengthens, it is a medicine that cures and heals the wounds of our fallen nature. Since Holy Communion worthily and regularly received brings an increase of grace and charity, it not only remits venial sin, as we saw; it is also a safeguard against falling into mortal sin, for it lessens the drive of concupiscence resulting from original sin. It thus allays the drive of the flesh toward evil due to disordered passions, and the rebellion of the will due to pride. It helps to restore harmony in fallen nature, for it diminishes the dominion of the flesh over the spirit. When Our Blessed Lord comes to us, He who calmed the storms of the sea can give us strength to calm the storms that flare up in our lower nature. As St. Cyril of Alexandria stated:
This increase of grace and charity strengthens the spirit. By increasing oneís desires for the things of God, it correspondingly lessens the desire (rooted in concupiscence) for the things offensive to God. In line with this St. Augustine declares: "The increase of charity is the decrease of passion, and the perfection of charity is the absence of passion."
This transformation takes place not only because one becomes stronger, but also because sin begins to lose its attractiveness. One begins to recognize the emptiness of what yesterday seemed so desirable. This is a gradual process, and while our cooperation is essential, it is effected more by Godís grace drawing to Himself the hearts of those who sincerely and perseveringly seek Him.
Although we all receive the same Lord in Holy Communion, His physical presence within us does not produce the same effect in each soul. As we saw, while the sacraments produce grace of themselves, this must not be misunderstood; we can place obstacles to the action of the Holy Spirit. The efficacy of this sacrament, therefore, is proportional to the dispositions of mind and heart - the fervor of faith, hope and charity - with which it is received. This fervor is not so much something we feel, as it is a readiness of will for Godís service, a willingness to make the sacrifices required to observe Godís commandments, to fulfill works of mercy, and to bear the crosses that are part of daily life.
Fr. R. Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P. states that an important disposition of soul for fruitful Communions is "a spirit of sacrifice;" and to that end he recommends "at least one act of mortification a day" in order to "put to death our egoism, self-love and pride," that constitute obstacles to grace. (Love of God and the Cross of Jesus, 1, p. 396)
All this should make clear what we have been stressing, namely, the close relationship between the Eucharist as a sacrament and as a sacrifice. An important remote preparation for Holy Communion is to strive to live that "spirit of sacrifice," for there will always be a certain proportion between the extent that Christ gives Himself to us (shares His graces with us) in Holy Communion, and our giving of ourself to Him through surrender to His will - not merely at Mass time, but throughout the week. Fr. M.M. Philipon, O.P. stresses this in the work quoted above:
That "drop of our own blood" is the sacrifices we must make to keep Godís commandments, to fulfill the duties of our state in life, to help those in need, in a word, "to deny ourself, and take up our cross daily and follow Him" (Lk. 9:23).
The material food we eat nourishes us for our temporary existence in this world; whereas the Eucharist nourishes us for a life that is without end. As Jesus said: "He that eats My Flesh and drinks My Blood, has life everlasting, and I will raise him up on the last day." (Jn. 6:55)
Commenting on this Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, O.C.D. remarks: "Notice that He said Ďhas life everlasting, Ď and not will have, because the Eucharist, by giving us an increase of grace - the seed of glory - becomes the pledge of eternal life for us, life not only for the soul but also of the body" (ibid. p.611). This is beautifully expressed in an antiphon of the Divine Office for the feast of Corpus Christi written by St. Thomas Aquinas:
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