O Christ, that is what you have done for us:
In a crumb of bread the whole mystery is
(Patrick Kavanagh. The Great Hunger VI)
If baptism is the great sacrament which brings us to life in Christ, then the Mass or the Eucharist is the beating, living heart of the Church, from which that life is nourished, refreshed and renewed each day.
In the Jesuit Centre for Spirituality (Manresa, Dublin) is a collection of stain glass windows by the Irish artist Evie Hone (1894-1955). One of the most distinguished aspects of her art is her work in stain glass. There’s a fine example of it, depicting the crucifixion in the great east window of Eton College Chapel. The windows in Manresa, on a much smaller scale, were taken from the chapel in the Jesuit house at Rahan, Tullamore (https://www.manresa.ie/galleries/evie-hone-prayer-room).
They are a series of densely coloured, vivid scenes from the life of Christ and also of Mary. One shows Jesus, with the bread and the cup, gathered with his disciples at the Last Supper. To think of the sacraments through the image and metaphor of a stain-glass window is not a bad way of coming to think and reflect upon their mysteries. This is especially true of the Mass or the Eucharist. The stain-glass not only arranges shape and colour to capture a particular scene, it is somehow ‘alive’ or dynamic as it mediates the light upon which it depends. We never quite see it the same way twice; depending on the light, its intensity or angle, something we hadn’t seen before, or noticed in that way before, is given to us. The play of light on the colours and forms of the glass is infinite, so too is the way we come reflect upon the reality and the meaning of the Eucharist. Depending on the light we have at the time, some aspect comes into focus or becomes more intense. Sometimes, we can see the whole in its radiance and beauty, at others we focus on a part which we see in a new or deeper way. The light not only makes the coloured glass and shapes visible, in them the light itself become visible and active: ‘for with you is the fountain of life; In your light we see light’ (Ps.36.9).
It would be impossible to imagine the Church, especially the Catholic Church, without the Mass. Of course, Christ can be present with us in so many ways: in his living spirit-filled word which comes to us in Old and New Testaments, in the daily rhythm of our prayer, spoken, unspoken or just gathered and offered in silence. Or we can find Christ present with us in those moments when we need him, or when we least expect him to be there, or when we catch a glimpse of him in the loving un-self-conscious work of someone, or we hear him speaking to us in words that someone offers us. Christ can be present in all these ways. But there is a sense in which they are all part of and reflections of that moment, when we know he is uniquely and truly present to us, to his community the Church and to the whole world whatever its needs or condition.
Each day, in the Mass Christ gives us the gift of himself—all of himself. Whether the Mass is the ordinary daily parish mass, without much ceremony, just quietly said and prayed, or it comes to us in the splendour of chant or polyphony, ancient languages or modern ones, it is the same gift, the same Eucharist. In whatever form, place, age or tongue at the heart of the Mass there is an eternal simplicity, the words that Christ used on the night when he gave the Church, this inestimable gift, the sacrament of himself.
It is so typical of Christ to give us a gift which is beyond value in such a simple, direct way: it is as if in these words and actions, his words and actions, he concentrates the whole mystery of his own person, divine and human, in giving himself to us. Here, in his self-gift he gives us everything that he is. He asks nothing of us other than to receive him in gratitude and in faith. Here too, we come to know the depth of his simplicity and poverty.
In his eucharistic gift/action the whole depth of the divine love opens for us. We know that it is so vast, so wonderful, that we can never see to the end of it. And sometimes we might just begin to understand how each day in his simplicity and poverty Christ comes to us. For him, poverty is not an obstacle to making us rich with his love; it is the form of his freedom to be with us, to make his home in us and invite us to make our home in him. This is the grace that is given to us and of which the sacrament of the eucharist is both a seal and a pledge. It is the sacrament of his love, a new ‘and everlasting covenant’ with us, made with every member of his new community, the Church.
When Christ gives himself, it is not a temporary or passing act, nor is it just a form of words put to an act of offering a wine-filled cup or broken bread. It is an eternal act sealed in the reality of history by the sacrifice and suffering of the cross. It is the new covenant of God’s unshakeable and utterly dependable forgiving, life-giving love for every women and man; it is made with everything in creation, from the beginning to its end.
It gathers the whole of time past, present and future; it gathers the whole of the community of God’s people in every age. And especially it gathers those who suffer and have suffered, the downtrodden, oppressed, used, exploited and forgotten: everyone who has lived the violence of these various poverties and powerlessness. It is their assurance that neither they nor their cause is lost or silenced.
In the eucharistic presence of the crucified and risen Christ all our histories are gathered. Each day, in the crucified Christ, the suffering meet us and summon the world to see them; to answer their cry. In the eucharist is the hope of every victim that their life and their pain, whatever they have lost or sacrificed, has not been in vain. God is faithful. Christ will heal their wounds with the balm of his loving justice.
Each day in the Mass, God exposes the illusions of earthly power, the emptiness of the world’s empires whatever their form. For each day, in the simple celebration of the eucharist, Christ is present and shows how he is Lord of time, space and matter. He is present not because we command him or control him. He is present not because of us, but because he chooses to be present with us and for us. If he is present as the true minister of all the sacraments, in the Eucharist he is not only the minister but is himself the gift and for this reason the Eucharist is the sublime summit of the whole of the Church’s sacramental life.
And it all began on that one night in an upper room in Jerusalem. In the most extraordinary way, no matter what way we try to grasp the mystery of the Eucharist, we start from and always return to the simple action at its centre, the words spoken by Jesus and the actions performed by Jesus. The Eucharist may open up the whole eternity of heaven and Trinitarian life of God, but it always remains planted in the earth of history, the person of Jesus Christ, and this particular moment in time: it is grounded in reality even as it transforms it into the new reality of the sacrament. The three gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke record it and the earliest record of it is in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. There, we see how Christ’s eucharistic gift was already central in the Church’s life. Although John’s Gospel does not follow the others in setting the eucharist within the context of the Passover, it nevertheless contains the most profound teaching about its meaning as a real participation in Christ and his gift of life, ‘whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood, has eternal life’ (John 6:54). Of course, we can expect some variations and changes of emphasis, but materially they all agree.
This moment in the upper room is a unique moment. More than anything else that Jesus has done before, this is the moment in which Jesus brings his person, his mission and the whole salvation history of Israel into convergence. It is a moment totally saturated with God and God’s loving action of liberation and salvation. Set as a Passover meal, every Jewish family would be gathered with their relatives and friends, to celebrate the sovereignty of God as the protector and liberator of God’s people from Egyptian slavery. By celebrating this great act every year, Israel was not just remembering something in the past, it was making it present and renewing it as a future hope. In the Passover meal, Israel remembered its own identity and vocation to the nations, to be God’s chosen people and to make God’s name known to all peoples. Israel is called, liberated, and preserved to be a light to all nations, to be their hope of liberation, to sanctify all peoples. In the Passover feast, Israel recognised that it not only worshipped God but that it had a unique relation with and knowledge of God. It knew that God acted in history; it knew that God’s love was never abstract, never just an ideal or a dream, it became a liberating, graced act in history, guiding it to the purpose God had ordained. This was Israel’s most intimate, personal, knowledge of God and the destiny of humanity and creation.
It is not an accident, then, that Jesus choses this moment in the upper room, as part of the ancient liturgy of the Passover blessings and meal to institute the eucharist. It takes up all the experience and meaning of the Passover – for God’s salvation history is not divided or disjointed – and now he fulfils it in his own person. Forever, those who love him will always recognise him in the breaking of the bread – from Passover to sacrament – the promise of the name of Jesus, his mission and identity, is fulfilled: ‘God with us’.
Love makes itself known in the simplest acts: ‘take and eat’, ‘take and drink’. The Passover is both a meal and a narrative. It retells the whole story of how God acts to save and redeem his people, Israel. This remembering is not just looking back, it is also the securing of the future. For God will always be there for his people; he will always restore them to life even though they will have to pass through the dark valleys of suffering. God, the Lord of history, will triumph in history and now that moment arrived in the self-gift and sacrifice of Jesus, God’s own Son. In the Lord, not only is the salvation hope of Israel realised but also the hope of all peoples – the ‘now’ of this moment, its immediacy and intimacy, is the eternal ‘now’ of God’s time, which enfolds our time. Already we can stand in the presence of the ‘now’ of the sacrament that the Church reveres and defends so that we might all have access to the grace of Christ’s self-gift.
‘Take this, all of you and eat of it, for this is my body which will be given up for you.’ ‘Take this, all of you, and drink from it, for this is the chalice of my blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant poured out for you…’
These are the words which Jesus spoke and continues to speak—they echo down the centuries in every celebration of the Eucharist because he, himself, continues to say them. They are not just his words, they are also his actions and so he is in them, continuing to give himself to us.
There never was a time when Jesus was without the Holy Spirit, and it is in the Holy Spirit that these words and deeds have the power to make him present. It is the same Spirit that always acts in the Church’s celebration of the Mass, not just to recall or remember but to open up for us the ‘now’ of Christ present, in gift of his body and of his blood. It is the Holy Spirit, active and alive in us, which claims us and seals us for Christ, that moves us to receive him, and opens the eyes of our minds and the understanding of our hearts to recognise him as the Lord in the breaking of the bread and the drinking of the cup. It is the Spirit that gives us the courage to accept the gift, even though we know that we are not worthy and never could be worthy.
In that moment the disciples and all those gathered in the upper room must have felt so deeply loved. It was something they knew they could never forget for it was the moment which interpreted all that was to follow for Jesus and for them. They must have known then and come to see more deeply later that Christ had instituted a new reality in the sacrament of his Body and Blood that was not separate from the gospel they would preach and the witness they would give. They must have experienced the intense sense of completeness with all who shared this meal and this moment. It is more than just a common memory and performance of words and deeds—that is one sort of sharing and one sense of common bond, a memorial. But this was more than that. Christ was not remembered, he was—he is—present. They now lived his life. As Paul was later to see, they had become his Body; more than a metaphor, now a sacramental reality.
Here is the great wonder: Christ uses the everyday things and raises them into something sacred and holy. He does this respecting their very ordinariness: the bread remains our daily bread and the wine our daily drink. These simple created gifts, the work of our hands, become the means where we find him and meet him. Forever, so long as time and matter last, we will always be able to encounter him and make our home in him. Here, too, we will learn his way of healing love, the small but infinitely powerful and transforming acts of self-gift, the sacrifices that reason can never fully understand but make the daily sacrament of love—the eucharist that our lives in him are becoming. In him we meet each other anew and start over again. Like the disciples, our lives become always a return to and sending forth from this sacrament, ‘Through him and with him and in him, O God, almighty Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honour is yours, for ever and ever. Amen”.
James Hanvey SJ