Voices Online Edition
VOICES - Vol. XX No. 3
Christmas 2005 - Epiphany 2006
Pastoral Letter --
The Eucharist: The Lord’s Most Precious Gift
by Cardinal Edward Egan
In September 2005 -- just before the Synod on the Eucharist took place at the Vatican, concluding the Year of the Eucharist -- New York Cardinal Egan issued a pastoral letter on the Eucharist. We reprint it here with the cardinal’s kind permission. -- Editor
All of us have had the experience of giving a gift and not having it appreciated. At first, we try to make little of the hurt we feel. Soon, however, we sense at least a twinge of anger. And if our disappointment be deep enough, a measure of bitterness can easily take hold. Humanly speaking, such sentiments are quite understandable. For a gift is always something special. It is an expression of esteem and affection. It is a matter of the heart.
The Lord Who created us and keeps us in existence is the greatest of gift-givers. He gave us life. He made us capable of knowing and rejoicing in Him and in the wonders of the world around us. And to many He has provided as well good health, loving families and so much more.
The Lord’s most precious gifts, however, are in the sphere of the spirit; and among them none is more precious than the gift of Himself in the Eucharist. It is about this gift that I write to you, the People of God of the Archdiocese of New York, as we celebrate together the Year of the Eucharist. In what I have to say, I will strive to be as clear and uncomplicated as possible. The wonder and magnificence of the “body, blood, soul and divinity” of Our Lord and Savior, “under the appearances of bread and wine” need no artful elaboration. Still, they do need to be appreciated, deeply appreciated; and for this they need as well to be understood and, of course, loved. We begin with understanding.
In religions of all times and places, we human beings have felt the need to proclaim both the greatness of God and our utter dependence upon Him by means of a form of prayer that is called “sacrifice”. We take something of value and deliver ourselves of it by destroying it or radically changing it as a statement of our worship of the Almighty and our realization that we need Him in all that we do and are.
Moreover, in sacrificing we see to it that what is done is carried out by an individual who is recognized as the proper agent of the activity; and we call that individual by a variety of names, the most familiar being “priest”. Furthermore, we do all of this not alone but rather as participants in something larger than ourselves, as members of a community, as sharers in the prayer of a congregation offering worship to the one Lord and Master of the universe.
Throughout the history of humankind, to the extent that we know it, this unique and extraordinary manner of worship has always enjoyed pride of place. Certainly it did among the Chosen People of the Old Testament, about whose sacrificial worship we know a good deal, thanks to their sacred writings.
Sacrifice for the Chosen People, as we learn especially from the first five books of the Bible, took many forms, one of which was -- in simplest language -- “bloody”. A lamb, for example, was taken from the community’s flock and slain on an altar by a priest to express the assembled multitude’s adoration of the Most High God, its gratitude for His blessings, its desire to be absolved for its offenses against His holy will, and the needs it wished to lay before Him. Another form was “unbloody”. A cask of olive oil, for example, was poured out over an altar by a priest and was thus lost to those who offered it -- “lost” in the sense that it was no longer available to be consumed, even though it had become uniquely sacred because of the intentions and sentiments its loss was meant to manifest.
The rules and rubrics for all of the various forms of sacrifice in the Old Testament were incredibly demanding and detailed. It was evident that the Almighty desired that this manner of worship be both solemn and impressive; and from what biblical scholars have to tell us, the Chosen people thus saw sacrifice as the zenith of their prayer in common, fully appreciating its meaning and its power before the throne of God.
“In the fullness of time,” however, the sacrifices of the Old Testament ceded to the “Sacrifice of Sacrifices” in the New Law of Jesus Christ. And that new sacrifice was offered, as we know, 2000 years ago on a hill outside Jerusalem known as “Golgotha”.
One feels altogether inadequate when attempting to describe the new sacrifice as it deserves to be described. For it is so utterly unique, unexpected and beyond anything that human imagination might have contrived that even the most eloquent of words prove to be patently unequal to the task.
Whatever of this, here is the reality of the sacrifice on Calvary’s Hill in language plain and straightforward. The Son of God made Man, of His own free will and out of obedience to the will of His Eternal Father, turned Himself over to the murderous machinations of evil men (“No one takes my life from me: I lay it down of my own free will”1), choosing to die as a victim in a sacrifice that would make possible the redemption of all humanity from the tragedy of sin.
He was a lamb on the altar, as it were. Indeed, in the words of Saint John the Baptist, He was “the lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world”.2 And He was as well the priest of the sacrifice. Indeed, in the words of the Epistle to the Hebrews, He was “the supreme high priest” who, like all high priests, was “appointed to act on behalf of [humankind] in relationships with God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins”.3 In addition, His sacrifice was bloody, outrageously bloody;4 and with it all future sacrifices ceased to have meaning. God had offered God to God in sacrifice. Nothing further could be added or even imagined. All future sacrifices faded into the wonder and power of the sacrifice of the cross.
But a religion without a sacrifice would be no religion at all, and the reason is clear. It would lack that most cogent declaration by a community at prayer that it recognizes and exults in the grandeur of God and that it acknowledges and proclaims that upon that God it depends for simply everything-for life, for health, for hope, even for existence.
Thus it was that on the night before He offered the bloody sacrifice of the cross, Jesus Christ gave His Church the most precious and glorious gift ever given, and that gift was the unbloody Sacrifice of the Mass.
We all know the story well. While at table with His disciples, Our Lord took bread into His hands and announced: “This is my body, given up for you”,5 and then took a cup of wine and likewise announced: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, poured out for you”.6 And to all of this He appended an admonition, or better, an order: “Do this in remembrance of me”.7 The Bride of Christ, His Church, would not be without a sacrifice. In the providence of the all-loving God, the sacrifice of the people of the New Covenant would be the Eucharistic sacrifice: and it would be one and the same as the sacrifice of the cross.8 For the victim would be one and the same -- Jesus Christ; and the priest would be one and the same -- Jesus Christ.
Nor may we as believers have any doubt about these basic tenets of our faith. The victim on our altars is Jesus Christ. The priest at our altars is Jesus Christ. The sacrifice of our altars is the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the sacrifice that He offered on Calvary for the salvation of us all. Only the manner of the offering is different -- bloody on the cross and unbloody on our altars.
Thus, as we kneel for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in our churches and chapels, we are in a true and wondrous sense on Golgotha with Mary, the Mother of the Lord, and John, His beloved disciple. One with them and all who make up the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, we join the Redeemer as He offers His eternal sacrifice. This, of course, He does through the action of the ordained priest, an instrument in His hands whereby what He did on the night before He died might continue for all time “in remembrance” of Him.9
About the Eucharistic sacrifice, however, there are two further points to be made in the interest of a deeper understanding of this most marvelous of spiritual gifts. The first is this: What the Evangelists and Saint Paul reported in the New Testament about the institution and first celebration of the Eucharistic sacrifice at the Last Supper did not constitute a sudden, unanticipated revelation for which there was no preparation. On the contrary, what they made known was an event that had been forecasted with remarkable power and poetry in both the Old Testament and the New.
In the Book of Genesis, for instance, we find an account of a mysterious personage by the name of Melchizedek. He appears without notice or warning in seven verses of Chapter 14, not to be heard from or about again in this first book of the Old Testament or, in fact, in any of the first five books of the Old Testament, the so-called “Torah”.
Abraham, who at this point in the account of the Book of Genesis is still known as Abram, has just roundly defeated a coalition of “kings” who had plundered the territory of his nephew, Lot. When the enemy has finally fled, Abram does what is not at all unusual in the history of the Hebrew People or, indeed, in the histories of peoples of all times and places. He has a sacrifice offered in gratitude for his victory. What is unusual, however, is the sacrifice that was offered. It was not a lamb, a goat, oil or grain that were brought to the altar, as one might have expected. It was rather “bread and wine” that were offered by Melchizedek, “a priest of the God Most High”.10
The Fathers and Doctors of the Church have seen in this sacrifice of bread and wine by Melchizedek an extraordinary foreshadowing of the Eucharistic sacrifice,11 and we should not be surprised. For some thousand years after Abraham, King David confirmed this interpretation in Psalm 109, in which the Messiah, about whom the Psalmist is singing, is depicted as “a priest forever of the order of Melchizedek”.12 Moreover, if this were not enough, a thousand years after David, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews made the Psalmist’s insight his own: “[Christ]”, he wrote, “became for all who obey Him the source of eternal salvation and was acclaimed by God with the title of ‘high priest of the order of Melchizedek’”.13
Add to this that 500 years before the birth of Christ, Malachi, the last of the Old Testament prophets, angered over certain abuses that had begun to defile the sacrifices of the Chosen People, foretold that one day there would be a sacrifice offered to the glory of God for the “nations”, that is, the Gentiles, “from the farthest East to the farthest West”,14 a sacrifice that could be no other than the Eucharistic sacrifice of Our Lord and Savior, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
But there is more. Very early in His public life, while preaching in the village of Capernaum, the Savior Himself told the multitude that was hanging on to His every word that all who “eat my flesh” and “drink my blood” would have eternal life and be “raised up on the last day”.15 And lest there be any misunderstanding about what He was saying, He further announced in the clearest of terms that His flesh is “real food” and His blood “real drink”.16
Many in the crowd were horrified and protested bitterly. “This is intolerable language”, they complained. “How could anyone accept it?”17 The Son of God, however, did not relent. For He was preparing His disciples for the Paschal meal He would share with them on Holy Thursday evening, the Paschal meal at which He would give His Church the incomparable gift of the Mass, the unbloody sacrifice in which His followers would indeed eat that “real food” which is His body and drink that “real drink” which is His blood.
We read the narration of the sacrifice of Melchizedek in the Book of Genesis. We pray David’s Messianic Psalm 109. We study the singular prophecy of Malachi. We meditate the announcement of the Lord about the flesh and blood the faithful would eat and drink. And we can only marvel at the providential hand of God at work across the ages, telling us of the gift that would be given to the Church, the gift of gifts, the Eucharist.
The second point that needs to be made so as to leave no fundamental element of the theology of the Eucharistic sacrifice unexplored is quite familiar but perhaps not sufficiently understood in terms of its Old Testament origins. On the night before He died, the Savior instituted the Sacrifice of the Mass at a meal: and the reason for such a setting had much to do with the prefiguring of the Eucharist to which reference is made above.
When the Hebrew People were to be freed from their Egyptian captivity, they were directed by the Lord to prepare their escape by having each family kill and roast a lamb, smear the doorposts of their houses with its blood, and share in a meal that would include, in addition to the lamb, “bitter herbs” and “unleavened bread”.18 Thus, the “avenging angel” sent by the Lord to slay “all the firstborn in Egypt”19 would see the blood on the doorposts and “pass over” the houses of the Chosen People, so that they might flee into the desert and on to the Promised Land. Quite fittingly, the repast became known as the “Passover Meal”.
Each year, by command of the Lord God, the meal was repeated in the homes of observant Jews; and from the Gospel accounts it would seem quite clear that the Last Supper was such a meal. Certainly, the Savior instituted the Eucharist at table; and no less certainly, a Passover meal that focused on a lamb slain so that the Chosen People might end their captivity was an ideal setting. For at that meal with His disciples, the Son of God, Who came to deliver humanity from the captivity of sin, gave His Church the Eucharistic sacrifice, one and the same sacrifice as that which He offered on the cross.
With all of this in mind, we observe that the Mass is not only a sacrifice. It is also a sacred banquet in which the followers of the Savior come together as a community of faith to receive His body and blood as food and drink. And this they do, first and foremost, “in remembrance” of Him and His offering of self on the cross, but also in remembrance of and, as it were, in culmination and completion of the Passover meal of the Old Testament.
Saint Thomas Aquinas, the Angelic Doctor, puts all of this together in just 12 words from a Latin hymn (known as a “sequence”) which he composed in 1274 for the Mass of the feast we now call “Corpus Christi”. The hymn is entitled “Lauda Sion Salvatorem” (“O Zion, Praise Your Lord”), and the 12 words are these:
In hac mensa novi Regis
Novum Pascha novae legis
Phase vetus terminat.
At the table of the new King
The Paschal feast of the new law
Brings the old to an end.
So much for understanding the Eucharist. We move on to loving it.
It is a curious fact of Catholic spirituality that the more we delve into the mystery of the Eucharist, the more we are captivated by it. Hence, I began this letter with an effort at laying before the reader the basic theology of the Eucharist, confident that a deeper knowledge of it leads to a deeper love of it as well.
In the light of this, I would insist that at various times in our lives all of us need to stir the fire of our love for the Eucharist by prayerfully studying it in solid books of authentic Catholic doctrine. Accordingly, I would make one essential recommendation in this regard: Obtain a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and do yourself the immense spiritual favor of pondering every word in the section on the Eucharist (Part Two, Section Two, Chapter One, Article 3, pp. 334-356). There will be no limit to the benefit your soul will derive from this simple, but grace-filled exercise. Beside this, I would warmly encourage my readers to speak with their parish priests about other books on the Eucharist which they might read, meditate and perhaps even discuss in their families or in groups of parishioners, so as to heighten first their knowledge and then their love for the Eucharist and their Eucharistic Lord.
Just as greater understanding of the Eucharist begets greater love for it, so also does frequent participation in the Eucharist intensify that love, as nothing else does or could. Not every Mass, as we know, is liturgically inspiring. Not every Mass is enhanced by a moving homily. Not every Mass takes place in a splendid house of worship. Not every Mass is made doubly uplifting by a gifted choir and fitting hymns. Yet, every Mass, every Sacrament of the Altar, makes present for those who share in it nothing less than the sacrifice offered on the cross by Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ; and every Mass is therefore rightly seen as the most precious and powerful of prayers before the throne of God, indeed, as “the font and apex of the whole Christian life”, to borrow the words of the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council.20
It is essential, therefore, that we participate in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass regularly -- certainly, every Sunday and Holy Day, and ideally, whenever we can during the week, particularly in the Seasons of Advent and Lent. If the Year of the Eucharist could move the People of God of the Archdiocese of New York to this, the good that would result would exceed any and all merely human measure. We would find ourselves to be a community of believers for whom justice, compassion, honor and cleanness of heart would be habits -- that is to say, virtues -- ever more firmly established in our hearts and lives. We would move ever closer to that goal which the Redeemer set for His followers in the Sermon on the Mount, namely, that of being a “light for the world”, a “city set on a hilltop”,21 a beacon of righteousness to attract and inspire all of humankind. In a word, we would become with each passing month and year of unfailing participation in the Mass ever more “holy”, as our Father in heaven is holy.22
There is much to do on Sunday morning in the busy, bustling cities and towns in which we live and work out our salvation. There are important interviews to be watched on television. There are athletic events for adults and especially for children. There are newspapers to be read. There are household tasks to be done that were perhaps set aside during the week often because of second and third jobs that so many are working.
All of this all of us know full well. The challenges to regular attendance at Sunday Mass which result from the frenetic pace of life here in Greater New York -- from Ulster County to Staten Island -- are daunting; and the same holds true for Mass on Saturday evening. Still, in the light of eternity and with the grace of God to sustain us, we have a choice to make. It is a choice that will entail a sacrifice, a sacrifice, however, that will enable us to share in nothing less than the sacrifice of Our Lord and Savior on the cross, a sacrifice made uniquely present in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
Over the centuries, spiritual writers have offered many other excellent strategies for drawing oneself into a deeper love for the Eucharist. I will suggest just one more. The suggestion, however, will require another brief foray into the realm of theology.
Saint Matthew, Saint Mark, Saint Luke and Saint Paul as well, all report that at the Last Supper the Son of God announced in the clearest of language that what was in His hands that seemed to be bread and what was in His cup that seemed to be wine were bread and wine only in appearance.23 “This is my body”, He said of that which looked like bread. “This is my blood”, He said of that which looked like wine. And given the extraordinary solemnity and circumstances of His declaration, it would be the height of impertinence, not to say blasphemy, to take Him to mean anything other than what He simply and plainly said. Especially is this clear if we recall that in the Gospel according to Saint John, the same Son of God proclaimed with similar solemnity, “My flesh is real food” and “My blood is real drink” and did not retreat from His statements even when some of His listeners abandoned Him because of what they took to be “intolerable language”, as was observed above. Small wonder then that the Fathers of the Council of Trent in 1551 taught with all the force of their teaching office that “after the Consecration of the bread and wine, Our Lord Jesus Christ, true God and man, is truly, really and substantially contained under the perceptible species of bread and wine”.24
A millennium and a half after the “Real Presence” of the Lord under the appearances of bread and wine was revealed at the Last Supper, its truth was bitterly challenged in certain quarters, particularly in Northern Europe. Some denied it altogether. Others curiously conceded the presence while Mass is being celebrated but denied it when Mass is concluded, for example, when the consecrated host is placed in a tabernacle or brought to the sick in the form of what the early Church called “Viaticum”.
The Fathers of the Council of Trent rejected both of these errors and were particularly clear in dealing with the second of them. For with extraordinary solemnity they approved and encouraged “adoration”25 of the Blessed Sacrament at all times, as long as the appearances of bread and wine perdure, explicitly mentioning when the Eucharist is “reserved in a sacred place”, when it is brought to the sick in Viaticum, and even when it is “borne reverently and with honor in processions through the streets”.26
It follows, therefore, that just as we move into a more loving relationship with our Eucharistic Lord when we share in His sublime, sacrificial prayer at Mass, so too we move into a more loving relationship with Him when we kneel in prayer before Him present in the tabernacles of our churches and chapels. We are there. He is there. We speak to Him. He speaks to us. Love is exchanged, and the miracle of growth in holiness is worked quietly, tenderly, powerfully.
Fifty years ago, my dear friends, when I was leaving for Rome to complete my seminary studies, the revered pastor of my home parish gave me a little book, about four inches by six inches, entitled “My Daily Bread”. It was published in New York and contained dozens of brief meditations on various spiritual topics followed by original prayers by the author, Reverend Anthony J. Paone, SJ.
“Slip this into your pocket”, my pastor told me, “and keep it close at hand. It has done me a lot of good, and it will do the same for you”.
I followed the advice and have replaced the book at least three times over the years that followed, so much have the gentle wisdom and piety contained in it meant to me. Two of the meditations on the Eucharist conclude with prayers that I have found to be especially helpful, the first for when one is making a visit to the Blessed Sacrament and the second for when one is preparing for Mass or making an act of thanksgiving after Mass. I share them in the hope that they will be of spiritual benefit to others as well. They read as follows:
I. Eternal Father, my Creator, to You I owe absolutely everything which makes my daily life worth while. From you I receive each moment of life as a personal gift. I ought to offer myself to You because You own all that I am and have. Jesus, Your divine Son, has given me a perfect example of self-oblation in delivering Himself up as a victim for my sins. Every thought, word and deed of His, from the crib to the cross, was offered to You for my sake. Can I hesitate to return such generous love in my own small way? Even today I can see the self-oblation of Jesus in every Mass and in every tabernacle where He resides in the Blessed Sacrament. He is there for love of me. What shall I do to repay such unbounded love? Grant me the courage to make my daily life a self-oblation. I hope in You for the strength to continue this effort all of my life. Amen.
II. My God and my Savior, of all the wonderful gifts which You have bestowed upon your children in this earthly life, none can begin to compare with the gift of the Holy Eucharist. Under the appearances of bread and wine, You come to me in person, with Your body, blood, soul and divinity. Your love for me is so deep that You could offer me nothing less than Yourself. This You did in a manner which recalls and makes present Your death upon the cross for my sake. In the appearance of bread and wine I see You ready to be consumed in order to give me eternal life. This holy sacrament is truly the most perfect image of Your boundless love for me. Lord, let me make full use of this divine gift so that I may learn to give myself to You in my daily life. Amen.
My brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ, permit me to add a word of heartfelt thanks to all in the Archdiocese of New York who work to foster Eucharistic piety in this sector of the Lord’s vineyard. To our beloved priests, who devoutly offer the Eucharistic sacrifice; to our dedicated deacons, Eucharistic ministers and servers, who lovingly assist at the altar; to our devoted lectors, who faithfully proclaim the Word of God; to our gifted choir-masters, leaders of song and choir members, who add so much to the beauty of our Eucharistic worship; to our loyal ushers and to all who generously give of their time and energy to make every Mass and every Eucharistic devotion a fervent and inspiring prayer, I gladly express my admiration, esteem and gratitude. Your gift of self helps to make the Lord’s most precious gift, the Eucharist, a more abundant source of grace and holiness for millions of your fellow Catholics. May they and all of us be blessed with unlimited love for the Eucharistic Lord, Who on the cross died for us, on the altar is offered for us and in the tabernacle awaits us, the Eucharistic Lord, Who gave the world the gift that surpasses all others Himself.
Edward Cardinal Egan
Archbishop of New York
The Year of the Eucharist
(All biblical citations are taken from The New Jerusalem Bible.)
1 John 10:18
2 John 1:29
3 Hebrews 4:14 and 5:1
4 See Isaiah 53, where the bloody manner of the sacrifice of Calvary is forecasted in amazing detail.
5 Luke 22:19
6 Luke 22:20
7 Luke 22:19, see also I Corinthians 11:24
8 The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council make this crystal clear in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, n. 47: “At the Last Supper, on the night when He was betrayed, our Savior instituted the Eucharistic Sacrifice of His Body and Blood. He did this in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the Cross throughout the centuries until He should come again”.
9 One of the celebrated theologians of the First Vatican Council, Reverend Josef Kleutgen, SJ, put it this way: “The priests of the New Law do not approach the altar in their own name but in the name and person of Jesus Christ; and it is He Who by them and in them exercises the priestly office, continually re-presenting His great sacrifice to the Father”.
10 Genesis 14:18
11 See, for example, Saint Cyprian (200-258 A.D.), who in his Letter to Caecilius wrote: “Who is more a priest of God, the Most High, than Our Lord Jesus Christ, Who offered to God the Father a sacrifice, and offered the same sacrifice as Melchizedek, that is bread and wine His body and His blood?”
12 Psalm 109:4
13 Hebrews 5:9
14 Malachi 1:11
15 John 6:51 and 54
16 John 6:55
17 John 6:60
18 The details of the meal are set forth primarily in the Books of Exodus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
19 Exodus 13:15
20 Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, n. 11
21 Matthew 5:14
22 I Peter 1:16
23 Matthew 26:26-28; Mark 14:22-24; Luke 22:19-20; and I Corinthians 11:23-26
24 Council of Trent, Session 13, Chapter 3
25 “Latria” is the word the Fathers of the Council used for “adoration”, the worship due to the Divinity alone.
26 Council of Trent, Session 13, Chapter 5
For copies of Cardinal Egan’s Pastoral Letter in a booklet form, contact the Archdiocese of New York.
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