by Marie Rinaudo
Recently I came across an announcement for a seminar that listed several churches in the community, each identified by a key practice or doctrine. I was impressed that the Eucharist was listed as the distinguishing mark of Roman Catholicism. At the same time, however, I considered the challenges that this profound sacrament presents. How to understand the Mystery? How to share this understanding with others? During the next 12 months, the Church is offering us a way to tackle the tough questions. This Year of Faith invites us to study our teachings, to share our beliefs, and “to turn towards Jesus Christ, encounter him in the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist” (USCCB).
As Catholics we have a wealth of information on the Eucharist; theologians, scholars, and doctors of the church guide us in grasping the Mystery of the Eucharist. The explanations given in The Catechism and in the Vatican II document on the Sacred Liturgy thoroughly present the complexity of the sacrament: a sacrifice, a communal meal, a memorial, and an act of thanksgiving. While the Catechism addresses all of the terms, it gives distinction to the sacrament as a liturgy of thanksgiving: “The Eucharist is a sacrifice of thanksgiving to the Father, a blessing by which the Church expresses her gratitude to God for his benefits, for all that he has accomplished through creation, redemption, and sanctification. Eucharist means first of all ‘thanksgiving’ ” (CCC, 1360).
In other writings, we also learn that the liturgy as thanksgiving may have its roots in ancient history. It has been suggested that the Jewish todah, a sacrificial meal in which the Israelites voiced their gratitude to God for his many blessings, may be “the ‘liturgical’ ancestor of the Mass” (Hahn, 32). A later work, The Didache, which contains the teachings of the apostles, has been described as providing prayers of gratitude “that led up to the Eucharist.” (Loret, 31).
While these reminders that the Eucharist is a prayer of thanksgiving for a freely given gift are enlightening, perhaps nowhere are we better able to appreciate this sacred mystery than in the liturgy itself. As we follow the words and actions of the Eucharistic prayer, we go beyond philosophy and history, and through our active participation, experience an encounter with Jesus that is deep and intimate. Beginning with the dialogue that introduces the Eucharistic prayer, we approach the celebration in a spirit of praise and gratitude:
The Lord be with you.
And with your spirit.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord.
It is right and just.
Following the dialogue is the consecration, “the heart and summit of the celebration” (CCC, 1352). As we offer the gifts, we recognize the “superabundance of this unique bread” (CCC, 1335) and are compelled to give thanks to God for sending His Son to pay for our redemption and for giving us the gifts of creation that make bread and wine possible: seeds, earth, water, and light. As the priest makes the offering, we recall events in Jesus’s ministry when he provided for those in need: the feeding of the multitudes with the loaves and the provision of the wine at Cana (CCC,1335). As it was right and just to give thanks then, so it still is today.
We then pray for the Holy Spirit to unify all those present as well as those who have died, our friends and family, the saints and the martyrs. Transformed by the sacrament, we are able to see Christ in each other. We who have offered the sacrifice now receive it. Contemporary theologians have focused on this act of giving and receiving. Kevin Irwin, in Models of the Eucharist, contends that the act of taking the Eucharist is always an act of giving and receiving (192). Robert Barron in Eucharist affirms that “The Mass is the richest possible expression of the loop of grace, God’s life possessed in the measure that it is given away. . . .(56). Coming forward to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, we assume a posture of Thanksgiving. St. Cyril of Jerusalem, writing in the fourth century, gave instructions for our approach: “Make your hand a throne for Christ as though you were receiving a king. Having hollowed your palm, receiving the Body of Christ, say over it, ‘Amen.’” In one word, we pronounce our gratitude and assent to this profound act.
It is appropriate during this time of national thanksgiving that we reflect on the spirituality of gratitude. The Mass for Thanksgiving Day gives us the occasion to fully express gratefulness to our Father for our many blessings. In the Collect, we prepare for the sacred liturgy: Father, all-powerful. . . As we come before you on Thanksgiving Day with gratitude for your kindness, open our hearts to have concern for every man, woman and child.
In the Prayer over the offerings, we say together: God our Father, from whose hand we have received generous gifts So that we might learn to share your blessings in gratitude, Accept these gifts of bread and wine.
In the Communion prayers the sense of gratitude is intense: I thank you Lord with all my heart, For you have heard the words of my mouth. OR How can I repay the Lord for all His goodness to me? The chalice of salvation I will raise and I will call on the name of the Lord.
The theme of thanksgiving thus continues throughout the Eucharistic prayer. By taking an active role in the Mass, we may arrive at a mature gratitude for Christ’s selfless act of love.
Sources: Barron, Robert. Eucharist. New York: Orbis Books, 2008; Catechism of the Catholic Church; Hahn, Scott. The Lamb’s Supper. New York: Doubleday, 1999; Irwin, Kevin, W. Models of the Eucharist. New York: Paulist Press, 2005; Loret, Pierre, C.SS.R. The Story of the Mass: From the Last Supper to the Present Day. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers , 2002.