(Photo Credit: Divine Mercy Parish, Pittsburgh)
I want to talk about the liturgy today. The old one and the new one. And I will. Because I am crazy. But first, I need to talk about the Eucharist.
Seven years ago, right before I married Chris, I published a book called The Catholic Table. It was about food, both the natural and the supernatural kind, and all the lessons contained within the Eucharist. Those lessons, as I recounted them then, are about nourishment, community, service, sacrifice, love, and Presence. But looking back on that book, I feel like I gave short shrift to two of the most important lessons taught to us by the Eucharist: God’s greatness and God’s littleness.
As the Church sees it, the Eucharist isn’t just a meal or even just a participation in Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary (although it is both). Most fundamentally, the Eucharist is Jesus. It is Him entirely, with the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of God Himself present in every crumb of what looks like bread and every drop of what looks like wine. We believe this because Jesus said it: “This is my Body.” “This is my Blood.” “My flesh is food indeed.” “My blood is drink indeed.” “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”
Those words scandalized Jesus’ disciples when He first spoke them. They scandalize people still. How can bread become Body? How can wine become Blood? And what kind of God asks His people to eat His flesh—to, literally in the original Greek, “gnaw” upon Him? It sounds like cannibalism. Or madness. Or both.
Just the same, for two thousand years, since Christ made Himself known on the road to Emmaus “in the breaking of the bread,” the Church has taken Christ at His word. We believe, in the Mass, Jesus comes again. He is there with us, giving us His very life in Holy Communion. And this is proof not just of His love—His overwhelming love—but also of His greatness … and His littleness.
Lord and Servant
The song of God’s greatness is sung throughout Scripture. The Psalmist tells us that “Worlds his mighty voice obeyed,” and recognizes that the “sun and moon,” the “shining stars,” “the angels in the heights,” and every created thing in the universe offers a chorus of praise to God (Psalm 148). Paul calls Him the One in whom “we move and live and have our being,” (Acts 17:28). When Moses would leave God’s presence, his face would glow for days, his whole being lit up from within simply from the nearness of God (Exodus 34:33-35).
God also sings His own song in the Book of Job, putting a series of questions to Job and his faithless friends to remind them of who He is and who they are: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” he asks. “Have you commanded the morning since your days began? …“Do you give the horse his might? …"Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars, and spreads his wings toward the south? Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up and makes his nest on high? … Can you draw out Levi'athan with a fishhook, or press down his tongue with a cord?” (40:4, 12, 19, 26, 27 ,41:1)
God is great. There is none greater. And He shows us this not only in the stars and seas, but also in the Eucharist. He is the Lord of all, including the Lord of matter. He is its creator. And when He wills it, He can change the substance of matter without changing the appearance of matter. Which He does will. Bread to Body. Wine to Blood. Not just once, but a billion times. Again and again and again, from age to age, culture to culture, in every parish and every cathedral, wherever a priest configured to Him, standing in His stead, says the words first spoken at the Last Supper over bread and wine.
In the Eucharist, the Creator takes on the form of the created. The created is transubstantiated into the Creator. The Lord and God of all, the source of Being Himself, appears to us as a tiny piece of bread. No miracle in Scripture—not the raising of the dead, not the parting of the Red Sea, not the multiplication of the loaves and fishes—compares to what happens every day, sometimes two, three, four times a day, in the Liturgy of the Eucharist at your local parish.
But the greatest sign of God’s greatness is also a sign of His littleness—His utter and complete humility. It wasn’t enough for God to humble Himself by taking up residence in a woman’s womb or being born among a poor and stiff-necked people. It wasn’t enough to labor as a carpenter, keep company with prostitutes, wash the feet of His servants, suffer the words and whips of His creatures, or walk the road to Calvary, where He died a criminal’s death. None of that even came close to revealing the depths of His humility. That is only revealed in the Eucharist, where the One who spoke worlds into being, takes on the form of bread and wine and lets the broken feast upon Him.
In the Eucharist, the Lord of All gives Himself without reservation. He enters into the holy and unholy, the rich and poor, the faithful and faithless. He asks those who reject Him or who are not in union with His Church to not receive Him. He asks those who are still unrepentant in sin to not take Him into their bodies for in doing so they bring condemnation on themselves. But when these souls present themselves for Communion just the same, no lightening strikes. He endures unbelief and disinterest, scorn and sacrilege, because He counted the cost and found such scandal worth it. It doesn’t matter how unworthy and how unloving a congregation is, He shows up anyhow. No matter the architecture, no matter the music, no matter the sins of the man repeating the words of the Last Supper, Jesus still shows up. He is there. Even when our hearts are not.
Why do these lessons matter? Why is this perpetual testimony to God’s greatness and His littleness so very important?
Because we forget. We forget all the time.
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