“I was once, five or six years ago, taken by some friends to have dinner with Mary McCarthy and her husband, Mr. Broadwater. …[C]onversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater said that when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the ‘most portable’ person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said in a very shaky voice, ‘Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.'” – Flannery O’Connor
This weekend my darling goddaughter makes her First Communion. She will receive the Eucharist for the first time on the feastday of Saint Damien of Moloka’i, also known as “the leper priest.” He fought and studied hard to become a priest, and prayed to be sent to the missions. He was sent to the then-Kingdom of Hawai’i where he volunteered to minister to those suffering from leprosy and other serious diseases. Father Damien served them and evangelized them for over ten years before dying from leprosy himself at the age of 49. That’s a hell of a thing to do on account of a mere symbol. A symbol’s a hell of a thing to get excited about, too. And my darling goddaughter is very excited. I was excited too, when I made my First Communion 26 years ago. After all, I was getting ready to experience something so powerful that I had to sit with one of my parish priests and tell him everything I’d ever done wrong, so that I could experience it with a clear and clean mind and heart! Is that what one does, even at 7 or 8 years old, when getting ready to accept…a symbol?
No, my friends: contrary to our all-too-Puritanical sense of enlightenment, the power of the Eucharist does not rise from it being a symbol of something. Symbols are representations, a hint of something larger. The Eucharist is a sacrament, and sacraments are as real as real gets. The Catechism tells us that a sacrament is an action of the Holy Spirit at work within the Body of Christ, that is the Church (CCC 1116). It is a very locus of the power of God. I hope those words by themselves would convey the realness of what a sacrament is to those who believe; however, being a lover of context (and aided by a degree in Classical Studies), I find it may also be helpful to look at the powerful history of the word itself and what it meant to others before the Church adopted it for its use.
In the days of ancient Rome, a sacrament (Latin, sacramentum) was a special type of public promise or guarantee that was held sacred. I’ve remarked before to some of you on the original meaning of the word “sacred,” coming from a Latin word (sacer) that means both “blessed” and “cursed.” If you proclaim something sacred, you are really saying “It’s hot with holy radiation, don’t mess with it!” In this case, the person making the sacred promise would be considered blessed by the gods if he kept it and cursed by the gods if he broke it. And if you did break a scared promise, some sort of reparation needed to be made. In civil suits, each party deposited a sum of money as a sacrament. The winner of the suit got his deposit back, for having made it in good faith; the loser forfeited his deposit, as reparation having been judged false. In the Roman military, a soldier’s oath of allegiance essentially made an offer of his own life as a sacrament – which meant it was considered forfeit if he broke his oath.
The Church understands its Seven Sacraments as having been instituted by Jesus Himself and entrusted in exercise to the Church that is His Body. They are also a special type of promise – of His love and mercy and protection. They are His means of making us sacer, consecrating us to His Father and consecrating Himself to us. As in the original understanding, this consecration takes on a negative aspect if, in our participation in the Sacrament, we do not act in good faith. But we also believe that, through the Cross and the Resurrection, the resulting debt of reparation is paid; by offering Himself once and for all time, He Who is Son of God and God Himself forfeited His life in order to preserve ours. As members of His Body, we choose to accept this Sacrifice made on our behalf, and make an earnest effort to uphold our end of the bargain. In a sense, the Sacraments are a perfect corollary to Christ’s fulfillment of the Mosaic Covenant. His sin-offering of Himself on our behalf was the ultimate atonement for the sins of all people, and so became the eternal satisfaction of the debt we owe to God. Therefore, as we try in good faith to love Him as He loves us and live out His commands, we also hold Him to His promises to us by continually accepting His Sacrifice and seeking His mercy and protection.
The Eucharist, received by the faithful at Mass in Holy Communion, is one of three sacraments that are called “Sacraments of Initiation.” They are the means by which God, through the Church, lifts the veil just a little and lets us in on the secrets of the universe. In Baptism, the first Sacrament we receive, Jesus has promised that we are made new, “born from above”: the guilt of the original sin is washed away, and we are made open to the power of God and the gifts of His Spirit in our lives. At Confirmation these gifts are sealed within us; Jesus promises that the Spirit will come upon us and guide us, to help us walk the path that is meant for us. But even though Confirmation is typically the last of these three to happen, it is the Eucharist that is the climax of Christian initiation. In this unfathomably amazing act, we visibly, tangibly, literally take Jesus into ourselves; His promise to be with us and dwell within us is kept in a physically real way, as the bread and wine offered on the altar become the flesh and blood of the Son of God. Far from being a mere symbol, the radical reality of the mystery of the Incarnation and Resurrection, where “the things of heaven are wed to those of earth and the divine to the human,” come alive for us to experience directly in every Mass celebrated throughout the world.
A while back Catholics Come Home posted a list of about 20 reasons to come back to Mass. My favorite was “If you’ve been to confession, you get to receive Jesus Christ. If you find a better deal, do that instead.” I’ve done some looking, trust me, and I haven’t found one yet except maybe this: now I get to share the experience with my goddaughter.