The Two Species of the Eucharist

Corpus Christi. Exod 24:3-8; Ps 116:12-13,15-16,17-18; Heb 9:11-15; Mk 14:12-16,22-26

Today we celebrate the institution of the Eucharist, a feast still known by its Latin name of Corpus Christi, the 'Body of Christ'. At today's feast we celebrate that God has given to us an extraordinary gift. God, in his love and mercy, gives us Himself at every Mass under the appearances of bread and wine. Given the inadequacy of my words in the light of so great a mystery, I ask St. Juliana of Liège, the woman who suffered so much to institute the Feast of Corpus Christi, to aid me by her intercession as I speak.

With the priest speaks the words of consecration at every Mass, the substance of the bread is changed into the substance of Christ's body and the substance of wine is changed into the substance of Christ's blood. At every Mass, therefore, we offer and consume Christ's Body and Blood, God Himself, as Jesus says in today's Gospel, “This is my body ... this is my blood.”  Some direct consequences of this change are, first, that we worship the Eucharist by our prayers and bodily gestures, especially genuflection and kneeling and, second, that we must receive the Eucharist worthily. When we receive the Body and Blood of Christ, the Church, the Bride of Christ, receives Christ the Bridegroom. Therefore, just as brides traditionally wear white at weddings and children wear white when receiving First Communion, we should take steps to ensure that our souls are purified prior to receiving the Eucharist, especially by making regular use of the Sacrament of Confession. But the presence of the two species on the altar, the Body of Christ and the Blood of Christ, raises a question. Why does God give us two species, the Body and Blood, instead of just one? If we receive the whole Christ in the host, under the appearance of bread, why is the chalice, the precious Blood, also an essential part of the Mass?

The answer to this question is suggested in today's readings, especially by the theme of sacrifice. In the First Reading from the Book of Exodus, Moses orders holocausts and animal sacrifices to be offered, in other words, the shedding of the blood of animals. In the Second Reading, the Letter to the Hebrews makes it clear that these Old Testament sacrifices foreshadowed the shedding of Christ's blood on the cross. Finally, Christ institutes the Eucharist on the very night before he dies on the cross at the time when the Passover Lamb was sacrificed in the Temple. These readings help to explain why God gives us the Body and the Blood under separate forms. The Body and Blood are distinct on the altar because the Blood of Christ is separated from the Body of Christ on the cross. The separate forms of the Eucharist, the host and the chalice, represent the separation of Christ's Body and Blood made in the Sacrifice of the Cross. The Mass is not, therefore, only a sacrament, but also a sacrifice, a participation in the Sacrifice of the Cross.

So why does God give us the Eucharist as a sacrifice as well as a sacrament? One way of answering this question is to recall that God ultimately wants us to bring us to heaven, where, as St John tells us, “We shall be like Him.” Now the attribute that we most naturally associate with God is power, but the attribute that is most central to God's knowledge of Himself is love. “God is love,” as St John tells us. So becoming 'like God' does not simply mean sharing in the power of God, but most essentially sharing in the love of God, of loving as God loves. Now love is intimately connected with sacrifice, the notion of a sacrifice being associated with an outpouring of something that is precious to oneself for the sake of another person. So in the Mass, God gives us not only the opportunity to participate in the strength of God by means of a sacrament, but also in the love of God by means of a sacrifice. More specifically, in the Mass we participate in the perfect sacrifice, that of Christ on the cross in which the Son of God gave His life to save us. We can see some of the fruits of the Sacrifice of the Mass in various sacrificial ways of life in the Catholic tradition: a sacrificial priesthood, religious life (the life, for example, of monks and nuns) and the notion of marriage as a sacrament and not only as a contract.

If, then, the distinct Body and Blood of Christ show us that the Mass is a sacrifice and not only a sacrament, how then should this understanding affect our daily lives? Well, if the Eucharist is the “source and summit of the Christian life” (Lumen Gentium, n. 11), this implies that what is offered in the Sacrifice of the Mass should permeate all aspects of our lives. Clearly this understanding of the Eucharist is manifest in major decisions, such as offering one's life in the priesthood or in religious life or to another person in marriage. Nevertheless, every day there are countless small ways in which we can sacrifice to God in our lives. The essence of such daily sacrifices is whenever we say to our Heavenly Father, as Christ did in Gethsemane, "Not my will, but thine, be done." (Luke 22:42)

Father Andrew Pinsent, Saint Ambrose Church, Saint Louis, 14th June 2009

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