In the Creed, we profess our unity of belief in one God, one Savior, one Church and one faith. That unity is fulfilled in the flesh and spirit as we receive Holy Communion.
The Liturgy of the Eucharist is the heart and summit of the Mass wherein the one and eternal holy sacrifice of Jesus Christ in the Paschal Mystery is made present to us. Following the ancient practice as described sometime around 155 AD by Saint Justin Martyr in his First Apology (chapters 65-67), this entrance into the sacred mysteries begins with the offertory, when we bring our gifts to the altar, including the bread and wine to be consecrated, and donations people offer to support the Church and its outreach.
Soon afterward comes the Eucharistic Prayer, which includes a prayer for the sending of the Holy Spirit. We receive and become Christ’s Body and Blood by the power of the Spirit. The narrative account of the Last Supper which comes next links the events of our redemption – Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection – to the institution of the Eucharist. When Jesus said, “This is my body . . . do this in remembrance of me,” he established the ceremonial setting for the remembrance of our salvation.
The Eucharist has the power to make present the event it memorializes not just as a memory, but as a reality. When the priest acting “in persona Christi” takes the host and consecrates it as Jesus did at the Last Supper, the substance of what outwardly appears to be bread truly becomes the Body of Christ. When the priest consecrates the chalice of wine, it now contains the Blood of Christ. As we proclaim “the mystery of faith” and the Great Amen, we affirm the historical truth of Jesus’s Cross, death and rising, and also the present reality of the bread of life and cup of salvation.
Then we recite the prayer Jesus taught his disciples, which leads us to open our minds and hearts to God our Father, and we offer a sign of peace to others, recognizing them as our brothers and sisters in God’s family. Next, we offer another ancient prayer: the Agnus Dei, when we repeat the words of John the Baptist upon seeing Christ – “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us . . .”
The climax of the Holy Sacrifice occurs when people approach the altar and the priest or Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion holds up the Host and says, “The Body of Christ,” to which the communicant says, “Amen,” and receives Jesus. The communicant may also approach the minister holding the chalice, who says, “The Blood of Christ,” and again the response is, “Amen.”
The Mass concludes with a blessing and dismissal, “Go forth, the Mass is ended.” Just as the Risen Christ sent out his disciples to be his witnesses at the culmination of his earthly ministry, what we receive in the Mass – Jesus – we take into the world as his face, voice, hands and feet. To this we fittingly respond, “Thanks be to God.”
This is the third installment of a three-part series drawn from the book that Mike Aquilina and I wrote, “The Mass: The Glory, the Mystery, the Tradition.”