We stand now in the year 2015, and the year 2017 will mark five-hundred years from the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, when an Augustinian friar by the name of Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg. I mention this because ultimately the Protestant Reformation became a revolt against the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist, and so by turning our attention to what was being said about the Sacrament in the 16th century we can find ample material for our meditations today.
A question much debated by that first generation of Protestants was this: What did Christ mean when He said at the Last Supper, "This is My Body?" From the earliest days of Christianity all Catholics had always believed that Christ actually meant what he said, that the elements of bread and wine used in the Eucharist actually become his Body and Blood. In the 16th century, however, many began to deny this. One rebuttal written at the time had this to say about their interpretation of "This is My Body":
Who but the Devil has granted such license of wresting the words of the holy Scripture? Who ever read in the Scriptures, that my body is the same as the sign of my body? or, that is is the same as it signifies? What language in the world ever spoke so? It is only then the Devil, that imposes upon us by these fanatical men. Not one of the Fathers of the Church, though so numerous, ever spoke as [these men do]: not one of them ever said, 'It is only bread and wine;' or, 'the body and blood of Christ is not there present.'(It was a less politically correct century.)
These words of rebuke were written by none other than ... Martin Luther.
Woah! Plot twist!
Martin Luther, the architect of the Protestant Reformation, believed in the Real Presence. Merely the Real Presence is notthe central issue. Now, it is strange to speak "merely" of the Eucharist, isn't it? But yes -- in the Eucharist we have something even greater than "merely" the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ present among us!
The difference between Martin Luther's understanding of the Eucharist and ours is this: THE EUCHARIST IS A SACRIFICE. Rightly do we speak of "The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass."
The 22nd session of the Council of Trent says this:
If any one saith, that the sacrifice of the mass is only a sacrifice of praise and of thanksgiving; or, that it is a bare commemoration [that is to say, a mere calling to mind] of the sacrifice consummated on the cross, but not a propitiatory sacrifice; or, that it profits him only who receives; and that it ought not to be offered for the living and the dead for sins, pains, satisfactions, and other necessities; let him be anathema.This is hard to explain, but easy to illustrate.
Last week I had occasion to celebrate Mass at St. Nicholas of Tolentine church in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Now, normally I wouldn't recommend that anyone go to Atlantic City, but for this church I might make an exception. It's a real gem: in the baptistry chapel of this church there's a beautiful mosaic, in the center of which is that famous quotation of St. Monica: "This only I ask of you: That you remember me at the altar of the Lord."
Now, I was on vacation, and this was not a scheduled or public Mass I was celebrating, so there was no congregation. It was just me and the angels. And it struck me: This would make no sense to Martin Luther.
If all that we believed about the Eucharist was that in made Christ present, there would have been no reason for me to celebrate Mass. After all, Christ was already present in the Tabernacle! Even if I derived particular joy and consolation from the prayers of the Mass, I could have knelt down with the Missal and read them devoutly -- no need for all the fuss with vestments and altar cloths. What I did only makes sense if we believe that the Mass is a Sacrifice! Not that at every Mass Christ is somehow killed over and over again—that would be absurd. But in Holy Mass we offer to the Father the One Sacrifice of Christ, the Sacrifice made once for all on the Cross, that of the Lamb slain from before the foundation of the world.
I don't mean all this to be just a history lesson, or a chapter from a theology textbook. What I've said has two very practical consequences for us: first for Evangelization, and second, for our own prayer.
When we witness to the truth of our Catholic faith to our non-Catholic friends, and when we tell them about the great gift that Christ has given to us in the Eucharist, I would propose that we sell ourselves short if we only talk about the Real Presence. We must also tell them that the Mass is a Sacrifice. Because after all, perhaps there are some Lutherans who've read their Luther, and think that they already have what we're talking about!
And this also means a great deal for us. St. Monica really hit the nail on the head in that final instruction she gave to her son just before her death: "This only I ask of you: That you remember me at the altar of the Lord." She did not say simply, "remember me in your prayers," but, "remember me at the altar of the Lord." Here at the altar, because of the fact that the Eucharist is a sacrifice, at every Mass it's as if we step into a time machine and are present on Calvary with the Apostle John, the Virgin Mary and the other holy women gathered there. At every Mass we have access to the font of infinite graces won for us by Christ. So as we offer this sacrifice here today, let us call to mind all of our needs, all of those who have asked us to pray for them--and all of those who have not asked for our prayers, but need them anyway. Let us approach this holy altar with reverence, and ask God for the fulfillment of all our needs.
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