Father Cantalamessa's 3rd Lent Homily 2014

St. Ambrose: Faith in the Eucharist

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Here is the third Lenten homily given this year by the preacher of the Pontifical Household, Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa.

The first and second homilies can be found here and here.

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1. Reflection on the Sacraments

Along with the topic of the Church, another topic in which we note progress when we move from the Greek Fathers to the Latin Fathers is the sacraments. What was missing in the Greek Fathers was a reflection on the sacraments themselves, that is, on the concept of a sacrament, although they treated individual mysteries like Baptism, Anointing, and the Eucharist very well.[1]

The initiator of sacramental theology—what will be the tract De sacramentis from the twelfth century on—is once again Augustine. St. Ambrose, in his two series of discourses, De sacramentis (On the Sacraments) and De misteriis (On the Mysteries), anticipates the name of the tract but not its content. He also treats individual sacraments but not the principles that are common to all sacraments: the minister, the matter, the form, the grace it effects, etc.

Why choose Ambrose, then, as the teacher of faith on a sacramental subject like the Eucharist that we want to meditate on today? The reason is that Ambrose is the one who more than any other contributed to the affirmation of faith in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and laid the foundations for the future doctrine of transubstantiation. In De sacramentis he writes,

That bread is bread before the words of the sacrament; when consecration has been added, from bread it becomes the flesh of Christ. . . . By what words, then, is the consecration and by whose expressions? . . . When it comes to performing a venerable sacrament, then the priest uses not his own expressions, but he uses the expressions of Christ. Thus the expression of Christ performs this sacrament.[2]

In his other work, De misteriis, faith in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is made even more explicit:

Cannot the words of Christ, which were able to make what was not out of nothing, change those things that are into the things that were not? For it is not of less importance to give things new natures than to change natures. . . . This body that we make present on the altar is the body born of the Virgin. . . . Surely it is the true flesh of Christ, which was crucified, which was buried; therefore it is truly the sacrament of that flesh. . . . The Lord Jesus himself declares, “This is my body.” Before the benediction of the heavenly words another species is mentioned; after the consecration the body is signified.[3]

In the successive development of eucharistic doctrine, the authority of Ambrose on this point prevailed over that of Augustine. Augustine, of course, believed in the reality of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, but as we saw in the preceding meditation, he still puts more emphasis on its symbolic and ecclesial significance. Some of his disciples will reach the point of affirming not only that the Eucharist makes the church but also that the Eucharist is the church: “Eating the body of Christ means nothing less than becoming the body of Christ.”[4] The reaction to the heresy of Berengar of Tours, who reduced Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist to a merely dynamic and symbolic presence, provoked a unanimous reaction in which the words of Ambrose played an important role. Ambrose is the first authority that St. Thomas Aquinas invokes in his Summa theologiae in favor of the thesis of the Real Presence.[5]

The phrase “mystical body” of Christ, which up until that time was used to designate the Eucharist, began little by little to refer to the Church, while the phrase “true body” comes to be reserved by that time only for the Eucharist.[6] This unusual inversion, in a certain sense, marks the triumph of Ambrose’s legacy over Augustine’s. Phrases like those in the hymn “Ave verum corpus” (“Hail True Body”), in which the eucharistic body of Christ is addressed, seem almost directly derived from Ambrose’s words quoted above: “. . . true body, born of the Virgin Mary, that was sacrificed on the cross and from whose pierced side water and blood flowed.”

We can summarize the difference between Augustine’s and Ambrose’s perspectives this way. Concerning the three bodies of Christ—the true or historical body born of Mary, the eucharistic body, and the ecclesial body—Augustine closely unites the second and third, the eucharistic body and that of the Church, distinguishing them from the real, historical body of Jesus. On the other hand, Ambrose unites the first and second, the historical body of Christ and his eucharistic body, and even considers them identical, distinguishing them from the ecclesial body.

One could go too far in this direction, falling into an exaggerated realism, almost saying—as the formula that opposed Berengar’s heresy does—that the body and blood of Christ present on the altar “are sensibly . . . touched and broken by the hands of the priests or ground by the teeth of the faithful.”[7] The remedy to avoid this kind of exaggeration was in the concept itself of a sacrament that was clear in theology by that time: The Real Presence in the Eucharist is not physical but sacramental and is mediated through signs, namely, the bread and wine.

2. The Eucharist and the Hebrew Berakah (Blessing Prayer)

If there is a limitation in Ambrose’s vision it is in the absence of any reference to the Holy Spirit in bringing forth the body of Christ on the altar. For him, all the efficacy lies in the words of consecration; those words are creative words, that is, words that are not limited to affirming an existing reality but words that actually produce the reality that they signify, like the fiat lux (“Let there be light”) of creation. This influenced the lesser prominence that the epiclesis of the Holy Spirit had in the Latin liturgy, whereas, as we know, in the Eastern liturgy the epiclesis of the Spirit comes to have a role that is as essential as that of the words of consecration. The new Eucharistic prayers, with the solemn invocation of the Holy Spirit preceding the consecration, have tried to fill this gap.

But there is a greater lacuna than this one that we begin to notice that applies not only to Ambrose and the Latin Fathers but also to the explanation of the eucharistic mystery as a whole. One sees here more than ever how studying the Fathers helps us not only to recover ancient riches but also to open us up to new things that emerge in history and to imitate the Fathers not just in their content but also in their methodology of putting all the resources and knowledge available within their cultural context at the service of the Word of God.

The new resource we can use today to understand the Eucharist is the rapprochement between Christians and Jews. From the earliest days of the Church, a variety of historical factors led to accentuating the difference between Christianity and Judaism to the point of opposing them to one another, just as Ignatius of Antioch does.[8]

Distinguishing themselves from the Jews—in the dating of Passover, the days of fasting, and many other matters—becomes a kind of requirement. An accusation often leveled at one’s adversaries and at heretics was that of being “Judaizers.”

In terms of the Eucharist, the new climate of dialogue with Judaism has made possible a better understanding of its Jewish background. Just as one cannot understand Christian Easter if one does not consider it as the fulfillment of what the Jewish Passover was prefiguring, so too one cannot understand the Eucharist in depth if it is not seen as a fulfillment of what Jews were doing and saying during the course of their ritual meal. The term “Eucharist” itself is merely a translation of berakah, the prayer of blessing and thanksgiving said during such a meal. One initial important result of this development has been that no serious scholar today any longer puts forth the hypothesis that the Christian Eucharist can be explained in the light of the sacred meals in some Hellenistic mystery cults, as some tried to do for over a century.

The Church Fathers retained the Scriptures of the Jewish people but not their liturgy, to which they no longer had access after the separation of the Church from the synagogue. Thus, for the Eucharist they used figures from the Scriptures—the Passover lamb, the sacrifice of Isaac, that of Melchizedek, manna—but not the concrete liturgical context in which the Jewish people celebrated all these memories, i. e., the ritual meal that they celebrated once a year in the Passover supper (the Seder) and weekly in the synagogue worship. The first term that designated the Eucharist in the New Testament, which comes from Paul, is “the Lord’s supper” (kuriakon deipnon) (1 Cor 11:20), which is an obvious reference to the Jewish meal from which it was differentiated at that point by faith in Jesus.

This is the perspective that Benedict XVI also takes in the chapter on the institution of the Eucharist in his second book on Jesus of Nazareth. Following the prevailing opinion of scholars today, he accepts the Johannine chronology according to which Jesus’ Last Supper was not a Passover meal but a solemn farewell meal. With Louis Bouyer, he holds in addition that one can “trace the development of the Christian eucharistic liturgy [that is, of the canon] from the Jewish berakah.”[9]

For various cultural and historical reasons, from the time of scholasticism onwards, people attempted to explain the Eucharist in the light of philosophy, in particular using the Aristotelian notions of substance and accidents. This too placed the new understanding of their time at the service of faith and thus imitated the methodology of the Fathers. In our day, we need to do the same with our new knowledge—in our case, historical and liturgical knowledge rather than philosophical knowledge. In the context of some research already begun in this direction, especially by Louis Bouyer,[10] I would like to try to show the bright light that is falling on the Christian Eucharist when we consider the Gospel accounts of its institution against the background of what we know about the Jewish ritual meal. The innovation of Jesus’ action will not be diminished but will be highly enhanced.

3. What Happened That Night

The text that shows the strict link between the Jewish liturgy and the Christian supper is the Didache. That text includes a collection of prayers used in the synagogue, with the addition here and there of the words “through Jesus, thy Servant.”[11] The rest is identical to the liturgy of the synagogue. The synagogue rite was composed of a series of prayers called berakah that, as we noted, is translated as “Eucharist” in Greek. The berakah summarizes the spirituality of the Old Covenant and is the response of blessing and thanksgiving that Israel makes to the words of love addressed to them by their God.

The ritual that Jesus followed when he instituted the Eucharist accompanied all the meals of the Jews, but it took on particular importance in family or community meals on the Sabbath and on feast days. A quick look at the ritual is adequate to see the Last Supper in that context. At the beginning of the meal, everyone in turn would hold a cup of wine and, before drinking from it, would repeat a blessing that our current liturgy has us repeat almost to the letter at the time of the Offertory: “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the wine we offer you: fruit of the vine.” This blessing is for the first cup of wine.

However, the meal officially began only when the father of the family or the head of the community had broken the bread that was to be distributed among those at table. And in fact, Jesus, immediately after the blessing of the first cup, takes the bread, recites the blessing for it, breaks it, and distributes it, saying, “This is my body. . . .” Here the rite that was only a preparation now becomes the reality. Following the blessing of the bread, which was considered a general blessing for the whole meal, the customary dishes were served.

If the antecedents of the Eucharist are found in the ritual meal of the Jews, then there is no special significance in knowing if the feast of Passover coincided with Holy Thursday or with Good Friday. Jesus did not connect the Eucharist to any particular detail of the Passover meal; besides the irreconcilability of the date, there is no reference to the eating of the lamb and of the bitter herbs. He links the Eucharist to only those elements that are part of the daily meal ritual, that is, the breaking of the bread at the beginning and the great prayer of thanksgiving at the end. The paschal character of the Last Supper is undeniable, but it is not due to these particular details; its paschal character is made clear through the link that Jesus makes between the Eucharist (“my blood shed for you”) and his death on the cross. This is the point at which the figure of the Passover lamb is fulfilled: “Not a bone [of his] shall be broken” (Jn 19:36).

Let us return to the Jewish ritual. When the meal is about to end and the food has been eaten, those at table are ready for the great ritual act that concludes the celebration and gives it its most profound meaning. All the people wash their hands, as they had done at the beginning. It was prescribed that the person who is presiding receives water from the youngest person present, and perhaps it is John who gives the water to Jesus. But the Master, instead of letting himself be served, teaches a lesson in humility by washing their feet. After that, with a cup of wine mixed with water before him, he invites them to recite the three prayers of thanksgiving: the first praising God as the Creator of all things, the second for the deliverance from Egypt, and the third that God might continue his work in the present. When the prayer is concluded, the cup passes from person to person as each one drinks from it. This is the ancient ritual that Jesus performed many times during his life.

Luke says that Jesus, after having eaten, takes up the chalice and says, “This chalice which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Lk 22:20). Something decisive occurs at the moment when Jesus adds these words to the formula of the prayer of thanksgiving, that is, to the Jewish berakah. That ritual was a sacred feast in which people celebrated and thanked God as their Savior for having redeemed his people in order to form a covenant of love with them that was sealed by the blood of a lamb. The daily meal always blessed God for that covenant, but now, at the very moment in which Jesus, as the true lamb of God, decides to give his life for his own, he declares that the Old Covenant that they were all celebrating liturgically has been concluded.

At that moment, with a few simple words, he initiates, offers, and establishes the new and everlasting covenant in his blood with his disciples. When Jesus passes around that chalice, it is as if he were saying, “Up until now every time you celebrated this ritual meal, you have commemorated the love of God your Savior who rescued you from Egypt. From now on, every time you repeat what we have done today, you will no longer do it in commemoration of a salvation from physical slavery with the blood of an animal. You will do it in remembrance of me, the Son of God, who gave his blood to redeem you from your sins. Until now, you have eaten normal food to celebrate a physical deliverance. Now you will eat me, divine food sacrificed for you, to make you one with me. And you will eat me and will drink my blood in the very act in which I sacrifice myself for you. This is the new and everlasting covenant of my love.”

In adding the words “Do this in remembrance of me,” Jesus confers enduring significance to this gift. From looking to the past, it now looks to the future. All that he has done in the supper up to this point is put into our hands. Repeating what he did renews this central act of human history, his death for the world. The figure of the paschal lamb, which on the cross becomes an event; is given to us in the supper as sacrament, that is, as a perennial memorial of the event. The event happens once “for all time” (semel) (Heb 10:12), while the sacrament can be repeated as often as we wish (quotiescunque) (see 1 Cor 11:26).

The idea of a “memorial,” which Jesus derives from the Jewish ritual for the Sabbath and the feast days referred to in Exodus 12:14, encapsulates the very essence of the Mass, its theology and its inner meaning for salvation. The biblical memorial is far more than a simple commemoration or a simple subjective memory of the past. Because of it, something comes into being—beyond the mind of the person praying—a reality that has its own existence, a reality that does not belong to the past but exists and operates in the present and will continue to operate in the future. The memorial that until now was the guarantee of God’s faithfulness to Israel is now the broken body and shed blood of the Son of God, the sacrifice of Calvary “re-presented” (that is, made present once again) in the Church’s Eucharist.

Here we discover the meaning and the invaluable insistence of Ambrose—and after him, in evolved form, of the scholastic theologians and of the Council of Trent—that Christ “is truly, really, and substantially contained” in the Eucharist.[12] This is the only way that the “memorial” instituted by Jesus can maintain its character of an absolute, unconditional gift that is independent of everything, even independent of the faith of the one who receives it.

4. Our Signatures on the Gift

What is our place in this human-divine drama that we have just recalled? Our reflection on the Eucharist should lead us to discover exactly that. And it is, in fact, to involve us in his action that Jesus made a “sacrament” of his gift.

In the Eucharist two miracles happen: one makes the bread and wine the body and blood of Christ; the other makes us “a living sacrifice acceptable to God” that unites us to Christ’s sacrifice as participants and not merely as spectators. During the Offertory we offered bread and wine that obviously have no value or significance for God in and of themselves. In the consecration it is Christ who imparts the value that I am not able to put into my offering. At that moment, the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ who hands himself over to death in a supreme act of love to the Father.

Look at the result of this: My poor, worthless gift has become the perfect gift for the Father. Jesus not only gives himself in the bread and wine, but he also takes us and changes us into himself (mystically, not physically); he also gives us the value that his gift of love to the Father has. We too are in that bread and wine: “The Church . . . herself is offered in the offering which she presents to God,” writes Augustine.[13]

I would like to summarize what happens in the eucharistic celebration with the help of an example from normal life. Think of a large family in which there is a first-born son who admires and loves his father without measure and wants to give him a valuable gift for his birthday. Before giving it to him, however, he secretly asks all his brothers and sisters to affix their signatures on the gift. This gift comes into the father’s hands as a sign of love from all his children indiscriminately, even though only one of the children has actually paid the price for it.

This is what happens in the eucharistic sacrifice. Jesus admires and loves his heavenly Father without measure. Every day until the end of the world, he wants to give him the most precious gift he can think of, that of his own life. At Mass he invites all his “brothers and sisters” to affix their signatures on the gift in such a way that the gift reaches God the Father as a gift coming from all of his children together, even though only one has paid the price for the gift. And what a price!

Our signature is represented by the little drops of water that are mixed into the wine in the chalice. Our signature, Augustine explains, is above all the “Amen” that the faithful say at the time of receiving communion: “It is to what you are that you reply Amen, and by so replying you express your assent. What . . . you see is the body of Christ, and you answer Amen. So be a member of the body of Christ, in order to make your Amen truthful. . . . Be what you can see, and receive what you are.”[14] All of Augustine’s eucharistic ecclesiology that we recalled in the last meditation finds its application here. If one cannot say that the Eucharist is the church (as some of his disciples ended up asserting), we can and should say that the Eucharist makes the Church.

We know that whoever has signed an agreement then has the duty to honor that signature. This means that when leaving Mass we too need to make of our lives a gift of love to the Father and to our brothers and sisters. We too need to say, within ourselves, to our brothers and sisters, “Take and eat; this is my body.” Take my time, my abilities, my attention. Take my blood too, that is, my suffering, all that humbles me, mortifies me, and limits my strength, my physical death itself. I want all of my life, like Christ’s, to be bread broken and wine poured out for others. I want to make my whole life a Eucharist.

I mentioned earlier the Didaché as the document which marks the passage from the Jewish to the Christian liturgy. Let us conclude with one of its prayer which has inspired so many Eucharistic prayers in the Church:

“Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let your Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom. To you is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.”[15]

[Translated from Italian by Marsha Daigle Williamson]

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[1] See J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, rev. ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 1978), 422ff.

[2] Ambrose, The Sacraments, IV, 14, in St. Ambrose: Theological and Dogmatic Works, vol. 44, The Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1963), 302.

[3] Ambrose, The Mysteries, 52-54, vol. 44, 25-26.

[4] William of Saint-Thierry (PL 184, 403).

[5] See Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, III, q. 75, a. 1ff.

[6] This is the process reconstructed by Henri de Lubac, in Corpus Mysticum: The Eucharist and the Church in the Middle Ages (1949; Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame, 2007).

[7] Heinrich Denziger, ed., Enchiridion symbolorum definitionum et declarationum de rebus fidei et morum, #690, 43rd ed., English ed., eds. Robert Fastiggi and Anne Englund Nash (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012), 234.

[8] See Ignatius of Antioch, “Letter to the Magnesians,” 10, 3, in The Epistles of St. Clement of Rome and St.  Ignatius of Antioch, ed. James Aloysius Kleist (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1946), 72.

[9] Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI), Jesus of Nazareth, Part II:  Holy Week: From the Entrance to Jerusalem to the Resurrection (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011), 311, and see all of ch. 5, pp. 103-144. See also Louis Bouyer, Eucharist: Theology and Spirituality of the Eucharistic Prayer (1966; Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989).

[10] In addition to the book by Bouyer already cited, see Anton Baumstark, Comparative Liturgy, rev. ed., ed. Bernard Botte, trans. F. L. Cross (1939; London: A. R. Mowbray, 1958); Luis Alonso Schoekel, Celebrating the Eucharist: Biblical Meditations (1986; Chestnut Ridge, NY: Crossroad, 1989); Seung Ai Yang, “Les repas sacrés dans le Judaisme de l’époque hellénistique” [“Sacred Meals in Judaism during the Hellentistic Age”] in Encyclopédie de l’Eucharistie, ed. Maurice Brouard (Paris: Editions du Cerf, 2000), 55-59.

[11] Didache, 9-10, vol. 6, in Ancient Christian Writers, ed. Johannes Quasten and Joseph Plumpe (New York: Paulist Press, 1946), 20-21.

[12] Council of Trent, “Decree on the Most Holy Eucharist,” 1, in Josef Neuner and Jacques Dupuis, The Christian Faith in the Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church, 7th ed., ed. Jacques Dupuis (New York: Alba House, 2001), 617. See also Denziger, Enchiridion symbolorum, #1636, 393.

[13] Augustine, De civitate Dei, X, 6 (CCL 47, 279): “In ea re quam offert, ipsa offertur.” The City of God against the Pagans, X, 6, trans. Henry Bettenson, rev. ed. (New York: Penguin Classics, 2003), 380.

[14] Augustine, “Sermon 272” (PL 38, 1247-1248), in Sermons on the Liturgical Seasons 230-272-B , part 3, vol. 7, The Works of Saint Augustine, ed. John E. Rotelle(Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1993), 297-298.

[15] Didache, IX, 4.