(Reading assignment: Sacramentum Caritatis 1-11, as well as Scriptures cited in these sections. Suggested: Lumen Gentium 1-8; 9; 11, 23; 48; 58.)
Introduction and Part One of the Pope’s Exhortation
To begin our look at the Holy Father “exhortation” on the Eucharist, let’s pause to notice how he organized what he wrote, and some of the key terms he uses.
After a brief introduction, he divides his work in three parts: “a mystery to be believed,” a “mystery to be celebrated,” and a “mystery to be lived.”
Why organize it this way?
We might answer, well, why not—have to organize it some way. That’s true, but I think you’ll find, as we look closer, we can see some of Pope Benedict’s thought revealed in his choice of structure.
In his introduction, he first talks about the Eucharist as “the Food of Truth.” Then he talks about the various ways, over 2,000 years, that this mystery is celebrated in the Church. Finally, he talks about a “renewed commitment to eucharistic enthusiasm and fervor in the Church” (SC 5).
This forecasts where he’s going to go.
We need to get the truth—the doctrine—of the Eucharist right, so that the Eucharist really is “Food of Truth” to us. The point here isn’t so much truth-v-error (although that’s important, and he does correct some errors), but to use the familiar words of the courtroom oath: the truth, the full truth, and nothing but the truth.
Part of the truth of the Eucharist is not only the Sacrament per se, but the celebration of the Eucharist—i.e., the Mass. (We’ll see over and over how, in referring to the Eucharist, the pope means both the sacrament, and the celebration of the sacrament, as one reality.) Benedict will have a lot to say about what is the normative way to celebrate Mass, and why we should be attentive to celebrating Mass in the right way. Again, not just about “the truth,” but also “the full truth, and nothing but the truth.”
Part Three: “a mystery to be lived”—follows naturally. If we are nourished by the truth, and if we celebrate this mystery in a “truthful” way, then we are, we might say, “pointed toward” a truthful way of life. Or, to put it another way: a true encounter with the Truth—God himself, coming to us in the Eucharist—must change us, and from that has to flow a life lived in truth.
What’s a ‘mystery’?
Notice the pope repeats the word “mystery.” By my rough count, he used the word at least 70 times! Since he emphasizes the term, let’s start with that.
We often use the word “mystery” to describe a problem to be solved. A lot of us like “mystery” movies and books, where Mrs. Marple or Columbo solves the crime.
But we mean something different with a matter of faith, where a “mystery” is a reality that extends beyond our usual way of knowing things; something we wouldn’t even know at all, unless God made it known to us. Even then, we’d never completely digest it. In the seminary, I found this explanation helpful: “a mystery is not something we can never say anything about; rather, it is something we can never say everything about.”
In Biblical Greek, it’s “musterion,” which appears 27 times in the New Testament. Most often, the “mysteries” are revealed to those who have faith: “[Jesus] said to them in reply, ‘Because knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven has been granted to you, but to them it has not been granted’” (Matt. 13:11, NAB ); “Similarly, deacons must be dignified, not deceitful, not addicted to drink, not greedy for sordid gain, holding fast to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience.” (1 Tim. 3:8-9).
When the New Testament was translated into Latin in the Fourth Century, do you know what Latin word was used, in at least some cases, to translate musterion? Sacramentum—which is our word, “sacrament”!
We might pause here and think about where the term “mystery” shows up in our practice of the Faith.
Eastern Christians, who believe in the same seven sacraments, call them “the Mysteries”
We most frequently refer to “the Paschal Mystery,” which means the coming of God in human form, his suffering, death, resurrection and ascension.
Recall what the priest may say at the beginning of Mass, the priest says, “as we prepare the celebrate these sacred mysteries…”
At one of the climactic moments of Mass, the priest says, “mysterium fidei!” We add, “Let us proclaim…” which takes away some of the force of the statement—which isn’t so much a response we offer, but what we just experienced!
The Eucharist summarizes our Faith
Pope Benedict says, at the beginning of part one: “The Eucharist is a ‘mystery of faith’ par excellence: ‘the sum and summary of our faith’” (SC 6). The first part of his exhortation—about the mystery to be believed, opens the door to everything we might want to know and encounter about Jesus Christ, the Divine Son who became man, suffered and died and rose to make atonement for our sins and to unite us to God—and all this and more, of course, we encounter in the Eucharist.
All this is pretty basic. We get that the pope wants us to focus on Jesus—the “mystery to be believed”—so what else does he want to say?
If you look at how the pope organized this first part, you can see the movement:
The Blessed Trinity and the Eucharist
The Eucharist: Jesus the true sacrificial Lamb
The Holy Spirit and the Eucharist
The Eucharist and the Church
The Eucharist and the Sacraments
(Then he has several sections focusing on the various sacraments)
The Eucharist and Eschatology
The Eucharist and the Virgin Mary
Now, look at the list of topics I just gave. Notice something?
What if I rephrased what the pope wrote in the following terms:
“We believe in God the Father…” “We believe in Jesus Christ…” “We believe in the Holy Spirit…” “We believe in one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church…”
You think of the Nicene Creed, we profess at Mass, don’t you? Recall how the Creed concludes: “We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.”
We can note the parallel—between the Eucharist and the Creed—in several ways.
First, just as the pope said, the Eucharist is the “summary” of our Faith—as is the Creed.
Second, did you know the other, ancient name for the Creed? Symbolon, where we get the word, “symbol.” Greek Christians still call the Creed the “Symbol”—meaning a token, with two halves, that when two people bring them together, they recognize each other.
We also sometimes call the Eucharist a “symbol,” but unfortunately, the word “symbol” is really misused in that context—people say that to diminish the Eucharist, as in: “it’s only a symbol”—so we might tense up hearing the Eucharist called a “symbol.” But in Christian theology, we often uses the term “symbol” in a much fuller sense: to mean a sign or “token” that contains and conveys the reality it signifies. Understood in that sense, we can, indeed, say the Eucharist—and all the sacraments—are “symbols.”
Just a little aside: the word sacramentum originally meant a solemn commitment, taken by oath, by Roman soldiers; later it came to refer to a mark or some other token that represented that commitment. Only later did the Church take the word, and apply it to the sacred mysteries—but knowing where the word came from, it makes sense: The sacraments—baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, et al.—are, fundamentally, about a “solemn commitment” (“the new and everlasting covenant”) God made to humanity, in Christ; they are, in a sense, “symbols” or “tokens” of that reality, except, remember, we mean that they “contain” and make present to us, that deeper reality.
Love starts in the Trinity
The pope writes, “The first element of eucharistic faith is the mystery of God himself, trinitarian love” (7). “In the Eucharist Jesus does not give us a ‘thing,’ but himself; he offers his own body and pours out his own blood. He thus gives us the totality of his life and reveals the ultimate origin of this love. He is the eternal Son, given to us by the Father.” (Ibid.).
In the Eucharist, the Divine Trinity “becomes fully a part of our human condition” (8). “God's whole life encounters us and is sacramentally shared with us. God is a perfect communion of love between Father, Son and Holy Spirit” (Ibid.).
This connects this exhortation—Sacramentum Caritatis—with his recent encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (“God is Love”): the God who is a perfect communion of love enters the world, and we have communion with him, in the Eucharist.
There it is: Mysterium Fidei!
The Triune God has come into the world he created—God became man, i.e., Jesus Christ. You can even see a certain “likeness” or parallel here: we said earlier how a sacrament—a mystery—is a kind of “breaking into” our world from God’s realm—and notice, that’s literally what happened in the Incarnation. That’s why we sometimes say Jesus—the God-Man—is the “Sacrament” of the Trinity.
We can pause here and reflect on the “first movement” of love. When we say “God is love,” that statement was always true, correct? So it was true from eternity.
So what was the very first act of God’s love toward us? Of course, it was Creation; only after humanity sinned did the next “move” of love involve Redemption—although we believe, of course, that God had that in view even before he created the Cosmos.
When I meet with couples, using ideas our late Pope John Paul gave us, I point out how their love mirrors this “communion of love” of the Trinity.
I point out: notice how God could have remained a communion of love, forever—but what did love do? It “broke out of itself,” by creating…new life, right?
How do you see that represented in your marital love? By children.
Notice this: God knew, before he created us, that we would sin; there would be trouble, and it would eventually mean he became man and suffered and died for us.
You know before you have a child, what that will involve: your children will make mistakes, cause heartache, you will have to forgive them, sacrifice for them. It’s going to be a “package deal” right?
Are you going to go ahead with it, knowing that lies ahead? You are, aren’t you?
See how your love as a couple is like that of the Blessed Trinity?
The Father Sends the Son
When the pope talks about God the Son entering the world, he again uses the word “mystery” frequently, speaking of the “mystery” of his “obedience unto death,” and above all, the “Paschal Mystery.”
So the central part—the mystery-within-the-mystery—is the Cross. The Cross is like a cross-roads, where everything comes together: God and humanity, time and eternity, the sin of Adam’s race and the radical obedience of the new Adam, the hatred of sinful man for God, and the surpassing love of God for lost humanity.
Sometimes we see people who want to focus on other parts of the Gospel—on Jesus’ teachings, or miracles. We even have some theologians who try to set aside the teaching about Jesus’ suffering and death being about atonement, making an offering for sins to redeem us.
But the pope makes clear what we’ve always believed:
In the Paschal Mystery, our deliverance from evil and death has taken place. In instituting the Eucharist, Jesus had spoken of the "new and eternal covenant" in the shedding of his blood (cf. Mt 26:28; Mk 14:24; Lk 22:20). This, the ultimate purpose of his mission, was clear from the very beginning of his public life. Indeed, when, on the banks of the Jordan, John the Baptist saw Jesus coming towards him, he cried out: "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world" (Jn 1:29). (SC 9; emphasis added.)
The Cross stands at the center. It is central to the Gospel; it is the center and apex of the life of Jesus Christ, and therefore, is the heart of our Faith. The Cross is the central event of all time and history. The Cross is the axis on which the whole of the Cosmos, the whole of history, turns.
And so, of course, the Eucharist is all about the Cross.
Again, we often focus on the relationship between the Eucharist and the “Last Supper,” and that’s correct—but the “first Mass,” as it were, begins with that Supper the night before the Lord died, and continues through the offering on Calvary, to the Resurrection and to the Ascension.
Here’s what Pope Benedict wrote about that Supper:
This leads us to reflect on the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. It took place within a ritual meal commemorating the foundational event of the people of Israel: their deliverance from slavery in Egypt. This ritual meal, which called for the sacrifice of lambs (cf. Ex 12:1-28, 43-51), was a remembrance of the past, but at the same time a prophetic remembrance, the proclamation of a deliverance yet to come. The people had come to realize that their earlier liberation was not definitive, for their history continued to be marked by slavery and sin. The remembrance of their ancient liberation thus expanded to the invocation and expectation of a yet more profound, radical, universal and definitive salvation. This is the context in which Jesus introduces the newness of his gift. In the prayer of praise, the Berakah, he does not simply thank the Father for the great events of past history, but also for his own "exaltation." In instituting the sacrament of the Eucharist, Jesus anticipates and makes present the sacrifice of the Cross and the victory of the resurrection (SC 10).
Then the pope says something that may surprise you: “Jesus thus brings his own radical novum to the ancient Hebrew sacrificial meal. For us Christians, that meal no longer need be repeated” (11).
The Mass is not a repetition of that meal. “The remembrance of his perfect gift consists not in the mere repetition of the Last Supper, but in the Eucharist itself, that is, in the radical newness of Christian worship. In this way, Jesus left us the task of entering into his ‘hour.’ ‘The Eucharist draws us into Jesus' act of self-oblation’” (Ibid.). Note that: the Eucharist—again, meaning both the sacrament and the Mass—draw us into “Jesus’ act of self-oblation”—meaning the Cross, and the offering that follows after the Cross.
What do I mean by the “offering that follows the Cross”?
Remember what our Lord said to Mary Magdalene when she saw him on that first Easter, after his resurrection? “Jesus said to her, ‘Stop holding on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and tell them, “I am going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God”’” (John 20:9-10). Forty days after the Resurrection, Jesus ascended to the Father, where he continually makes intercession for us.
We need to understand that the offering Christ made for the world is an event that escapes the boundaries of time and space. The pope says, Jesus “reveals that he himself is the true sacrificial lamb, destined in the Father's plan from the foundation of the world, as we read in The First Letter of Peter (cf. 1:18-20). By placing his gift in this context, Jesus shows the salvific meaning of his death and resurrection, a mystery which renews history and the whole cosmos” (SC 10).
The pope has some very interesting ideas and expressions here:
“The Eucharist draws us into Jesus' act of self-oblation. More than just statically receiving the incarnate Logos, we enter into the very dynamic of his self-giving.” Jesus “draws us into himself.” The substantial conversion of bread and wine into his body and blood introduces within creation the principle of a radical change, a sort of “nuclear fission,” to use an image familiar to us today, which penetrates to the heart of all being, a change meant to set off a process which transforms reality, a process leading ultimately to the transfiguration of the entire world, to the point where God will be all in all (cf. 1 Cor 15:28). (SC 11, emphasis added.)
All that is pretty overwhelming, but remember this all started with our looking at how the Eucharist brings us into the life of God who is a Trinity of Persons. So: we’ve seen, the Father sends the Son; the supreme and definitive act of the Son is radical obedience and self-offering, his suffering-death-resurrection; so the next phase is the Gift of the Holy Spirit.
Before we make the next move, to the Holy Spirit, we might pause and try to digest what we’ve already looked at.
What images or ideas from the pope’s letter are most striking to you?
What ideas or questions do they prompt?
The pope chose to title this, Sacrament of Love—from what we’ve looked at thus far, what does that convey to you? What are some things you think he is emphasizing?
And, then, we might try to guess what we’ll talk about next; what might the holy father emphasize? What might we emphasize, if we were writing this, or giving this talk?
Next session reading assignment: SC 12-33, as well as Scriptures cited.