ON THE SACRED LITURGY
SOLEMNLY PROMULGATED BY
POPE PAUL VI
ON DECEMBER 4, 1963
47. At the Last Supper, on the night when He was betrayed, our Saviour instituted the eucharistic sacrifice of His Body and Blood. He did this in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the Cross throughout the centuries until He should come again, and so to entrust to His beloved spouse, the Church, a memorial of His death and resurrection: a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity , a paschal banquet in which Christ is eaten, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us .
Paragraph 47 opens a segment of Sacrosanctum Concilium devoted exclusively to the Mass, Section 2, “The Most Sacred Mystery of the Eucharist.” Although previous Saturday posts have devoted much ink to the Eucharist, the general principles under discussion (Section 1) applied to all seven sacraments and public prayer. Future segments will include “The Other Sacraments and the Sacramentals;” (4) The Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours; (5) The Liturgical Calendar; (6) Sacred Music; and (7) Sacred Art and Sacred Furnishings. (And you thought there was nothing more to say about music after last week’s post?)
Today’s entry from the Council is moving and profound. It takes us to the heart of why we gather on the Lord’s Day and the hopes and dreams of what we might experience. The two footnotes are drawn from St. Augustine’s Commentary on St. John and an antiphon from Vespers on the Feast of Corpus Christi, respectively, both sources taking us back many centuries as a reminder that the breaking of the bread has always stood at the center of Christian life. Even Martin Luther never denied the centrality of the Eucharist and claimed it to be one of the two sacraments actually instituted by the direct command of Christ in the Bible. His differences with Catholic doctrine on the nature of communion bread and wine is more a matter of late medieval semantics than essential denial of the sacrament’s reality.
The Church has always identified the origin of the Eucharist with the Last Supper. While there is some conflict in the Gospels about whether the Last Supper was the Passover Supper or was celebrated one night earlier, as St. John writes, the “Passover intent” of Jesus (my term) has never been in doubt. The Jewish Passover was the ultimate redemptive feast, its origin described powerfully in Exodus 12. In Jewish thought, to “memorialize” or reenact was not simply an exercise of historical recall, although retelling the story accurately was imperative. “Memorializing” brought the past to the present; the act of God---saving the Israelites from prolonged genocide in Egypt--becomes present and continues in fact by the annual observance of the Passover, true in Jesus’ day and true today.
The Last Supper/Passover connection binds together the full intent of para. 47. Jesus, about to die once and for all time for the sins of humanity, established a new memorial whereby his one act “becomes real again” with saving power every time the bread and cup are shared. While it is true that the consecrated food contains the living Christ, consecration is only possible in the full reenactment of word and meal, the Passover/Last Supper made real again. By way of example, a priest cannot consecrate extra hosts if he runs out during communion time—consecration must occur in its proper place in the full Eucharistic memorial. [This is a major Church law.]
What Christ has passed along in the Mass is the ongoing forgiveness and redemption won by his sacrifice. Eucharist is an undeserved gift, though it is hard at times to enter the spirit of Mass because we are plagued with “guilt deficit” or hubris. The gift that is redemption seems extraneous to a self-satisfied believer. Jews have a much greater sense of what deliverance from God is all about—they have faced real extermination at multiple times in their history, and sadly, live in the shadow of sinners who would like to accomplish Hitler’s “final solution” even here in the United States.
If our need for forgiveness is not conscious and felt, the Mass experience can degenerate into just another of the social groupings we pass through. It is no accident that the Mass opens with a penitential rite—a true absolution of sin, except for those of a grave nature that require the intervention of Penance and personal absolution. Para. 47 uses metaphors of deep feeling in describing this sacrament, phrases such as “to entrust to his beloved spouse…a sacrament of love…a sign of unity…a bond of charity…a paschal banquet….” I am particularly struck by the phrase “the mind is filled with grace.” Given that the term “grace” in Catholic theology is synonymous with the life of God shared freely, I am left struggling for an image or metaphor for “a mind filled with grace.” I can explain it dispassionately as an impact of God upon our thoughts and emotions, but I think the authors here have something more in mind.
Again, I turn to the Jewish roots of the Mass. During last summer I had the opportunity of visiting Amsterdam and the building where Anne Frank and her family hid from the Nazis. In later reading I discovered that Nazi oppression of Jews was particularly cruel in Holland, and I thought about the many years that Passovers were celebrated under Nazi occupation. Those families believed that the power of God described in Exodus was present in their midst and that their lives still carried a meaning and a hope in the mind of God. Perhaps a “mind filled with grace” is the inner sense that in my life God will sustain me through it all. Or, as para. 47 puts it, Eucharist is “a pledge of future glory,” a state of perpetual hope.