In South Africa, and in most dioceses in America, today we celebrate the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, one of my most beloved Church holidays of the year. The profound mystery of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is a well-loved truth in the Dominican Order, so much that we often begin the Divine Office by praying the prayer O Sacrum Convivium before the tabernacle in our churches.
This feast reminds me of another experience I’ve had at Mass. I’ve attended the Ge’ez, or Ethiopian rite, Divine Liturgy (Mass) only a few times. Each time I was impressed by the unique part of their Eucharistic liturgy which, as far as I can tell, is only found in the Ethiopian Mass (UPDATE: I was wrong. Not surprisingly, this rite is also found in the Coptic Orthodox Liturgy, from whom the Ethiopians got their rite. Sorry for the misleading statement!). I don’t know of any Eucharistic controversies which happened in medieval Ethiopia, which makes it all the more surprising that they have the following elaborate ritual which precedes the Communion of the faithful. If anything, this rite witnesses to the unbroken tradition of the Christian religion (prior to the Protestants) of understanding the sacrament of the Eucharist as making Christ really present under the appearances of bread and wine. The primitive Ethiopian rite canon (the Eucharistic Prayer) – the Anaphora of the Apostles – describes what the Eucharist is in the following way, immediately preceding communion:
97. Deacon : Arise for prayer.
People : Lord have mercy upon us.
Priest : Peace be unto all of you. People : And with your spirit.
98. Priest : This (pointing) is the true
holy body of our Lord, God, and Saviour
Jesus Christ, that is given for life, salvation,
remission of sin unto them that receive of it
People : Amen.
99. Priest : This (pointing) is the true
precious blood of our Lord, God, and
Saviour Jesus Christ, which is given for
life, salvation, and remission of sins into
those who drink of it in faith.
People : Amen.
100. Priest : For this (pointing) is the
body and blood of Emmanuel our very
People : Amen.
101. Priest :
I believe, I believe I believe and I confess, unto my last breath,
that this (pointing) is the body and blood of
our Lord, God, and Saviour Jesus Christ,
which He took from the Lady of us all, the
holy Mary of twofold virginity, and made it
one with His godhead without mixture or
confusion, without division or alteration;
and He verily confessed with a good
testimony in the days of Pontius Pilate, and
this body He gave up for our sakes and for
the life of us all.
People : Amen.
102. Priest :
I believe, I believe. I believe and I confess that His godhead was
not separated from His manhood, not for an
hour nor for the twinkling of an eye, but He
gave it up for our sakes for life, salvation,
and remission of sin unto them that partake
of it in faith.
People : Amen.
103. Priest : I believe, I believe, I believe and I confess that this (pointing) is the body and blood of our
Lord, God, and Saviour Jesus Christ, and
that to Him are rightly due honour and
glory and adoration with His kind heavenly
Father and the Holy Spirit, the life-giver,
both now and ever and unto the ages of
[The rubrics above do not indicate it, but the priest begins to strike the chalice with the communion spoon, causing a “dinging” sound, during #99. One word: Awesome.]
It is a perfect Corpus Christi meditation on the nature of the Eucharist. We should not partake of Holy Communion lightly, but should prepare by fasting, prayer, and intense repentance.
The Eucharist is the centerpiece of our Catholic faith. In the Eucharist is summed up the entire Catholic religion.
It makes clear that Christ came to establish the Kingdom of God – the Church – and to make men part of His mystical body. It makes it clear that this Church is a visible institution that mediates the Word of God to us, as the priest or bishop teaches the flock; it expresses the entire hierarchy as the governing, teaching, and sanctifying structure through their roles in the Divine Liturgy – each person in Holy Orders has a different part to play at Mass, from the Cantor to the Bishop.
The Eucharist mirrors heaven for us in its rites. It makes present the sacrifice of Calvary and brings us the fruit of that sacrifice – the grace of the Resurrection. Thus, even the dead have a part at the Altar of God, both the saints in heaven and those who have passed into a place of purgation; in the Eastern rites, this is made much more explicit by setting aside parts of the Host for each dead person for whom the Mass is being offered, as well as Hosts for each of the symbolic choirs of saints in heaven (and one large Host, bigger than the others, for the Blessed Virgin Mary).
The grades of penance in the early Church were visible levels of exclusion from the Eucharistic sacrifice – if you committed a mortal sin, you would have to be excluded visibly into the back of the nave or vestibule until the priest reconciled you to the Church. Only after the priest or bishop’s absolution and a period of visible penance could you be readmitted to even see the Host, let alone take Holy Communion. It should give us a greater appreciation both for the sanctity of the Mass itself as well as for the great opportunity we have in having the Sacrament of Penance offered so regularly and freely in today’s Latin rite Catholic Church.
The church building is built, even, to symbolize the spiritual life:
The vestible is the purgative way; dark and isolated, a place of penance for sin, by which – through asceticism – we advance to the next stage of spiritual growth. It is for this reason that the baptistry is often near the vestibule in the back of the church, as that sacrament of baptism is the gateway to the rest of the Christian life and freedom from sin. We move through the doors – the dark night of the senses – into the illuminative way.
The nave, or center of the church, is the illuminative way. It is often lit brightly to illustrate this. It is also the place where we often are most often, or should be, as Christians. It is the way of faith and suffering. We have moved beyond habitual sin, and especially mortal sin, to a life of practicing the heroic virtues. We try to rely less and less on spiritual consolations, taking as our only light the faith we have in Christ, despite sufferings which may come.
Lastly, the apse or sanctuary symbolizes the unitive way. Here we are united in a spiritual marriage to our God. It occurs by passing through the gate of the Cross – the dark night of the soul – and entails a detachment even from spiritual consolations. We are only concerned with loving God for His own sake, rather than for any consolation He gives us. In fact, we now strive only for suffering, self-sacrifice, and hardship for the sake of Christ. The great saints have achieved this level of spiritual development during their life on earth. And the whole movement culminates toward the Eucharist, which makes heaven present to us here even on earth; it was for that reason that for these great saints found so much joy in attending Mass!
There is so much to say, but I hope this illustrates at least some of the richness of the feast we celebrate today.
Yours in Christ,
Br. James Dominic, OP