I AM THE LIVING BREAD WHO COMES DOWN FROM HEAVEN. IF ANYONE EATS OF THIS BREAD, HE WILL LIVE FOREVER(John 6: 51). That the primitive Church took on its form through the communal celebration of the Eucharist along with the word is already asserted in the Acts of the Apostles. "They were persevering in the teaching of the apostles, and in communion, and in the breaking of the bread and in the prayers (2: 42)." While they came together in the temple to pray, united in heart and mind, the practice of eating together and of breaking the bread of the Lord, took place daily, in private homes and in a spirit of rejoicing, as Luke is careful to record.. "Every day they persevered with one accord in the temple, breaking bread house by house, sharing meals with rejoicing and in simplicity of heart, giving praise to God and being held in honor by all the people (2: 46, 47)."
From that time to the present, the Eucharist has held its place at the center of the communion of the faithful. That Jesus himself intended that this sacrament should be central in the spiritual life of the faithful in their relation to him and among themselves is implied already on the very day of his resurrection. The sign he gave to his disciples who had not recognized him on the way: "And behold, two of them were going on that very day to a village located some seventy stadia from Jerusalem whose name was Emmaus... and they recognized him in the breaking of the bread (Luke 24: 13...35)." In fact, already during his life time, our Lord made extraordinary promises associated with the Eucharist that were to guarantee it a most prominent honor and assured its regular use. "I am the bread of life", St. John recorded Jesus as saying, "whoever eats this bread shall not die. I am the living bread that has come down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever (6: 49, 51)." These are powerful words, obviously calculated to instill in the hearts of all who believe in them an ardent desire to receive the Eucharist and to open oneself to its grace.
Not surprisingly, then, there is continuous witness to the prominence of the Eucharist in the life of the Church through the centuries. .(Cf. Le Dictionaire de SpiritualitéIV.2, s.v. Eucharistie which I use rather freely in part.) Already, in the late first century the Didache describes the practice in terms that bring out its role in maintaining the unity of the Church. The form it took at this period reveals how it remained rooted in the Jewish ritual meal that was its original context. The celebration of the Eucharist was, in fact, associated with a fraternal meal which was called an agape'. Not long after, in the mid-second century, St. Justin also gives prominence to the Eucharistic devotion of the Church and makes a point of presenting it as a memorial of the sacrifice of the great priest, Jesus Christ, as well as an act of thanksgiving. By his death on the cross Christ founded "the high priesthood" of the faithful.
As time went on the Church Fathers gave much attention to witnessing to the grace of this sacrament. St. Ignatius of Antioch had a particularly keen appreciation of the power of this source of grace and refers to it more than once on his way to martyrdom. "You unite together in one faith... and break one bread who is the medicine of immortality, the antidote preventing death, and bestowing life in Jesus Christ forever ( Ignace D'Antioche, Lettres: Aux Ephesiens 20.2, S.C. Paris 1958, 90)." Obviously, the Eucharist does not prevent physical death, as Ignatius knew very well, having written these words on his way to a violent death in Rome. It is the second death of which the Apocalypse tells that the Eucharist prevents in those who approach it with faith in the Lord Jesus.
Those who put their faith in Christ will experience a fulfillment of promises made by Jesus in the Last Supper Discourse, according to St. Cyril of Alexandria. And since John earlier reported that Jesus had made faith in the Eucharist a test case for faith in his person, the fulfillment of those promises is associated with the reception of this sacrament.To those who have been granted divine charity God has promised to give a bright reward and to crown them with gifts beyond reckoning. "I will show myself to them", he says. Pure will be the words concerning the vision of God for the pure. Christ will shine in them through his own Spirit , enlightening them in everything appropriate and with ineffable lights reveal himself openly to their spirit. Those who have once chosen him are blessed and distinguished. (In Joannis Evangelium X, PG 74: 285B).
This opinion was taken up by later writers endowed with mystical gifts who experienced the Eucharist as a source of special graces of union with our Lord. Contributing to the development of the theology of this sacrament was the English Cistercian abbot Baldwin of Ford.. He stressed the mass as a sacrifice. It expresses the same attitudes that Christ displayed at the Last Supper and on Calvary. Baldwin gave expression to an insight that advanced the understanding of sacrifice and so of the Eucharist when he affirmed that our Lord's self sacrifice was "a work of love, produced by love" (Baudouin de Ford: Le Sacrament de l'Autel, S.C. 93 Paris 1963, p. 36). Fr. Jean Leclercq, in the Introduction to this edition of Baldwin's work (p. 44), points out that St. Thomas Aquinas cited this statement, word for word in his treatment of the Eucharist, and thus adopted an insight that grew out of monastic experience and reflection, thereby bringing it into the academic realm of scholastic theology. Being a work of love, the sacrament of the altar stirs up love for Christ and for all those who are brothers and sisters in Christ through their reception of the same sacrament. "This chalice," he writes, "is a love philter which Christ mixed with an art that is proper to him (op. cit. II.2, p. 234)." The consecration effects the transformation of the bread and wine, in order to bring about the spiritual transformation, under the influence of love, of those who eat this divine food.Therefore, he changed food into food, the bread of life into the bread of life, but the bread of transitory life into the bread of eternal life so that from the change of food into food the change of mortal life into immortal life should be believed and understood, hoped for and expected. Its purpose is that, while we are drawn by the changes of time to death, we should not fear death that changes us for the better because "our hope is full of immortality (Wisdom 3: 4)...." The food permitted us can only defer death unless it is changed by the blessing which takes death away. (op. cit. II.1 p. 212, 214)."
Viewing the Eucharist with this understanding of its meaning Baldwin repeatedly speaks of stupor et admiratio, astonishment and admiration. These dispositions of the soul arise from a consideration of the words and actions of Christ and a tasting of the sweetness of his presence through love. These states of soul give rise to ascetic practice that seeks to further purify the heart, to mystical experience (op. cit., 47), and to an enhanced desire for heaven where we can enjoy the full knowledge and love of the Lord. This loving knowledge is the fruit of a strong faith. Not by accident does St. John in the long discourse on the bread of life write at length on faith and present Jesus as insisting on belief that he will give his body and blood as food and drink that bestow eternal life. To remain a follower of Jesus it is essential to accept this teaching in full faith. The abbot of Ford sums up the role of faith as conceived by St. John in a brief compass.This is the resumé of our faith: to know the Christ in the Father, Christ in the flesh, Christ in the communion of the altar. All the mysteries of faith are brought together there; all that is written in the Law, the Psalms and the prophets has but one purpose: to make Christ known and loved. The one, therefore, who, justified by faith, has worthy, pious and faithful thoughts concerning the mystery of unity, the mystery of union, and the mystery of communion, he is the one who eats the bread of angels that is in heaven (op. cit. .3, p. 270).
We should remark that Cistercian abbots, such as William of St. Thierry, Baldwin of Ford, and Isaac of Stella (cf. Liturgy vol 2.#3)should have written treatises on the Eucharist that grew out of their monastic prayer and meditation prior to the institution of a liturgical feast in honor of this sacrament. They understood its particular grace and the central role played by this sacrament in the life of prayer and contemplation. William found it necessary to attempt a synthesis of the true doctrine for, as he remarked, the doctrine found in the writingsof the Fathers, for various reasons, was often unclear and even at times seemingly contradictory. It required considerable effort, he found, properly to ascertain their teaching and the true Catholic doctrine (cf. De Sacramento Altaris XI and XII, PL 180: 259- 362). It was only a century and more after William's death that the Feast of Corpus Christi was first celebrated. Interestingly that took place in his native city of Liege, and was due to the private revelations made to an Augustinian Abbess, Julienne de Mont-Cornillon. She met with a great deal of opposition at first, but when the local Bishop and then the Papal Legate supported her and gave official approval, the feast was celebrated locally. Not long after, in 1264, Pope Urban IV established it as a Feast for the universal Church. It was adopted by the Cistercians about the year 1318.
Following the official approval by the Pope, there was a continuing development of liturgical expression of devotion to this sacrament. An octave of the feast was established in 1317 so that it was considered one of the major liturgical celebrations of the Church year. Processions in honor of the sacrament were incorporated into the liturgy and the laity took prominent parts in these increasingly elaborate and public displays of devotion. Another expression of Eucharistic piety was the elevation of the host following the consecration. The Cistercian were among the first to cultivate this practice, already incorporating it in their rite before 1210 A.D. This gave rise before long to the further practice of Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, which began in this same 13th century. Any number of other forms of devotion to this Sacrament have since evolved including the International Eucharistic Congresses the first of which was held at Lille, France in 1881.
Many mystics have written about the role of the Eucharist in the life of contemplative prayer and experience. This is, surely, what is of the chief concern to us today. St. Bonaventure, who wrote a book on the Eucharist, followed up the line of thought traced out by Abbot Baldwin of Ford when he assimilated it to the love that unites us directly to God. He sees Christ immolated in the host most immediately present "not as it were by viewing him but by a certain experience." There have been a long series of contemplative saints who, like Jean Gerson (+1429) maintained that "Such mystical reception is very greatly nourished and strengthened by the worthy reception of the sacrament of the blessed Eucharist."( cited in D.S., art. cit., 1602). In order for us to profit from this reception of Christ's body and blood and from the proximity of his person we must enter the deep places of our heart and there, in faith, pass from the outer signs to his divine person. Such exposure of our most intimate self to the person of the glorified Lord Jesus who comes to us in love, becomes a source of healing, of increased confidence in his personal love for us and so enhances our desire to serve him faithfully. More, we experience the need to walk with him, remaining in his presence and so strive more consistently and with greater attentiveness to rid ourselves of all that distracts us from this fundamental task. In the light of his presence we soon discover those things and relationships that attach us to other matters and are urged to take on the labor of freeing ourselves from such attachments.
Let us make it an important part of our every day to spend time in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, especially after communion, engaged in the contemplative adoration of the mysteries of our Lord's life and person. The graces he intends us to receive from this sacrament will contribute mightily to the great undertaking that we as monks, along with all dedicated faithful, are called to: the transformation of our whole being into children of God, members of his household because we have been refashioned in the image of his beloved Son. It is this very Son who, having died for us on the cross, continues to intercede for us daily in the sacrifice of the mass, and unites himself to us in his risen body in the communion that completes the sacrificial offering. William of St. Thierry tells us that: "Everything the Redeemer did in the flesh he performed for this purpose, that he might be loved by us." (op. cit., V PL 180 351) This is nowhere more evident than in the sacrament of the Eucharist in which he gives us all he is, his very person in his glorified body. Hidden to our bodily eyes but revealed to loving faith.
Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
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