The Holy Eucharist
Source & Summit of the Christian Life
The liturgical life of the Church revolves around the sacraments, with the Eucharist at the center. At Mass, we are fed by the Word and nourished by the Body and Blood of Christ. We believe that the Risen Jesus is truly and substantially present in the Eucharist. The Eucharist is not a sign or symbol of Jesus; rather we receive Jesus Himself in and through the Eucharistic species. The priest, through the power of his ordination and the action of the Holy Spirit, transforms the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus. This is call transubstantiation.
The celebration of the Eucharist is at the heart of the life of the Church and is the source and summit of the Christian life. It is called Eucharist because it is an action of thanksgiving to God. The Greek word eucharistia recalls the Jewish blessings that proclaimed - especially during a meal - God's work of creation, redemption, and sanctification. Receiving Holy Communion worthily brings us graces that affect us both spiritually and physically. Holy Communion reinforces the ability of our free will to withstand the assaults of the devil. In a formal definition, the Church calls Holy Communion "an antidote by which we are preserved from grievous sins" (Council of Trent). Holy Communion also gives us a spiritual joy in the service of Christ, in defending His cause, in performing the duties of our state of life, and in making the sacrifices required of us in imitating the life of our Savior. On Christ's own promise, Holy Communion is a pledge of heavenly glory and of our bodily resurrection from the dead (John 6:55).
The History of the Eucharist
At the heart of the Eucharistic celebration are the bread and wine that, by the words of Christ and the invocation of the Holy Spirit, become Christ's Body and Blood. Faithful to the Lord's command, the Church continues to do, in His memory and until His glorious return, what He did on the eve of His Passion: "He took bread. . . ." "He took the cup filled with wine. . . ." The signs of bread and wine become, in a way surpassing understanding, the Body and Blood of Christ; they continue also to signify the goodness of creation. Thus in the Offertory we give thanks to the Creator for bread and wine, fruit of the "work of human hands," but above all, as "fruit of the earth" and "of the vine" - gifts of the Creator. The Church sees in the gesture of the king-priest Melchizedek, who "brought out bread and wine," a prefiguring of her own offering.
In the Old Covenant bread and wine were offered in sacrifice among the first fruits of the earth as a sign of grateful acknowledgment to the Creator. But they also received a new significance in the context of the Exodus: the unleavened bread that Israel eats every year at Passover commemorates the haste of the departure that liberated them from Egypt; the remembrance of the manna in the desert will always recall to Israel that it lives by the bread of the Word of God; their daily bread is the fruit of the promised land, the pledge of God's faithfulness to His promises. The "cup of blessing" at the end of the Jewish Passover meal adds to the festive joy of wine an eschatological dimension: the messianic expectation of the rebuilding of Jerusalem.
When Jesus instituted the Eucharist, He gave a new and definitive meaning to the blessing of the bread and the cup. By celebrating the Last Supper with His apostles in the course of the Passover meal, Jesus gave the Jewish Passover its definitive meaning. Jesus' passing over to His Father by His death and Resurrection, the new Passover, is anticipated in the Supper and celebrated in the Eucharist, which fulfills the Jewish Passover and anticipates the final Passover of the Church in the glory of the kingdom. If from the beginning Christians have celebrated the Eucharist and in a form whose substance has not changed despite the great diversity of times and liturgies, it is because we know ourselves to be bound by the command the Lord gave on the eve of His Passion: "Do this in remembrance of me." We carry out this command of the Lord by celebrating the memorial of His sacrifice. In so doing, we offer to the Father what He has Himself given us: the gifts of His creation, bread and wine which, by the power of the Holy Spirit and by the words of Christ, have become the Body and Blood of Christ. Christ is thus really and mysteriously made present. We must therefore consider the Eucharist as: thanksgiving and praise to the Father; the sacrificial memorial of Christ and his Body; the presence of Christ by the power of His word and of His Spirit.
Reception of Holy Communion
Communion is an intimate encounter with Christ, in which we sacramentally receive Christ into our bodies, that we may be more completely assimilated into His. Because of the gravity of Jesus’ teaching on receiving the Eucharist, the Church encourages Catholics to receive frequent Communion, even daily Communion if possible, and mandates reception of the Eucharist at least once a year during the Easter season.
To receive Holy Communion at Mass, one must be properly prepared (a baptized Catholic who has made First Holy Communion) and living in a state of grace. Before going to Communion, we ask God to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” For practicing Catholics who are eligible to receive Holy Communion, they must be in the state of grace; that is, if they are aware of having committed a mortal sin, they must first seek Sacramental forgiveness and absolution in Confession, then may receive Communion. Anyone who receives Communion while aware of a serious sin (e.g. missing Mass on Sunday without serious cause) commits the sin of sacrilege. Additionally, Catholics who are married outside the Catholic Church are not permitted to receive Holy Communion. In order to reconcile their marriage, they must seek the assistance of a priest or a deacon. Non-Catholics are certainly invited to participate in the celebration of the Mass but are asked to refrain from reception of Holy Communion since Communion presupposes union with the Catholic Church.
For practicing Catholics in the state of grace, they must also abide by the Eucharistic fast; this means that Catholics who will be receiving Holy Communion, must refrain from food or drink (with the exception of water) for one (1) hour before receiving Communion. Only those Catholics whose health requires frequent food or drink, or who have other serious health reasons, are exempt from this requirement. Fasting even for a brief time not only makes us hunger for food and drink, it helps us purify ourselves, turning our minds and hearts to God.
Receiving the Body & Blood of Christ
Catholics who are prepared to receive Communion and are in the state of grace, normally receive Communion on the tongue (in the United States a communicant may also receive on the hand). In order to receive Communion, we normally leave our pew and process to the front of the church. We don’t do this because it is the easiest way to receive Communion. We process towards the altar, not as a group of individuals, but as a community of believers - the Body of Christ. In the revised General Instruction of the Roman Missal it is stated that all are asked to bow the head before the Sacrament as a gesture of reverence prior to receiving the Body and the Blood of the Lord. Our bow of the head and our response of “Amen” when the minister says “The Body of Christ,” reminds us that this is anything but routine. Jesus Christ - God Made Man - feeds us with His own Body and Blood! Saint Augustine told his parishioners, "For you hear the words, 'the Body of Christ' and respond, 'Amen.' Be then a member of the Body of Christ, that your 'Amen' may be true." Our "Amen" both states our belief and commits us to become fuller members of the Body of Christ.
The way we receive Holy Communion tells much about what we believe we are doing. It is the communicant’s preference whether to receive on the tongue or in the hand. When we receive Holy Communion in the hand, the Fathers of the Church say we should present our hands like a throne to receive a king. Generally, we place one hand underneath the other to receive the Eucharist, and we use the bottom hand to pick it up from our top hand and place it in our mouth. When receiving in the hand, be sure to take one small step to the side and place the host on your tongue so that the minister of Holy Communion can see you consume the host.
Of importance to note is that when one receives only the consecrated host, one truly receives the glorified Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of our Savior, Jesus Christ. However, the Church has given approval to receiving both the consecrated bread and wine because receiving under both species gives a more complete sign of the “new and everlasting covenant” Christ has established with His bride, the Church. The practice of distributing the Precious Blood is not in any way necessary for salvation - it is a fuller sign of Holy Communion, but not a fuller reality of Christ Himself than what is received under the form of bread alone. The U.S. bishops recognize that Communion under both species is not always possible or desirable. Communion under both species is only allowed when “the faithful have been well instructed and there is no danger of the profanation of the Sacrament or that the rite would be difficult to carry out on account of the number of participants or for some other reason” (GIRM, no. 283, as cited in Norms, no. 24). In addition, the norms point out that the bishop or pastor may limit the distribution of Communion under both species in order to “avoid obscuring the role of the priest and the deacon as the ordinary ministers of Holy Communion” (Norms, no. 24).
For our Fellow Christians
We welcome our fellow Christians to this celebration of the Eucharist as our brothers and sisters. We pray that our common Baptism and the action of the Holy Spirit in this Eucharist will draw us closer to one another and begin to dispel the sad divisions which separate us. We pray that these will lessen and finally disappear, in keeping with Christ's prayer for us "that they may all be one" (Jn 17:21). Because Catholics believe that the celebration of the Eucharist is a sign of the reality of the oneness of faith, life and worship, members of those churches with whom we are not yet fully united are ordinarily not admitted to Holy Communion. Eucharistic sharing in exceptional circumstances by other Christians requires permission according to the directives of the diocesan bishop and the provisions of Canon Law (CIC 844.4). Members of the Orthodox Churches, the Assyrian Church of the East and the Polish National Catholic Church are urged to respect the discipline of their own churches. According to Roman Catholic discipline, the Code of Canon Law does not object to reception of communion by Christians of these churches (CIC 844.3). All who are not receiving Holy Communion are encouraged to express in their hearts a prayerful desire for unity with the Lord Jesus and with one another.
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