Saturday, December 24, 2005

The Incarnation and the Mass [excerpt]

[An excerpt from an address prepared by Father Michael Hull for a Dec. 14 videoconference of leading theologians. The Vatican Congregation for Clergy organized the videoconference, whose theme focused on the Incarnation and the priesthood. To read the entire address, see Zenit article "The Incarnation and the Mass"]

It is during the Mass that the priest invokes the Holy Spirit to transform ordinary bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. The outward appearances, the accidents, of bread and wine remain the same, but the substance has been transubstantiated. It is through the holy Eucharist, the fruit of the Mass, that mankind continues to share in the divine life opened up for him by Jesus' incarnation and paschal mystery.

The relationship between the Incarnation and the Mass is most closely seen in one's faith in Jesus the God-man and in one's faith in Jesus the Bread of Life. Stumbling blocks to one dogma are usually of a kind with stumbling blocks to the other. At the end of the day, it is a matter of faith.

Faith is most beautifully expressed at Mass when the faithful give the assent of faith with their "amens" after the Creed and reception of the Eucharist. It is at the Mass that we stand within the new Jerusalem, what St. Augustine calls "the city of God," to realize the words of the heavenly voice recorded by St. John: "Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them" (Revelation 21:3).

At no point in time is God closer to his people than in the Eucharistic sacrifice. It is the eyes of faith that see the God-man in Jesus and Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. Jesus' divinity did not prevent his physical degradation during his passion, as the Real Presence does not prevent desecration of the species or misunderstandings about the Mass. Just as there is great difficulty in accepting the incarnation, so there is great difficulty in accepting that the consecrated Host is Jesus' body, blood, soul and divinity.

The Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, like the incarnation, is a profound and mysterious truth of faith. And, like the Incarnation, it has had its share of detractors. The 16th century was the watershed for Eucharistic heresies. Whether the consubstantiation offered by Martin Luther or the various forms of symbolism offered by Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin and others, this period marks a significant departure of many Christians from the Church's traditional Eucharistic theology articulated at the Council of Trent.

However, the 16th century was hardly the beginning -­ and hardly the end -­ of doubts about the Eucharist. One of the earliest and most acute is the lack of faith among some of Jesus' first disciples.

St. John reports that Jesus said, "Truly, truly I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you" (John 6:53). The statement caused unrest among Jesus' disciples who said, "This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?" (6:60). And, even after much explanation on the part of the Lord, St. John reports: "After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him" (6:66).

To be sure, it is a hard saying, and many have drawn back and no longer go about with Jesus because of it. As with the Incarnation, the difficulty is rooted in the earthliness, the fleshiness, if you will, of the matter. It is no easy thing to accept a God who comes so close, a God who makes his very self real food and real drink for his creatures.

But that is the very thing that Jesus did at the Last Supper. The accounts of the Last Supper in the synoptic gospels (Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:14-20) point to Jesus' special wish to celebrate it with his disciples and to have his disciples celebrate it thereafter.

In Matthew, Jesus is emphatic that what they eat is his body and what they drink is his blood, which is poured out for the forgiveness of sins. In Mark, Jesus is emphatic that what they eat is his body and what they drink is his blood, which is poured out for many. In Luke, Jesus is emphatic that what they eat is his body and what they drink is his blood, and that they should continue to do so in remembrance of him.

The same scenario is recorded by St. Paul as a rite which he passed on to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 11:23-26). And St. John, though he does not record the words of institution but the washing of the feet at the Last Supper (13:1-20), renders more Eucharistic references throughout his Gospel than any of the synoptics.

It is clear from Sacred Scripture that Jesus intended to inaugurate the sacrament of the Eucharist at the Last Supper in such wise that it be carried out continually thereafter by his disciples. And that is exactly what St. Paul, like so many others in the early Church, was doing when he brought the Mass to Corinth. The Mass is Jesus' greatest legacy to the Church. It is in the Mass that we eat the bread and drink the cup and, thereby, "proclaim the Lord's death until he comes" (1 Corinthians 11:26).

Within the analogy of faith, we see how important it is to relate the Incarnation with the Eucharist, the two "moments" when God becomes so close to us by becoming one of us and by giving himself to us for food under the guise of bread and wine. It is surely no accident that a tradition arose in the Middle Ages for the priest to read John 1:1-18 at the end of Mass as an act of private devotion.

Pope St. Pius V incorporated the verses into his Missale Romanum (1570), where they became known as the "Last Gospel." Praying for a deeper understanding of the incarnation and the Mass brings us closer to Jesus, the Word made flesh, from whose "fullness have we all received, grace upon grace" (John 1:16).

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