Recent history has made us all too aware of the overwhelming effects of nuclear fission. The enormous power it can have on nature is inversely proportional to the diminutive particles in which the initial process occurs. What is discreet and hidden, what defies normal sensory perception, turns out to have awesome consequences for good or ill. Nowhere is this paradox more dramatically evident than in the case of the atomic bomb. One survivor of the Nagasaki blast said it was like the sun bursting. A transformation within a tiny particle of matter unleashed a series of massive transformations—of the atmosphere and the landscape, of history and of human lives—that we are still grappling with today.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s use of the image of nuclear fission—but in a positive sense, in order to explain the Eucharistic mystery—is contemporary and striking, and apt to convey the quiet, but immense, power of the Mass. As Christ taught it, his self-offering is “like inducing nuclear fission in the very heart of being—the victory of love over hatred, the victory of love over death. Only this intimate explosion of good conquering evil can then trigger off the series of transformations that little by little will change the world.” 1
Benedict XVI’s papal teaching was eminently Eucharistic. His words on this sacrament, in numerous homilies and discourses, and especially in the post-synodal apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis, invite constant meditation. But perhaps this Holy Father’s most profound teaching on the Eucharist was not, in fact, expressed in words. Periods of silent prayer before the monstrance during solemn exposition became a hallmark of his pontificate. One thinks, for example, of the throng at Hyde Park at the prayer vigil on the eve of the Beatification of John Henry Newman being in hushed adoration within the throbbing metropolis of London, or of the storm-drenched multitude of young people kneeling at the Eucharistic Vigil at World Youth Day in Madrid in August 2011.
Such adoration is, in itself, a powerful catechesis. “Powerful,” because the People of God united with the Successor of Peter in worship of the sacred Host, it is an icon of the Church in her deepest essence: Ecclesia de Eucharistia, the Mystical Body which is born from the Eucharistic Body. “Powerful,” because in the apparent silence, “sacred silence,” Christ communicates with each person, uniting each one with him, and with each other, in anticipation of Holy Communion, where all become one in Christ (cf. Rom 12:5). And “powerful,” because, as the Holy Father teaches, “it is precisely, through our gazing in adoration that the Lord draws us towards him, into his mystery, in order to transform us as he transforms the bread and the wine.”
Benedict XVI’s teaching on the Holy Sacrament was in clear continuity with that of his predecessor. Pope John Paul II exclaimed in his first encyclical: “Indeed, the Eucharist is the ineffable Sacrament!” Although we are certainly “incapable of grasping and translating into words what the Eucharist is in all its fullness, what is expressed by it, and what is actuated by it,” 4 it is natural to strive to deepen our understanding and expression of this mystery. The Eucharist as the sacrament of “transformations” might be seen as an example of such an effort. Benedict XVI presented the panorama of a great wave of saving transformations, flowing through souls and history, to draw all things in Christ, by the Holy Spirit, to the Father. This is the great movement of Redemption, sweeping through the world by means of the Church, and culminating in the recapitulation of all things in Christ, “the heir of all things” (Heb 1:2).
“From Christ’s heart, from his ‘Eucharistic prayer’ on the eve of his passion, flows that dynamism which transforms reality in its cosmic, human, and historical dimensions,” taught Benedict. By lovingly embracing his passion, Christ effects the initial and fundamental transformation which turns violence into love, injustice into self-offering, and death into eternal life. This “substantial transformation” initiates a succession of transformations for the good, which reverberate through history, culminating in the definitive triumph of love at the end of time.
The description of the Eucharist as an inexorable tidal movement of goodness, which will come to beach on the shores of “the new heavens and the new earth” (Rv 21:1), serves to highlight the oneness of the mystery of salvation. Incarnation, Redemption, the Church, and the Eucharist are all “telescoped together” in this vision which stretches into the Last Things (Eschatology). “Yes,” the pope preaches, “it is about transformation—of the new man and the new worlds that find their origin in the bread that is consecrated, transformed, transubstantiated.” The notion of the sacrament of transformation thus illumines the eschatological dimension of the Eucharist in a particular way.
This vision, which already figured in the theological writings of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, entered the teaching of the Church in the pope’s preaching, and especially in paragraph of the Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis “on the Eucharist as the source and summit of the Church’s life and mission,” which concludes with these words:
The substantial conversion of bread and wine into his body and blood introduces within creation the principle of a radical change, a sort of “nuclear fission,” to use an image familiar to us today, which penetrates to the heart of all being, a change meant to set off a process which transforms reality, a process leading ultimately to the transfiguration of the entire world, to the point where God will be all in all. (cf. 1 Cor 15:28)
The Fundamental Transformation
“Everything begins,” says Benedict XVI, “from the heart of Christ who, at the Last Supper, on the eve of his passion, thanked and praised God, and by so doing, with the power of his love, transformed the meaning of death which he was on his way to encounter.” When the Twelve arrived at the “large upper room furnished and ready” (Mk 14:15), they did not know that they were to assist at the fundamental transformation of the world which is Redemption. In the cenacle, seemingly unperceived by the world, Christ introduces a radical “newness” (novum) into the Jewish paschal supper. He brings all the sacrifices of the Old Testament to fulfillment, and establishes the new and eternal Covenant. He himself becomes the paschal Lamb (cf. Jn 1:29). “Thus, the berakhah, Israel’s prayer of blessing and thanksgiving, has become our Eucharistic celebration in which the Lord blesses our gifts—the bread and wine—to give himself in them.”
“What happened at that moment?” asks Benedict. “When he said: ‘this is my body which is given for you, this is the cup of my blood which is poured out for many,’ what happened? In this gesture Jesus was anticipating the event of Calvary. Out of love he accepted the whole passion, with its anguish and its violence, even to death on the cross. In accepting it in this manner, he changed it into an act of giving. This is the transformation which the world needs most, to redeem it from within, to open it to the dimensions of the Kingdom of Heaven.”
The sacrifice of his life, which Christ anticipates at the Last Supper, is the sacrifice of the Man-God, of the one Mediator (cf. 1 Tm 2:5). Hence, it is the infinite Sacrifice of the supreme and eternal High Priest offered “once for all” (Heb 7:27). It brings to an end all the sacrifices, inadequate palliatives, which had been offered by human beings from time immemorial. The countless inarticulate victims offered by guilt-ridden humanity are now taken up and subsumed in Christ’s deliberate and loving “yes” to the Father (cf. Lk 22:42). Thus, Christ transforms the Evil One’s “I will not serve” (cf. Jer 2:20) into a definitive act of filial love, and Adam’s disobedience, into eternal obedience (cf. Rom 5:19). In the apparent insignificance of the Upper Room, the salvation of the world is made present. In Christ, the human race says a definitive “yes” to God.
In fact, daily experience bears witness to humanity’s radical longing for the true and definitive transformation which is salvation. Even in highly secularized societies, which profess themselves indifferent to Christianity, the same thirst is constantly expressed. This is surely one of the great contradictions of self-styled “post-Christian” societies.
The same news media, that seem to “airbrush” the Gospel out of social discourse, carry an unending stream of natural disasters and dilemmas, unresolved injustices, incurable diseases. On the one hand, we seem to tacitly agree that “we don’t need salvation.” In the same breath we cry out: “We need salvation! We cannot provide it for ourselves!”
It is precisely in this context that Benedict XVI announces the only true and lasting change. His preaching of the ultimate transformation, wrought by the Eucharist, is a pastoral response to human searching: “In their hearts, people always and everywhere have somehow expected a change, a transformation of the world. Here now is the central act of transformation that alone can truly renew the world: violence is transformed into love, and death into life … All other changes remain superficial, and cannot save. For this reason, we speak of redemption: what had to happen at the most intimate level has indeed happened, and we can enter into its dynamic. Jesus can distribute his Body, because he truly gives himself.”
The Transformation of Death into Life
By his self-oblation, Christ defeats sin and its consequences. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him, we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). The transformation, whereby the Innocent One takes upon himself to “be wounded for our transgressions,” results in our being healed “by his stripes” (Is 53:5). Thus, sin is conquered, and with it, its effects, the principal one being death (cf. Rom 5:12-15). “Since this act transmutes death into love, death as such is already conquered from within, the Resurrection is already present in it. Death is, so to speak, mortally wounded, so that it can no longer have the last word,” explained Benedict XVI.
The Eucharist, therefore, makes present the radical subversion of death. The Mass is the sacrament of eternal life, and Eucharistic Communion is the “medicine of immortality” (St. Ignatius of Antioch). The transformation of death to life, effected by the Risen Lord, and made available to all in the Blessed Sacrament, was promised as such in Christ’s discourse in the synagogue of Capernaum: “I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of the bread, he will live forever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh … 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; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (Jn 6:51.53-54).
Thus, it is that death, the ultimate philosophical question, and the inescapable existential quandary, for every human being, is transformed from within. The Savior, like us in everything except sin (cf. Heb 4:15), has assumed death, since “what God has not assumed, God has not saved” (St. Gregory of Nyssa). In so doing, death has been transformed into a participation in his Resurrection (cf. 1 Cor 15:20). The paradoxical nature of the Cross is apparent here. This is the paradox, full of Eucharistic resonances, solemnly proclaimed by Christ in John 12:24: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
In a letter to his son, the writer, J.R.R. Tolkien, seems to express this saving “contradiction” of the Eucharist in existential terms: “Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament. … There you will find romance, glory, honor, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves on earth, and more than that: Death—by the divine paradox, that which ends life, and demands the surrender of all, and yet by the taste (or foretaste) of which alone, can, what you seek in your earthly relationships (love, faithfulness, joy), be maintained, or take on that complexion of reality, of eternal endurance, which every man’s heart desires.”
The Transformation of the Bread and Wine
The “next” transformation is the miracle of transubstantiation: “This first fundamental transformation of violence into love, of death into life, brings other changes in its wake. Bread and wine become his Body and Blood,” says Benedict. As a divine-human action, Christ’s self-offering on the Cross is both an historical event occurring at a particular moment in time (“under Pontius Pilate”), and an event which transcends time. As St. John Paul II expressed it, in his final encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia: “This sacrifice is so decisive for the salvation of the human race, that Jesus Christ offered it, and returned to the Father, only after he had left us a means of sharing in it, as if we had been present there.”
At the consecration, the earthly elements of bread and wine are substantially transformed into the Body and Blood of the Lord, and his saving Oblation is made present. Under the humble appearances (species) of bread and wine, Christ—whole and entire—is truly with us. The transformation, which is the Eucharistic Sacrifice, is the nerve-center of the Church, the secret of her unquenchable vitality, in spite of her “sorrows and challenges from within and from without”. No greater event can take place in the world—any and every day. No cosmic upheaval, no economic or political watershed, is in anyway comparable to what takes place on the humblest Catholic altar. What indeed could compare with the Eucharist, which Benedict XVI acclaims as “the most precious treasure of the Church and of humanity”?
If the God “who is” (cf. Ex 3:14) becomes truly present at each Mass, then at every Eucharistic celebration, we plumb the very depths of Being. The words of Sirach 43:27 come to mind in this context: “Though we speak much, we cannot reach the end, and the sum of all our words is: ‘He is the all.’” At the consecration, we experience, again and again, that his Name and his Nature are truly “Emmanuel, God-with-us” (Is 7:14; Mt 1:23). “Jesus makes himself our travelling companion in the Eucharist, and the Eucharist … induces ‘nuclear fission’ in the heart of being,” said the pope. The Supreme Being does not disdain contingent being. God has, in no way, retreated from his creation. On the contrary, he constantly enters into the world through the transformation of the gifts at the consecration of the Mass. Creation, Incarnation, and Recapitulation together form the one saving plan. The notion of the Eucharist as a series of redemptive transformations, ultimately reuniting all things in Christ (cf. Eph 1:10), mirrors the “exitus reditus” dynamic favored by St. Thomas Aquinas in his presentation of salvation history.
The Transformation of Each of the Faithful
The earthly offerings of bread and wine have been transformed into Christ Jesus. But, “it must not stop there,” taught Benedict, “on the contrary, the process of transformation must now gather momentum. The Body and Blood of Christ are given to us so that we ourselves will be transformed in our turn. We are to become the Body of Christ, his own Flesh and Blood.” In other words, the sacrifice/sacrament is at once a presence/sacrament and a communion/sacrament The Lord, who embraces death so as to annul it (cf. 1 Cor 15:55), makes his life-giving sacrifice present so as to communicate to us its fruits.
“The ultimate purpose of Eucharistic transformation is our own transformation in communion with Christ.” He has not left us desolate, he comes to us, and because he lives, we live also (cf. Jn 14:18-19). “Intimate and persevering sacramental communion with the Body and Blood of Christ brings about a profound transformation of the person. The fruit of this inner process, which involves the whole person, is what the Apostle Paul wrote to the Philippians: ‘Mihi vivere Christus est’ (‘To me, to live is Christ’) (Phil 1:21).”
In receiving Christ in Holy Communion, we are each transformed by grace. The individual Christian’s baptismal assimilation to Christ is renewed and intensified. Holy Communion must be seen in the context of each Catholic’s progressive identification with Christ by the work of the Holy Spirit. Participation in the sacrifice of the Mass, especially with Communion, enables each of the baptized to “appropriate” Christ’s saving transformation, and become “divinized” by grace. This was the panorama sketched by the pope at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper in 2008:
Through Jesus’ love the Cross becomes metabasis, a transformation from being human into being a sharer in God’s glory. He involves us all in this transformation, drawing us into the transforming power of his love to the point that, in our being with him, our life becomes a “‘passage,” a transformation. Thus, we receive redemption, becoming sharers in eternal love, a condition for which we strive throughout our life.
The Transformation of Individuals into God’s Church
Our transformation is not purely personal, however. All who communicate with Christ’s Body become one in him. “The Real Presence of Christ makes each of us his ‘house’ and all together we form his Church.” All who communicate with Christ’s Body become one in him. The Eucharist is the sacrament “in which the Lord gives us his Body and transforms us into his Body.” To receive Christ’s Eucharistic Body is to become his Mystical Body. This is the transformation so often explained by St. Paul, and summed up in 1 Corinthians 10:17: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” This expression does not allude to mere table fellowship. Nor is it simply a sociological bond born of everyone doing the same thing.
This dynamic of Eucharistic Communion is explained by Pope Benedict XVI in his 2011 Corpus Christi homily with reference to a sort of vision St. Augustine had “in which Jesus said to him: ‘I am the food of strong men; grow and you shall feed on me; nor shall you change me, like the food of your flesh, into yourself, but you shall be changed into my likeness’ (Confessions, vii, 10, 18).
Therefore, whereas food for the body is assimilated by our organism, and contributes to nourishing it, in the case of the Eucharist it is a different Bread: it is not we who assimilate it, but it assimilates us into itself, so that we become conformed to Jesus Christ, a member of his Body, one with him. This passage is crucial. In fact, precisely because it is Christ who, in Eucharistic communion, changes us into him, our individuality, in this encounter, is opened, liberated from its egocentrism, and inserted into the Person of Jesus who, in his turn, is immersed in Trinitarian communion. The Eucharist, therefore, while it unites us to Christ, also opens us to others, makes us members of one another: we are no longer divided, but one in him. Eucharistic communion not only unites me to the person I have beside me, and with whom I may not even be on good terms, but also to our distant brethren in every part of the world.”
By Holy Communion, then, we are not transformed into Christ only as individuals. Communion with God is inseparable from communion with one another. The entire Church, therefore, is present at every Eucharistic Celebration. Indeed, gathered around the altar, “the Church of living stones builds herself up, in truth and love, and is molded interiorly by the Holy Spirit, transforming herself into what she receives, conforming herself ever more to her Lord Jesus Christ.” Through the Eucharist, humanity becomes God’s People. From isolated individuals, we become “fellow citizens with the saints, and members of the household of God” (Eph 2:19). The “local” Mass is then a window into eternity, an intimate communion with the Lord, and with all who are his, of every time and place.
The Transformation of the World
The transformation, which gives rise to the Church, does not produce a self-enclosed communion. On the contrary, as the Holy Father indefatigably taught, all who are truly united to Christ are drawn into his “being for others.” Thus, believers’ communion with Christ—as individuals and as his People—brings about a transformation of the world around them. Better said, Christ transforms the world through his living members. With Christ, the faithful become channels of sanctification in the world (cf. Jn 7:38). As branches grafted onto the vine (cf. Jn 15:1-5), Christians sanctify their daily lives in the middle of the world, in a constant exercise of the common priesthood. Those who receive the Bread of Life become the living leaven of Christ for everyone around them, thereby exercising the universal call to the apostolate which is inseparable from the essentially missionary nature of the Church.
The Eucharistic “essence” of the New Evangelization is thus also conveyed by the nuclear image. From the sacrament of his Passion, the grace to renew humanity and creation can “radiate” throughout every culture and epoch. In so far as the apostolic efforts of the faithful are rooted in the Eucharistic Sacrifice, they will participate in the saving efficacy of the paschal mystery. Indeed, as the pope said at the end of the Year of the Eucharist, “how very significant is the bond between the Church’s mission, and the Eucharist. In fact, missionary and evangelizing action is the apostolic diffusion of love that is, as it were, concentrated in the Most Blessed Sacrament.” This is also why social renewal is inseparable from the Eucharist. “The profound sense of the Church’s social presence derives from the Eucharist, as is testified by the great social saints who were always great Eucharistic souls.”
Through the Eucharist, the faithful become “Christ-bearers” (St. Ignatius of Antioch). By their union with the divine Guest, they transform the world through the sanctification of their daily work and relationships, their love for others, and efforts to improve society. The Eucharist sets in motion a series of saving transformations. “The presence in our midst of the Creator, who gives himself into our hands, and transforms us as he transforms the bread and wine, thus transforms the world.” The Christian’s endeavor to transform society for the good is powered by, and shares in, the fundamental transformation, which is Redemption. In this way, the Eucharist is indeed “mystery of faith, and source of the new evangelization.”
The Ultimate Transformation
These “waves” of transformation all tend towards the mature fruit of Christ’s paschal mystery, namely, the definitive renewal of humanity, and the cosmos at the end of time. The Redeemer’s sacrifice, constantly celebrated “until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26), is the presage and catalyst of the ultimate transformation when “God may be everything to every one” (1 Cor 15:28). Thus, the “eschatological dimension” of the Eucharist regards not only our communion with the heavenly Church in every Eucharistic celebration. Because “the Eucharist is the Sacrament in which the whole work of Redemption is concentrated,” every Mass is a straining towards, and a foretaste of, the ultimate glory of God’s Kingdom.
The Eucharist, then, is the most accurate gauge of the value and meaning of history. To evaluate global or personal events through the prism of the Mass, is to see life in the light of the final victory of Christ’s redeeming love. In other words, the Cross is the hermeneutic key for interpreting reality. In an, as yet, imperfect world, a “Eucharistic perspective” reminds us of the fact that “in everything, God works for good with those who love him” (Rom 8:28). While we are often painfully reminded that, as of now, “the whole creation groans in travail” (Rom 8:22), the Mass constantly immerses us in the final victory which crowns every suffering, which is united to Christ’s self-offering.
Any image is inadequate to express the reality of the Eucharist. That of “nuclear fission” is no exception. While the effects of nuclear fission are limited, Christ’s love is infinite. Nuclear fission can produce negative results; Christ’s sacrifice is the unlimited triumph of goodness. Nonetheless, as has been pointed out, the image of nuclear fission has a special effectiveness today. In an age profoundly influenced by scientific progress, this metaphor is accessible to all. Moreover, this simile brings to mind something entirely real and effective, while remaining invisible to our eyes. The notion of nuclear fission is apt to convey the paradox of the Eucharist: what seems small and insignificant, is really great and overwhelming.
Sometimes the first traces of the New Evangelization can seem tiny and powerless. But if our apostolate is born from the divine Sacrifice, through participation in the Mass and Holy Communion, deepened and prolonged in Eucharistic Adoration, it will certainly bear much fruit for the salvation of the world. The work of evangelization is, after all, the continuation of Christ’s mission, which has at its heart the paradox of the Cross.
The panorama unveiled by Pope Benedict XVI’s teaching on the Eucharist as the sacrament of transformations is that of the recapitulation of all things in Christ (cf. Eph 1:10). The Creator comes back to “recreate” his handiwork from within (cf. Jn 1:11). The world and humanity, which were made in and through Christ (cf. Jn 1:3; Col 1:16), and were subsequently wounded by sin, are now reconciled to the Father, through the Cross of the Son, by the action of the Holy Spirit (cf. 2 Cor 5:19). “For it was fitting that he, for whom, and by whom, all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering” (Heb 2:10). All human endeavour, history, and the cosmos are caught up in the saving action of the Crucified and Risen One, and through him, purified, reach their fulfillment. Through the Holy Eucharist, what the Lord solemnly promised, comes to pass: “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (Jn 12:32).
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