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Celebrations of Grace: The Sacraments of the Catholic Church

By Jack Hartjes

11. Thinking about Eucharist

I remember many things about the pre-Vatican II Mass. It was beautiful and devotional. I remember the way I would try to focus my mind on Jesus at special moments—like the Consecration, when Jesus became really present under the signs of bread and wine, and the Communion, when Jesus came to me personally and stayed, we were taught, as long as the form of bread remained. I remember the thin Communion wafer and trying to guess how long it would stay bread after I swallowed it without chewing.

Memory can be an exercise in nostalgia, but there is a more practical reason to think back on the details of that experience. Those details and the way they have changed with liturgical renewal show in what ways our understanding of the celebration has changed. Remembering the changes can help us notice things about today's liturgy that might otherwise be taken for granted. Finding the reasons why these things had to change can help us understand Eucharist better.

The Introductory Rites. I remember getting ready to "go to church." That part hasn't changed much except that we don't need to be as hungry as before. We used to fast from midnight on. That fast, though sometimes a burden, made a lot of sense. We valued spiritual food above material food, so making the material food wait until after Mass seemed the right thing to do. Of course, in those days we had Mass only in the morning. With today’s evening Masses, that would be an awfully long wait. Now that Communion is not always the first food of the day, the idea behind today’s Eucharistic fast is simply that Communion is necessary food; it fills a hunger. It is not something to munch on after one is full already. The one-hour fast that is today’s rule is enough to make the point.

Once inside the church, I remember the starting bell and the servers and priest entering the sanctuary from the "sacristy." That dressing room for the priest had a holier name than ours at home, and the door he used was much closer to the altar than the door that we in the pews had come through. We just took that for granted, and I suppose today people take it for granted when the priest enters church not from the sacristy but through the same door that they use. It's good to think about this change, though. It says that the Entrance Procession represents the procession of all the people from home to church. The holy work being done isn’t something we came to watch. It’s something we all do, and it has its real beginning in our homes. When we enter the church we are invited to join in a common endeavor. Sometimes greeters are assigned to this task of welcoming. More important, we all welcome each other. The priest, servers, and, perhaps, a lector and other ministers in their procession symbolize also the heavenward pilgrimage of all God's people.

The Entrance Procession is not announced by a bell but by a human voice, and the wording of this announcement is important, mostly for what it does not say. It does not say, "Please, stand to greet our celebrant with hymn number…." Since the procession represents us, it does not make sense for us to greet the priest at this point; and since we all celebrate, it would be odd to call the priest "our celebrant." There might be a word of welcome in the announcement, maybe an invitation for us to greet each other, and just something like "Our Entrance Hymn is…. Please, stand."

There is a lot of standing, sitting, and kneeling in Catholic liturgy. These gestures have meaning. Sitting is a good way to listen and think. Kneeling is a response to mystery and an expression of awe, reverence, and sometimes contrition. These two postures haven’t changed their meaning much, but standing now has acquired a meaning that it didn't have before. We always stood to show respect. In today's liturgy standing is much more than that. It is a posture for doing something—something outward and obvious like saying a prayer or singing a song or something inward and deep like making a commitment. Kneeling can also be a sign of making a commitment, as when, of old, you would kneel as your king said, “I hereby dub thee knight,” or as when a lover proposes. But when you're standing, you can respond quickly. Standing is the way we anticipate something important about to happen or something important we need to do. At liturgy we stand for the important work that needs to be done soon, and we are the only ones who can do it. We also stand to be ready for the great day that we anticipate at every Mass, the day when Jesus will come again.

The environment, the building where liturgy takes place, has changed since the Council, and most of the changes make it clearer that liturgy is the people's work. That's what liturgy was in the early Church, and if you had been there in those small gatherings, you would have seen it and felt it. I suppose the "work of the people" was not such an easy thing to see later when the gatherings got much larger and the place for worship moved from people’s homes to cathedrals. These huge worship spaces were modeled after Roman temples when the empire went from persecuting Christians to making Christianity the state religion. With the altar at the far end of the huge oblong structure, it was already so far away that most of the people couldn’t see or hear much. It might not have mattered much when the priest turned his back to the people and said his prayers in a low voice. Maybe the Communion Rail that eventually separated altar and congregation—where people came and knelt to receive Communion, but couldn't go any farther—merely wrote in stone and wood what was already written in people's perceptions: that Mass was something the priest did.  It was a work done for the people but not by the people.

Today, too, we have large gatherings for liturgy on Sunday, and when we have smaller gatherings, people still might keep their distance from the Table of the Lord. But, at least, that Table is placed where everyone can see what is happening on it. New churches are designed to keep everyone as close as possible, and the liturgy itself keeps people involved. You can tell that you're a part of the work being done, if you attend to that fact at all. But nothing good comes automatically. It's easy to be there in the back and even go through the gestures and responses and not realize how important your contribution is. Thanks to liturgical renewal, good liturgical celebrations today have a power to wake people up, gather them in, and sweep them along—if they let it happen.

Everyone stands through the Opening Rites. There is much to do—prayers, invocations, and responses. It ends with the Opening Prayer, which is everyone's action, even though it includes some silence and words that the presider alone says. The Opening Prayer gives a kind of direction or meaning to everything that has gone before, all the way back to our houses, where God began the work of gathering this people together. We make the prayer our own when we respond "Amen." Then everyone sits.

Think again:

In what ways is it clear, from the very beginning of the Mass, that this liturgy is your work, not something you came to watch? Do you feel welcomed when you come to church, and does that welcome feel like an invitation to join in a common enterprise?


The Liturgy of the Word. The first of the two main parts of the Mass is a sharing of God’s word of salvation. We sit to listen to the Word of God except that we stand for the Gospel. That ought to tell us that there is more than listening going on in the Liturgy of the Word.

Before the renewal of the Church’s liturgy, the Mass contained an Epistle and a Gospel. Today there are three readings plus a psalm, but the difference goes beyond quantity. Once Catholics were taught that they might come late to a Sunday Mass, for a good reason presumably, miss the whole first part of the Mass up to and including the sermon, and still have made their Sunday Mass obligation. Today it makes no more sense to miss the Liturgy of the Word than the other main part of the Mass, the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The sharing of the Word is a real presence of Christ.

The Liturgy of the Word is Jesus speaking to us, but it is more than hearing a message, even one that comes directly from Jesus. For those who know how things used to be, the very first clue that this is so is the language that is spoken—no longer Latin but the language of the people. With missals that translated the Latin to English, we used to read the message and understand it well enough, but today we are encouraged not to read but to watch and listen to the lector proclaim the message. Why does the way we get the message matter as long as it’s the same message? Why did the Liturgy of the Word have to change from Latin to English?

Hearing somebody tell a story draws us closer in than reading it from a book, but this obvious reason doesn't go far enough. The fact is we are already part of the story even before we hear it. These are our stories so they ought to be in our language. God's Word lives in God's people first. After that it is words that can be read and a message that can be heard. At the Liturgy of the Word we don't just hear a message; we celebrate our story in our words. And the words that come closest to our hearts are words that we hear spoken.

The Liturgy of the Eucharist doesn’t stand on its own very well. It needs the Word to help establish its whole meaning. That Word, which we get from the Bible, is about ordinary people with ordinary needs, ordinary faults and strengths, successes and tragedies—a lot like us and the things that go on in our lives—and how God works through all of them. If we go beyond the literal meaning of the Bible stories to what is called its “spiritual” sense, we find that the Bible isn’t just about people like us; it’s about us. Reading the Bible or listening to the Bible’s stories, we see how God works in our lives and we get to know what God expects of us. We take our stories with us when we go to the Bible. Similarly, we take Jesus with us when we go to Communion. With more justice we can say, in both cases, that Jesus takes us.

The lector proclaims the Word. If it is done well, it does not sound like a reading out of a book; it’s in the people's first language, the language of talking. It sounds like talk, like telling a story. It has the excitement and freshness of someone who has something to say to someone else who is eager to hear it. It is a celebration of God's Word in our lives. It is stories that we want to hear again and again, to be reminded of the message, of course, but mostly just to celebrate.

The first three parts of the Liturgy of the Word are usually a story or an instruction from the Old Testament, a Psalm, and another story or instruction from one of the letters of the New Testament. These help set the stage for the one story that makes us who we are, the Gospel story, the Good News of Jesus Christ. At this point we can no longer sit to listen. We need to stand up and be this story. It is the story that lived in us before we came to church, the story of God walking with us, wherever we are on this earth. It's why we came to celebrate, a call to be nourished by hearing someone tell us our story again but also a push from behind and within because it's the story we live.

In the past one could tell the difference between Protestant and Catholic by the Protestant emphasis on Word and the Catholic emphasis on Sacrament. Catholics almost never held a service of the Word by itself but often had sacraments, for example Baptism and Reconciliation, without any reading from the Bible. Now a celebration of the Word of God is standard with every sacrament. In the past the Liturgy of the Word seemed like a lesson meant to prepare us for the really important part of the Mass—the Communion. We had almost forgotten the part of our tradition, going back to St. Augustine and the earlier Fathers of the Church, which considered the Word of God to be a real presence and activity of Jesus. Now we think of the earthly ministry of Jesus, God’s Word, as extended to us sacramentally in the Liturgy of the Word, the same way we have always thought of the Eucharist. 

The homily that wraps up the Liturgy of the Word is its most important, and usually longest, part. It differs from the sermons we used to get, teaching us and often admonishing us. A homily is God speaking afresh in the words of the priest or deacon, showing that God's Word is not just old news but something that is living in the world today. The entire Liturgy of the Word reminds us of the part we play in God’s story and challenges, encourages, and strengthens us for this work.

Think again:

We speak of the presence of Jesus in the Liturgy of the Word. Here are some different ways of thinking about that presence: (1) I identify with words spoken and events that happened long ago; (2) I hear Jesus speaking to me today; (3) I am reminded of how Jesus works in me today. How do you experience the presence of Jesus in the Liturgy of the Word? We used to call the priest’s talk after the Gospel a sermon. What do you think is the difference between a sermon and a homily?


The Liturgy of the Eucharist. The second main part of the Liturgy begins with what we used to call the Offertory. That old name seemed to say: Now the people make their small sacrifice, offering up gifts of ordinary bread and wine and the money that goes into the collection basket; later Jesus acting through the priest will make the infinite sacrifice, putting himself at our disposal in the forms of the bread and wine. That's the way I used to see it. That picture made it harder for Catholics to understand that the only offering to God is what Jesus accomplishes. I believe that picture was commonly held for some time after Vatican II. I was present at a liturgy workshop in the mid-1970's, ten years after the council, during which the presenter asked us, "When in the Mass does the offering occur?" Priests and lay leaders alike thought it was “at the Offertory."

This is now a minor rite and it’s called "The Preparation of the Gifts," not much reduced in length because the collection takes place here, but greatly abbreviated in the prayers that are said.  Bread and wine are brought forward and placed on the table. Sometimes the table preparations are made and candles honoring the table are lit at this point instead of before liturgy. It's like the cooking and making ready we do at home before the invited guests arrive. As if to make sure that we understand that we are not the guests at this celebration, we, the people in the pews, actually get to do some of the preparations. Representatives from the community symbolize the role that all of us have by carrying the gifts of bread and wine forward to the altar. Actually, the common practice is for individuals from the community to bring the gifts near the altar. The priest and servers, with perhaps a word of thanks, receive the gifts there and carry them the rest of the way. The work of the people is not honored as well as it might be by this seemingly polite “Thanks, I’ll take it from here.”

The gifts are not offered during this preparatory rite. When the offering occurs, it is made by God the Son to the liturgy’s honored guest, God the Father. It takes place during a long prayer of praise called "The Eucharistic Prayer." It is the same sacrifice that Jesus made long ago, and in that infinite sacrifice are found all the trials of the ages beset by sin and the suffering that is a consequence of sin. It’s too easy to stress Jesus’ suffering on the cross. We have good and pleasant things as well as hardship and pain to offer. Giving itself often is one of our greatest joys. Jesus’ whole life, from birth to resurrection and ascension, not just his suffering and death, is made present at every Mass. It’s an offering to God of the entire human condition, especially of the good in it; and Jesus, better than anyone else, knew it intimately.

In the past it seemed to me that the Consecration was the most important part of the Eucharistic Prayer and of the whole Mass. The priest said the words "This is my body…. This is my blood…." and in that instant, we knew, what was ordinary bread and wine became the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus. The Consecration epitomized for me the miracle of the Mass. To emphasize this miracle and give the faithful time to think about and adore Jesus really present, the priest would hold the host and the chalice high overhead after saying the words of consecration. It was one of the few times during the Mass when we could actually see what was going on.

Today's Church believes in the miracle of Jesus' real presence, and the Consecration is one of the dramatic moments in the liturgy, but it is one of many. Jesus' being here is only part of the miracle. What matters more is what Jesus does. That gets expressed through the whole Eucharistic Prayer but especially at its ending in the "Doxology," or words of praise: "Through him, with him, in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor are yours, almighty Father, for ever and ever." This is the “Great Offering” of the Mass, Jesus’ offering and, by grace, ours too. It’s a prayer that says we give our all to God.

The meal has been prepared. The Guest of Honor has been duly honored. It's time for everyone to join in the Communion feast.

Near the beginning of the Communion Rite is “The Breaking of the Bread.” This symbol had great significance in the early Church, and it is regaining its place today. In Paul’s words, “Because the loaf of bread is one, we, many though we are, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.” (1 Corinthians 10:17)

This rite is a symbol of unity somewhat obscured by the time-honored, convenient practice of using small, mass-produced wafers (“hosts”) for the assembly with a larger host for the priest. For all practical purposes, the symbolism was lost completely in the old liturgy. Then the priest broke the large host in two halves and ate both pieces himself. It meant nothing to us except that a large host was easier to see at the Consecration and it needed to be broken before the priest could eat it. I remember Masses in which the tiny hosts that the people received had to be broken even smaller because there weren’t enough of them. This was not a symbol of anything, just a priest’s miscalculation. There was an odd rubric, with a theological meaning attached, in which the priest broke off a small piece from one of his two halves and dropped it into the chalice before consuming it, along with the sacrament in the form of wine. That meaning too was lost on the people in the pews. Unless you were a server, you couldn’t see it. In those days we learned many things about our faith from the catechism, but we never learned that in the early Church one of the common names for the entire Mass was “The Breaking of the Bread.”

Today breaking the bread and sharing it in a common meal is regaining some of its original meaningfulness. Now there is at least a token sharing of one “loaf” as a few pieces from the one larger Eucharistic bread that the priest breaks are distributed to members of the assembly. The priest consumes only one piece, just like everyone else. Some parishes have teams of unleavened bread bakers. The rite of the Breaking of the Bread is then extended as at least some of these community-made loaves are broken into small pieces for distribution to the assembly while “The Lamb of God” is sung in a kind of litany.

Parishes are getting away from the old convenient practice of storing large numbers of hosts in the tabernacle and cycling old hosts into the liturgy and newly consecrated ones back into the tabernacle. Gone also is the practice of “parachuting” priests or deacons into the liturgy at this time for the sole purpose of helping with Communion distribution. Members of the one gathering perform all the tasks that go into making the celebration. This gathering has everything that the celebration needs. Like the one bread in Paul’s letter, we are one in Christ; and Christ is sufficient for us.

A Mass is both a sacrifice and a meal. It is Jesus’ perfect offering to God on the cross made present again in an unbloody manner, and it is Jesus' nourishing us with himself as food. Theologians used to debate which of these qualities of the Mass was more important. Others could reasonably have supposed that the two must be about equal. To me it seemed that the debate was about two different parts of the Mass: Jesus' sacrifice occurred at the Consecration. The meal was, of course, the Communion. Today liturgy is both meal and sacrifice all the way through. There is little reason to argue which is more important. At three different points during the celebration we are being nourished and simultaneously are called to give of ourselves.

First, we are nourished in the Liturgy of the Word with the encouragement that comes from knowing that we are together in a common story, but there is also a giving up of self here. Our stories are not our own. They are all God's story. We don't belong to ourselves. We are God's.

Then, in the first part of the Liturgy of the Eucharist we make a sacrifice of praise. Everyone wants recognition for himself or herself, and it's hard work to give up this wish. We are sacrificing that part of our ego that says something is all mine—this territory, this role that I take on in my relationships, this credit, even this blame that I take for my own, this way I have of separating myself from you, this thing that I think I need to be me. We have built walls separating ourselves into private individuals and competing groups. We can see bitterness, conflict, and pain resulting, but it seems impossible to relinquish these walls. Then we come to Sunday liturgy and in one sentence we say we give it all up. "Through him, with him, in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor are yours…." We profess that we no longer need or want that image and position we claimed and struggled to maintain to the detriment of every one else's and even our own happiness. We can say this and mean it because of the huge amount of trust we place in Jesus, who has already offered to God perfect praise once and for all. We can honestly say, “We offer,” because Jesus’ sacrifice embraces our imperfect struggles. It's a sacrifice, but it turns out to be a blessing. On the other side of this sacrifice, we find ourselves as diverse as ever but now with sisters and brothers and no walls between, in a new, blessed, and a vastly more interesting place, before God, where unity is not uniformity and our differences call forth a response of love. We dare to empty ourselves, and we find that we are filled.

Finally, we all join in a sacred meal. Just as the sacrifice, giving something up, was also a blessing, so the nourishment, the meal, also means sacrifice. Meals usually do include elements of sacrifice. We lose some control over our lives when we join another for a meal even when we're guests and can reasonably get out of most of the work. We’re accepting something from another person and that leads to future obligations.

In this case no one gets out of the work. We all contribute according to our blessedly varied talents, some preparing the worship environment, some as greeters and ushers, some as musicians, some as lectors, some as acolytes or Communion ministers, one as presider, all as part of one assembly praising God, making the celebration happen. A few of these roles are new, like greeters and lectors. Others, like acolytes, commonly called servers, are old. Some of the lay people’s work used to be steps, called minor orders, on the way to the ordained priesthood. Now lay people are commissioned with appropriate ceremonies for these lay roles. It’s official: Lay people belong in the sanctuary.

The Communion Rite is actually a long reconciliation rite that reaches its climax in the sharing of bread and cup.  It includes the Lord's Prayer with its petition for forgiveness, the prayer for peace and deliverance from fear, the giving of a sign of peace to one another, the petitions for mercy and peace in the Lamb of God, our declaration of unworthiness and confident prayer "but only say the word and I shall be healed." Going through these steps, one can imagine Jesus breaking down one after another of the dividing walls that we used to cling to. It is an act of courage to join in the banquet of unity. There is not much difference between meal and sacrifice in this celebration.

The Communion procession is enough time to think about the seriousness of what we are doing. It is one long reverent act. It feels like an altar call, a call to commitment. It’s a commitment that derives a lot of support from members of the community, and so it’s a community action, an orderly procession and a solemn, serious undertaking.

A number of options are available for receiving Communion. Some people prefer to have the host placed directly on their tongues, the universal custom before Vatican II. The old posture of kneeling, a sign of reverence, also is allowed. More than reverence is asked for here. Sacrifice is needed as well, and we can show our readiness to participate in Jesus’ sacrifice, his work, by standing tall and taking Communion, as most do, reverently in hand.

Some people think that the priest should wait until all are served before partaking of the meal himself, as if the priest were the host and we the guests. We need to think of God the Father as the honored guest at this meal and ourselves with Jesus as hosts. Thinking of the sacrificial aspects of the meal, especially the commitment that goes with it, it occurs to me that letting everyone else go first is not necessarily the considerate thing to do. Traditionally and according to current rubrics, the priest gives himself Communion first.

Also traditionally the Mass was considered complete after the "Priest's Communion." I remember being taught you could get up and leave then, presumably for a good reason. Although it wasn't considered proper, some in the congregation would do just that on a regular basis, and they could claim that they had been to Mass that Sunday. I think most people today believe the Mass is not complete until the last hymn is sung. The Communion Rite certainly is not a matter for just one individual or even many individuals one at a time. It's a community meal. It's all one meal, one presence of Jesus that lasts from beginning to end. We celebrate the community meal together.

The words that we say when receiving Communion tell us what we are celebrating: "The Body of Christ . . . Amen." Food certainly, but not just that. Eucharist is a serious undertaking. No abstract, easy commitment, either. The presence of Christ is real, not just an idea and not just a real person but in an old story. The Body of Christ is a body with members who belong to our time and every other time. Without all those members, every one different from every other, a body would not be possible, and neither would a good celebration. The members of Christ's Body include the people present and those far away, especially the very ones with whom we spent so much energy building up walls. We say AMEN to our union in Christ with all of them. We do this while joining in song, not privately meditating. Joining together for the entire duration of the Communion Rite assures us of who we are—a body in Christ. It tells us what we are just now working at—committing ourselves to each other and to Christ. We are in this together. We rejoice with each one of our sisters and brothers making this same commitment.

Think again:

Think back to Masses you have celebrated. In what ways do you see both sacrifice and nourishment there? What does it mean that the words of consecration (“This is my body … This is the cup of my blood….”) are tucked inside a prayer of praise to God the Father? Why does the Liturgy put the Lord’s Prayer, the Sign of Peace, and the Breaking of the Bread just before Communion? When you go with family or friends to a restaurant, would you rather hear the waiter say, “Enjoy your meals” or “Enjoy your meal”? How does this apply to Communion?


The Concluding Rite. The harmony accomplished in the sacrificial meal of the Eucharist must be only the beginning. As we leave the celebration, we know we have to make the unity in the diversity around the Eucharistic table the standard for our daily lives in a world where walls of culture, race, power, status, age, sex, just plain misunderstanding, even religious differences, and more still divide us. Strengthened and encouraged by word, praise, and spiritual food, we are sent, in the Concluding Rite, to engage that world again, sent back to the very places from which we were first sent up. The liturgy begins in the world and ends there as well. The two-fold sending, or commissioning, surrounds the liturgy and gives us one of the names of the whole celebration. It is the "Missa," the Mass.

Think again:

At the end of Mass we are sent out into the world (“Go in peace to love and serve the Lord”), but we were also sent up to the celebration in the first place. What do you learn about yourself when you think about this twofold sending and the two different kinds of work God sends you to do?

 On to 12, The Blessed Sacrament