In our previous reflections, we looked at the Church’s teaching on the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. We have seen how the Church has grown in her understanding of the Eucharist as she defended the integrity of the Real Presence from various erroneous teachings that arose throughout the centuries.
Now we will examine more clearly what we believe when we say the Holy Eucharist is a Sacrament. Why is this important? Because we know the Eucharist is one of the seven Sacraments instituted by Christ. We also know the Eucharist is commonly called the “Blessed Sacrament” or the “Sacrament of the Altar.” However, using beautiful words like these is not enough. We need to clearly understand what these words mean. More specifically, we need to make sure we understand what we mean when we speak of the Eucharist as a sacrament.
To guide us through this meditation, we will address three questions: What is a sacrament? How is the Holy Eucharist a sacrament? And, why is the Holy Eucharist a sacrament?
What is a Sacrament?
Before we can understand what the sacraments are, we must first realize there are two levels of life God has offered the human race. There is the natural life, which we have as human beings. It’s called natural because we are conceived and born with this life. At the moment of conception, God creates our immortal soul which He infuses into a body provided by our parents. Our bodies are destined to die when the principle of our natural life, the soul, separates from the body.
But there is also the supernatural life, which we receive at baptism. It is called supernatural because it is not natural, but above (super) our expected nature. This supernatural life is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, which provides sanctifying grace in our souls. Having this life of God in our souls entitles us to the Beatific Vision of God in a heavenly eternity.
What then, are sacraments? Instituted by Christ, the sacraments are sensibly perceptible signs by which He communicated immeasurable grace and inward sanctification to the soul. Sacraments are the means Christ instituted to:
- Give us supernatural life in baptism.
- Strengthen this supernatural life through confirmation.
- Nourish this supernatural life through the Eucharist.
- Restore and/or heal this supernatural life through penance or confession.
- Prepare us for eternity by readying our supernatural life for heaven through anointing of the sick.
- Empower those who have a vocation to confer, restore or strengthen the supernatural life in others through holy orders.
- Strengthen those who are so prepared by God to cooperate with a married spouse in growing in the supernatural life and in sharing this life with the children God may wish to send them through marriage.
The sacraments of the New Law have three essential elements: (1) They were instituted by Christ during His visible stay on earth. (2) They are sensibly perceptible rites. And (3) they actually confer the supernatural grace they signify.
How is the Holy Eucharist a Sacrament?
With this background, we are ready to ask ourselves, “How is the Eucharist a sacrament?” We answer: The Eucharist is not only a sacrament. It is the sacrament — the greatest of all sacraments. The goal and purpose of all the other sacraments is to lead to deeper union with Christ in the Eucharist.
More still, if every sacrament is a channel of grace, the Eucharist is a channel for more grace. The Eucharist is the Author of grace. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, became man in order to restore to us the life of grace which humanity lost through sin. Christ became man to communicate through His humanity the grace which He possessed in its totality.
If Catholics were asked to name the seven sacraments, many would of course include the Eucharist. If they were further asked to describe the Sacrament of the Eucharist, they would probably answer: “The Sacrament of the Eucharist is Holy Communion.” This answer is correct, but it is quite inadequate. The Holy Eucharist is Jesus Christ, the source of all grace.
In previous meditations, we have been speaking of development of doctrine in the Catholic Church’s teaching. Among the areas of doctrinal development is the Church’s deepening realization that while the Holy Eucharist is indeed one sacrament, this one sacrament confers grace in three different ways:
- As the Sacrifice of the Mass, the Eucharist is the Sacrifice Sacrament.
- As Holy Communion, the Eucharist is the Communion Sacrament.
- As the Real Presence, the Eucharist is the Presence Sacrament.
In the next three meditations of this booklet, we will look more closely at the Holy Eucharist as a sacrament in each of these ways. But for now, we should just make sure we recognize the Eucharist is a sacrament — a channel of grace — in these three levels: as Sacrifice, as Communion and as Presence.
Why is the Holy Eucharist a Sacrament?
Even as we ask this question, we should wonder why we need to ask it. Once we realize not what the Eucharist is, but who the Eucharist is, it seems almost trivial, not to say profane, to ask why the Eucharist is a sacrament.
“Why is the Eucharist a sacrament?” Because Jesus is the Sacrament of the New Law. He is the Second Person of the Trinity who became Incarnate. He is the paramount, principle, primary, providential channel of grace to the human race. Thus, once we realize the Eucharist is Jesus Christ, a better question would be “How could the Eucharist not be a channel of grace?” If we say the Eucharist is not a sacrament, then we have to say Christ is not a sacrament. And then there would be no channels of grace at all. We’d be living in a spiritual dream world because we would be denying the source of all grace — Jesus Christ Himself, who is really present in the Eucharist.
That is why it is impossible to grasp too clearly the truth of Catholic Christianity as regards the powers of the priesthood which Christ conferred on the apostles and enabled them to pass on through ordination. It is impossible to see too clearly that through the powers of the priesthood, we have Jesus Christ with us, among us, near us and constantly available to us. Why is He with us? So that by believing in His Eucharistic Presence now on earth, we might come to Him — as He has come to us — and obtain from Him the supernatural graces we so desperately need for ourselves, for those dear to us and for the whole world.
I can think of no better way to conclude this meditation than by quoting from St. Alphonsus Liguori, founder of the Redemptorists and patron of confessors and spiritual directors:
“Our Holy Faith teaches, us, and we are bound to believe, that in the consecrated Host, Jesus Christ is really present under the species of bread.
But we must also understand that He is thus present on our altars, as on the throne of love and mercy, to dispose graces and then to show us the love He bears us by being pleased to dwell night and day in the midst of us.” (H.E. p. 113)