Winter 2012

The Eucharist as the Form of Christian Life

Nicholas J. Healy , Jr.

1. Real presence


At the end of the Orthodox Coptic Liturgy according to Saint Basil there is a solemn confession of faith:

Amen, Amen, Amen, I believe, I believe, I believe. To the last breath of my life, I will confess that this is the life‑giving body that your only‑begotten Son, our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ took from our lady, the lady of us all, the most pure mother of God. He has united it to his divinity without mingling, without confusion and without alteration. . . . He gave it up for us upon the holy wood of the cross, of his own will, for us all. I believe that his divinity has never, for a single instant, been separated from his humanity. It is he who is given to us for the remission of sins, for eternal life and eternal salvation. I believe, I believe, I believe that all this is true!

For two thousand years, the Church has safeguarded this mystery of faith that Christ is truly present in the sacrament of the Eucharist. As Paul VI indicated in Mysterium Fidei, “this presence is called ‘real’—by which is not intended to exclude the other types of presence as though they could not be ‘real’ too, but because it is presence in the fullest sense: that is to say, it is a substantial presence by which Christ, God and man, makes himself wholly and entirely present.”4

One way to approach this mystery of bread and wine being changed into the body and blood of Christ is to reflect on the relationship between the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper and the Crucifixion of Jesus. In a series of homilies delivered in Munich in 1978, Joseph Ratzinger presents an extended argument showing how each of these events illumines the other and, in fact, requires the other to be understood in its full significance. He writes:

The words he spoke at the Last Supper represent the final shaping of his [life and mission] . . . the institution of the Eucharist is an anticipation of his death; it is the undergoing of a spiritual death. For Jesus shares himself out, he shares himself as the one who has been split up and torn apart into body and blood. Thus, the eucharistic words of Jesus are the answer to [the] question about how Jesus underwent his death; in these words he undergoes a spiritual death, or, to put it accurately, in these words Jesus transforms death into the spiritual act of affirmation, into the act of self-sharing love; into the act of adoration, which is offered to God and then from God is made available to men. Both are essentially interdependent: the words at the Last Supper without the death would be, so to speak, an issue of unsecured currency; and again the death without these words would be a mere execution without any discernible point to it. Yet the two together constitute this new event, in which the senselessness of death is given meaning.5

4. Pope Paul VI, Mysterium fidei, 39.

5. Joseph Ratzinger, God Is Near Us: The Eucharist, the Heart of Life (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2003), 43.