“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, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves upon earth … which every man’s heart desires.” —J.R.R. Tolkien
Every great story has a beginning, a climax, and an end. Every journey has a starting point and a destination. Every human accomplishment begins with a moment of inspiration, is fueled by a combination of talent, vision, energy, and drive, and finds fulfillment in meeting a desired goal.
The Christian life is a great story, an epic journey, and an accomplishment unlike any other. And our Catholic Tradition identifies one key to all of these aspects of our life in Christ. One reality serves as the beginning, climax, and end of our story of faith, as the starting point and destination of the Church’s journey from death to life and from earth to heaven, and as the inspiration, fuel, and fulfilment of all that Christ has accomplished in our salvation.
The key to all of this is the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, which J.R.R. Tolkien rightly calls, “the one great thing to love on earth.” At the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, the Church commemorates the giving of this greatest of all gifts.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, echoing the teaching of the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, identifies the Holy Eucharist as the “source and summit of the Christian life” (par. 1324). This article will explore what the Church means when she identifies the Eucharist as “source” of the Christian life. A previously published article considered the Sacrament as “summit.” (LINK)
Our exploration of the meaning of the Holy Eucharist requires a bit of basic preparation, however. There are four doctrines, or teachings, that will prepare our minds to understand the dual role the Eucharist plays in the Christian life. Those four doctrines are the Eucharist as a sacrament, the Eucharist as a sacrifice, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and transubstantiation, the change of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ.
The Eucharist as a Sacrament
The Holy Eucharist is one of the seven sacraments instituted by Jesus Christ to communicate His saving grace to His people. The sacraments are signs, but they are signs that effect what they signify.
Each of the sacraments signifies a particular kind of grace. For example, the waters of Baptism signify the passage from death to life, cleansing, and refreshment. But they do not only signify these things. Baptism also effects these realities. To be baptized is to undergo Christ’s dying and rising, to be cleansed from the stain of Original Sin, and to be refreshed with new life in the Holy Spirit.
Abbott Anscar Vonier, in his 1925 book, A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist, wrote that a sacrament is like a sword held aloft by a soldier. The sword is a sign of martial power and is the instrument by which a soldier attacks. The Council of Trent in the sixteenth century taught that the sacraments “contain and confer” the grace they signify.
The Catechism names the Holy Eucharist “the sacrament of sacraments” (par. 1211), and this title is rooted in the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas, who in his Summa Theologica writes that the Eucharist, in relation to the other sacraments, “is greater than all the others and perfects them.”
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