The Liturgy of the Eucharist
by Father Kevin Kennedy
This article is part of the Know the Mass series.
As we continue our series on the Mass, we provide the first of a two-part reflection on the Liturgy of the Eucharist. In order to understand more deeply the meaning of the Eucharist it is helpful to recall a miraculous event recorded in the Gospel of John that took place during a wedding feast at Cana in Galilee.
The mother of Jesus was there. He and his disciples had also been invited. At a certain point, the wine ran out. Noticing this, Mary said to Jesus, “They have no wine.” He responds, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” The rest of the story is well known. Mary tells the attendants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Jesus instructs them to fill six stone water jars. When the steward draws out the contents of the jars he tastes not water, but the finest wine, normally served at the beginning rather than the end of a banquet. (Jn 2:1-11).
What does Jesus mean in referring to his “hour”? This is important to understand because the Eucharist is the memorial of the “hour” of Jesus, which is the paschal mystery, the event of our redemption.
Just as in the Exodus ancient Israel “passed over” from bondage in Egypt into the freedom of the promised land, so too all of humanity is freed from slavery to sin and offered the freedom of a new life by the sacrificial death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. In a new Passover (paschal mystery), Christ is the new lamb whose blood saves and sanctifies us. By his death Christ conquers death itself, and by his resurrection and ascension he opens for us the gates of heaven.
The central focus of the Mass is not the assembled community, but rather Christ who forms us as a new creation. The Eucharist is not something we accomplish, but rather what we receive from Christ through his sacrificial offering of himself to the Father. Thus, first and foremost, the Mass is essentially a sacrifice.
In every Mass, the once-and-for-all sacrifice of Christ on the cross is not repeated, but rather made present or reactualized within the believing/worshipping community. This re-presentation or renewal is made possible by the power of the Holy Spirit sent down to us at Pentecost after the Lord’s ascension. In the Gospel of John, wine is a symbol of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, Christ’s death on the cross, his resurrection and ascension into heaven constitute the fullness, or completion, of the paschal mystery. The Holy Spirit allows us entrance into his “hour.”
Again, it is by the Spirit of God that gifts of bread and wine become for us the body and blood of the Lord given to us as spiritual food and drink for our own transformation. It is by the same Spirit that we become he whom we receive in the Eucharist and are able to fully live a new life as members of the body of Christ, the Church.
Thus the story of the wedding feast at Cana is about much more than a bride and groom being spared a socially awkward situation. It is, rather, a symbolic anticipation of the mystery of our redemption in Christ, perpetually renewed in the Eucharist. It is also a reminder that we are living members of a body of which the risen Lord himself is the head. Finally, it is a reminder that, by the gift of the Spirit, the whole Church is the bride in relation to Christ who is the bridegroom.
At this point, it needs to be asked if we are always aware of these truths and really express them in our liturgical celebrations. Sometimes, in certain ecclesial contexts, the assembly has appeared to be simply celebrating itself – its own agenda, creativity and planning – as if it didn’t really matter whether the Lord was present or not. In such cases, where the transcendent or vertical dimension of the Mass has been replaced by an exclusively horizontal dimension, the liturgy can become a fruitless dead end rather than a door opening to heaven.
I am reminded of a wedding reception that I attended years ago where the bride was unexpectedly asked to say some words. She had unfortunately consumed more than enough wine, and in a tipsy state began to talk endlessly about herself (her thoughts, her plans, her feelings, etc.). It was an awkward and embarrassing moment. Indeed, she was disoriented enough that she failed to even realize that she had never mentioned her new husband, the groom, who was present in the room.
May the Church, the bride of the bridegroom, remain always focused on Christ in each and every Mass, the memorial of our redemption.
Father Kevin Kennedy is pastor of Our Lady of Fatima Russian Byzantine Catholic Church, administrator at St. Monica-St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in San Francisco and formation adviser and spiritual director at St. Patrick’s Seminary & University.