A Holy Exchange of Gifts
I fear that we have lost something important in our contemporary spirituality of the Eucharist. Oh, we are good at receiving holy Communion. Almost everyone does it every week. And I am convinced, despite polls to the contrary, that we are good at believing in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, even if most would be hard pressed to explain the "how" of His presence. But we are not good at the sacrificial dimension of the Eucharist. We hear the words, "The Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass," but I am not sure we catch the full content of those words.
The Mass and the Cross are one and the same sacrifice, our theology tells us. By that, we mean that Christ offers Himself to the Father completely (Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity) in perfect faith and obedience both in the Eucharist and on the Cross. They are one and the same sacrifice. In some ways, the Last Supper's institution of the Eucharist is an exemplification of the words we read in John Gospel: "No one can take away my life, but I lay it down of my own accord." The Eucharist simply proves that point, as He gives Himself away on the night before He died. And then, He repeats that self-offering the next day on the Cross. Hence, the Eucharist is a sacrifice, indeed the perfect sacrifice, as Christ the High Priest offers Himself as the oblation.
But there is one difference. We are also offered to the Father in union with Christ. The Eucharistic prayers say as much. In Eucharistic Prayer III we read, "May He make of us an eternal offering to You." In Eucharistic Prayer IV we pray: "Grant ... to all who partake in this one Bread and one Chalice, that gathered into one body by the Holy Spirit, they may truly become a living sacrifice in Christ to the praise of your glory." The whole Christ, the entire Body of Christ, is the offering and we are that Body of Christ, never alone but in union with Him. So, when we pray at the Preparation of Gifts "that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father," we are asking that the Father accept our lives, our bodies as a sacrifice. And when, in the Roman Canon, we pray, "Graciously accept this oblation of our service," we recognize that our service to God and Church are the sacrifice, the offering, the oblation.
All of this is wonderfully captured in the words of St. Augustine to the newly baptized: "If you want to understand the Body of Christ, listen to the Apostle Paul say to the faithful: 'You are Christ’s Body and members.' If therefore you are Christ’s Body and its members, your mystery is placed on the table of the Lord."
If this holy doctor of the Church is right (and I am sure he is) then, when the gifts are brought down to the altar in the procession, it is not bread and wine we are presenting to God, but we are being presented to God, offered for His service, offered for His praise. It was not a $20 bill you put in the basket, but you put yourself in the basket, however symbolically. Persons are gifts. And the Eucharist is, as it has always been, a holy exchange of gifts.
The Eucharist is more than just receiving a wondrous Gift; it is equally the giving of a wondrous Gift, the Body of Christ. And you are the Body of Christ and members, as St. Augustine told the neophytes.
Rev. Msgr. Michael J. Henchal