The Eucharist: The Sacrament Of Sacraments

The Eucharist: The Sacrament Of Sacraments June 8, 2022

Icon of Jesus with the eucharist. Photograph by Henry Karlson of an icon he owns.

Christ, working with the Spirit, brings us all the sacraments. Christ and the Spirit always work together, not only in the way all the persons of the Trinity work together as one in their divine unity. but also in relation to the economy of salvation. This can be seen both in the way the Spirit dwells upon the incarnate God-man, and in the sending of the Spirit by God-man. Christ sends the Spirit into the world so that the Spirit can render all things holy, making them vessels of grace ( this is especially true in regards the sacraments). Christ and the Spirit truly work together in the establishment of sacraments, giving them what they need to be transformed from ordinary objects and rituals into offerings of special graces to those who partake of them. But as they come from the united work of Christ and the Spirit, the sacrament which best represents this is the eucharist, for in it, Christ and the Spirit work together to transform the gifts of bread and wine into Christ himself. With the eucharist, we partake of and commune with Christ, partaking of him in his whole reality (a reality which, of course, includes the Spirit). As we partake of Christ in his entirety, we partake of all that he has to offer. This is why St. Albert the Great could declare the eucharist to be the sacrament of sacraments containing within it all the graces found in all the other sacraments:

This is the sacrament of sacraments, the Eucharist, containing every grace, food giving growth for eternal life, viaticum strengthening us to complete the journey of our exile, and the pledge of eternal salvation, and the communication of all holiness.[1]

Thus, St. Albert concluded, whatever can be found in the other sacraments, can also be found in the eucharist: “Whatever graces are scattered to be gathered in all the [other] sacraments and virtues, the whole is found here together in one grace.”[2]  We have within the eucharist, therefore, what is available in penance, that is, the forgiveness of sins, for atonement is established in and through it:

For this sacrament brings the grace of communion, and beyond this, the grace of atonement, and upon these two it piles the grace of redemption, and in addition to these three it piles upon the grace of vivification, and beyond these four, it gives the grace of spiritual refreshment, and beyond these five, it signifies to us the glory of eternal beatitude. [3]

This is because what is offered in the eucharist is the whole of Christ, including the body and blood of Christ; when we partake of the eucharist, we receive the victim who offered himself up as a loving sacrifice for us and our sins. And so, as  Hugh of St. Victor indicated, the eucharist can be said to be the sacrament which brings about our salvation:

The sacrament of the body and blood of Christ is one of those upon which salvation principally depends and it is peculiar among all, since from it is all sanctification. For that victim who was offered once for the salvation of the world gave virtue to all the preceding and subsequent sacraments, so that from it they sanctify all who are to be freed through it.[4]

And so we can see given to us by the eucharist the grace given in penance, that is, the remission of sins:

So, as often as you receive, what does the Apostle say to you? As often as we receive, we proclaim the death of the Lord. If the death, we proclaim the remission of sins. If, as often as blood is shed, it is shed for the remission of sins, I ought to always to accept Him, that He may always dismiss my sins. I, who always sin, should always have a remedy.[5]

The eucharist is not only spiritual medicine, healing us from the wounds of our sins, but it also strengthens us, making us greater, more virtuous, more charitable, that is, move loving.  “And this sacrament was instituted for two causes: for the increase of virtue, namely of charity, and as medicine for our daily infirmity.” [6] When we properly partake of it with the right faith and intention, it can and will work in us to transform us. Christ becomes a part of us even as we become a part of Christ:

It is Christ’s body and blood entering into the compassion of our soul and body without being consumed, without being corrupted, without passing into they privy – God forbid! – but into our substance for our sustenance, a bulwark against every sort of harm and a purifier from all uncleanliness – as if He were to take adultered gold and purify it by the discerning fire, so that in the life to come we shall not be condemned with the world. [7]

The eucharist is a gift given to us, giving us the graces which we need for our spiritual healing as well as for our spiritual improvement, indeed, our spiritual transformation so that we can become deified. We become as it were, what we eat, and since what we receive is the God-man, we become to God:

The body of Christ is received presently under an appearance, that is, sacramentally, in order to signify that union by which we will be conformed to God. This will happen when we will see Him as He is. Nevertheless, those who receive [the Eucharist] worthily do not receive less than the reality itself. And it is not surprising that this receiving [of the body of Christ] is a sign of some union, considering that all things whatsoever that are in the Church on earth are signs of future realities. For in the future there will be no things that are signs of other things. And this is what it means to receive by the truth of the reality, that is, not figuratively. [8]

As what we receive is grace, we must stop thinking of it as something which we can merit. We can’t. What it gives us transcends what we can ever do. No matter how many virtuous acts we have done, they will be nothing in comparison to the deifying grace offered to us in the eucharist. Likewise, no matter how many sins we have done, once again, as the eucharist is for our spiritual healing, we should not think our sins make us so unworthy that we cannot receive it, for then, if we think that, we will not receive the gift God wants us to have. So long as we remember the eucharist is a gift, we will be led to think rightly, but if we think of it along the terms of something some people merit, and so something others do not, we could be led to reject the very gift which we need. Thus, St. Albert  said, not only is it grace and so a gift, all it is, is that grace, that gift:

And not only is it grace, but it can be nothing but grace, since it can be obtained by no merit or prayer or price. For who can obtain by worthy merits, or by a worthy price or prayer, what God has provided for his poor in his unique sweetness. [9]

No matter how wretched we think we are, the eucharist is offered to us, that is, for the forgiveness of our sins and for our spiritual transformation. “Upon this fullness of communion in every grace, it piles the grace of atonement from all the crimes of sinners. For nothing is ever atoned by which the blood of Christ did not atone for and repair.” [10] We must always keep in mind its reception is never based upon how worthy we are, for none of us are worthy of the transcendent grace. It is the eucharistic gift, the thanksgiving gift, which we are to receive properly, that is, with a spirit of love and thanksgiving:

And the wretched and destitute soul is delighted by the richness of the sweetness of God. And no one can merit this, nor buy it. And so it can be nothing but grace. For if what is held freely is called grace, this sacrament, in which God gives himself to us, can be nothing but grace. [11]

While it is a gift, and so not something we merit, we must appreciate the gift, and what is offered to us by it, so that we can properly engage it and allow it to work in our behalf. This is why it is said we must receive it in a worthily manner, not because it means we must merit it, but because we must come to it in the right spirit so that we can and will cooperate with the grace which is being given to us by it. This is true, not only for the eucharist, but with all sacraments; if we come to them in an unworthy manner, we can hinder the grace which is being offered by them. We can partake of the sacraments unworthily, not because we have to be sinless to partake them, but we have to come with the right intention and the right spirit to receive them, and if we do not, that will make us come unworthily. With the eucharist, we must open ourselves to it and its grace by coming to it in a spirit of love, one which is open to communion, not only with Christ, but with all those who partake of the eucharist with us. Thus, to partake of the eucharist worthily, we must come to it with the right spirit, respecting the sacrament, respecting Christ, respecting our neighbor, and of course, with a willingness to let the sacrament transform us, to let its grace make us better. If we take it with the wrong intention, just like if we go to confession never intending to repent and change our ways, then our intention, our ill-will, is what is unworthy, and we risk the consequences of that ill-will:

Hence, it is unto remission of sins and eternal life and unto a safeguard for body and soul and for such as partake worthily thereof and with faith. But for such as receive unworthily and without faith it is unto chastisement and punishment. It is just as the Lord’s death has become life and immortality for those who believe, whereas for those who do not and for who killed the Lord it is unto chastisement and eternal punishment.[12]

We must, therefore, not confuse worthiness to communion with merit, for in doing so we actually risk partaking of communion unworthily, with the wrong intention. We must  be willing to be transformed by grace; we must seek it, as needed, as our spiritual medicine, finding it can heal us from our spiritual infirmity. But if we are to be healed, we must follow the spiritual prescription which is given with it. We must turn away from the path of sin and instead follow the path of love. Then we can truly find the eucharist transform us as intended, helping us to become what we eat, and so to be a part of the body of Christ, not just spiritually, but also in the world at large. And so, Bulgakov said, one way we to understand the eucharist as the sacrament of sacraments is to see how it makes us the body of Christ, that is, the church: “Thus, originally, in the apostolic age, the Divine Eucharist as the basis of all the sacraments was exclusively that which it is as the realization of the body of the Church as the body of Christ. Its essential character was not hierarchical but koinonic.” [13]

If we look to the world in bitterness and hate, under the mantle of sin, we take sin upon ourselves and risk the spiritual death which comes with it; of course, if we change, if we get out of the rut which hate wants to keep us in, if we open up to grace and seek to be transformed by it, even our previous unworthiness can be forgiven and we can receive the graces which we are meant to have when we partake of communion. Thus, we must remember, while all sacraments can find themselves subverted by our will, they are meant to offer us various graces to help us in our lives and our focus should be on the gift which is being offered. This is especially true with the eucharist, for it is the sacrament of sacraments, the sacrament of Christ, and through it we can receive all that is meant for us in all the sacraments, albeit in a special and unique way. “For if Christ heals our infirmities in all the sacraments, nevertheless he does it most greatly in this sacrament, in which he is completely contained in his divinity and humanity and grace.” [14]

[1] St. Albert the Great, On the Body of the Lord. Trans. Sr. Albert Marie Surmanski, OP (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 2017), 31.

[2] St. Albert the Great, On the Body of the Lord, 32.

[3] St. Albert the Great, On the Body of the Lord, 61.

[4] Hugh of Saint Victor, On the Sacraments. Trans. Roy J. Deferrari (Cambridge: Medieval Academy of America, 1951), 304.

[5] St. Ambrose, “The Sacraments,” in Theological and Dogmatic Works. trans. Roy  J Deferrari, PhD (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1963), 306.

[6] Peter Lombard, The Sentences. Book 4: On the Doctrine of Signs. trans. Giulio Silano (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 2010), 65 [ bk. iv., dist. xii, c. 6].

[7] St. John of Damascus, “On the Orthodox Faith” in Writings. Trans. Frederic H. Chase, Jr (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1958), 360.

[8] Robert of Melun, “Questions on the Divine Page,” in Interpretation of Scripture: Practice. Trans. Franklin T. Harkins. Ed. Frans van Leiere and Franklin T. Harkins (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2015), 302.

[9] St. Albert the Great, On the Body of the Lord, 32-3.

[10] St. Albert the Great, On the Body of the Lord, 62.

[11] St. Albert the Great, On the Body of the Lord, 33.

[12] St. John of Damascus, “On the Orthodox Faith,” 358.

[13] Sergius Bulgakov, Bride of the Lamb. Trans. Boris Jakim (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002), 287.

[14] St. Albert the Great, On the Body of the Lord, 299.


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